Nicaragua: The Inherent Dangers of Being a Militant Mecca
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
Diplomatic relations between Colombia and Nicaragua are once again in the news, with the two countries trading broadsides over the Nicaraguan government’s recent decision to grant asylum to three female members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in June said that the FARC members in question reportedly survived the March 1 attack on a FARC camp just over the Colombian border in Ecuador that resulted in the death of Raul Reyes (Luis Edgar Devia Silva), FARC’s No. 2 and one of its most long-standing and experienced operational commanders. After the March 1 raid, Nicaragua briefly severed diplomatic relations with Colombia in protest of the country’s violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty.
Ortega accused the Colombian government of conducting “state-sponsored terrorism” against the FARC members in his explanation of why he granted them asylum. To emphasize this point, Ortega further accused the Colombian government of plotting to assassinate the three FARC members in Nicaragua. He then stressed that the three need Nicaraguan protection so they can serve as witnesses in a future trial of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez for “crimes against humanity.”
Nicaragua's granting of asylum and Ortega’s rhetoric have outraged the Colombian government, which had formally requested extradition of the three FARC members. Colombia has said it finds it inconceivable that the Nicaraguan government should make heroines out of people who had been residing in the camp of a recognized "terrorist" organization -- a group that has killed thousands of Colombian citizens, kidnapped more than 700 people and constantly attempted to overthrow the Colombian government. The Colombians have also said that it is unacceptable, offensive and irresponsible for the Nicaraguan president to accuse Uribe of committing crimes against humanity.
Ortega’s granting of asylum to the FARC members is consistent with the way the Sandinistas granted shelter, and even citizenship, to hundreds of Marxist militants when the Sandinistas ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990. Similarly, Nicaragua’s growing relationship with Iran is very similar to the relationships it enjoyed with U.S. foes such as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the first Sandinista reign.
Nicaragua’s status as a sanctuary (and even an operational base) for these militants nearly resulted in terrible consequences for Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1993, when a group of jihadist militants attacked the World Trade Center in New York and one of the militants was found to have Nicaraguan identification documents in his jacket pocket.
Friend of Pariahs and a Marxist Sanctuary
There has always been a tight relationship between the Marxist FSLN and its ideological brethren and patrons in places like Cuba and the Soviet Union. This relationship manifested not only in terms of military training and equipment, but also in terms of foreign aid such as food, health care and education. This aid was made doubly important by the trade embargo placed on Nicaragua by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1985. In addition to receiving aid, the FSLN also assisted the Cubans and Soviets in providing aid to like-minded revolutionary groups in the region, such as the Salvadoran Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), FARC and others.
As the Soviet Union suffered economically in the late 1980s and eventually collapsed in early 1990, the amount of aid Soviets could provide to their Marxist friends and proxies declined dramatically. This drop in aid significantly affected Cuba’s economy. As a consequence, Cuba lost much of its ability to assist partners in the hemisphere such as the FSLN. This caused the Sandinistas to seek new sources of funding, and they found some help from the pariah nations of Libya and Iraq. In fact, at the end of the first Sandinista reign in 1990, the Libyan Embassy in Managua was several times larger than the U.S. Embassy there. The Libyans were situated in a large and imposing building, while the U.S. Embassy was literally housed in trailers -- a temporary setup established after the 1972 Managua earthquake destroyed the former embassy.
The Libyans did have a presence at the United Nations in New York, but since those personnel were so closely scrutinized by U.S. authorities, they decided to use their embassy in Managua as the base for the vast majority of their intelligence operations in the Western Hemisphere.
However, the fall of the Soviet Union affected more than just economics. As the political landscape shifted in the late 1980s, places that had served as havens and training bases for Marxist militants, such as South Yemen and East Germany, became less welcoming. In 1990, both of those countries ceased to exist. This left a lot of fugitive Marxist militants looking for a place to go, and many of them relocated to Managua. What resulted was an influx of Marxist militants from European groups such as the Irish Republican Army, ETA and the Red Brigades, as well as Middle Eastern militants, such as representatives of the various Palestinian Marxist-oriented groups.
Some of the fugitives who moved to Managua were educated, skilled and surprisingly entrepreneurial. A couple from the Italian Red Brigades opened a popular Italian restaurant in downtown Managua, and members of the Basque group ETA opened an automobile repair garage in Managua’s Santa Rosa neighborhood.
Managua was not only a place of refuge, but also a base for operations. The automobile repair shop run by the ETA members made headlines on May 23, 1993, when a powerful explosion ripped through an arms and document cache stored in a sophisticated vault hidden under the shop. The explosion, which resulted in the deaths of two men, emphasized how unwise it is to store mortar rounds with their fuses installed (especially if those rounds get knocked over). It also provided an unprecedented glimpse into the activities of the international Marxist networks that called Managua home in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
While much attention was paid to the arms found in the cache (which included 19 surface-to-air missiles and a number of other weapons), it was a stack of surviving documents that shed the most light on the group’s activities. The stack included a large number of identification documents (more than 300 passports) as well as a number of targeting dossiers that had been assembled -- and several actually used -- to kidnap a number of industrialists in other Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Brazil. The cache was owned by the Popular Liberation Forces (PLF) faction of FMLN, which had to admit ownership after identification documents bearing the photographs of several PLF leaders were uncovered in the cache.
A U.S. team scanned the thousands of pages of documents, then loaded them in digital form onto a searchable database contained on a set of CDs. The documents revealed that as financial aid from the Soviet Union and Cuba began to diminish, the FMLN sought new ways to fund its revolution. One PLF group decided to use its foreign allies to kidnap wealthy industrialists in Latin America and hold them for ransom. The kidnapping scheme was truly an international endeavor, with the muscle for the operation being provided by experienced Chilean and Argentine Marxists and the cover provided by young Canadians. The Canadians, David Spencer and Christine Lamont, were members of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) who moved to Managua to help the FMLN and became involved with the PLF. The Canadians rented the safe-houses and cars used in the abductions, and they also conducted much of the pre-operational surveillance for the kidnappings. One way they accomplished the surveillance was by posing as graduate students and conducting ruse interviews of the victims as a way to assess their personal security arrangements. The industrialists seemed especially vulnerable to the wiles of Lamont, a beautiful young redhead.
The wheels fell off the kidnapping scheme in 1989, when Brazilian police stormed a safe-house the group was using to hold Brazilian supermarket mogul Abilio dos Santos Diniz. The police arrested five Chileans, two Argentines and a Brazilian, along with Spencer and Lamont, in connection with the crime. In addition to the targeting dossier on Diniz and newspaper accounts of the kidnapping and police raid, the Managua cache also contained a number of personal documents belonging to Spencer and Lamont -- including Lamont’s Canadian passport, which had been oddly altered by attaching the photo of a middle-aged FMLN leader to the young woman’s identity document. The FMLN had managed to deny any connection to the case until the 1993 mishap at the arms cache made further denial impossible.
The U.S. investigation into the case uncovered that members of the Sandinista government, including the powerful Sandinista politician Tomas Borge, had known of and even sanctioned the group’s unorthodox fundraising activities. Borge also knew about the secret FMLN arms cache that exploded. According to credible eyewitness reports, Borge was among the first to respond to the scene of the blast -- in his bathrobe.
Ortega and the Sandinistas lost the presidential election in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro and the National Opposition Union. In the two months between the election and the inauguration of Chamorro, the Sandinistas held a sort of "going out of business" sale on Nicaraguan citizenship. During that time, the Sandinistas granted citizenship (and passports) to 890 foreigners from more than 30 countries. The list of naturalized people contained not only Marxists from Spain, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Chile, but also Palestinians, Iraqis, Algerians, Lebanese and Libyans. Although the Sandinistas would maintain tight control over Nicaragua's military, police and interior ministry even after the inauguration, they would no longer control the entire executive branch. By granting citizenship to their friends, they hoped to protect them from extradition or deportation.
This policy was nearly disastrous for the Sandinistas. In March 1993, shortly after the bombing of the World Trade Center, U.S. federal agents executed a search warrant at the address listed on the driver's license of Mohammed Salameh, the Palestinian jihadist who rented the van used in the bombing. Living at the address was Ibrahim Elgabrowny, an Egyptian who attempted to assault one of the agents executing the search warrant. Upon arresting him, the agents found a packet of Nicaraguan identity documents in Elgabrowny's jacket pocket.
The documents -- birth certificates, passports, cedulas (national identity cards) and driver's licenses -- had been issued under innocuous names but bore the photos of Elgabrowny's cousin, El Sayyid Nosair, his wife Karen and their three children. At the time of this discovery, Nosair was serving time in Attica Prison for a conviction related to the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, and Elgabrowny and his colleagues were planning an operation to free Nosair from prison.
Initially, there was strong suspicion that the Sandinista government had knowingly assisted the militants in issuing the documents -- especially in light of their 1990 last-minute citizenship-granting spree. However, an exhaustive U.S. government investigation determined that the documents found in Elgabrowny's possession had been issued in a very different manner from those the Sandinistas knowingly issued to militants. Some U.S. politicians had hoped the Nicaraguan documents would provide them with a smoking gun they could use to go after the Sandinistas with both barrels, and they were very disappointed by the results of the investigation. In fact, one powerful senator's staff attempted to pressure the lead investigator in the case to change the findings of his investigation to show Sandinista complicity in the bombing in New York. Unfortunately for these politicians, the case was not an elaborate Sandinista plot to strike the United States. It was just plain old fraud, something that occurs with great frequency in Latin America as in other regions.
However, this case could provide a relevant warning for the Sandinistas today in the post-9/11 world. In 1993, the U.S. response to Sandinista complicity in an attack against the United States would likely have consisted of a renewal of the trade boycott and a ton of international pressure intended to drive them out of their posts in the Nicaraguan military, intelligence and police. But the world is a different place in 2008. The blowback on the Sandinistas could prove to be very severe if militants taking refuge in Nicaragua (or based out of a diplomatic mission in Managua) are implicated in a terrorist attack -- especially an attack against the United States.