June 25, 2008
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
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.