‘Terrible and Glorious Days’ Covering the Contra War of the 1980s
The Reagan administration decided it could solve the problem of El Salvador's civil war by giving covert aid to rebels fighting the Sandinistas. The results were grim.
Bill Gentile covered the Central American wars of the 1980s that haunt the United States to this day. In the first chapter he wrote about covering the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. This chapter looks at the U.S. backed counter-revolution.
He was a small man, but one not to be taken lightly. The only living founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1961, he was cunning and resilient. He had been tortured in the prisons of the Somoza dictatorship but lived long enough to help overthrow the regime.
In Managua’s newly named Plaza of the Revolution, Sandinista Commander and Interior Minister Tomás Borge delivered a rousing speech warning Nicaraguans what to expect in the wake of the Sandinista defeat of the Somoza dictatorship. A fiery orator, Borge understood that Washington would not accept for long the demise of a long-time client and supposed bulwark against the advance of Cuba-supported communism in its own “back yard.”
This was 1979, and the Cold War still raged, and to the great misfortune of the people of Central America their countries, particularly Nicaragua and El Salvador, soon would become the last battleground of that conflict.
“Nos esperan dias terribles y gloriosos,” Borge warned. “Terrible and glorious days await us.” Perhaps even Tomás Borge did not imagine how terrible the coming days would be. I certainly did not.
Some of those same men from the Somoza dynasty’s Nicaraguan National Guard whom I saw fleeing the incoming Sandinista fighters in July 1979 found their way to Honduras and into the welcoming hands of U.S. supporters. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, and William Casey took over the Central Intelligence Agency, the search began for ways to assist the defeated members of Somoza’s National Guard and anybody else who would fight to overthrow the Sandinistas.
Using secret (and illegal) funds to support the effort, the U.S. government financed and directed the war against the Sandinista government even when Congress tried to stop it. Its forces new allies would come to be known as “contras,” as in “contrarevolucionarios,” or counter-revolutionaries, declaring the new organization’s stand against Sandinista rule and outlining the scope of its purpose and singular reason for being.
The Contra War bore little resemblance to the 1979 revolution. Unlike the uprising that swept through small towns and large cities across Nicaragua, the Contra War unfolded almost exclusively in the northern mountains. Fighting never really came to the capital, which posed special challenges for those of us who wanted to cover the conflict. To do so, we had three options: (1) Insert yourself into units of Sandinista Peoples’ Army fighting in the northern mountains. (2) Insert yourself with contra fighters infiltrating into Nicaragua from bases in neighboring Honduras. (3) Respond to reports of fighting or other conflict-related activity that too often became public only days after the event or activity had occurred.
To really cover the conflict, journalists had to spend inordinate amounts of time roaming the mountains with one or the other of the armed groups, sometimes for weeks, before seeing any real action. And “real action” means the ugly reality of men killing and being killed with high-powered weapons capable of tearing through human flesh and bone with stunning, horrifying, ferocious efficiency.
I spent most of my time covering the Contra War haulin’ ass over unpaved mountain roads searching for stories and images in my 1969 International Scout (I called it “La Bestia,” or, The Beast), tramping through hills and valleys with the Sandinistas or the Contras, or in Contra training and staging camps just across the border in Honduras. Most journalists didn’t have the time, the physical and mental stamina, or the will to spend long days or even weeks in the mountains, drinking questionable river and stream water, eating cold rice and beans or the occasional cow or monkey that the young Sandinista soldiers hacked up for meat.
There were very few pitched battles between the two armed groups. Instead, the war played out in a series of ambushes or surprise attacks preceded by long stretches of slogging through tropical highlands and followed by more of the same. You walked for days under a burning tropical sun or a tropical downpour. Then the jungle exploded and men began to bleed. Then you slogged again.
The Contra War resembled the Vietnam War more than it did the Sandinista-led revolution of 1979. And it was on those long journeys in Nicaragua’s tropical highlands that I would begin to implement the lessons of Guy Gugliotta, the Swift Boat commander turned newspaper man, for surviving guerrilla warfare.
When inserted with the Sandinistas, the best place to position oneself was at the tail end of the exploradores, or explorers, a handful of men trained to lead a column of soldiers in single file through the mountains without leading them into ambush and untimely demise. If an encounter did take place, the explorers ordered the men to fan out to the flanks and counterattack. Placing oneself at the end of the explorers gave a photographer the chance to make pictures of men actually firing at the enemy, without exposing oneself to the extreme risk of being one of the first in the column to be taken out like a duck in a shooting gallery. Positioning oneself too far to the rear of the single-file line could make it impossible to capture powerful images.
“Quienes son?” (“Who are you?”) one of the Sandinista explorers asked the leader of another column of uniformed men who stumbled into each other as the columns rose from opposite directions to the crest of a hill.
“Quines son USTEDES?” (“Who are YOU all?”) the other fighter responded.
“Battalion Simón Bolívar,” the Sandinista soldier said, citing the name of his elite special forces unit.
And the killing began.
Despite the hardship and danger, La Montaña, or The Mountain, occupies a special place in Nicaragua’s rich lore of conflict. Perhaps it was Omar Cabezas, a popular Sandinista combatant and hero of the 1979 Revolution, who best captured and defined the mystique in his book, Fire from the Mountain. For Cabezas, La Montaña was an anvil upon which one tested, forged and molded oneself into a true revolutionary.
For me, La Montaña was a place of purification. It was a place where I sought refuge from pack journalism, from staged press conferences, from the constant stress of chasing the latest picture for any given story, from the painful distance from my family, from the lure of time wasted at Managua social gatherings pounding down Flor de Caña rum. I longed for, and then basked in, the purity, the discipline and the rush of the anvil.
But covering the war with either side presented a powerful moral quandary: You want it to be over. You want to be there only long enough to get decent pictures of the drudgery of patrolling through the mountains—but you also need pictures of war. Shooting. Fighting. Dead and wounded. Once you get that, you can return to your base of operations where you will find safety, decent food, a real bed and, if you are fortunate, the love and support of family.
So you want to document fighting. But you don’t want any of the people in your group (or the opposing group, for that matter) to get hurt. You want to make pictures of dead and wounded. But you don’t. You want to capture powerful images like the ones I grew up seeing in Life magazine during the war in Vietnam. But you don’t. You want to show the suffering that U.S. foreign policy is inflicting upon this poor, underdeveloped country. You must. You will.
The Batalliones de Lucha Irregular (BLI), or Special Forces Battalions, were the Sandinista Army’s elite fighting forces designed to defend the country from the U.S.-backed Contras staging deadly incursions into the country from camps in Honduras. It was early in the war and late in the afternoon when explorers of the BLI that I was traveling with spotted a group of contras camped out on a nearby hilltop.
Just before sundown, the Sandinistas unleashed a ferocious attack with small arms and mortars. The next morning as the Sandinistas approached the hill to survey the damage, two gravely wounded contras opened fire. Apparently too seriously wounded to escape during the assault, the two were left behind as their colleagues fled.
“Rindense!” one of the Sandinistas demanded. “Surrender!”
The contras answered with fire.
“Surrender!” More fire from the contras.
Now the Sandinistas returned fire, killing them both.
This was a turning point in my measure of the level of the Contras’ hatred for, and perhaps determination to defeat, the Sandinistas. I had just watched two men reject an offer to surrender and live, choosing instead to resist and die.
Tomas Borge was right. These were terrible days, indeed. And there were more to come.
I never liked El Salvador. It had extracted too much blood from too many people and too many of its victims were my friends and colleagues. A tiny and overcrowded country, it had a menacing, sinister feel about it. Death squads prowled the streets at night and frantic, heart-broken family members combed the city dumps each morning desperately trying to find the remains of their loved ones.
Even the metropolitan cathedral where Archbishop Oscar Romero delivered his sermons ordering government forces to “stop the repression,” made me uneasy. Its interior walls were unfinished concrete, giving the place a cold, cavernous, medieval feeling. The gray exterior was graceless and looked nothing like “the house of God” where my Italian immigrant parents took me to mass every Sunday as a child.
I spent a lot of time in El Salvador covering the civil war and elections there. I had to. Not only was El Salvador a part of my immediate area of coverage, but it was linked organically to Nicaragua. In fact, every country in Central America was linked to others in the area. Almost nothing happened in one country without rippling into others: weapons, training camps, refugees, wounded and, eventually, cocaine. Every time I traveled to El Salvador, my stomach tightened from the minute I touched down on the airport tarmac until the time I was on an outgoing flight leaving Salvadoran airspace and asking the flight attendant for another glass of just about anything with alcohol in it.
Covering conflict in El Salvador was extremely dicey. It’s one thing to be embedded with the Sandinistas or with the anti-Sandinista rebels. Either side protects you precisely because you are embedded with them. They protect themselves as best they can and, de facto, they protect you as well. It’s quite another thing to arrive at an ongoing firefight and insert yourself deep enough into the fight to make powerful images.
And that’s exactly what we did. El Salvador is so small and the conflict was so widespread that, after hearing a radio report about fighting in just about any corner of the country, we could jump into a taxi and haul down the road to cover it. I had become a full-time photojournalist. Unlike print correspondents who can do their work from a distance or by following up after an important event, visual journalists have to be on site and on time when and where the shit was actually hitting the fan.
John Hoagland, my “suicide stringer” partner from the Sandinista Revolution, had moved shortly after the Nicaragua conflict to El Salvador where a ferocious civil war had erupted, and where he would earn the coveted post as Newsweek magazine’s Contract Photographer in Latin America and the Caribbean.
It was 1984. John and a small group of colleagues responded to reports of a firefight not far from the capital of San Salvador. The scene was chaotic as the journalists tried to get close enough to the fighting to make powerful pictures. One of the government soldiers shot and killed John Hoagland.
In 1985, about a year after John Hoagland was killed in El Salvador, I signed an agreement with Newsweek magazine as its contract photographer for Latin America and the Caribbean, taking John’s former assignment. In practice, I spent most of my time in Central America, because that was the center of the regional storm. Nicaragua and El Salvador were the eye of that storm.
The Reagan administration saw the Nicaragua Sandinistas, and behind them the Cubans, and behind them the Soviets, as the reason for the war in El Salvador, and some in Washington would say frankly that by supporting the Contras the Reagan administration was “trading one little war for another little war.” In the spring of 1989, although in fact the end of the Cold War was only months away, the wars in Central America were still hot, and still very deadly.
In March of 1989 elections were scheduled in El Salvador. The guerrillas did not launch an offensive but they did seize the hamlet of San Francisco Javier. I arrived there a few hours later with Julio, who often drove me, and several other journalists, including a Dutch camera crew. As we filmed, photographed and interviewed rebels and civilians in the aftermath of battle, the Salvadoran Army returned with reinforcements to re-take the town. New fighting broke out.
We were fucked—caught in a crossfire between two armed forces—the absolute worst place you could be. I turned a corner during the chaos to see Dutch cameraman Cornel Lagrouw lying in the dirt and it was here that the lessons that Guy Gugliotta shared with me during the Nicaraguan insurrection years earlier kicked in. The response to an emergency has to be reflexive, immediate, pre-programmed and I had tried for a long time, through many close calls, to steel myself for a situation like this.
I tore off the cameras from around my neck and threw them into the back seat of Julio’s taxi, and told him take two colleagues down the dirt road, out of town. I stayed with Cornel, his girlfriend and his team, loading Cornel onto the rear, open door of their station-wagon. Eventually we took the same escape route out of town, Cornel’s girlfriend and I hanging on to the vehicle, trying to keep him from falling out onto the dirt road.
And still, Cornel died.
There were more terrible days in 1989, and November brought some of the worst. In Europe, the Berlin Wall was being torn down, the Soviet Bloc was crumbling. But in Central America the fighting still raged.
On November 16, one of the Salvadoran Army units that had been trained and advised by the U.S. murdered six Jesuit priests at the Central American University in San Salvador along with their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. The priests, including the rector of the university, had advocated peace talks.
The next day, British foreign correspondent David Blundy was shot by a sniper during street fighting in the capital. I helped rush him to a hospital but he did not survive his wound.
When I went home, in those days, it was to Managua, where I lived from 1983 through 1990 with my Nicaraguan wife Claudia and her family, who took me in as one of their own. With Claudia’s help, I published Nicaragua, a well-received book of photographs that captured, I hoped, something of what the country and its people had lived.
In February 1990, Nicaraguans went to the polls, and the Sandinistas led by Daniel Ortega expected to win. But when the results came in, the victory went to the opposition.
The morning after, Managua felt like a city that had sinned. The streets were empty, most residents holed up in their homes waiting for the reaction to their vote. Perhaps in their wisdom, Nicaraguans voted the Sandinistas out of power after more than a decade of their rule. Many feared that another six years of Sandinista government meant six more years of U.S.-sponsored war. Washington had made it perfectly clear it would keep up economic pressure, at least, unless Ortega was ousted. The Contra War already had claimed the lives of some 30,000 people—in addition to a similar number lost during the 1979 revolution. Perhaps they felt that was enough.
Claudia, who valiantly supported and protected me as I worked to understand and to document her country, and who had such high hopes for her revolution, lay exhausted and curled up on the bed in our home.
“Now it’s me who needs your support,” she said, her voice cracked with emotion.
It was time to move on.
Tomorrow: The Revolution Resurrected—and Betrayed