Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Back Story

The story of the Border War, how we got to where we are now will be addressed through the recollections and stories of the people involved, in some cases I was there, in others all we have are rumor, innuendo, reasonable assumptions and dots that can be connected.
By the same token the truth of these matters is hidden behind the smoke billowing from a House of Mirrors on the shores of the Potomac River. So after consultations with legal experts and longtime friends and associates in the Intelligence and Security business, the truth will be told in the form of fiction.

Names have not been changed to protect the identities of the parties involved. Though not all of those named really exist.
“That's what fiction is for. 
It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth.”
 ― Tim O'Brien

My own personal border story starts in the Yucatan in both Merida and Cozumel, Mexico. My father had been working for a series of international companies one of which was The Tupman Thurlow Co. From there he joined IBEC, which was part of the Rockefeller conglomerate, a company where there were members of the Rockefeller family were personally involved with him in the daily management of operations. While working with IBEC he spent a lot of time in the Yucatan, in Merida, Progresso, and Cozumel, and I had the opportunity as a young teenager to accompany him there a few times.

He left the New York corporate scene in 1971, the family moving to Scottsdale, Arizona which was a totally different lifestyle than we’d had been living in either Rye, New York or Weston, Connecticut.

111 Milton Road, Rye , New York
I finished High School in Arizona, spent some time at the local Community College and then joined in the boom and bust cycle of the construction business. It was in 1978 that the Arizona economy took a dump. I had been working steady as a framing carpenter for a few years, and then there just were no more houses to build. No more slabs were being poured, there was a depression, the boom had become a bust and believe me, it was a depressing situation.

My brother told me of a friend of his that had joined the Army, and received a signing bonus of $2,500 dollars when he did. I went to the recruiting office, to check out the possibilities. I took the tests and was told that I was qualified for any job that there was, in the US Army. The three Military Occupational Specialties that paid the $2,500 bonus for a four year enlistment were Infantry, Armor and Artillery. None of which struck me as things I really wanted to spend the next four years doing. Truth was I had no real idea what any of the jobs entailed, but my uncle had been a tanker, in Germany during the ‘Nam era, and had not liked it. The Artillery held no interest for me and I did not know much about the Infantry.

I asked about what other jobs that qualified for a bonus were available and there was one, Combat Engineer, the MOS was designated 12B, but it only paid $1,500. When I asked what they did, the recruiter did not know, so we looked in his book for the description. Road building, chain saws, explosive demolitions, and combat construction were all mentioned, so I signedup, choosing to go to Fort Hood, Texas to be a member of the 1st Cavalry. First stop though was Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for both Basic and Advanced training, it was wrapped into a single packaged program which took about four months to complete. The only thing that stands out, in my memory, was that it snowed on Easter Sunday, at Fort Leonard Wood.

From Missouri I went to Texas, to Bravo Company, Eighth Engineer Battalion of the 1st Cavalry, where I was assigned to drive a Gama Goat, a chauffeur and radio operator for the platoon leader, a young Lt who had joined the ROTC program at Colorado State and really did not want to be in the Army, at all. He was a pleasant enough fellow, though , and when we went to Germany for Reforger ‘78  we spent as much time sight-seeing and visiting ‘Guest Houses’ as we did playing war. In fact it seemed to me that our primary mission was delivering food to our three line squads which were dispersed across the German country side.

After returning to Fort Hood I was told that there was an open position for an Engineer at the Horse Platoon and that I should volunteer, which I did. I spent the next four months riding horses, shooting black powder pistols and being pretty bored by the whole thing. I bought an old 1960 Ford pick-up truck, a three speed on the column, six cylinder, stepside and moved off post, looking for fun in all the wrong places. A buddy of mine from the Horse Platoon had just come the Ranger Battalion and was sure that he could call the Sergeant Major there and get me out of Fort Hood and into that program; he promised it would not be boring. 

1st Cavalry Horse Platoon
While contemplating the possibilities I received orders for the 518th Engineer Company, 193 Infantry Brigade, Canal Zone. When I asked my Ranger buddy what he would do if presented with those two possible paths, he said, without a moment’s hesitation … “Go to Panama!”

Fort Kobbe & Howard AFB, the view from "Stoner Rock"

I arrived at the barracks at Fort Kobbe and settled in.  The 193rd Infantry Brigade was one of the first prototypes of the Modular Brigade Combat Team, although I did not realize it at the time. The 193rd was a fully functional, stand-alone combat formation, complete with Infantry, Armor, Engineers, Artillery, an Aviation and Airborne complement all rolled into a singular command structure under Brigadier General K.C. Leuer. The 193rd Infantry was a lean mean fighting machine.  

The First Sergeant at the 518th was a Special Forces veteran, born and raised on the border of Arizona and Mexico, in San Louis. He had been over on the Atlantic side, at Fort Gulick, with the 3d Bn, 7th Special Forces Group but had been told that he had to move on up or get out. He could no longer postpone taking a promotion to E8. The problem, for Sergeant First Class ‘Maggie’ Magdaleno was that there were no E8 slots for Engineers in the Special Forces. He had to become the First Sergeant for the 518th Engineers or retire, he chose to come to Fort Kobbe and the 518th Engineers. Good thing for me!

First Sergeant ‘Maggie’ Magdaleno was often called upon by his friends on the Atlantic side to supply bodies for the Opposing Forces and such, for the School of the Americas and the Jungle Operations Training Center at Fort Sherman. It was my first introduction to the men of the Special Forces, the ‘Green Berets’. Working with those fellas could be described in a variety of ways, but suffice to say that boring would never be one of them. During the next two years I spent lots of time on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, the Primary NCO Course, the Jungle Operations Course, Sniper School, the School of the Americas and numerous Opfor maneuvers in support of the fore mentioned activities. 

It was in October of 1979 when the first coup de etat occurred in El Salvador; the US was soon knee deep in the muck and mire of the conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. I had a front row seat at the show; little did I realize that soon I’d be an actor on the stage.

Rappel Training at Fort Sherman
 My military career was moving right along, a promotion to Sergeant, E-5 was forth coming and I was then sent to Airborne school and then to the Ranger course, all in 1980. My private life was centered off base, both in Panama City and in Colon, on the Atlantic side, I was spending an increasing amount of my ‘off time’ with Panamanians, my Spanish was improving quickly and I was soon involved in a variety of local recreational adventures, surfing, scuba diving and socializing with the local ladies. Life was good, real good.

Drop Zone Venado - A view that few have seen!
It was in  February of 1982, I had just gotten married to a Panamanian woman and was contemplating my future. The Army was offering a career, but I really did not fit into the stratified environment of the Regular Army. The ‘Career Consultant’ was telling me that I would be going to Drill Sergeant school and then on to Fort Leonard Wood where I would be spending the next two or three years turning recruits into soldiers, the thought was not very appealing. I had an offer from a Panamanian associate to form a private security firm, but it seemed to me to just be some kind of scam, probably leading to illegal activities involving the huge quantities of cocaine that were transiting the region. This was the time frame when the rise of the Colombian cartels, to include Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel was just beginning to be felt outside of Colombia.

The battle for El Salvador was just getting started, it had been during the past year that Archbishop Óscar Romero had been assassinated and the four nuns from the US were raped and murdered. There was substantial political pressure in the US Congress to scale back US involvement in El Salvador. In Nicaragua the anti-Sandinista forces were consolidated under the banner of the  Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the FDN. While in Guatemala the US was delivering helicopters to the government in its’ battle with the insurgency there. Again there was growing political pressure in Washington to disengage.

I was at Napoli’s, a restaurant that was a favorite amongst US servicemen in Panama, as it was close to the old Canal Zone, near Gorgas Hospital and the clubs in the area we referred to as the ‘Triangle’. It was on a Sunday morning, and I was eating alone at a table on the outdoor patio when two men in cheap suits walked up and sat down at my table. They said that I had been referred to them by ‘Maggie’ who by that time had transferred back up to the States, to work at Colorado State University, with the ROTC program.

Sunday breakfast at Napoli's
 The suits knew I was ‘short’ and had not yet reenlisted, when they asked why, my reply was simple. I wasn’t concerned about ‘Career Paths’, I was more interested in ‘Party Plans’. One of the suits smiled, the other frowned, just a matter of horses for courses, I guess. Their pitch was pretty simple, they needed qualified civilians to work with the local militaries in El Salvador, Guatemala, and the insurgent rebels Nicoland, and since I had been at involved with the formation of the Salvadorean Army's 'Atlact'i Battalion at the School of the Americas, I was considered ‘qualified’. The offer was, I thought at the time, lucrative in that they were offering $2,000 a week, which was more than I was making in a month with the US Army. So, by the end of breakfast I was four weeks away from leaving the US Army and going to work for, well, neither of the suits mentioned what US government agency they represented and I didn’t bother to ask.

Six weeks later I was a civilian, wearing jungle fatigues without unit shoulder patches or rank insignia on the collar, flying north out of an abandoned US airbase on the Atlantic side to El Salvador in DC-3. Jose "Chepon" Robelo, was the pilot, I later learned that he was the chief of the Contra ‘air force’ on the Southern front. I got to know ‘Chepon’ pretty well; he was my first flight instructor. We refueled in Costa Rica and then flew on into Nicaragua, into the area along the Atlantic coast. The Sandinistas had been forcefully relocating the indigenous Miskito people from that area and moving them to the interior of the country.

I was working with a small cadre of trainers to familiarize the men of the Miskito tribe with basic military operations, weapons handling and small unit tactics, mostly. The Sandinistas would enter a Miskito village, round up the women, children and elderly, load them into trucks and head out to the relocation camps. The weak link in their program, in my view, was the trucks. The trucks would be the most difficult part of the Sandinista program of forced relocation for the Sandinistas to replace. I remember making the case, for about a month, until I was able to convince Edgar Chamorro that the trucks the Sandinistas used to transport the people were the weak link and the easiest target of opportunity for us to strike.

Over the course of three weeks there were raids on the motor pools of the Sandinista forces and over thirty trucks were destroyed, and the Sandinista’s forced relocation program ended. The destruction of those trucks provided the indigenous groups the time and opportunity to eventually reach a negotiated agreement with the government.

It was in March of 1984 when I went to Salvador to help the cause of freedom, there. Unfortunately I found that we were on the ‘wrong’ side. Not that I supported the rebel factions in the fight, but while Jose Duarte was attempting the bring the military under civilian control, the process was difficult, at best.

The Salvadorian Army, with their US advisers were utilizing a ‘scorched earth policy that I thought to be counter-productive. Members of the Atlacti Battalion, men that I knew from the School of the Americas told me of how when deployed to Morazan they had witnessed the massacre of at least 750 civilians. I was witness to General Adolfo Blandón, the Salvadoran Army Chief of Staff saying;

 "Before 1983, we never took prisoners of war."
General Adolfo Blandón, the Salvadoran Army Chief of Staff

But Durante was trying to bring some order to the madness, but he was bound by political realities. His primary opposition within the government came from the more ‘radical right’, personified by Roberto D'Aubuisson, an Army Major and what could only be described as a ‘right wing’ ideologue. Kind of a fascist, really.

Under the auspices of President Durante the moderates within the Salvadorian Army tried to institute a ‘Civic-Action’ program in the province of Chalatenango. The first part of the program could have been successful; they were establishing local militia groups or ‘Citizen Defense Committees’, which were going to be utilized in guarding the economic infrastructure of the province. I went there and was assisting in the training of those volunteers, but on a parallel track the new regional commander, Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, a former director of the Treasury Police and political ally of Major Roberto d'Aubuisson, established 12 free-fire zones in Chalatenango.

 Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, left
 The idea that they were promoting, was that any inhabitants that could not be positively identified by the army were automatically classified as being insurgents. Ochoa came to call this policy the "Israeli Solution," as it was adapted from Israeli strategy employed in South Lebanon and promoted by the advisers that Roberto d'Aubuisson had brought in from Israel. During 1983 at least 8,000 civilians were killed in El Salvador.

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