Sandino-Photo-Esteli“Catch a cluck when she ain’t lookin’

Get some grease and onions cookin’

Wring her neck still she quits kickin’

Add some rice and you got chicken.”

– Camp song of the U.S. Marines in Nicaragua, 1929

He looked like a giant bamboo, towering over an escort of men who had captured him seven months before. That parched spring in 1930 when my grandfather, Sam Brennan, stumbled out of the Segovias, thirty pounds lighter than when he had joined the United States Marine Corps.

General Augusto Cesar Sandino still held his own in the mountains of northern Nicaragua.

Stopping above Esteli he quickly scanned the valley thinking of a cigar and the aged rum that awaited him down below. When the group reached the river they would part, a bitter-sweet separation. Since late summer he had been a prisoner of this barefoot, beans and rice guerrilla army, always on the offensive, always on the run.

“Adios mi buen amigo,” shouted a young man from Chinandega who had fought with Sandino since the early days. Brennan smiled and embraced the soldier then did so with each of the other five smiling Nicaraguans.

“You must be careful getting to the police station from here, my friend,” said one of the escorts. “We cannot go any further since there are National Guard patrols along the river and all the way up to the Marine base at La Sirena. Come back and see us after this is all over. I’ll cook you some iguana soup.”

Then the leader of the contingent, a skinny political sergeant, spoke up:

“La Sirena is as far north as the Nortes dare go. Even with their airplanes they are no match for men whose mother is these mountains.”
Brennan took a deep breath realizing that in moments he would rejoin the civilization that he had left so abruptly in the deserted theater that warm, sticky August night. Their patrol had taken refuge there, not thinking they had been detected by any of the villagers still in the vicinity. He had been operating as an advisor to a group of green National Guard troops in the vicinity of Jinotega. The sentry, a fourteen-year-old peasant boy, just weeks away from his village, had fallen asleep on his watch and the lurking guerrillas had swept down silently, almost magically through the roof of the derelict building.

“I remember that night when we first met,” said the sergeant as if the whole fight had been a social affair. “We had already slit seven throats by the time you woke up. Some advisor,” he teased.

The former enemies  had become friends after all those months in the jungle and it was clear that my grandfather’s political education had taken a turn to the left. Since arriving in Corinto, fresh from the U.S., he had spent more time with Sandino’s troops than he had with his own.

“Maybe I’ll return and work as your advisor,” he chided, “or maybe as executive chef for General Sandino himself,” he laughed.

That night in the theater had been no laughing matter. Sandino’s men were brutal and expedient as they went about the chore of eliminating the enemy. Brennan stood, with a pistol pointed at his head, against a boarded up window and witnessed the slaughter of some 20 men, none over the age of 18. They begged for their lives and were denied. Why they didn’t murder him as well was anyone’s guess. In a matter of moments the guerrillas had left the bloody scene with their Gringo prisoner in tow. By morning they were deep in the mountains.

Now arriving on the outskirts of Esteli the American scarecrow passed lines of shacks with pigs and chickens in their yards. He then crossed the river and wandered apprehensively toward the police barracks in the center of the city. There were moments when he considered turning around and going back into the mountains to carry on the fight with the wizard, Sandino.


Like the barefoot shoe-shine boys

Of the mountain town of Esteli

Nowhere to go but the plaza

Smiling diminished sparkle

Those life-expectant, deep-set broken eyes.


The rainy season had finished its afternoon tantrums in early November leaving the jungles of Madriz steaming in its wake. One could almost hear the coffee and pinto beans growing. Everything had come alive including more Marine patrols, more recruitment sojourns to the south, more air bomb attacks and more fighting up around Ocotal.

General Sandino and his crazy little army had survived another wet season, or winter as it is called by the soggy peasants whose sons made up this citizen’s army. They lasted by hiding in the jungle canopy and in villages that supported their desperate efforts to resist Somoza and the Norte occupation forces. The lived on tortillas, beans and rice, coffee and cigars…maybe even a chicken or two on Sunday and occasional spoils found on the corpses of National Guard troops.

“Who are these Sandinistas?” asked the peasants.

“It is us, your children, Papi,” came the answer.

They did not take prisoners. At first it was tough, knowing that one’s victim was only a poor peasant too, stolen from his mother and pressed into service for the Somoza regime. But after a while, after the all the deaths around you, coupled with the daily atrocities committed by the Yanqi-trained militia, it became easy. They became good at it. Besides, Sandino was magic. Everyone knew it. He was a spirit sifting through the jungle, a wisp of smoke rising in the mountains.

It was said Sandino could transmit thought at will, sending battle plans, maps and coordinates to his generals in a code, a sort of mental telepathy. Many of his trusted soldiers had seen it. The others, especially his adversaries in the field would come to believe that Sandino possessed these powers.

The Marines had met their match. Even with air attacks and superior weaponry, outright victories had been few and far between. The National Guard stomped around the unfamiliar mountains like a parade of circus elephants while Sandino’s men hid out waiting for the right time and place for yet another costly ambush.

It is said that Sandino invented the concept of guerrilla warfare. Whether that was true or not he had certainly learned to apply its demoralizing principles. He took the fight to the Marines using his own tactics. Out of their element no matter how fierce their training, the Marines took casualties on an almost daily basis while the insurgents blended into the mountains, seemingly invisible.

Meanwhile President Adolfo Diaz, the puppet of the fruit companies, called for more Marines and pressed more young men into military service in his attempts to defeat this monster, Sandino. The commander of the National Guard, Anastacio Somoza Garcia assured the President and the controlling families that it was only a matter of time before the guerrillas were finished.

“I will bring his head to Managua for public display!” he had pledged. That had been three years ago.


Sandino and his crazy little army

held off the Marines for seven years.

Gaining the respect of his adversaries

The silhouette of Sandino stands watch today

All over Nicaragua

Yet cruel peace came finally

At the treacherous hands of Tacho

Who simply had him murdered

After a fine state dinner. 


A large contingent of National Guard troops had descended on the village of Santa Clara in Nuevo Segovia near the Honduran border. Some estimates put the actual troops strength at over 300 men. They were looking to draw Sandino out into the open for a deciding battle.

The general’s spies were busy calculating the proper move in the face of this new occupation. How long would these green-clad, potato-eating invaders stay? What price would the villagers pay this time around? Already the Guard had rounded up peasants suspected of aiding Sandino. Shots could be heard from the east side of the square. Sandino’s scouts had to sit in their trees and listen to the last cries of men and women who had fed them earlier that week. They could do nothing for now.

The next morning several patrols were attacked as they attempted to expand their presence in the valley. Companies of Guardsman returned to the village at night, their numbers depleted. Often they took angry revenge on the defenseless peasants who happened to be in the line of fire.

A captured officer had told the rebels that a large stash of arms was arriving the next evening disguised as a construction train. If Sandino’s men could intercept this string of mules, victory and the expulsion of the Guard from Santa Clara could be within their grasp. The attack on the heavily guarded weapons had to be tightly coordinated and conducted with pinpoint accuracy or the outnumbered guerrillas risked elimination. They would attack at a small clearing on the road from Susucayan.

While the assault on the weapons train went on, another attack from the rear would serve to confuse the already frazzled army. Still another onslaught would come from the center of the village where supporters of the Generalisimo had organized a small religious parade to honor yet another patron saint. Many of the Guard, although armed for battle, were distracted by the procession.

What was particularly interesting about the logistics of the coming battle was that none of the commanders had seen or talked to Sandino since the previous morning. Somehow they all had the synchronized battle plan in their heads. Had the general communicated to them in a telepathic manner or was that just the superstitious peasants recounting the fight? Whatever the explanation, the guerrillas fought diligently and won a great victory over a larger force.

The next day, after holding off repeated attacks by the insurgents the 100 remaining Guardsmen took refuge in a small church near San Fernando to the east. It was there, according to the greatly relieved villagers of Santa Clara that the witches went to work.

According to several surviving oral accounts the soldiers set up shop in the church while it waited for reinforcements to come up from Matagalpa, several days march from the southeast. Half bedded down while the other half stood watch. Soon a menacing cloud filled the space. The soldiers, thinking it was only drifting from the nearby cloud forest, thought little of the foggy visitor. Soon all had fallen into a deep sleep. When they woke up at dawn the entire contingent found themselves sleeping in the middle of an adjacent road, all of their equipment strewn for miles. For years the local peasants told the story and still do today. Most of the government soldiers did not live to deny the magic, attributed of course to the powers of Sandino, since they were killed by a fortified remnant of rebels the next day during a lengthy, muddled retreat to their base in Esteli.

The look of a sharp machete

Hanging in one arm in the dawn

Bicycles with a jar of pinto and rubber boots

Walking along the ancient roads

The conquest of New Spain seems a dream.

They ascend daily to a better place

Not into the dust of cardboard and tin.

A paradise of sorts, a peaceful pulperia along the way.

The look of a sharp machete

On dawn’s happy stroll to the fields of Nicaragua. 

-Jose Ometepe  

Filed Under: Reflections on Disorder

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