THE MYSTERY OF A SPECIAL FORCES SERGEANT
AN ALL AMERICAN NICARAGUAN
Part of David Baez’s story is All American – high school in San Francisco, a hippie commune in New Jersey, a blonde, blue-eyed wife and a dog, the U.S. Army’s Green Berets and a tryout for Delta Force, America’s premier military unit.
Then there’s the murkier side of the Nicaraguan-born Baez’s life – a captain in Marxist-led Nicaragua’s Sandinista army as it fought CIA-backed rebels in the 1980s, and his death in 1983 as a member of a Cuban-trained guerrilla column in the jungles of Honduras.
Was Baez a U.S. agent sent to spy on the Sandinistas, as some of his relatives and former Green Beret brothers speculate? Or was he a true Sandinista, indeed sent into Honduras to kill some of his former SF friends. Was he killed in combat, as some reports have it? Or, as several of his SF brothers now say, was he captured and executed by the Honduran army?
More than 25 years after his death, some of those brothers now would like, if they can’t solve the riddle of Baez’s life, to at least find his grave. “I am hoping that we can bring some closure to David’s death and give him a decent burial in his home country or here in the USA,” said Walter Cargile, a retired SF master sergeant who knew Baez in the 1970s.
That will be difficult. Veterans of the Honduran army contacted for this story said they either don’t know where he’s buried or don’t want to dredge up those turbulent days. The Sandinistas were supporting leftist guerrillas in neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, Washington was arming the anti-Sandinista “contras,” and security forces in Honduras and El Salvador were waging an often murderous campaign against their domestic foes. “Horrible things happened those days,” said one retired Honduran army officer. “I don’t think anyone wants to talk about that story now.”
A GRISLY, FAILED COUP
That story began in 1954 when Baez was just two years old and his father Adolfo, a former Nicaraguan National Guard lieutenant, and 17 others, launched a failed coup against the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship. All were tortured and executed, their bodies burned and buried in a secret mass grave. Friends later recovered the burned remains and turned them over to relatives.
David Baez grew up in his grandmother’s home, hearing stories of his father’s heroism and the Somozas’ brutality – and sleeping in the room where the closet held his father’s remains in a wooden trunk, said his younger brother, Eduardo. The bones were eventually buried, but not Baez’s hatred for the Somozas. “He grew up with this thing about his papa,” said Eduardo. Added his mother Lillian, in an interview before her death in 2008, “He always had something in his head about avenging his father.”
By the time he was a junior in high school, Baez had become so active in anti-Somoza protests that his mother feared for his life and shipped him off to live with an aunt in San Francisco. And in California, his American life began.
He finished high school and joined the U.S. Army, but left after two years and lived for a time with an older brother in New Jersey. He became a U.S. citizen and joined a hippie commune in New Jersey, where some relatives recall vague stories about a frequent visitor by the name of Bob Dylan. He grew hair down to his shoulders and added a bushy mustache. In 1973 he married a skinny American blonde that his family jokingly called Olive Oyl, after Popeye’s girl.
By his mid-20s, now a broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped young man, he rejoined the Army and eventually the elite Special Forces, better known as Green Berets. Largely because of his fluent Spanish, he was assigned to the 3rd Bn,
7th SF (3/7 SF) and was deployed to Ft. Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. At one point he volunteered for Delta Force tryouts, but washed out because of an injury.
“He was like a blood brother to me, and we talked lots about Nicaragua,” said Cargile, who was Baez’s roommate in Panama in 1970–1971 in the 8th Special Forces. But Baez never lost touch with Nicaragua, often visiting his relatives there and following developments closely – especially in the last half of the 1970s, as the Sandinista Front
for National Liberation, boosted with Cuban weapons and advisors, launched a series of offensives against the increasingly repressive Somozas.
Eduardo recalled that Baez constantly complained he was missing the war, and at one points grumbled, “Here I am,
with the Gringos, when I should be there firing bullets against Somoza,” Virtually the entire Baez family was supporting the Sandinistas at the time, Eduardo added, largely out of hatred for Somoza and his execution of the pater familias.
Eduardo himself joined the Sandinista guerrillas in the mountains.
A MURKY SANDINISTA’S REVOLUTION
Somoza held out until mid-1979, when he fled the country and the Sandinistas seized power. But the peace did not last long, as the Sandinistas forged closer alliances with Cuba and the Soviet Union and drew stiff opposition – first from armed peasants opposed to their forced cooperatives, later from remnants of the National Guard based in Honduras, and still later from U.S.-backed “contra” guerrillas.
This is where David Baez’s tale begins to turn murky.
Eduardo and one of his Green Beret friends say Baez swallowed the Sandinistas’ revolutionary line. “From that time on, David talked a lot about returning to integrate himself into the revolution, and I of course was urging him on to do that,” said Eduardo, who like most Nicaraguans lost his taste for the Sandinistas in the 1980s.
“David genuinely switched to the Sandinistas. I talked to him a lot, and he imagined himself as a Che Guevara-type guerrilla leader,” Leamon Ratterree, a friend and retired Green Beret master sergeant, wrote in an e-mail to the author.
Trying to win an early out from the U.S. Army, Baez told different stories to his SF brothers. To some, he said the Sandinistas were threatening to seize his family’s farm, and that he was the only one who could save it. He gave another version to Art Zieske, a retired SF lieutenant colonel who knew David when he served as S-3 and later XO of the 3/7 in Panama.
“He told us in confidence that he was preparing to separate from the Army, as he had received word from the Nicaraguan government that if he did not return to Nicaragua, his family would be in grave danger,” Zieske said in an email. “The Nicaraguan army wanted Dave back so he would serve in their army.”
There’s a third possibility. “My personal opinion is that Dave was in the employment of a US national intelligence agency, and was sent to infiltrate the Sandinistas,” said Pete Peterson, another SF friend. “I just can’t see Dave joining the Sandinistas for any reason. They were the real source of Dave’s problems to begin with.”
In fact, Baez was concerned the Sandinistas would suspect him of being a U.S. spy. Even relatives admitted years later they had their suspicions. “It was clear that he was coming with a Gringo stain, so he needed an endorsement,” Eduardo recalled. That eventually came from cousin Luis Carrion, then deputy interior minister and one of the nine Sandinista comandantes who ruled the country.
In late 1979 or early 1980 Baez left the U.S. Army as a staff sergeant and arrived in Managua – minus his wife, who thought that moving to a country just recovering from one war and entering another was not a smart idea. He joined the Sandinista army with the rank of lieutenant, made many friends, fathered two boys and a girl with two wives, and was promoted to captain while training regular army units.
“But he was unhappy. He wanted combat … and he felt he had a debt to pay,” said Eduardo. So he transferred to the intelligence directorate, where he joined a group of Cubans training Nicaragua’s first army commando unit. “From arrival to departure,I never did see him so happy.”
Around early 1983, Baez entered the final and most opaque part of his life—helping the Cubans and Sandinistas to train a group of leftist Honduran guerrillas plotting to spread the revolution to their home country. They called themselves the Central American Revolutionary Workers’ Party, or PRTC, and were led by Jose Maria Reyes Mata, a Marxist physician.
But its members were a hodgepodge of university students, labor activists and others. Some were virtually shanghaied, told they were being sent to Cuba to be trained as car mechanics. But they wound up in P-11 and P-13, two of the bases in Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio province where Havana’s elite Tropas Especiales trained would-be-guerrillas from around the world, according to one former U.S. military officer who later helped debrief some of Reyes Mata’s men. “Their quality was very poor, and some of them had to do three training cycles,” he added.
The group also included the Rev. James Carney, a Jesuit from St. Louis who had been kicked out of Honduras for his work on behalf of that country’s poor. He signed on as the guerrillas’ “chaplain.”
A “DELICATE” MISSION
In April of 1983, Baez brought home a bunch of his Honduran friends to meet his brother and mother. The next month, he told Eduardo that he was leaving on a “delicadisimia” mission but would try to contact him using the code ADOLFO – their fathers’ name. In a farewell letter he left behind for his unborn son, he wrote that he was fighting for “anti-imperialism … and the liberation of all the oppressed countries in AMERICA!” He was 32 years old.
On 19 July, 1983, the column of about 96 PRTC men slipped into Honduras’ Olancho province, perhaps the most inhospitable jungle in the region, with few peasants who could guide or feed them, swarms of insects and lots of venomous snakes. They planned to split up into four separate columns, according to the U.S. Army officer. But everything fell apart, quickly and disastrously.
THE GRINGO GREEN BERET
Short of food, 17 fighters quickly defected and gave up everything they knew to Honduran and U.S. intelligence officers, including the presence within the column of the “Gringo Green Beret” and Carney. Zieske, then deputy commander of the SF element at the Honduran army’s Regional Military Training Center in the northeastern town of
La Venta, said he received reports that a small unit of about 50 guerrillas “was on its way from Nicaragua to the RMTC with the mission of killing the U.S. SF commander.”
The Honduran military mobilized immediately. Half the men in the 1st Special Forces Battalion, then training under Delta Force tutelage to counter airplane hijackings, were deployed to Nueva Palestina in Olancho. The regular Olancho garrison threw in some of its ill-trained troops to “make a lot of noise and drive the guerrillas toward the commando forces,” said one former Honduran officer who served at the Nueva Palestina HQ at the time.
Slowly, and not without difficulties, the Honduran Special Forces kept the PRTC on the run and eroded its ranks. “That was the worst terrain I’ve ever seen, all steep mountains, thick jungle. It was hard just to survive, never mind to fight,” the Honduran added. The U.S. military provided the Hondurans with intelligence and logistical support. By the end of August, the PRTC column had been wiped out. Many were killed in combat, but a 1997 report by the
CIA’s Inspector General said up to 40 rebels were captured, tortured and executed.
WHO SHOT BAEZ—OR DID THEY?
Retired Delta Force member Erick Haney lifted a corner of the veil surrounding the Baez tale in his 2003 autobiography, Inside Delta Force. He claimed to have been advising the Honduran army unit that chased down Baez’s group, and to have personally shot him to death in combat.
Haney was indeed deployed in Honduras at the time, several U.S. officials confirmed. But no U.S. military personnel took direct part in combat with the PRTC, according to U.S. and Honduran veterans of the event.
More recently, several of Baez’s Green Beret friends who were deployed in Central America during the early 1980s have come forth with testimony that he was captured alive and executed by Honduran army officers.
Bob S. Senseney, a retired Green Beret who knew Baez, said he was told that version by an officer in the Honduran Special Forces. Angel Chamizo, a retired master sergeant, said he got the same version in 1983 from two Honduran officers he ran into at the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador, El Salvador.
“They told me that Dave Baez was captured and then executed. I specifically recall them telling me that the execution order came from higher,” Chamizo wrote in an email to the author. “Word about Dave Baez being killed was already going around SF circles. However the particular knowledge that the Honduran officers had about Baez surprised me … and they spoke in a manner that seemed like they had first-hand knowledge.”
Don Kelly, another retired Green Beret then stationed in El Salvador, recalls hearing from another SF member who was in the area when Baez was killed and had talked to one of the Honduran unit commanders. The Honduran said that Baez had been captured along with seven others, all “very skinny … as if they had not eaten in days.” Under questioning, Baez remained silent at first but eventually acknowledged that he had been a Green Beret. The Honduran officer called his commanders and was told, “If you don’t want to bring embarrassment, you know what you have to do.”
Zieske said that several days after receiving the warning of the rebels’ plan to kill the RMTC commander, he was visited by another SF buddy who stopped by on this way back to Ft. Bragg. This friend wanted to personally notify him of what he understood had happened to Baez.
“Dave was ordered to lead the Nicaraguan element, as the Nicaraguans knew he knew some of us at the RMTC. Of course, this was all under the threat of the death of his family members,” Zieske recalled.
“The Nicaraguan personnel were all killed, wounded or captured. Dave was captured. He was being interrogated by a Honduran army major in the presence of a U.S. Army major. The latter was called out of the room to ‘receive a message.’ The major heard a shot and when he re-entered the room, Dave was dead. Our major was angered, as he was to be the next person to interrogate Dave.”
The versions of Baez’s capture and execution have some credibility. The CIA Inspector General report, commissioned because of complaints that the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa had not properly reported human rights abuses, mentions a single report that a Nicaraguan advisor to the PRTC – not further identified – had been killed in action, and two reports that he had been captured and executed. Similarly, the IG report said Carney was variously reported to have died from starvation, under torture or by execution.
DID THE SANDINISTAS HAVE HIM TAKEN OUT?
Brother Eduardo says the family only heard that Baez had died, but no details, from Carrion in 1984. But not until 1997 did they start asking more questions, afraid of sparking the ire of the Sandinistas, by then out of power yet still powerful. “We always had the suspicion the Sandinistas had him killed because they did not trust him,” said one relative. Capture and execution also was the predominant version the family received from former Sandinista army officers over the years, Eduardo added.
There’s one final bizarre twist to the Baez tale. About a month before he was killed, Cargile said, Baez phoned a mutual friend at Ft. Bragg “and told him he had to get out of Nicaragua because they did not trust him any more, and he had $200,000, and the phone went dead.” Did Baez have another change of heart, this time against the Sandinistas?
The bodies of Baez and Carney were never recovered, though Haney wrote that he had seen them at the military airport in Tegucigalpa. The retired Honduran army officer said he strongly believes all the dead were buried where they fell, because of the difficulty of the terrain.
So the mysteries remain, and Baez’s SF brothers are willing to let some of them be. But not all.
“If the full truth cannot be known for whatever reason,’’ wrote Pete Peterson, “I would be satisfied with bringing his remains back to the U.S. I firmly believe that Dave was never a traitor to his SF brothers or the United States, a country he loved and served with honor.”