In from the Cold: An Ex-Contras Speaks
"In Honduras, they're saying that the Sandinistas drew and quartered me. But here I am: alive, OK. The amnesty program's guarantees are real." These are the words of Lester Ponce, who until August 17 was the FDN's chief of intelligence in the Honduran border zone of El Paraíso.
Ponce is 34 years old. He talks slowly, thinking carefully about what he wants to say, but it’s clear he wants to talk. He is a contra who has come in under the amnesty, as many others are doing since the Esquipulas accords were signed. He’s the highest level contra to defect since Efraín Mondragón, commander of a military task force and ex-member of Somoza's National Guard, availed himself of the amnesty law in March 1985. Ponce says, "I'm the only one who's come out of the intelligence units. It's not likely that more will come, because the majority of those in intelligence are ex-Somocistas."
He agreed to speak over Radio Segovia, a state station in the northern city of Ocotal, so that the Nicaraguan refugees in Honduras, many of whom have relatives in the counterrevolutionary ranks, would hear him. And so that those in the contra camps might hear him as well. "I know that a lot of people are waiting for the results of Esquipulas, waiting to see how the amnesty really works. And I'll tell you: there's no problem at all. Really, I've been quite surprised because I've gotten more than I had expected; I haven't been treated badly and I've received full guarantees."
In September, Lester Ponce was selected as a member of the Peace Commission in Ocotal. These commissions are groups of local civic and religious leaders recently formed to receive "desalzados" (those who give up their arms) and help them reintegrate into community life. In the last two months, hundreds of commissions have sprung up all over the country to facilitate the amnesty process. envío spoke with Lester Ponce for two hours on August 27, ten days after he left Honduras. From that interview comes this portrait of a contra who came in from the cold, giving us an inside look at the Nicaraguan counterrevolution.
Fed up with the revolutionPonce: On August 17, I went to use the central telephone in El Paraíso. 'Is the line to Nicaragua working?' I asked them. 'We'll see,' they said. I spoke with my mother. She told me all about Esquipulas and asked me: 'In December?' 'No,' I told her, 'it's all or nothing—now.' It was 2:30 in the afternoon. At 5:30, I crossed the border, in a place where there's no customs control. I came with my wife and two children and a young guy who had left Nicaragua fleeing the draft and wanted to come back. I went to a house for help and we slept there that night. In the morning I went to the border guards: 'I'm so and so... Please put me in touch with State Security.' The compas only asked, 'Where did you come from?' 'From the other side,' I told them. 'OK,' they said, 'Let's go to the command post.' From the border guard station they took me to Brigade 3-12 and from there to the Ministry of Interior, then to Operations in Estelí, and from Estelí to Managua.
envío: That's the end of the story. But the beginning? Why did you get involved in the counterrevolution?
Ponce: It's a long story. I was a Sandinista combatant. My father passed his principles along to me. My family was my political school. I left home for the mountains, to join the guerrillas, on August 2, 1978. I fought. After the triumph, I was in the army until October 1979. I left because I'm trained in business administration and I felt at that moment it was more important to work in the economic sector, for the reconstruction of the country. At the beginning, I worked in the lumber industry. After three months, after we’d gotten the business, which was in really bad shape, ready to export and all, they sent someone who had been in the National Guard to replace me. That hit me pretty hard. Terribly hard. I left.
envío: An opportunist?
Ponce: I don't know what he was. The truth is that many of them call themselves pure socialists, but I don't know them and I don't know what they are. It really hit me hard. After that I worked in social welfare programs. After three months of it, I didn't like the work and I left. I worked as an assistant in a bus line and after that moved to Matagalpa. In a year and a half, I was named director of a state enterprise—the government had given me some training. But a lot of things happened in Matagalpa that I didn't like. Some people had privileges, the same weaknesses I had fought against, weaknesses of the past. I had dreamed of changes with the revolution. And to see these problems.... They were things that hurt me. Personal clashes. Once I had a problem and they put me in jail. I was in jail for three months. I got out in March 1984. I returned to Ocotal, as always looking for a way to help out. I think that was one of my greatest desires.
Some other compañeros and I began to work, trying to straighten things out, trying to do what we could with the little knowledge and few resources we had. And that was where the split began. Why? Because there were a lot of pretty hypocritical compañeros. That's the reality. I worked there a year and then quit. I started to work for myself, cutting wood with a chainsaw in the mountains. Then another problem came up: that I was a contra, that I worked in the mountain because I was a messenger for the contras, that I was involved in the counterrevolution. It wasn't true, but I spent another month in jail in Ocotal. When I was released they began to pressure me to say things, put certain people in a bad position. I didn't go for that. During this time I got drunk once and provoked a problem with the police. So I decided to leave. This was the beginning of 1985. My first idea was to go to the States. I had my passport and all my papers in order. But I went clandestinely to Honduras, looking for something to do. I was really angry, super-pissed off with the revolution.
Ending up with the contras
envío: You were going to go to the United States but you ended up with the contras? How did that happen?
Ponce: Everyone who goes to Honduras the way I did ends up in jail. Everyone. And everyone is investigated. First, the Hondurans interrogate you. Right after that, the FDN questions you. I was taken prisoner by the FDN. When I was with them, an old family friend got me out of there and I realized I was already pretty involved—partly because of who I knew there, because well, when I got to the bases, I found acquaintances of mine, people from here, including some who had also fought with the guerrillas.
envío: What bases did you go to?
Ponce: I was in different bases in the Capire region of El Paraíso. It was July 1985. By that time there were about 8,000 contra fighters, all in Honduras, none inside. Now there are fewer. When I got there, it reminded me of the old guerrilla camps, but with a more serious organizational level. It was a real army, starting with its weapons, everything! An excellent army, in logistical terms, very well-trained comandos.
envío: A "comando" is a soldier?
Ponce: Right, just a foot soldier. That's exactly right.
envío: Among yourselves you don't say "contra"?
Ponce: No, we don't say that. We say "comando."
envío: So did you stay with the comandos?
Ponce: No, they took me to a place called the Strategic Command, also in Capire. "El Invisible," "3-80,"—the top guys—were there.* We talked about my arrival, my motives, what I thought... After about ten days they called me to start planning my work.
*"3-80" is Enrique Bermúdez, former colonel in Somoza's National Guard. "El Invisible" is Rodolfo Ampié, former lieutenant in the Guard.
envío: And, having been a Sandinista guerrilla, didn't they doubt you?
Ponce: Well, not really. People from the other side knew me and basically backed me up, said I was OK. But, yeah, my case was really exceptional: from the moment I arrived, straight to the Strategic Command. And my work gave me a direct line to "Strategic." Other intelligence guys had to go through contacts. San Marcos communicated with Tegucigalpa, Tegucigalpa with Strategic... But not me, I had a direct line. That was because people had vouched for me. And from that point on, they trusted my work.
Three lines of work
envío: What work did they give you?
Ponce: Enrique Bermúdez gave me the job of gathering military intelligence. Not everyone makes it that far. There were three lines of work. First, gather all the military information in the zone, keep track of all military activity and movement. Second, surveillance of military and political leaders, as well as the leaders of the FSLN’s mass organizations, basically all prominent Sandinista leaders. After that, the idea was to create a democratic student front in Region I to carry out anti-government strikes and demonstrations. All this work was to be done in my zone.
envío: What exactly were the limits of that zone?
Ponce: It covered a great deal of the border zone, primarily in Region I, about 60 to 70 kilometers between Las Dificultades and Duyure. That was my area. I sometimes went into Matagalpa, Jinotega and as far as the Atlantic Coast region, when there was a need for this type of work, always exclusively in intelligence support.
envío: How many people does the FDN have working in intelligence at this level?
Ponce: I don't really know how many there are, but I do know it's a responsibility assigned by zone. As chief, they gave me two passes, one indicating that I was in charge of intelligence and the other a gray card identifying me to the Honduran Armed Forces. That was my safe passage throughout Honduras, to any military authority. It's a well-known ID card that only those of high rank carry. Obviously, a comando doesn't have one. They don't leave the bases often and when they can, they do so with permission from Strategic or from their own base. From there they go to the Honduran migration authorities who give them permission to move freely and alone for as long as their pass states. I always moved around freely with my pass, in civilian clothing.
envío: How do the comandos dress?
Ponce: These days everyone's in olive green. The blue uniform hasn't been used for years. Some who aren't in the mountains still use it for old time's sake, because they started out using them. But today everyone uses green; they walk around with "sombreritos,"* wear camouflage—they dress exactly the same as the Sandinista Army.
*The cloth military hats that have become the symbol of the young "cachorros," or army draftees.
envío: What do comandos do all day?
Ponce: They get up and bathe; there are streams where they can wash up. After that a morning break. The ones who aren't doing guard duty stay on base—some playing baseball or volleyball. It's a very routine life, actually, until they're assigned to a mission and are sent inside Nicaragua. Some go willingly, others aren’t so happy about it. But orders are not discussed.
envío: Those who die in combat are left in Nicaragua?
Ponce: Yeah, almost always. Combat conditions don't allow for recovery of the bodies.
envío: What do they talk about when they return to their bases after a combat?
Ponce: They always talk about victories. Big ones. Always.
envío: Do they have news about what's happening in Nicaragua? Do they listen to the contra radio stations—the "15th of September" or "Radio Liberación"?
Ponce: They get little news. Those who listen to "La 15" are mostly refugees, civilians. They don't read anything. They only talk about war, not politics or the economic situation or anything. They don't discuss progress—in education, health, construction, anything like that. It's pure war, just war: We blew away a caravan, we killed however many "piris,"* whatever. The rank-and-file soldier is nothing more than cannon fodder, that's all he is. He gets no political instruction. He's only trained to fight and he doesn't have the slightest idea about politics. This is partly because there's not really a relationship between the officials and the comandos.
* Piri, short for piricuaco, a derogatory term used to describe Somoza's National Guard. Now used by the contras to refer to the Sandinista Army.
envío: Doesn't that make them angry?
Ponce: Sure, of course it does, but they have to put up with it. They're forced to put up with it. They're under a lot of pressure and it's difficult for them to find a way out of the situation.
envío: Do the comandos use drugs?
Ponce: Yeah. There's a lot of marijuana, especially among the soldiers. It's more serious at higher levels.
envío: And do they eat well?
Ponce: Pretty normal. Rice, beans, sometimes eggs. They're not really hurting for anything.
No money for the comandos
envío: And money?
Ponce: No, no money. The comandos receive nothing. Nothing at all.
envío: Who does receive a salary?
Ponce: Starting with the unit commanders, up through the group commanders, task force and regional commanders. They all receive a salary.
envío: How much?
Ponce: It depends on their level of responsibility.
envío: What's the highest salary?
Ponce: I really couldn't say, but I know it's a lot. Some of them live in houses worth a lot in Tegucigalpa. They have three or four cars, six or seven servants. That's the top guys, to give you an idea of how much they make, and how much they might have saved up by now.
envío: Did you ever visit these houses in Tegucigalpa?
Ponce: No, not many are allowed to see these luxuries. Only the highest ranking leaders. But everyone knows about them.
envío: And did you receive a salary?
Ponce: At first I received 300 lempiras and 50,000 córdobas a month for personal expenses and those of the messengers working for me. But they only paid me five or six times. Then, nothing. They said there was a crisis and ‘look, Lester, you have to understand, we're completely broke.’
envío: And someone like "Tigrillo," how much did he make?
Ponce: I think Tigrillo got about 3,000 lempiras a month. He had certain privileges, a car assigned to him, good food. He's a high-level regional commander.
envío: Was there more control over the money after the $100 million?
Ponce: Ever since the $27 million, when a huge amount of money was lost, they wanted more control. Now the gringos control the money through an office they have in Tegucigalpa. Everything's taken care of in Tegucigalpa. Things were much stricter beginning with the $100 million. They cut back a lot on the commanders' wild parties. That still happens, but less so, and these days you don't see those guys throwing their money—lempiras or dollars—around.
envío: Do the ones who have their houses in Tegucigalpa and these big parties also fight?
Ponce: No, they don't fight in the war. They run it. Most of those who get the big salaries run the war. The ones who fight are the comandos.
envío: And Bermúdez?
Ponce: 3-80 doesn't go anywhere. Bermúdez has never been inside Nicaragua, never been in combat. These days he's at the base at El Aguacate, running things from there. He's never een in combat, but he's always in a uniform. Always in olive green.
The Somocistas control everything
envío: It's said that the somocista guards control the FDN...
Ponce: It's true. The high-level positions, all the command positions, are in the hands of those who were in Somoza's Guard. There are no civilians at that level. The situation is completely controlled by Enrique Bermúdez. Let's say that Tigrillo is regional commander. The thing is he’s regional commander because of his personal following, because of the number of men under his command, but he doesn't have any real control. He doesn't decide anything. Besides, what they did to him proves that the ones in control are the Somocistas.
envío: What did they do to Tigrillo?
Ponce: Tigrillo is a civilian. That is, he's not National Guard. But he was a combatant, he fought against the Guard. He's from Yalí, like "Coral" and "Douglas." There are three compañeros together, from the same zone and with a tremendous following. The three of them clashed with the guardsmen who are running things on the question of how the war was being run and how they thought it ought to be fought, given their own experience fighting against the National Guard. Bad clashes. Power struggles. So when the guardsmen saw this, what did they do to Tigrillo? He had one of the best regional forces—the "Rafaela Herrera" force—with 3-4,000 men under his command. They started to buy off his task force commanders. They went to ones who made 100 and said, 'Look, man, we want to fix your situation, we're in charge around here; take this, it's your new salary. Take your men; be independent.' Undermining Tigrillo, stealing away his power. When this happened, he continued conspiring to change things. So then they made him personnel assistant to the Strategic Command, and not just anybody makes it to that position. But he doesn't really have the training for it; he can barely read or write. Sure, they knew he couldn't do it, but they put him in the job, and why? To save his pride, his ego.
After about 15 days of working that job that he really couldn't do, they sent him a comando. The guy provoked Tigrillo, so he killed him. The guy was an old comando who'd been fighting with the FDN for five or six years. Tigrillo was automatically taken prisoner and got a one-year sentence. After all this, he's nobody. He's a piece of history, but he doesn't go to the mountains anymore. He's disabled and can't move freely through the mountains anymore. He's no longer a danger to the Somocistas' power.
They carried out similar plans to strip the other civilians of any real power. Coral ended up without a leg. He was shot by [former National Guard member] Mike Lima's bodyguards. There was a fight about a pick-up truck and the guy ended up an invalid. Now he's nothing. What can a disabled man do in the war? Douglas was saved because he spends more time inside Nicaragua with his people than on the bases. They haven't been able to do anything to him yet, because the Somocistas who are running things don't go inside Nicaragua. Not even Mack, the famous Mack, Benito Bravo, who was in the National Guard. He's not at the front lines either.
envío: And in these rivalries, have they reached the point of killing each other?
Ponce: Well, for example, when I arrived they talked a lot about Comandante Suicide's death. They themselves killed him. They accused him of selling arms to the Salvadoran guerrillas, etc., etc. But this guy had a real following and the soldiers talked a lot about him when they returned from combats, so they eliminated him and practically his whole staff. The Somocistas are the ones in charge, and they'll never really forgive anyone who had anything to do with overthrowing the dictatorship.
envío: Do the comandos know the National Guard has total control? How is this reflected among the troops?
Ponce: More than anything it's reflected in the kind of political training given to certain cadres. Not to the comandos themselves, who really aren't anyone. One day, for example, María Travieso, a journalist who works for Radio Impacto and Radio Liberación, arrived at Strategic. They arranged a meeting in 3-80's office and called for the group and task force commanders. I was there, so they summoned me to the meeting. We all sat down and they began to show us a video—of when Robelo visited Cuba, when Cruz was part of the "Group of 12,"* when they worked with the Sandinistas, all that. And after all this, what did 3-80 say to the commanders? "Is this what you want? Who do you want, these repentant piris? All this to create a division. To assure themselves a social base, to stay in power.
*The "Group of 12" were prominent Nicaraguan citizens who strongly spoke out against the Somoza dictatorship and worked with the FSLN.
envío: When this happened, was Cruz still part of the FDN directorate?
Ponce: Sure, of course. All this happened behind their backs. The Somocista guardsmen are definitely the ones in charge.
envío: And Calero?
Ponce: Calera has a direct line to the Strategic Command—he talks directly with Bermúdez and the regional commanders. They coordinate all their work.
envío: Who has the most power of the civilians in the directorate?
Ponce: Definitely Calero. The power is in his hands.
envío: And now with this new contra umbrella group, the "Nicaraguan Resistance"?
Ponce: Calero, always. Before and now. Calero. With Bermúdez at the top, of course.
envío: Did you ever hear anything about Pastora? What do they think of him in the FDN?
Ponce: What I saw and heard was patently clear: Pastora never was and never will be one of them. Never! Precisely because he's a piri. In fact, at one time it was even being said that Pastora was going to take control of some FDN matters. That hit like a ton of bricks. Absolutely not, they said, no way. There are real problems in Pastora's case because they're very suspicious of him. Pastora's arrival would have put the guardsmen in a very bad position. For that reason they totally reject him. Pastora is not, and never has been, trusted by them or the gringos.
The US runs the show
envío: Who outranks Bermúdez?
Ponce: Unquestionably, the gringos. There's a CIA office in Strategic; the gringos are there. They're the ones who decide. The two Strategic Command chiefs—3-80, who's the military chief and El Invisible, now intelligence chief—are completely subordinated to them. Everything they do goes along with what the gringos want.
envío: Has it always been this way?
Ponce: Always. The direct presence of the gringos in the bases and camps increased after 1984, but they've always been the ones who made decisions. There are also some Vietnam veterans who have gone and fought with the comandos inside Nicaragua.
envío: Have any died in combat?
Ponce: I'm not entirely sure, but it's very likely. Supposedly they go in to collect journalistic information, but the truth is they go in to fight. It's almost inevitable that someone's died.
envío: In your work, did you have any relation with the North Americans?
Ponce: No. My contacts were with 3-80 and El Invisible. I had very little contact with the gringos, but I saw them there. I saw Democratic and Republican senators and representatives, a lot of gringo politicians. They all come through, constantly visiting the Strategic Command.
envío: What's the relationship between the North Americans and the contra troops, the comandos?
Ponce: They're very concerned about the troops. They're not involved directly in training them, at least as far as I know. They're there to direct things. When they want to train people in new specialties, they send them to the States. Directly. In November and December of 1986 they sent some task force and group commanders to train for a period of two months, but in the States. But they’re interested in the troops in the Honduran base camps. The gringos’ relationship to the comandos is different from that of the guardsmen to the comandos.
envío: Do the North Americans treat them better than the guardsmen?
Ponce: Yes. And why's that? Because they know who's really fighting this war, who's keeping it going. It's not Bermúdez, it's not El Invisible. It's the comandos, the ones who get the least out of it. The gringos know this very well.
envío: And the comandos are aware of what Reagan calls them: "the freedom fighters"?
Ponce: Very little of that news gets through. As I said, all they talk about there is war, that's all they know about. But sometimes journalists come and they get the commanders together, 30 or 40 of them, and show them a video of Reagan. It's a big deal for them to sit in front of a TV screen and see this video of Reagan. It's really a big thing for them!
envío: But are the comandos aware of how strongly Reagan supports them?
Ponce: Oh yeah, they're all clear about that—from the lowliest soldier to the top guy. "As long as Reagan's around, the contras will be here," that's the slogan. And now with this whole question of Esquipulas, what are they saying? 'It doesn't matter if they don't want to sit down and dialogue with us, nothing matters, we're going to keep fighting. Why? Because Reagan's around!' They never talk about "the US government," never. Just Reagan. Reagan: the man himself. They say, 'As long as Reagan's around, the cash will keep coming.'
Contras/Honduran army: All one thing
envío: And what's the role of the Honduran Army in all this?
Ponce: Well, there's really no difference between the contras and the Honduran army. They work very closely together, their work is completely coordinated, as if they were one thing. The same army, yes. For example, at Strategic, there's someone in charge of coordinating the work with the Honduran Armed Forces. They go and visit the majors, colonels, everyone. There are relations with Honduran military intelligence, with the immigration office, direct contact with the Honduran Special Forces. So you can say it's really all one thing.
envío: Aren't there sectors of the Honduran Army who oppose the contras?
Ponce: Sure, there are some within the armed forces who don't go along totally with the contras. A lot of them complain. A number of officers are unhappy because the contras have more power and privileges than they do. That causes problems.
envío: How do the contras get along with the Honduran people themselves?
Ponce: Now that's a different story completely. Totally different. The Hondurans just can't accept the contras. They can't stand them anymore. The thing is all the people along the border are in a very bad position because of the contras.
envío: In terms of how it affects their agricultural production?
Ponce: Not only in production, it's that there have been crimes throughout these zones. And the majority of crimes are due to people's unwillingness to tolerate the contras’presence. So the contras] carry out reprisals and kill people. Clearly, the contras aren't accepted. The people are constantly complaining, because they don't go along with the contras now and never did.
envío: What relation do the contras have with civilian Nicaraguan refugees in these zones?
Ponce: Well, in general refugees are considered piri always suspected of being Sandinista. There's not much interaction between the comandos and the civilian population.
envío: Does the FDN recruit people from among these refugees?
Ponce: Yeah. The FDN intelligence and counterintelligence units are constantly visiting the refugees to recruit them. The recruitment’s been based on promises of money more than anything. There are very few real volunteers. Moreover, it's turned out that the great majority of the people recruited this way give up their arms later, when they get to Nicaragua. So now they say everyone's a piri. As far as I know, the last such recruitment of refugees was in June 1986. Honduran intelligence units, along with the FDN, did some large-scale recruiting in El Paraíso and Danlí. Of course, the FDN is always working inside the camps. They have informants, and a certain amount of control.
envío: How is life for the civilian refugees in Honduras?
Ponce: Very rough. At the most, they're able to work two or three days a week. They make three lempiras a day and are given rice and beans. The situation is pretty difficult, because Honduras is suffering a very serious economic crisis. And Hondurans are complaining that the Nicaraguan refugees are taking jobs away from them.
envío: Are these Nicaraguans in Honduras legally? What documents do they have?
Ponce: The truth is that most of them have a special pass from Migration that costs them five lempiras monthly. To get a residence card, you'd have to pay 600 lempiras. And no one coming from Nicaragua can.
Coming back from the "other side"envío: With Esquipulas, will many of them come back to Nicaragua?
Ponce: Many people want to return. A lot of them. And they're coming back. People don't want to be on the other side. And there are lots of them over there. For example, a number of young guys who left Nicaragua fleeing the draft only to fall into the other draft—the FDN's draft.
envío: What do the people on the other side need to help them make the decision to return?
Ponce: Well, Esquipulas has helped enormously. That is, the amnesty provision.
envío: But there's been an amnesty since 1985 for anyone who wanted to come back.
Ponce: That's true. I knew about it, but I didn't want to take the risk. With Esquipulas, you feel there are more guarantees. A lot of people feel this way. But the most important thing is support from one's family. They need to hear their families in Nicaragua tell them how it is here. It's true that things are pretty rough, but, well, people get by! There they don't have milk and sometimes the kids don't even eat. Here there are problems, it's true, but I'll tell you sincerely, you hear that people here are dying of hunger, that there aren't enough clothes to go around, that people walk around without shoes. Yet here I am, I see how people here eat, they’re pretty casual about things. I didn't expect to find things so calm. Those on the other side need to know that, to help them decide to come back.
envío: Do the refugees know about the amnesty program?
Ponce: Yes, they've heard of it. Radio Segovia in Ocotal has played a very important role, passing messages along, explaining the amnesty law, broadcasting family members' appeals across the border.
envío: Do they hear that in the contra camps as well?
Ponce: Well, that's more difficult, reaching the comandos. Because they can't listen to Radio Segovia; it would mark them. Moreover, the problem the comandos have is that they can't do what I did and cross over the border, because they're not allowed to leave the camps. The way out is to desert, and desertion means imprisonment or...
envío: They kill them?
Ponce: They kill them.
envío: Firing squad?
Ponce: No, they don't shoot them. They slit their throats.
envío: To terrorize everyone else?
Ponce: It's just the rule. There school is the command.
envío: Where will the contras who don't give up their arms go, if [Honduran President] Azcona complies with Esquipulas and gets rid of the contra camps in Honduras?
Ponce: No one talks about that, no one even thinks about it there. But there will be a complete disintegration. A lot of people will stay, becoming nothing better than cattle rustlers and border bandits, because who's going to be able to take their arms away from them? What are all these people going to do? There's no future for them in Honduras. I don't know, they might even end up in El Salvador, with Duarte's army.
envío: Didn't the fact that the Somocistas control things in the FDN disillusion you when you linked up with them?
Ponce: Well, not really. Because when I left Nicaragua, I was ready. I was pretty pissed off.
Inside contra intelligenceenvío: So you began to work with the FDN? What were the results?
Ponce: My work was mostly gathering military information in Nueva Segovia; others prepared the intelligence operatives. Make the contacts for the student front... In May 1986, the Sandinista State Security forces discovered our network and broke it up, destroying all the lines to my work. It was a real blow.
envío: In your judgment, how well do the Sandinista Security forces work?
Ponce: Well, I know things I can't reveal, for my own security, both here and there. But I'd say they work quite well.
envío: In your intelligence work, did you ever detect Sandinista infiltrators in the FDN?
Ponce: Yes, they're there. And many of these infiltrators worked inside the FDN for as long as two years before being detected.
envío: Did your work with the contras cost anyone their life?
Ponce: As far as I know, not directly. What I did was send on the reports on Nueva Segovia so the operatives could make use of them. But they really weren't able to do things too well.
envío: So, you can say, 'I have no one's death on my conscience'?
Ponce: Well, I don't feel burdened, I don't feel guilty; but...if anything gets to me, it's what happened in Yalaguina.
envío: In March 1986 the contras blew up an electrical station in Yalaguina that provided electrical power to almost all of Region I. Was this your responsibility?
Ponce: Yes, it was. I passed along the information about three months before this operation was carried out. And, it's true, I never thought they’d be able to pull it off. They had already tried twice, but they weren't even close. This time, 120 men led by "Samuel" of the Nicarao Command, carried out the operation, blowing up the plant and getting out of there with only one man wounded.
envío: When you heard they had blown up the plant, what was your reaction?
Ponce: Well, to tell you the truth, it hurt me. Because of what it meant for the country and, more than anything, for my own zone. Also, I worked for INE [Nicaragua's energy institute] before I went to Honduras, I was the delegate in charge, so I know perfectly well what it means to leave that entire zone without electricity. When they blew it up, I thought of all the people without light, all the food ruined... Now I think I never meant to do that. For the contra leaders, of course, it was great news, a real success. In June they had a party to celebrate the biggest blows the FDN had dealt to the Sandinista Army. And the biggest one was Yalaguina.
envío: But it was really pretty small, that blow...
Ponce: That's true, but they celebrated with a big party. I remember that some Democratic and Republican congress people arrived to celebrate. They were pretty happy.
envío: Do you know the names of these Congress people?
Ponce: No, I don't. But they were there.
envío: What kind of party was it?
Ponce: A cultural event, with folkloric dances, guitar playing, poetry reading, that kind of thing.
envío: Did any of the congressional representatives speak that day?
Ponce: No, they don't speak publicly. They were with Calero, Aristides Sánchez, Oscar Montes, the guys from Tegus—from Tegucigalpa. With the top guys.
Human rights progress: A shamenvío: The contras’ crimes, the killing of civilians...did seeing that discourage you?
Ponce: Actually, I didn't see any of that. Right before I left the FDN I did see a couple of old guys in the El Cuá region whose throats they had slit. And in reality, well... Look, these are attitudes that we spent all our time fighting about with other FDN members. There were real clashes. There are people who don't share these attitudes.
envío: Why are all these things allowed?
Ponce: The truth is that this all goes back to that same lack of political education. For the comandos, everybody's a communist, everybody's a piri that's how they see things. When they go and attack a cooperative, they don't think about the kids there, just that everyone's a communist and that's it. And those bullets fly with no names on them.
envío: And when they go into a peasant's house and pull people out and kill them?
Ponce: It's the same thing. The majority of these crimes are for reasons of intrigue, revenge. Someone who doesn't go along with them, well they're a piri and they kill them, just like that.
envío: Isn't there any way to avoid or control this?
Ponce: Well, it's difficult. They really can't control it. Right now, the new thing, going along with the $100 million, is that they're supposed to have a human rights section. And someone responsible for human rights is supposed to go out with each unit. But what happens when the person responsible for human rights is just another comando? They all have the same background, so what do these "human rights" guys do? They gather all the information about the crimes committed and then present it as if they were crimes committed by the Sandinista army. That's all they do. Really, there hasn't been any progress in human rights inside the FDN. It's all a sham. I haven't seen anything real, anything positive, nothing. And in fact, no one wants to take on this role of being the human rights person. They give them some training, a few recommendations, but the reality is completely different. There isn't any control. They really can't control them.
The contras set me upenvío: Why did you decide to leave the contras?
Ponce: After I’d been working for about ten months, they started carrying out a campaign against me, saying I was an infiltrator from Sandinista security. From the beginning many had wondered how it was possible for this piri to just show up and end up in such a high position. The campaign really got moving when Nicaraguan security succeeded in breaking up my network in May 1986. That touched off an even more direct campaign against me. In September last year, I somewhat unwisely took advantage of the Peace Torch's passing [from Honduras to Nicaragua] to go and see my mother on the border. The FDN let me, but people said: 'Who's he that he gets to see his mother?' Because no one else was allowed to. It all confirmed their notion that I was an infiltrator.
envío: And at that point, you wanted to leave the FDN?
Ponce:: Well, actually not. I still wasn't ready to quit. I wanted to work. But that's when all the pressures began. Control. You can move around, but you don't really move around. I was under close watch. And you know, at the first sign of weakness, they don't think twice, they slit your throat. That's when it's over, it's not a question of thinking about it, it's just all over. They began by forbidding me to go to the border. And then I was taken prisoner on November 4, 1986.
envío: How did they treat you?
Ponce: I was tied up for 11 days, blindfolded, without eating, without sleeping, naked. In the Strategic Command, there's a zone called the MP, the Military Police. Those people are exclusively Somocistas, they protect the Strategic Command. Pure guardsmen, completely Somocista.
envío: Did they beat you?
Ponce: No, that they didn't do, because they weren't entirely sure. So before taking me prisoner, they gave me a polygraph, a lie detector test.
envío: What was that like?
Ponce: Well, it's a gringo machine. The people who work it are from the CIA. They put me in a CIA office. They asked me ten questions and you have to say either yes or no. They gave me the test on September 21 and after that, they let me go and I went back to El Paraíso. But they didn't tell me anything about the results. In November, they called me again, but it was to take me prisoner, to interrogate me. This time directly.
envío: What did they interrogate you about?
Ponce: More than anything, about what I did before. Normal questions. 3-80, the rest, all suspected me.
envío: Were they good interrogators?
Ponce: One was very good. The one who interrogated me is an ex-guardsman who has specialized in the FSLN since it was founded. He interrogated Sandinistas for Somoza, and now he's working for the Strategic Command. 3-80 and El Invisible lied to the other commanders and told them I was receiving training in the States. But I was a prisoner.
envío: How did you get out?
Ponce: Well, my wife knew that if more than five days went by without my returning to El Paraíso from Strategic, she should let my family in Nicaragua know that I was being detained. Because I was ready for an investigation at any moment. So my mother called an uncle of mine who works in the OAS and had been an officer in Somoza's National Guard—although he had left Nicaragua in 1954, because he was involved with a group of officers who rebelled against Somoza. He's been working in the States with the OAS for over 30 years. This uncle sent a friend of his to the Strategic Command and since 3-80 knows my uncle and respects him and all, my situation changed right away. They let me out on Christmas Day. 3-80 himself took care of the case.
envío: So you were completely clean?
Ponce: Well, I was free. They suspended my pass and all and kept a close watch on me at all times.
envío: Did you begin to think about returning to Nicaragua?
Ponce: No, I still wasn't thinking about anything like that. The thing that forced me to make that decision was when El Invisible arrived and gave me a mission that I was supposed to carry out in two months, January and February. The mission was to blow up the electrical plant at Quisuca, on the way to Somoto, where the television relay antennae are. I had to blow it up to prove myself, to show that I wasn't an infiltrator. But I was still under watch, with no support, no resources, no documents so I could move around—well, the mission was a trap. That's when I began to think about leaving; I knew I had to. This happened at the same time as Esquipulas. I figured it was the right time to come back.
Coming Homeenvío: Weren't you afraid of the Sandinistas?
Ponce: Well, actually no. Maybe because of the origins of my leaving—In fact I've had a chance to talk with the compañeros who started all the problems that ended up with me deciding to leave Nicaragua, and everything's all right. Maybe it's because of what Nicaragua’s going through now. I think everyone has learned a lot.
envío: When you turned yourself in, what interrogation did the Sandinista authorities put you through?
Ponce: None. Nothing at all.
envío: And no lie detector test?
Ponce: Nothing, nothing.
envío: What sort of reception did you expect?
Ponce: I expected to be interrogated. I would imagine that's normal. But they only said to me: Lester, you're free to speak with whomever you want. No one will pressure you.
envío: Did you ask for any sort of protection?
Ponce: No, nothing. All they did was warn me that I had to be careful, that I should be careful about getting drunk, etc. I'm not afraid of anyone here. But from the other side, yeah. They might do something to me.
envío: And what did the FDN say about your leaving Honduras?
Ponce: They said I had never worked for them, that I was a refugee whom they gave food and shelter.
envío: How was the ceremony when you were turned over to your family? They say that the Segovia Theater was packed on August 23 and that you were talking with everybody.
Ponce: Well, I felt like some sort of rare animal facing everyone. Like I was facing a jury. You feel really bad in that sort of situation, really bad. Do you know what it's like to have to ask forgiveness of people who know you? I felt really awful.
envío: And people's reactions?
Ponce: Well, they gave me support. People I never thought would... That had a bigger impact on me than anything that had happened.
envío: Nicaraguans are a very generous people.
Ponce: Too generous, too generous.
envío: If they call you up for military service, would you go?
Ponce: Yes, I'd go. In fact, from the first when they let me go, I thought that they'd be calling me up. But they haven't. If they do, I'll go and maybe it won't be so bad.
envío: To get rid of your guilt?
Ponce: No, I don't think that would be it. I've always liked military life. And it's my duty as a Nicaraguan. I'd go with no problem.
The contras: No political principles
envío: Do you think the contras are basically defeated, as the Sandinistas have been saying for some time now?
Ponce: Well, the fact is that their strategies haven't amounted to much. They're always looking for the famous beachhead, the liberated territory. They've been after that since 1983 and they haven't achieved it. It's not for lack of military ability, because the comandos are well trained, although it's true that there's an enormous numerical difference compared to the Sandinistas.
envío: The Sandinistas say the number of contras today is about 6,000.
Ponce: I'm not exactly sure, but that could be. But the question now isn't only one of numbers, but also of morale. Here there's a principle that moves people and there they don't have that. There's an indisputable morale here... But there there's no political training, it's just war. I noticed that those people lack principles. They fight because of communism or anti-communism or whatever, but there are no real principles. The comandos are always fighting, but they really don't know why. They were missing something important. They're still missing it. Principles! There aren't any, I never knew of any there. They keep them up to date on all the new techniques, but never on any political issues. Nobody ever says: here's our plans, our program; this is why we're fighting. Never! In 1986 they formed FODENIC there, the supposed political party of the FDN. And what did it turn into? Just one big dogfight! Everyone wanted to be president... Well, it fell apart.
envío: Whose idea was it?
Ponce: The same old guys! Some who were big collaborators with the National Guard. The truth is that they really lack cohesion. It's a lack of political principles. They fight without any political vision, just for the sake of war. And there's also a lack of understanding between the highest and lowest ranks. That is, the comandos insist, for example, that Mack go to the front lines, but he doesn't go, so the comandos themselves do the same thing Mack does: a task force leader says he's going with 100 or 150 men to Estelí, but they don't go, they turn around before they get to the river and say 'Well, we couldn't get through,' and that's it. Mack taught them this.
And he's perfectly happy. So there are a number of problems with the way the war itself is going. The war is being fought inside, while the leaders all live comfortably in Honduras. And the comandos know this perfectly well. They know how Mack and all the leaders live. They have this complaint, but who can they go to?
envío: So would you say the contras are defeated?
Ponce: For a while now, each combat has been a crushing defeat. Right now, the leaders don't believe in a beachhead or anything like that. They're in charge of small, dispersed groups; they do as much damage as they can. The thing now is: destroy, destroy, destroy. That's the tactic and the strategy. But now they don't have much power.
envío: What will the Esquipulas accords mean for this situation?
Ponce: Esquipulas is a way out for a lot of them who really don't want to keep fighting, but not for the top guys who are really making a killing off the US aid. But this whole question of Esquipulas has also been a big blow to them, because they know that militarily they'll never be able to defeat the Sandinistas.
envío: So will the war end with Esquipulas?
Ponce: Well maybe, but maybe not. The war doesn't really depend on Esquipulas. The war depends on Reagan.