Eden Pastora, the one-time Sandinista leader turned anti-Sandinista rebel, surrendered himself and the ragtag remnants of his army to Costa Rican officials Friday and asked for political asylum.
Saying he was withdrawing from the armed struggle against the Nicaraguan government that he had helped to put in power, Pastora met the Costa Rican officials on the banks of the San Juan River, which runs along the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. There he handed over his old rifle and then crossed the nearby La Curena River to a stage setting of fallen trees and tropical vines.
The 49-year-old commander and former Sandinista hero played the showman for a crowd of journalists who had traveled in a caravan of 13 jeeps through the night to witness his exit from the battlefield.
Rebel sources said, however, that Pastora had been in San Jose just three days earlier and then returned to prepare his men for the event at the border point 155 miles northeast of the capital.
Pastora remained defiant, even in defeat.
"We don't want to be soldiers of the United States in a war of pressure. We want to be soldiers of the Nicaraguan people in a war of ours, the Nicaraguans, to overthrow the extreme left," he said.
"We are withdrawing from the armed struggle because we believe there is no possibility of a military victory, because of the incapacity imposed by the North American sectors that want to negotiate," Pastora said.
The rebel commander, his face gray with the stubble of a beard several days old, was accompanied by about 60 bedraggled followers. Costa Rican officials said 90 others turned themselves in at other points along the border.
Picture of Sandino
Pastora had claimed that he was bringing in 450 to 500 men and that another 1,000 would follow later. But Rogelio Castro Pinto, the Costa Rican vice minister of public security who headed the delegation of officials meeting Pastora, said those numbers were high.
Pastora carried a field radio and a picture of Augusto Cesar Sandino, a Nicaraguan guerrilla leader of six decades ago from whom the Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas of today take their name. His men, dressed in ripped uniforms or dirty civilian clothing, had long hair and looked weary.
About 15 Red Cross officials were also present in case any of Pastora's men might have been wounded, but their services were not needed.
Pastora handed a letter to Castro asking for political asylum for himself and his soldiers. Castro said that the rebels would be detained until their request for asylum could be processed. On Thursday, Costa Rica's newly inaugurated president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, said asylum would not be granted to Pastora unless he renounced his fight against the Sandinistas, a condition the rebel apparently has now met.
Pastora and his men were later driven in military vehicles from the border to the capital.
Castro described the weapons that Pastora and his men surrendered as "museum pieces" and in such bad shape that they might be usable only "for spare parts." Pastora said his weapon was an AR-15, which he described as a "duck-hunting gun that could be bought in a Miami sporting goods store."
Pastora's leading field commanders abandoned him last week to join an armed wing of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), a coalition of anti-Sandinista groups, because, they said, they had not had sufficient food, supplies or arms with Pastora in two years.
In his jungle press conference, the guerrilla commander blamed U.S. officials and the CIA for luring away his troops. He said the estimated 1,500 rebel troops who had defected with his lieutenants are "tricked, politically disoriented troops. . . , and now they still will not get the aid because they will sign Contadora June 6."
He was referring to a treaty to end regional conflicts that the so-called Contadora Group of Latin nations has been trying for more than three years to conclude among the five Central American republics. The Contadora Group--Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela--is pressing to finish negotiations on the proposed treaty and get it signed by June 6.
Balance of Forces
From his statement, Pastora apparently believes that process is nearly complete, but Nicaraguan officials have said they will sign no pact until the United States stops backing the contras, as the Nicaraguan rebels are called. Moreover, key issues in the Contadora negotiations, including agreement on the balance of military forces in the region, still remain to be worked out.
The CIA cut Pastora off from U.S. funds in 1984, and he received little or none of the $27 million in non-lethal aid that Congress approved for the contras last year. He said that he has been supporting his army for the last two years on about $35,000 to $40,000 a month raised from private sources in Los Angeles, Miami, Costa Rica and Panama.
Pastora signed a unity agreement with the United Nicaraguan Opposition in March but quickly fell out of it on the issue of whether the coalition would have a leadership role over his guerrillas. Pastora says he objects to the Nicaraguan Democratic Front, the coalition's largest component, because some of its military leaders were members of the Nicaraguan National Guard under dictator Anastasio Somoza, whom Pastora, as a guerrilla leader in the successful Sandinista revolution, had helped to overthrow.
He said Friday that the reason the CIA cut him off from U.S. aid is because he would not turn over control of his fight to the coalition.
"We blame these forces who kept silent, while we were accused of being crazy, for denouncing what is going to happen June 6," Pastora said.
The temperamental Pastora has been unable to maintain any of his alliances within the rebel movement trying to topple the Marxist-led Sandinista government. At different times, he has been allied with rebel leaders Alfonso Robelo and Arturo Cruz, both of whom are now with the United Nicaraguan Opposition, and with the Indian rebels of the Misurasata organization.
In his press conference, Pastora noted that some people have mentioned that he has withdrawn from the military battle before, but he said those previous absences were temporary. "This is the first time we say we are withdrawing from the armed struggle," he said.
He said he would form a political party and look for a job to support his family. He said he does not know exactly what he will do but mentioned driving a truck and raising cattle.
'Recess' Hoped For
However, contras still loyal to Pastora said they hope this episode is "a recess" rather than defeat.
A rebel who identified himself as Carlos said the troops took the news of their disbanding with mixed reactions.
"In part, they took it well but in part badly because they see the war as being lost," he said.
He said he did not blame Pastora for the surrender.
"He is fighting Managua and fighting the CIA."
Like Pastora, Carlos said he believes that those who joined the United Nicaraguan Opposition will lose their independence.
Pastora has taken on a near-legendary image over the years. He has survived years at war, repeated assassination attempts, a helicopter crash, as well as several political deaths and resurrections.
Two years ago, at a similar press conference 10 miles east of here, Pastora suffered burns and shrapnel wounds when a bomb hidden in the tape recorder of an unidentified journalist exploded. Four people were killed and 30 wounded in that blast, but Pastora recovered and returned to the wilderness.
Last August, he survived a helicopter crash in Costa Rica when his chopper apparently ran out of gas.
Pastora is the youngest of five children in a family from Nicaragua's Matagalpa province. He joined the battle against Somoza in the 1950s, believing that the National Guard had killed his father in a land dispute.
Using the nom de guerre Comandante Cero, he drew world attention in 1978 when he led a daring Sandinista takeover of the Nicaraguan National Palace. Pastora and a couple of dozen guerrillas took and held more than 1,000 hostages, including the entire Congress.
After three days of negotiations, the hostages were released in exchange for freedom for 50 imprisoned Sandinistas, $500,000, publication of manifestos, and safe passage out of the country.
Pastora worked in the Sandinista regime's Interior and Defense ministries until he grew disillusioned with Managua's increasingly close ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union. He left Nicaragua in the summer of 1981 and founded his armed Democratic Revolutionary Alliance here in 1983.
Pastora considers himself a democrat, an anti-imperialist and a "true Sandinista." To some he is seen as a despotic, braggart Don Quixote. Others admire him as an anti-Communist Ernesto (Che) Guevara.
What most agree on, however, is that his ego and will are stronger than those of several men combined, and that he seems to have more than nine lives. He may be down for now but many say they would not be surprised if his fortunes rise again soon.