Conservative U.S. Christians Take Up Arms in Nicaragua

Times Staff Writer

Sitting on a quiet cul-de-sac amid the suburban sprawl of Carlsbad, the house where Gary Becks lives seems much like any other.

Looks can be deceiving.

The modest, two-story abode is not only home for Becks and his family, but is also headquarters for the Rescue Task Force, a tiny, fundamentalist Christian outfit that provides humanitarian aid to refugees along the war-torn border of Nicaragua and Honduras.

Since the nonprofit group was formed by Becks in October, it has initiated several projects to help Nicaraguans who have fled their homeland since the Sandinista regime came to power in 1979.


But the generosity of Becks does not end with the refugees. A devout anti-communist, he unabashedly supports the armed struggle of the Nicaraguan rebels, the Contras.

Indeed, Becks’ second-in-command at the Rescue Task Force is a Contra, an amicable fellow who goes by the nom de guerre of Joseph Douglas and now lives in the north San Diego County.

During their periodic forays to the unstable border, Becks and Douglas think nothing of strapping on AK-47 assault rifles and grenades, heading into the Nicaraguan bush and meeting with Contra troops. Once in camp, they preach the gospel and offer moral support.

The words are undoubtedly welcome, for these are gray days for the Contras. Aid to the rebels from the U.S. government is scheduled to run dry in the next few months, and questions remain as to what tack the new Administration and Congress will take on the issue.

If the Contras are denied support, as some experts predict, it could fall on private groups, such as the Rescue Task Force, to serve as a lifeline for the resistance.

Former Firefighter

Becks, a wiry, 43-year-old former Fire Department battalion commander in San Bernardino, figures there is no greater calling.

“We take a more militant stance than a lot of Christian groups,” Becks said. “The issue is personal freedom, personal liberty for people being repressed by a Marxist, totalitarian regime. I felt an urgency to do the Lord’s work, but not just from an evangelical perspective. The basic issue was freedom.”

In the months to come, Becks hopes to take on long-term projects that will create a basic infrastructure along the border, such as the group’s current effort to start a hog farm at a refugee camp. By doing so, he said, refugees will have an alternative to repatriating to Nicaragua, and the Contras will have a viable home base for their efforts.

The Rescue Task Force also has plans that, at first blush, appear downright grandiose. Ultimately, Becks hopes to raise more than $1 million to purchase a C-123 cargo plane, which could be used to ferry portable hospital modules--a surgical unit, a blood lab, a dental office--to remote areas.

Painted red, white and blue, the plane would provide medical help to Nicaraguan refugees and serve as a flying public relations symbol for the United States, Becks said.

Although the group is only a few months old and has yet to establish a track record, it has managed to win the support of some prominent San Diegans, among them U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado). The congressman met Becks while he was working with the Christian Emergency Relief Team, a conservative Christian group that employed Becks for 18 months before he broke off to start his own outfit.

“Duncan has a great deal of confidence in Becks,” said John Palafoutas, a spokesman for the congressman. “It would be great if the U.S. came up with $20 million in humanitarian aid, but since that’s probably not going to happen in the next month or so, it’s important to have this type of group down there to help.”

Kudos aside, the Rescue Task Force has also begun to attract criticism. The group’s firm ideological stand favoring the Contras, as well as the habit of Becks and Douglas of packing guns while inside Nicaragua, has prompted some critics to complain that the Rescue Task Force has tread beyond merely providing humanitarian relief and is now helping to fuel a war effort.

Vickie Kemper, an editor at Sojourners magazine, a nondenominational Christian publication based in Washington, said the task force’s efforts seem only to be adding kindling to the inferno in Nicaragua.

“I’m very, very concerned that someone who considers himself a Christian is so overtly promoting war at a time when I believe the people of that country have made clear their desire to have some sort of negotiated settlement,” Kemper said. “I’m particularly saddened as a Christian that he’s going in armed himself. I don’t think that’s any way to promote peace.”

David Courson, leader the Christian Emergency Relief Team (CERT), refused to comment on Becks’ recent activities, but said his own organization is forbidden by policy from carrying weapons while on missions.

“It’s not even a gray line. It’s illegal. You’re violating the neutrality act,” said Courson, who is also based in Carlsbad. “I don’t think you need to break U.S. law to help others. And as a Christian organization, carrying weapons violates what we stand for.”

During his years working on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, Courson has witnessed “one organization after another come up with some grand scheme and a year later they’re not around. These are the adventure-seeking Rambo types, the ‘wanna-be’ Soldier of Fortune organizations.”

Hands-Off Attitude

American foreign affairs officials, meanwhile, have largely adopted a hands-off attitude toward private groups, such as the Rescue Task Force, in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal.

“As one walks the corridors here, you find matters of private assistance don’t form part of the debate over the survival and future of the Contras,” said a State Department official, who asked that his name not be used. “The question has been, and continues to be, what the attitude of Congress is.”

Becks, meanwhile, takes the criticism in stride.

“I think a man is measured as much by who his enemies are as who his friends are,” he said. “These left-wingers and pro-Marxist people, well, I’m honored when they come out against me.”

He worries about the neutrality laws, but notes that “we don’t buy guns, we don’t buy bullets” for the rebels. The closest the group has come to providing military hardware was in purchasing a small motorcycle for a Contra intelligence officer so that he could “run errands,” Becks said.

Becks said he and Douglas have worn weapons while inside Nicaragua merely as a safety precaution, in the event that they became separated from their Contra guides during a fight. While he has participated in target practice with the Contras, Becks has never been in a battle.

“We don’t want a reputation as some Rambo outfit or Kill a Commie for Christ,” Becks said. “I don’t go there as a mercenary. But if the situation merits wearing a gun, then it’s appropriate behavior. It comes down to this: If you’re going into those zones, you’ve got to be prepared to be shot, to pay the ultimate price.”

He refuses to discuss in detail his break with Christian Emergency Relief Team, saying only that it came because of differences over administrative style and his yearnings to take on longer-term projects.

“CERT’s mission is short-term trips,” Becks said. “I think the emergency is long-term, the type of situation that requires projects on a larger scope.”

As Becks sees it, the hog farm he is attempting to develop is just that sort of project. Already, the Rescue Task Force has purchased four brood sows for the farm, which is being established at a refugee camp of 170 people known as the Big Ranch.

In March, Becks hopes to purchase 50 more hogs, allowing the refugees enough meat to eat and to sell. The capitalist aspects of the farm are important, he said, since the Honduran government does not allow refugees to leave their camps to seek work.

Becks said the group wants to build a school at another village along the Coco River, which divides Nicaragua from Honduras. Like the hog farm, the school is the idea of refugee and Contra leaders, Becks said, adding that his organization tries to work directly with the local population to enact their ideas.

“The height of missionary arrogance are these people who sit in air-conditioned offices in the U.S. and decide what those people down there need,” Becks said. “For the cost of moving one container of used clothes, you can put in a working hog farm that these people can really use.”

A Vietnam veteran, Becks was drawn into the fray in 1986, when he met Courson during a presentation by the CERT leader at a dinner for Christian firefighters. Becks was moved by the talk, and accompanied Courson on a mission to the Nicaraguan border in December of that year.

Shocked by what he found, the long-time firefighter decided on the spot to retire from the department and devote his life to the relief effort. With his wife, Leah, and children, he moved to Carlsbad and began work with CERT in May, 1987, surviving since then on his retirement income and help from other family members.

During his tenure with that group, Becks made more than a dozen trips to the border, in addition to a mission through Africa and three trips to help the rebels in Afghanistan.

But in October he decided the time had come to form his own group and he enlisted the help of Douglas, a former resident of the southeastern coast of Nicaragua, a region settled by the descendants of English-speaking slaves.

Together, they now travel the country, delivering speeches to just about any group that will listen, drumming up funds for their cause. To help, Becks has compiled two slide presentations, complete with music.

One is geared toward the unindoctrinated: the Kiwanis, Rotary and other service clubs. The other is a graphic series of shots showing wounded Contra soldiers and civilians that is reserved for hard-core anti-communists and gatherings of right-wing groups like the John Birch Society, Becks said.

The fund-raising efforts, which have netted about $16,000 so far, have been aided in particular by Douglas, an articulate 29-year-old man with a flair for sharing his own riveting testimony.

An elementary school teacher in his hometown of Bluefields, Douglas says he was, like many Nicaraguans, pleased to see the Sandinistas overthrow the repressive Somoza dictatorship in 1979. But when the new government ordered Douglas to begin teaching Marxism and liberation philosophy, he refused and was quickly labeled an enemy.

When a longtime friend with the police told Douglas in December, 1980, that he was being targeted for arrest and would likely be tortured and possibly imprisoned, he fled his home, trudging for days through the jungle to reach the safety of Honduras.

In 1981, Douglas joined the Contras and claims he participated in one of the first attacks on a Sandinista patrol. This was more than a year before any U.S. aid had trickled down to the Contras, and the rebels used bows and arrows in the ambush, Douglas said.

Helped Boost Cause

During the years that followed, Douglas participated in numerous battles, he said. In late 1987, however, he came north to America with Becks and Courson to help boost the sagging cause of the Contras.

What was to be a three-week sojourn to the United States turned into a drawn-out battle to return to Honduras. After numerous U.S. newspaper articles appeared on Douglas, the Honduran government refused to allow him to return. Authorities also threatened to force the repatriation of his wife and two young children to Nicaragua, he said.

With the help of U.S. authorities, Douglas managed to secure political asylum in America for himself and his family and says he is now able to travel freely into Honduras.

An uneasy truce is currently in effect in Nicaragua, so Douglas has decided to stay in the United States and help with the Rescue Task Force. Better to help drum up support in America, he said, than to hunker down in some refugee camp while waiting for the war to resume.

“I’m still not a soldier,” said Douglas, who took on his name in 1987 as a security precaution. “In the bottom of my heart, I’m still a schoolteacher. I was just forced to change by the circumstances.”

With the uncertainty about further U.S. aid to the Contras, the fund-raising skills of Douglas and Becks could soon be tested as never before.

“If Congress indeed drops the hammer on humanitarian aid to the Contras, at that point total responsibility moves from the public sector to the private sector,” Becks said. “I’m not naive enough to think we can change the course of events, but this is just too big an issue to ignore.”