Augusto C. Sandino
In the second decade of the twentieth century U.S. Marines were intervening in Nicaragua. They were sent by the government of the United States to intimidate and control the local political parties – involved in a civil war at that time – in order to ensure that the presidential seat would be occupied by a submissive Nicaraguan leader who would cooperate with the voracious exploitation of Nicaragua by the United States. This strategy worked well for the U.S., the strongest country in the world, until a general – small in physical size but gigantic when it came to patriotic conscience – started to fight back. With the support of an army of peasants this general showed the world that he was not permitting the exploitation of his free, sovereign country. This general was Augusto C. Sandino, general of the free men, hero of Las Segovias.
The Constitutional War
Before starting his heroic struggle Sandino participated in the civil war on the side of the Liberal party. These Liberals were taken out of power by the rival party, the Conservatives, who took over presidency by force. A historical overview is given below.
In January 1925, after national elections, the Liberal Party came into power with the duo Carlos Solórzano as president and Juan Bautista Sacasa as vice-president. However, this situation was not well-received by the losing candidate, the conservative general Emiliano Chamorro, who immediately started planning taking over power through violent means.
The Liberal Party was able to stay in power only for one year. After two attempts by Chamorro, president Solórzano stepped down and left his seat vacant. Normally the vice-president would become the next leader but in this case vice-president Sacase had fled the country after being accosted by conservative soldiers. And this was how the Nicaraguan congress named nobody less than Emiliano Chamorro provisional president. He assumed power in January 1926.
From Mexico, Liberal exiles led by vice-president Sacasa prepared for a return to Nicaragua to take over power, which was legally to be handed over to the elected vice-president, according to the constitution. Troops were armed and shipped to the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, where they then started the so-called ‘Constitutional War’.
General José María Moncada was the military chief of this Liberal expedition. His troops disembarked at the city of Puerto Cabezas at the north-Caribbean side of the Nicaragua. Although they were belligerently inferior, they did maintain their position and they even took over other towns in the region. At the Pacific side, another Liberal disembarkation was destroyed by the conservative forces. However, liberal uprisings also started to take place at other places throughout the country.
Even before the arrival of the Liberal troops at Puerto Cabezas, the United States sent warships to the Nicaraguan coast, arguing that they were sent to protect the life and property of U.S. citizens living in Nicaragua. The North-American military chief asked both parties to find a solution to the conflict. In order to gain ‘gringo-support’, the conservatives arranged the renunciation of Chamorro (who, after enforcing a military coup, could not be recognized by the U.S. government, as set out in international treaties, signed and initiated by the same U.S. government). Therefore, in November 1926, Adolfo Díaz was named president of Nicaragua. With him, the U.S. had a perfect marionette to secure their interests.
Still led by chief Moncada, the Liberals continued their struggle. Only a couple days after this presidential change the situation intensified when Juan Bautista Sacasa, political chief and presidential claimant of the Liberals, arrives in Puerto Cabezas.
After hearing of the arrival of Sacasa, Augusto C. Sandino – already an influential leader in his local community – traveled with some others to Puerto Cabezas to participate in the Constitutional War. Here, however, general Moncada refused to give Sandino a military duty or arms.
The United States had already recognized Adolfo Díaz as the official president of Nicaragua. However, they denied that the presence of their boats had anything to do with the Nicaraguan conflict. Despite this statement, on December 24, 1926, U.S. Marines disembarked at Puerto Cabezas (headquarter city of the Liberals), where they declared a neutral zone which meant that Liberal soldiers were disarmed or removed. This was the first sign of definitive intervention by the U.S.
Marines disembarking at Corinto in March 1927
Two weeks later, on January 6, 1927, North American troops entered Nicaragua, arguing that lives and property of U.S. citizens had to be protected. They also claimed that Mexico (a country at that time accused to be pro-Communist) was about to send troops to Nicaragua. Although the United States said to take a neutral position, they frequently supported the conservatives, either directly or indirectly. In one such instance, U.S. planes bombed the city of Chinandega (at that time in control by the Liberals). The government then assured the world that its pilots were acting voluntarily and without official orders.
About ten weeks later, reports from the North American marines (who were officially ‘observers’) noted that most Constitutional troops were defeated throughout the country and that Moncada, held at bay by the conservatives, was about to be taken down in Chontales.
However, shortly after these reports the international media reported a surprising victory of a Liberal battalion: led by an unknown general named Sandino, Liberal troops had taken the city of Jinotega and were on their way to rescue Moncada.
This was the first time the name of Sandino showed up in the international media. Despite his victories, however, the Constitutional War ended shamefully a couple days later when military leader Moncada met with conservatives and marines in Tipitapa, where he negotiated the surrender of the Constitutional Army and the realization of strictly monitored elections (to be monitored by the marines) where he, general Moncada, would participate as candidate. Even though the treason was as clear-cut as it gets, the Liberal troops were disarmed and Sacasa fled to Costa Rica.
Although this meant the end of the Liberal Constitutional struggle, it also signified the beginning of Sandino’s struggle for liberty. Sandino, who did not lay down his arms, declared that as long as invading soldiers would exist on Nicaraguan soil, he and his men would continue to rebel against the government of the traitor Adolfo Díaz.
From Sandino's perspective
Augusto C. Sandino was born on May 18, 1895, in the small town called Niquinohomo, located in the department of Masaya. He was the (unrecognized) child of Margarita Calderón and the small landowner Gregorio Sandino. In fact, it is assumed that the letter “C” that appears in his name really stands for his maternal last name (Calderón), and not a second first name (César), as also has been suggested.
He was raised by his mother, with whom he dedicated himself to agricultural activities. During his youth, Sandino worked at different places throughout Nicaragua and in other Central American countries. Later, he moved to Mexico where he worked in the Tampico and Cerro Azul oil industry. Here he started to consider moving back to his beloved home country after getting acquainted with the ideology of social equality that the strong Mexican labor unions promoted.
He headed to Nicaragua on May 15, 1926, and he started to work in the mine of San Albino, in the northern region of the country, property of a U.S. citizen. Here he tried to convince his fellow workers of the patriotic ideals he believed in. When the Constitutional War broke out he took his savings (brought from Mexico) to buy arms at the border with Honduras and, together with other workers, he took off after exploding the mine with dynamite.
Augusto C. Sandino
Fully motivated to fight, Sandino met Moncada in Puerto Cabezas. Sandino asked the general to supply arms, ammunition, and instructions, and Sandino proposed him to lead the Las Segovias region (encompassing the northern departments of the country) in order to cover the northern flank while Moncada would advance in the direction of the capital, Managua. However, Moncada despises the idea and does not give Sandino anything.
The marines then invaded the city of Puerto Cabezas, declaring it a neutral zone and confiscating arms of Liberal soldiers in the region. Sandino came into action the same night by taking back arms that the marines threw into a river. During this operation he was assisted by several prostitutes who he convinced of the importance of the patriotic constitutional struggle.
With his arms and his men he headed to the mountainous northern area, after being reluctantly accepted by Moncada. The first time he encountered resistance happened in a small town and, being outnumbered, he lost the battle but he did manage to continue his journey. He reached San Rafael del Norte, which was transformed into his headquarter city. From here he started winning battles in neighboring villages. He also got to know the telegraph operator Blanca Aráuz, who became his girlfriend.
The Constitutional Army, however, was being defeated in almost all other places. The conservatives, with direct and indirect support from the U.S. marines, already had general Moncada enclosed in Chontales, halfway in between Puerto Cabezas and Managua. At this moment of despair, Moncada – who had always despised Sandino – sent him a message and ordered Sandino to help him out or he will be held responsible for a Constitutional defeat.
Sandino decided to send out a group of volunteers to support Moncada. In order to have all attention of enemy troops in the region focused on the northern zone, Sandino decided to attack the city of Jinotega in April 1927. After a final battle he completely took over control of the city, and here he reunited with several Liberal generals who were defeated at other places throughout the country.
Several days later Sandino and his troops head to Chontales, together with the other generals, to rescue the military leader. The soldiers of Sandino went ahead, and upon entering the battle zone they attacked and destroyed one of the stronger battalions threatening Moncada.
The conservative troops returned to Managua to protect themselves for the Liberal movement. Moncada, after being liberated, initiated a march towards the capital, using the routes liberated by Sandino. Moncada ordered Sandino to stay around to protect one of the flanks. Complying with the order, the general of Las Segovias prepared his troops to attack the city of Boaco. At that moment, he is informed of a 48-hour truce due to the fact that Moncada is about to meet the enemy, with mediation of the Americans.
Sandino obeyed the order but decided to return to Jinotega to re-establish his troops as his men, not doing anything and without any food, started to disorderly return back north.
In Jinotega Sandino was informed of the pact signed by Moncada in El Espino Negro, Tipitapa (department of Managua), which put a period behind the Constitutional War, accepting the presence of North American marines on Nicaraguan soil.
This happened in May 1927. This month, Sandino would not only celebrate his birthday, but he would also marry Blanca Aráuz and initiate his heroic struggle against U.S. intervention and in favor of a sovereign and independent Nicaragua.
The struggle continues
In Jinotega, alter finding out about the agreement signed by Moncada, general Sandino regrouped his men and refused to disarm. Both Moncada and the marines tried to convince Sandino to stop his struggle, but Sandino told them that his struggle was not over with this betraying pact. He again headquartered in San Rafael del Norte.
The North American press announced the end of the war in Nicaragua, stating that all Liberal leaders had disarmed except for one guy named Sandino. Soon the general of the free men took action to find out how strong his position really was. He first took the mine of San Albino and he then attached the town of Ocotal.
Although he was defeated in his first autonomous battle due to the intervention of U.S. bomber planes, Sandino did start to be known as somebody to take into account. Through the attack he was able to demonstrate a document, explaining why he was fighting, justifying his position: it stated that his troops were organized and idealistic, and not gangs of criminals, and that they preferred to die as patriots instead of as compliant citizens. He said he was waiting in the mountains with his arms ready to combat the traitors and invaders.
The Nicaraguan authorities and the U.S. government started to label Sandino as a bandit who dedicated himself to assaults and smuggling, and this same statement was told to the international press. However, on September 8, 1927, Sandino came into contact with the Honduran poet Froylán Turcios, director of the magazine ‘Ariel’ and a big admirer of Sandino’s actions. Turcios is therefore selected to become Sandino’s outside representative.
The marines, who underestimated Sandino and his troops, started to take action to defeat them, but they soon became aware that the bravery of these men was as significant as the mountains from where they operated were inaccessible. The continuous bombings affected mostly the civil population and the communities close to the headquarters of Sandino, which was at that time a hill called “El Chipote”.
Sandino's silhouette, still found throughout Nicaragua
Sandino’s struggle became known in the international press and newspapers from Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Brazil and even the same United States started to frequently publish articles that supported Sandino and his men. The North American government, meanwhile, argued that presence of its marines in Nicaragua was necessary to guarantee fair elections.
Although the government in Washington always minimized and distorted information about the actions of Sandino, the Nicaraguan fighters became so effective that the U.S. started to send backup marines, arms, and war planes to Nicaragua. The U.S. also started to recruit and train a local army led by North American officials, which would soon be known as the National Guard.
At the end of this year battles took place even more frequently, and – despite inferiority in arms, training, and sometimes men – the troops of Sandino, supported by the population, turned out to be a respectable enemy. In the forested mountains the rural communities, ambushes, dynamite, and machetes caused continuous losses for the marines and the National Guard. The bombings from their side destroyed both civil communities and the guerilla camps at the same time.
Many Latin American writers, organizations, and the public opinion started to favor Sandino, and he was declared hero of the dignity of Latin America, battling against North American imperialists.
When the U.S. militaries asked Sandino what his conditions were to stop fighting, he listed three points: 1) the immediate withdrawal of invasive forces from Nicaraguan territory, 2) the substitution of Adolfo Díaz by a Nicaraguan citizen who was not currently presidential candidate, and 3) supervision of the next elections by Latin American representatives and not by North American marines.
These simple demands were unacceptable for the U.S. government and the struggle therefore continued. Sandino named his troop the Defending Army of National Sovereignty, and he adopted a flag with red and black bands, and a motto: “motherland and liberty” (patria y libertad).
In 1928 battles continued between the well-equipped National Guard and marines, and the Sandinista troops, who were using rapid attack strategies. At the end of this year elections took place, supervised only by the United States, and resulting in a victory for José María Moncada, traitor and old chief of Sandino. Surprisingly, Juan Bautista Sacasa, the old leader of the Constitutional struggle, accepted to be ambassador of Moncada in Washington. By this time, both of them praised the intervention and support to the democracy of the United States in Nicaragua.
The guerilla general decided to travel to Mexico, to find support for his struggle and to avoid giving the marines another excuse to stay in Nicaragua. During his journey, accepted by the North Americans and protected by a Mexican delegation, Sandino was welcomed by large groups of people in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
In Nicaragua, the marines did not leave and Moncada assumed power. As instructed by Sandino, his troops continued their guerilla struggle.
End of the struggle
Sandino’s unfruitful stay in Mexico lasted almost one year. Apparently, the Mexican government, conspiring with the U.S. government, tried to keep him there as long as possible. Sandino, however, achieved to mislead his Mexican security guardians and clandestinely cross borders until he arrived at his headquarters.
The guerilla attacks continued. Sometimes, for a certain period of time, Sandino would disappear and speculation would arise that he had fled, before strongly hitting enemy command centers in the area. These kinds of attacks would continue, and the marines nor the National Guard were able to eliminate Sandino, while he did not achieve to get international support for his cause or force the invaders to retreat from Nicaragua.
In 1933, after winning the next elections, Juan Bautista Sacasa assumed presidency of Nicaragua – which actually should have happened in 1925, before the Constitutional War. This same year, on February 2, the last North American soldier sent to defeat Sandino, left Nicaragua without achieving this goal.
Without a reason for war, Sacasa declares friendship with Sandino and the general and his troops are given land in the Segovia region. The revolutionists and their chief accept disarmament and they start to integrate into society as agricultural producers.
However, another ambitious, fatal person enters Nicaraguan history. One year before the truce, in 1932, the National Guard was headed for the first time in history by a Nicaraguan military: Anastasio Somoza García. The next year, this military leader started an evident persecution of old Sandinista soldiers, illegally arresting, hurting, and even killing these men.
This situation forced Sandino to visit Managua to complain about this situation in front of president Sacasa. Sandino was invited to a gala by the president and the same Somoza. After arranging a compromise of ceasefire, Sandino accepted the offer. On the road, in Managua, the car of Sandino was intercepted by soldiers of the National Guard. The soldiers then escorted Sandino and two of his generals to a place where the hero and his men were brutally shot to death.
This marked the end of the heroic deeds of one of the most important people in the history of Latin America, although history has also made people forget about this man’s struggle. In Nicaragua, Somoza prohibited the name of Sandino to be used and the acknowledgement of his deeds until another generation of idealists again freed the country, almost half a century after Sandino’s death.
Nowadays, despite the fact that the exact place of death of the 'General of the free men' is unknown, his achievements have once again found their place in the history books. The only thing left unsaid is that Sandino, interestingly, never even wanted to become president. He only wanted a free country.