A Nicaraguan mission that altered history

05/17/2012

On April 31, 2012, Tomas Borge Martinez, the last of the founders of the Sandinistas, the rebel group that overthrew Nicaragua’s American-backed right-wing dictatorship 33 years ago, died. Most people remember Borge as a hero; some would argue he was the most powerful man in Nicaragua during his lifetime. He was also the last remaining tie between two West Marin residents, Bill Press and Mike Witte, and a day that altered the course of history.

Their story began with James Denby, an Illinois farmer with an itch for adventure who owned 700 acres of Costa Rican farmland near the Nicaraguan border. When Denby wasn’t flying wounded contras to hospitals or saving his cows from hungry guerilla fighters, he might have been found sitting in a bar in his hometown of Carlinville, telling stories about his life on the front line.

Everyone knew Denby liked to fly close to the sun. So for his friends in the sleepy downstate town, it was no surprise when Denby, 57, flew too close.

As Denby guided his 15-year-old single-engine Cessna 172 over the pearl white Nicaraguan coastline, that Sunday—December 6, 1987—felt like any other day. That is, until he was shot down by automatic rifle and was forced to land near the Costa Rican border, in San Juan del Norte. Accused of ferrying arms to the contras, who were battling to overthrow the country’s Sandinista regime, Denby was jailed.

When Bill Press, a West Marin resident who was running for California State Senate against John L. Burton, heard the news, he was surprised. When Press’s campaign manager, Steve Glazer, heard it, he grinned. “You might want to try to go down there and see if you can pull some strings,” he told Press. “A big rescue like this would bring a lot of publicity and could catapult you to the top of the list.” Press gave a nod. He’d think about it.

Press had been to Nicaragua before and was acquainted with a woman named Lydia Brezon, who knew some Sandanista officials. It was a start.

Two weeks later, Press headed to South America. Brezon notified Borge, who was Interior Minister at the time and in charge of all prisons. Press waited for word in Managua. Then, while sitting at dinner with an old friend who happened to be visiting Nicaragua as well, he was interrupted by a waiter. “Phone call,” he said, and guided Press to the back of the room. “If you can meet at the Commandante’s office right now and you may speak with him,” an official told him over the phone. Press returned to his friend, and, unable to explain his secret mission, simply said, “I have to go.”

Press made his way to the office of the interior ministry. And there he was: Commandante Borge, hospitable and pleasant, but a tough hombre just the same.

The two men talked. “Release Denby to me as a humanitarian gesture,” Press said. Borge thought for a moment. “We have this real problem,” he replied. “We are at war. Why should we do any favors for the United States?” To which Press already had an answer: “It would give your country the media that it needs to end it.” He knew negotiating Denby’s freedom would curb his country’s ill will toward the Nicaraguan government.

But Borge continued. “You’re on television in the United States. You must know someone in congress. Can’t you get them to change their policies?” he asked.  “Go back and see what you can find out and then get back in touch.”

Before Press took his leave, Borge had one more thought. “We should not talk directly,” he said, as he knew his lines were bugged. “When you call, just tell me you’re calling about your cousin.” With that Press returned to California—without Denby.
Back in the states, Press reached out to Howard Berman, who served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as other members of congress. Not long after he called his “cousin.” “Okay, come back,” Borge said.

Press convinced his friend Mike Witte to join him as a translator and rescue physician, and returned to Nicaragua with a team. The men entered the country with an inkling of hope and plans to leave on a luxury jet that Saturday—but without a clue of what was going to happen. They checked in at the De Lido Hotel, phoned Borge’s office, and waited.

At around 9 p.m., Press, Witte, and a few others were seated in the hotel lobby, when four men approached. Three were armed with AK-47s, the other was smiling. “It looks good for a release,” Borge said, “but it will have to wait until next Monday.” Press’s heart sank. The Superbowl would be televised that Sunday, and would trample his success under the cleats of a hundred sports highlights.

“The contra aid vote is next Wednesday,” Witte said. “If we want to reach anyone before the vote, it will have to be done by tomorrow.”

The Americans saw Borge next at a restaurant called El Mirador; Witte described the scene there as something out of a movie. The sounds of mariachi trickled through the warm night air, and not a soul in sight could be found without shirt sleeves. At a quarter to midnight the music was replaced by clapping, as men in dark green uniforms entered the room. Among them was a stalky man wearing aviators and a red and white checkered scarf. He waved with charisma: El Commandate had arrived.

Borge invited the men inside the restaurant to escape the noise. “We looked over the papers for Denby’s release,” Witte recalled. “Both parties wanted to make sure that their end wouldn’t be blindsided. Borge didn’t bother.” The men returned to the patio, where Borge continued to receive hugs and handshakes, and kisses from the women. And when it was time again to wet his beak, he invited the Americans into his private car.

“He took us to about two or three bars before things became fuzzy,” Witte recalled. “We would stop at a place, Borge would introduce us to the owners and we’d have a drink. Everything, of course, was on the house.” At 2 a.m., in the midst of carousing, a deal was struck.

After a brief sleep, the men were escorted by jeep to a small house guarded by more men with machine guns. “Reporters on motorcycles followed us through the streets,” Press recalled. Witte entered the house, followed by a guard. There, sitting on a chair of a comfortable living room, was Denby. “His health was fine,” Witte recalled. “He told me they fed him more than he could eat.”

Two hours later they were airborne. “We were jumping up and down and screaming,” Witte recalled. “We toasted freedom, the United Sates… and Nicaragua.” Days later President Reagan’s proposal to send over $36 million in aid contra rebels was defeated. The media swarmed over Press’s deal with Borge. Two years later, the Sandinista government fell to Violeta Barrios, the first female president to be elected democratically in the Americas.

Press never won a seat in the senate, but neither he nor Mike Witte will ever forget the day they changed history.