The plan seemed too simple to be sane: take the National Palace in Managua in broad daylight with a force of only twenty-six, and hold the members of the House of Deputies hostage in exchange for the release of all political prisoners. The National Palace, a tasteless old building with pretensions of grandeur, takes up a whole block. The edifice is flanked by numerous windows; the columned façade of this banana parthenon looks out upon the desolate Square of the Republic. Besides the Senate, on the ground floor, and the Chamber of Deputies, on the first, it houses the Exchequer, the Ministry of the Interior and the Directorate-General of Revenue. Of all the Government buildings in Managua, it is the most public and the most heavily staffed. There is always a policeman, armed with a shotgun, stationed at every entrance, two more on the staircases leading to the first floor and several of the Ministers’ and Deputies’ armed bodyguards wander about the place. During working hours, between the basement, hallways and offices, no fewer than 3,000 people, employees and members of the general public are in the building. However, the leadership of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (snlf) did not consider the storming of this marketplace of bureaucracy insanely simple, but just the opposite: a crazy masterstroke.

The plan, in fact, had been conceived and proposed initially in 1970 by the experienced militant, Edén Pastora. But it was only put into effect when it became all too clear that the us had decided to help Somoza remain on his blood-stained throne until 1981. ‘Let those who speculate on my health make no mistake’, the dictator had said after his recent visit to Washington. ‘Others are faring much worse’, he added arrogantly, very much in character. Shortly after this, three loans of forty, fifty and sixty million dollars were announced. But the final insult was President Carter’s personal letter, congratulating Somoza on the improvement of human rights in Nicaragua. Encouraged by a remarkable upsurge in popular unrest, the snlf’s national leadership decided on the need for a forceful response. It ordered the implementation of the ‘moth-balled’ plan that had been postponed time and time again over the last eight years. Since the objective was to kidnap the régime’s parliamentarians, the plan was christened with the code-name Operation Pigsty.

Responsibility for the operation fell upon three tried and tested militants. The first was the plan’s author, who was to take command. His real name, Edén Pastora, seems like a poet’s pseudonym in the homeland of Rubén Darío.footnote1 A man of forty-two, he has been an active revolutionary militant for the past twenty years. Pastora’s marvellous sense of humour cannot obscure his aptitude for command. Born of a conservative family, Jesuit-educated at secondary school, he went on to study medicine at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico. His three years of university education was in fact spread over five years, since he interrupted it several times to return to guerrilla warfare in his country: only when defeated would he return to medical school. His earliest memory from the age of seven was the death of his father, murdered by the National Guard of Anastasio Somoza García. As commander of the operation, he would become number ‘Zero’, following snlf convention.

Hugo Torres Jimenez was named second-in-command. A thirty-year-old veteran guerrilla, Torres’s political training was as thorough as his military preparation. He had taken part in the famous kidnapping carried out at a Somoza family party in 1974. Sentenced to thirty years imprisonment in absentia, he had been living clandestinely in Managua. As in the previous operation, he was to be known as number ‘One’. Number ‘Two’, the only woman of the commando, was Dora María Tellez, a very lovely, shy and pensive girl of twenty-two; her intelligence and good sense would have assured her of great success in any field. She studied medicine for three years as well, in Léon. ‘But I gave up out of frustration’, she says. ‘It was very disheartening to work so hard, treating malnourished children, only to have them back in the hospital three months later in an even worse state of malnutrition.’ Dora María came from the ‘Carlos Fonseca Amador’ guerrilla front in the north, and had been underground since January 1976. A further twenty-three youths completed the commando. They had been carefully selected by the snlf leadership from among the bravest and most experienced guerrilla fighters from the various Nicaraguan regional committees. The most striking feature of this group was its youth. Excluding Pastora, the average age of the commando was twenty; three members were eighteen.

The commando’s twenty-six members met for the first time in a ‘safe house’ in Managua only three days before the date scheduled for the operation. With the exception of the first three Numbers, no one knew one another nor had any idea of the nature of the mission. They had only been warned that it was a bold and extremely dangerous operation. All accepted. The sole member of the group who had ever been inside the National Palace was Commander Zero; as a very young child, he had gone there with his mother to pay their taxes. Number Two, Dora María, had a vague picture of the Blue Room, where the Chamber of Deputies holds session, as she had seen it on television a few times. The rest of the group was not only unfamiliar with the National Palace, even from the outside, but most of them had never been in Managua before. Nevertheless, the three in command had a detailed plan, drawn in the somewhat skilled, scientific hand of a snlf doctor. Several weeks before the action, they knew the building by heart, down to the minutest detail, as if they had lived there for most of their lives. Tuesday, 22 August was chosen for the operation, because the debate on the National Budget that day assured a heavier attendance than usual. At 9.30 a.m. on the appointed day, when the intelligence network had confirmed that the Chamber of Deputies was to meet, the twenty-three young commando members were briefed on all the details of the operation. Each was assigned a specific mission. They were divided into six squads of four, with a complex, but efficient system of numbers for each person designating the squad to which he belonged and his position within that squad.

The stroke of genius in the plan was the idea of posing as a patrol from the National Guard’s Infantry School of Basic Training. To carry this off, they put on olive-green uniforms prepared in standard sizes by underground seamstresses and army boots that had been bought at various stores the previous Saturday. Each person was given a knapsack with the following equipment: the red and black scarf of the snlf; two handkerchiefs, in case of being wounded; a torch; anti-gas masks and goggles; plastic bags to hold water in case of emergency; and a bag of bicarbonate of soda to counteract tear-gas. As a group, the commando was supplied with ten 1½2 metre nylon cords, for tying up the hostages, and three chains with padlocks to secure all the doors of the National Palace from the inside. They carried no medical supplies, because they knew that there was first-aid equipment in the Blue Room. Finally, the weapons were handed out. All the weapons were identical to those of the National Guard, since almost all of them had been captured in combat. The total stock consisted of: two Uzi sub-machine guns, a g-3, an m-3, an m-2, twenty Garand rifles, a Browning pistol and fifty hand-grenades. Each person had 300 rounds of ammunition. The only objections raised came when it was time to cut their hair and shave off their beards, so meticulously cultivated on the battlefront. But no member of the National Guard is allowed to wear his hair long and only officers are permitted to grow moustaches. Shorn and shaven they had to be, but since at the last minute the snlf could not find a barber they could trust, the commandos had to cut each other’s hair as best they could. A resolute female comrade quickly snipped off Dora María’s beautiful fighting locks, so that the black beret would disguise the fact that she was a woman.

At 11.50 a.m., late as usual, the Chamber of Deputies opened session in the Blue Room. There are only two parties represented: Somoza’s official Liberal Party and the Conservatives, who play the game of the loyal opposition. Through the great glass doors of the main entrance, one can see the Liberal and Conservative benches on the right and left respectively. Behind the benches of either party is a gallery for party supporters and the press box. The Conservative supporters’ gallery has been closed for a long time, while that of the Liberals is open and always filled with paid followers. That Tuesday it was fuller than usual, and there were some twenty journalists in the press box. Almost all the Deputies were present, and two of them were worth their weight in gold to the snlf: Luis Pallaís Debayle, a first cousin of Anastasio Somoza, and José Somoza Abrego, the son of General José Somoza, the dictator’s half-brother.