When the AK-47s Fall Silent: Revolutionaries, Guerillas and the Dangers of Peace

When the AK-47s Fall Silent: Revolutionaries, Guerillas and the Dangers of Peace

by Timothy C. Brown

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The majority of Latin American revolutionaries and guerrillas have now laid down their weapons and opted to participate in that region's democratic processes. What brought about this transformation? When the AK-47s Fall Silent brings together for the first time many of these former Latin revolutionaries from both sides of the conflicts—who tell their

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The majority of Latin American revolutionaries and guerrillas have now laid down their weapons and opted to participate in that region's democratic processes. What brought about this transformation? When the AK-47s Fall Silent brings together for the first time many of these former Latin revolutionaries from both sides of the conflicts—who tell their own stories, in their own words.

  • Foreword by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, former mayor of Mexico City and presidential candidate in the Mexican elections of 2000
  • Section 1, "Revolutionaries," presents five essays or autobiographical commentaries by former revolutionaries whose personal experiences span Central America's twentieth=century conflictst—from the rebellion of Augusto César Sandino in the 1920s to the mid-1990s resolution of the war in El Salvador
  • Section 2, "Guerrillas," includes commentaries by guerrillas of the Nicaraguan Contra resistance
  • Section 3, "The Dangers of Peace," features three international public servants who have dedicated their lives to trying to resolve conflicts

Some of the contributors include

  • José Obidio "Pepe" Puente: from a family of revolutionaries, he is the "living link" between the original Mexican revolution and half a dozen later revolutionary movements
  • Don Alejandro Pérez Bustamante: personal bodyguard to legendary Nicaraguan general Augusto César Sandino and the person to whom the namesake of Nicaragua's revolution entrusted his very life
  • Plutarco Hernández: for more than a decade a national director of the Sandinista Front against Somoza
  • Encarnación Baldivia: a legendary peasant guerrilla leader and a founding leader of the MILPAS guerrilla movement that was the precursor to the Contras
  • Oscar Sobalvarro: the last chief of staff of the main Contra army, the FDN
  • Saris Pérez: one of the best-known Contra women warriors

In addition, the book includes contributions from those who tried to resolve these conflicts and the underlying social conditions beneath them, including

  • Myles Robert René Frechette: former United States ambassador to Colombia
  • Major General Ian Douglas: original commander of the UN's International Observer Force in Central America
  • Sergio Caramanga: representative of the secretary general of the Organization of American States office in Nicaragua

The former revolutionaries and guerrillas whose thoughts are collected here have almost 250 combined years' experience at revolution and guerrilla warfare. When the AK-47s Fall Silent is their story.

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Editorial Reviews

Thirteen former revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and public servants consider the 20th century history of Latin American conflicts, their resolutions, and their hopes for peace and democracy. Contributors include Sandinistas, Contras, American diplomats, and United Nations military commanders. They tell their own stories, and reflect on the societal causes of such conflict. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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When the AK-47s Fall Silent

Revolutionaries, Guerrillas, and the Dangers of Peace

By Timothy C. Brown

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2000 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-9842-4


"¡Hijo De Puta! Why Did We Ever Fight?"

It was not your typical academic panel. True, the setting was delightful, the warmly decorated main auditorium of Mexico's most elite private university. But the host, the Universidad de Las Américas (UDLA) in Puebla, Mexico, had felt called on quietly to beef up security, so there were additional police waiting in the wings, just in case. Many in the audience were visibly nervous, asking one another if it was safe to be there. Even the panelists I had brought together were worried lest violence break out, and several asked me as organizer and moderator, only half jokingly, if I was sure their fellow panelists had left their AK-47s at home. The event was the first ever face-to-face encounter between former radical revolutionaries and Nicaraguan Contra guerrillas, between leaders of Nicaragua's original Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), El Salvador's Faribundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Mexican revolutionaries who had supported them, and equally prominent though less well-known commanders of two of Nicaragua's democratic Resistance Contra armies, the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense (FDN) and the Miskito Indian Yapti Tasba Masraka Nana Asia Takanka (YATAMA).

The fears were understandable because all the panelists were veterans of very violent conflicts and, until just recently, had been mortal enemies fighting on opposite sides of exceedingly bloody wars. But they need not have worried. Immediately after the first two sessions, three former top Contras, Comandantes Rubén (after Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario) and Tigrillo (Wildcat) of the FDN and Blass (after an historic Miskito Indian hero) of the Miskito Indian Resistance, rushed up to me to say: "¡Hijo de puta! Son of a b — — —! We were really worried when you invited us because we thought you were dropping us into a nest of Sandinistas. But they're more Contras than we are!"

They wanted to talk longer, but the international and Mexican press were swarming around us, and all three were quickly drawn away for interviews. As soon as they went off to talk with journalists, the other three panelists and a Mexican revolutionary who was with them surrounded me: Fermán Cienfuegos of El Salvador's FMLN, Comandantes Marcial and Martínez of the FSLN, and "Pepe" Puente, a second-generation Mexican Marxist revolutionary. Fermán Cienfuegos summed up their reaction: "¡Hijo de puta! Son of a b — — —! Why did we ever fight one another? They think just like we do. If we had known who they really were, there never would have been any wars!"

Both reactions were perhaps a bit tinted by the emotions of the moment, but they were essentially accurate. Whether revolutionary or guerrilla, all the panelists had in common deep commitments to the well-being of their countrymen, an earlier willingness to put their lives on the line in support of their convictions, and hard-earned new convictions that Central America's wars were both unnecessary and unnecessarily bloody. All still remain committed to the struggle to resolve their region's myriad problems, but they are now dedicated to doing to do so via the ballot box, not out of the barrels of their AK-47s.

This book is divided into three parts. Each of the twelve participants speaks for himself or herself only. Part I, "Revolutionaries," and part II, "Guerrillas," are more descriptive than prescriptive. Part III, "The Dangers of Peace," is more prescriptive and is especially valuable in that it suggests field-tested models for peacemakers to follow.

Part I contains five essays or autobiographical commentaries by former revolutionaries whose personal experiences span Central America's twentieth-century conflicts, from the rebellion of Sandino in the 1920s to the resolution of the war in El Salvador in the mid-1990s. Part II presents commentaries by four guerrillas of the Nicaraguan Resistance, including one who is a bridge between the Sandinistas and the Contras; a female comando (as Contra combatants called themselves); an indigenous force commander; and the last chief of staff of the Contras. Part III features three international public servants who have dedicated their lives to trying to resolve conflicts: an American ambassador, a Canadian general with the United Nations (U.N.), and a peacemaker from the Organization of American States (OAS).

Three of those whose views are presented in this book were not actually panelists at Puebla: one because he was over ninety years old and frail, one because the U.S. Immigration Service refused to issue her a timely travel document, and one because he was not yet ready to go public. But their comments are at least as valuable as those by panelists who did appear. Chapter 2 is the remarkable story of a radical Mexican revolutionary, José Obidio "Pepe" Puente León, and is told here in detail for the first time. He and his family have for generations played key, if almost entirely unknown, roles in half a dozen revolutionary movements, from Nicaragua's original Sandino uprising to Fidel Castro's march to the Sierra Maestra of Cuba to more recent armed conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Puente's essay begins the book because he is a living organic link between the Mexican Revolution, the original Sandino's resistance to the American Marines, Castro's Cuban Revolution, Cuban and Soviet involvement in Latin America's revolutions during the cold war, both the 1963–1979 anti-Somoza Sandinista uprising and the 1979–1990 Sandinista socialist revolution, and unsuccessful radical attempts at revolutions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Don Alejandro Pérez Bustamante, whose story is told in chapter 3, was the personal bodyguard to legendary Nicaraguan general Augústo César Sandino; it was to him that the namesake of Nicaragua's revolutionary movement entrusted his very life. Decades later, he was a Resistance (Contra) correo, or clandestine network chief, to whom hundreds of Nicaraguan Contra comandos entrusted their own lives.

Chapters 4 through 6 are by top radical guerrilla leaders. Alejandro Martínez was a conservative anti-Somoza combatant in the 1940s, fought in numerous guerrilla campaigns, became a senior field commander for the Sandinistas, was pushed aside when he objected to the post-Somoza socialist revolution, and then became an anti-Sandinista commander and the first choice of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1980 to head up the Contra movement. Plutarco Hernández was a lifelong revolutionary and a national director of the Sandinista Front for more than a decade; he was a principal architect of that Front's clandestine training, recruitment, and communications systems inside Nicaragua during the war against Somoza. But he too turned against the Sandinista Revolution after 1979. In 1998 he was Costa Rica's ambassador to Russia. Fermán Cienfuegos, the author of chapter 6, was the military commander of El Salvador's radical FMLN movement for two decades. Cienfuegos is Hernández's first cousin.

Part II begins with a legendary peasant guerrilla leader, Encarnacíon Baldivia, Tigrillo, who was first an anti-Somoza combat leader, then a founding leader of the peasant-generated Milicias Populares Anti-Sandinistas (MILPAS) guerrilla movement that was the precursor to the Contras. In 1998 he was a Liberal Party peasant leader. He is followed by a second founding leader of the MILPAS, Oscar Sobalvarro Garcia, Rubén, who went on to become the last chief of staff of the main Contra army, the FDN, and president of their postwar veterans' organization, the Asociación Cívica Resistencia Nicaragüense (ACRN). The final two guerrillas are Saris Pérez, Angélica María, a woman comando and ranger, and Salomón Osorno Coleman, Comandante Blass, the chief of staff of the Miskito Indian Resistance's YATAMA army. When added together, the nine former revolutionaries and guerrillas whose thoughts are collected here have almost 250 years' experience at revolution and guerrilla warfare.

Part III changes the focus from one of insider descriptions and commentaries by armed participants in Latin America's recent wars to one centered on efforts to help resolve both these conflicts and their underlying social conditions. The last three essayists draw lessons from the wars that the first nine fought. The former United States ambassador to Colombia, Myles Robert René Frechette, describes the ongoing and exceedingly bloody revolutionary conflicts in that country. At first blush his contribution may seem out of place. But readers are asked to keep it clearly in mind when reading the next two because the purpose here is not merely to describe what happened in the past but to suggest how we can do better in the future.

Ambassador Frechette's essay is followed by the contribution of Canadian major general Ian Douglas, the original commander of the U.N. International (military) Observer Force in Central America (ONUCA), who discusses the process of disarming a guerrilla force, lessons learned by the U.N. in Central America, and why he believes ONUCA failed in its larger mission. Although disarmament was technically successful, Douglas has since become convinced that it is only the first step in a much more complex process and that in the larger sense his mission failed because the U.N., which depended on public discourse rather than dispassionate analysis for its information, was badly misled as to the real identity of those with whom it dealt and the roots of the conflict they were supposed to help end.

In terms of broad implications, the final contribution, by Sergio Caramagna, the representative of the secretary general of the OAS in Nicaragua in 1997–1999, is of exceptional interest. It deals with the process of reinserting former guerrillas and their families back into civil society and is the product of nine years' hands-on experience trying to bring peace to Nicaragua's countryside well after the Contras laid down their AK-47s. As did General Douglas, Caramagna also found that his mission initially failed because its design was based on wartime propaganda images that did not reflect reality. But, unlike ONUCA, the OAS stayed long enough to correct its mistakes by learning who the people they were assigned to help really were and by successfully shifting its emphasis from treating them as maligned "objects" to dealing with them as human "subjects," which allowed it to abandon its original propaganda-based programs that failed in favor of reality-based efforts that worked. Drawing on these new and successful reality-based efforts, Caramagna provides an exceptional and probably unique first-draft manual for peacemakers based on the lessons learned from the experience.

In many ways this work has been a labor of love, since my own experience in Central America dates back to my youth many years ago. After five wars, ten years as a Marine, twenty-seven years in diplomatic service, and eight years in academia, I remain fascinated by the region. Even more, I consider all the panelists personal friends. I have known Comandante Marcial, former Sandinista national director Plutarco Hernández, for more than forty years, all the Contras and General Douglas and Sergio Caramagna for over a decade, and Ambassador Frechette since he was my boss in the 1970s. My friendships with Fermán Cienfuegos and "Pepe" Puente are more recent. But all twelve have helped me better understand what happened in Central America and, even more important, each has demonstrated commitment to ending revolutionary violence in Latin America by silencing the region's AK-47s and then continuing the struggle to right the region's historical wrongs, but via the ballot box, not out of the barrel of a gun.

Those well versed in the standard historical versions of the events discussed by these participants will quickly find that what they say happened often differs sharply from the conventional wisdom. For example, Pepe Puente says his father and PEMEX paid Fidel Castro's bills in Mexico; Alejandro Martínez says he saw missiles in Cuba after the Cuban missile crisis; Fermán Cienfuegos says the FMLN helped finance the Sandinista revolution; several say Carter not Reagan first offered the Contras covert paramilitary aid; and so forth. It should be kept in mind that while the bona fides of each participant were thoroughly confirmed, and I made considerable effort to document when possible their assertions, these are personal narratives not scholarly treatises. These then are their stories, which are well worth listening to.


José Obidio "Pepe" Puente León, the Living Link


José Obidio "Pepe" Puente León was born in Tamualipas, Mexico. At the tender age of twelve, Puente's father met and fell under the spell of Nicaraguan rebel General Augústo César Sandino, beginning a personal lifelong commitment to revolution and to creating an organic link between his family and Nicaragua. His father later became a lifelong senior official of Mexico's Sindicato de Trabajadores de Petróleo de la República Mexicana (STPRM). In 1954 "Pepe's" father introduced him to both the real leader of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolutionary movement, Noél Guerrero Santiago, and the founders of the Cuban Revolution. "Pepe" went on to become a key link between the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City and the Sandinista movement, but he was closest to the original Sandinista revolutionaries and took his distance from the better known Nine Comandantos who took control of the movement after July 1979 and then led Nicaragua's unsuccessful 1979–1990 socialist revolution. In 1998 he was an aide to Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, leader of Mexico's Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD) and son of former President Lázaro Cárdenas. Here for the first time Puente speaks publicly about his journey from radical revolutionary to participant in the democratic process.

* * *


José Obidio "Pepe" Puente León (as told to the editor)

Truth above all else. What I say here is both difficult and dangerous but is the truth as I know it based on my lifelong personal participation in revolutionary movements in the Americas, especially the two most important ones, those of Cuba and Nicaragua. For me, at the times of their inceptions, prosecutions, and triumphs, they were two of the world's most historically beautiful attempts at revolution and earned themselves the sympathies of peoples and governments throughout the world. Yet after their triumphs, both went sour.

All my revolutionary life I was a Marxist–Leninist and acted accordingly. But since ending my participation in violent revolutions, I have begun analyzing my experiences, especially my mistakes, and now realize that when I was younger I was too carried away by the currents of the historical moment. A convinced Marxist–Leninist never hesitates to act, either politically or by engaging in armed conflict if the conditions of the moment seem appropriate, and I was certainly a Marxist child of the moment. But many years have passed and I am no longer afraid to tell my story, nor do I fear the consequences.

The names of my children demonstrate how dedicated I was to world revolution, and even the house I live in has a profound revolutionary history because for many years it was the principal safe house in Mexico City of the Sandinista revolution. All six of my children are named after revolutionary heroes. The first, Eva Fidelia, after Fidel Castro, was born when I still admired him; my second, Lenin Obidio, after Lenin; my third, Illia, after Lenin's father; my fourth, Sandino Stalin; my fifth, Engels Marx; and my sixth, Stokely Mao, born during a period when I was flirting with Maoism and also a great admirer of the American Black Power movement and its leader, Stokely Carmichael. A full-wall mural in my living room depicts these and my other heroes. At the top center is a medallion of Marx and Engels. Below them, starting on the left to the right, are Lenin, then Stalin, followed by Mao Tse Tung, Sandino, Fidel Castro, and "Che" Guevara. Stokely Carmichael is in an Africa-shaped tree above Sandino. Nicaragua and Bolivia, which had active revolutionary movements when it was painted, are highlighted on a map insert, as is the United States, which is exploding.


Excerpted from When the AK-47s Fall Silent by Timothy C. Brown. Copyright © 2000 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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