TBT - (1979) "The Trouble With Sandinistas"

After my last TBT post I have been encouraged to write another story involving my old friend JR, the accused 'parrot smuggler'. So here is one more JR story.

In 1978 I was able to pass myself off as an expert in seafood exports and landed a consulting job on Corn Island - in the Caribbean just off the coast of Nicaragua. There was two lobster export companies there - one owned by the country's dictator, Somoza, and the other by Jorge Morgan. I was a guest of Jorge for less then a week when all hell broke loose in the country.

A small group of Sandinista rebels had taken over the national congress and held the members hostage - which led to a general insurrection throughout the country. Nicaragua was thrown into chaos and everything came to a halt - including flights to Corn Island from the capital - Managua. But I was able to catch a flight out to the coastal city of Puerto Cabezas on an old DC-3, where there was a big airstrip built in the '60s by the CIA for the invasion of Cuba. Of course the CIA had also been instrumental in keeping the Somozas in power, like all the other Banana Republic dictators since the 19th century.

In Puerto Cabezas I was able to get a ride on an old Bluebird school bus to the end of the Mosquito Coast road near the Honduran border - and then spent a couple days trekking through the jungle to Puerto Limpira were I could catch a flight to La Ceiba, Honduras. There was another consulting job waiting for me in Mexico - Nicaragua was in the rearview mirror. But the Mexican job turned into a fiasco too so I took a bus from Brownsville, Texas, to Miami to start working for Pet Farm, the biggest exotic animal importer in the States. They wanted me to return to Central America and help get exports of reptiles and parrots going to their Miami facilities.

I put a 550cc Honda motorcycle in a big crate and flew into San Pedro Sula - the industrial center in the North of Honduras. After clearing the airport terminal I walked to the customs shed, unpacked the motorcycle, and rode off to town. The guys at customs knew me from my export operation before - so even though this was a first (flying in with a motorcycle in the cargo hold), they were not surprised by my actions. Back in Honduras It did not take long to set up Charlie Waits to ship reptiles to Miami, and JR met with me down there to set up the parrot operation (it was legit). After a couple months everything was working smoothly and I returned to Miami intent to get into something with a better future.

That is when I started working with the importation of ornamental plant cuttings. Unfortunately JR's Honduran operation came to a halt soon after I left from down there when the Honduran government quit issuing permits for parrot exports. But - JR was able to get export documents for parrots out of Nicaragua - and so in the middle of their civil war with the Sandinistas he moved his operation over to Managua. Just before the fall of the Somoza government to the rebels in 1979 JR found himself stuck with $70,000 worth of parrots in Managua and no way to get them out of the country. The rebels controlled half of the international airport - there was no international carriers coming or going, but Somoza was still shipping out beef to Ronald McDonald! The dictator Somoza was going to keep making money right to the end.

JR managed to drive over to Honduras and catch a flight to Miami with a desperate plan to get the birds. He came to see me and said he wanted to know if I would back him on his plan - since I have had military experience. Loyalty can make you do stupid things. I said if I could possibly help - count me in. So the plan was to board a charter flight in Miami and land at the end of the international airport in Managua that was still controlled by the Nicaraguan National Guard. It would be a quick rolling pick up of the boxes of parrots because rebel snipers were everywhere. He was bringing a Cuban Bay of Pigs veteran to cover one side of the plane on the airstrip and my job was to cover the other side - with an Uzi. I told him that weapon is only good for close work - but he said: "Just keep spraying down any area that is firing on us". I had a hard time going to sleep that night - but I was not going to break my promise, even if the plan seemed dicey. In those days I was still up to taking gambles that had a 50/50 chance of success!

The day after I agreed to go with him, JR phoned to tell me the whole thing was called off - they got the birds on the last DC-4 cargo flight out of Managua before the city and airport fell to the Sandinistas. JR's parrot business partner in Managua was able to bribe the customs broker handling the Somoza shipments to leave a couple pallets of beef behind in the warehouse and put the crates of parrots on the flight to Miami.

If this was a test of loyalty and character - I did good.

If this had been a test of good judgement - not so good, but hey, I'm still here!