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The Man Who Made The Yanquis Go Home
Starting with thirty “liberated” rifles, Augusto Sandino forced American troops out of Nicaragua in 1933
August/september 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
His words were brave, but the years of guerrilla warfare were beginning to take their toll on Sandino. In July 1929 he turned over command of his forces to a subordinate and traveled to Mexico. Despite his youth Sandino appeared, according to one reporter, “greatly enfeebled by ill health and the rigor of his campaign.” He planned to stay in Mexico for a brief time to recover his energy and, he hoped, to raise money in the name of Latin American brotherhood. In August, however, he wrote: “As we haven’t so far found even half a centavo divided in half, nor a pistol bullet for the cause of liberty in Nicaragua, I must wait a bit.” The Mexican. government was not entirely cordial to its guest and saw to it that Sandino stayed in the Yucatan instead of in Mexico City, where he might prove an embarrassment.
One group that responded to his fund-raising efforts was the local communist organization, but they stipulated that Sandino lend his name to their cause. Sandino balked; the communists got furious. They spread a rumor that Sandino had taken a fifty-thousand-dollar bribe to leave Nicaragua—which he hotly denied “with many picturesque Spanish adjectives,” a journalist reported —and that when Sandino returned home he would “sell out to the highest bidder.” Sandino came back to Nicaragua bearing only two submachine guns (declared for Honduran customs as “carpentry tools”), which represented all of the arsenal he was able to raise in Mexico. The subordinate he had left in command, Gen. Pedro Altamirano, had kept their enemy at bay in a year of skirmishes, but the character of warfare had changed. The Hoover administration had come to believe that all its Marine might could not defeat a popular guerrilla movement. The American troops had begun to be rotated home, and those remaining had been withdrawn to the larger towns because of the danger of ambush. Instead of ground troops, the Marines backed the national constabulary with an air force that had grown from thirty to seventy warplanes—a commitment unprecedented in the world at that time. Latin American journalists protested to Hoover in July that the planes were dropping “asphyxiating gases” on rural Nicaragua. The Navy did not rebut the charge.
The size of the Nicaraguan National Guard had risen to five thousand, swollen by a large officer corps, all of them graduates of a hastily established and expensive national military academy. The Guard existed independently of the national government; it had its own postal and telegraph systems and had absolutely no accountability to the government for expenditures. The Americans had created a new military caste.
In the mountains the National Guard, still led by Americans, had adopted guerrilla tactics. They employed espionage and they avoided towns and well-traveled routes. By the time Sandino resumed command, both sides had dispensed with the formalities of taking prisoners.
A Central American journalist who visited Sandino’s encampment gave this description of a rebel detachment coming back from a clash in the forest: “men of the most varied aspects, dried and hardened by weather and privations; some, the fewest, white-skinned and even blond; others with the light brown complexion of the local mestizo ; many Indians of the mountain region with their air of abstraction; and even a black man, corpulent and with tight curly hair. Many of them wore virtual rags, their bronze skin showing through their tattered shirts or pants. Their sombreros , some of felt and others of straw, all bore the classic red and black ribbon. Less than half of them had Springfield rifles of the sort taken from the North Americans; the rest had pistol and machete or just a machete. … Behind came the mounted men, comprising about a third of the whole, riding the small tough mules of the region and a few wretched horses past their time for the slaughterhouse. … The cavalrymen ranged from graying oldsters with bent backs to boys who were really infants, twelve- and fourteen-year-olds who followed the column like seasoned veterans.”
Sandino boasted that his army was “the most disciplined, devoted, and disinterested in the entire world because it is conscious of its lofty historical role.” Certainly it was hard to defeat. Although slightly wounded in June of 1930, Sandino led his irregulars in at least nineteen skirmishes during the closing months of that year.
By then the Americans had decided to get out of Nicaragua entirely before the 1932 election. As Americans continued to get killed, the Marines were told to stay out of the nation’s interior, and civilians were warned that they could be protected only in the coastal towns. The original justification for America’s role in the war—protecting American people and property in Nicaragua…was in effect rescinded, after four years of a conflict that had cost the lives of two hundred Marines and countless Nicaraguans.
In a Washington press conference in April 1931, Hoover’s anger at the situation he had inherited was evident. He called Sandino a “cold-blooded bandit outside the civilized pale.” There was no revolutionary movement in Nicaragua, Hoover asserted, merely “sporadic disorders fomented by a murderous band.” The President was confident that Sandino would be brought to justice.
But a series of mountain and jungle battles that wore on well into 1932 further consolidated the rebels’ positions. In April, after issuing a string of announcements of an impending attack upon Managua, Sandino mounted a “victory drive” against the southern cities. Not until the end of June did the Marineled National Guard repulse his army.