Author: Simon Stander
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 03/18/2004
Category: Book Review
Claribel Alegria and Darwin Flakol, The Death of Somoza, Curbstone Press, Connecticut, USA, pp 160, paperback. ISBN 1-880684-26-8
An elderly, irascible old lady of my acquaintance once said scornfully in relation to the crime on the streets of London: “I prefer organized crime to disorganized crime.” The same might be said in relation to international terrorism: the variety of terrorist organizations has made security provision as uncertain as the terrorist outbreaks themselves.
In this respect, a short book The Death of Somoza by Claribel Alegria and Darwin Flakol comes to mind. Though published some time ago, 1996, it is clearly and vividly written and bears reading not only because of its intrinsic interest, but also because of the lessons that can be taken from it in understanding the nature of international terror, and particularly interesting as providing an insight into what happens when freebooters find scope for bloody initiatives. As the title suggests, the book recounts a special Latin-American experience, but it is possible to make from it a list that indicates that once a terrorist movement splinters it becomes not only almost impossible to snuff out its every part, but that that almost the only answer lies in containment until the conditions that created the international spurt of terrorism change sufficiently for the terrorist movements, the accumulated experience and material, and individuals to pass into history: this may take at least one generation, maybe two.
The plot to assassinate the former President of Nicaragua, a corrupt and cruel ruler of Nicaragua in 1979-80, was conceived and masterminded in a bar in Managua and finally executed by an Argentinian of Basque descent, Enrique Haroldo Gorriaran Merlo.
The story, recounted by the participants in the assassination including Merlo, underscores a number of important features of international terrorism.
- Killings, bombings or other acts of violence do not normally take place on carefully arranged fixed dates such as anniversaries of previous events, religious holidays or elections because too many things go wrong in the planning. In this case one person suffered a broken ankle, another got pregnant and locating Somoza’s exact whereabouts took months longer than expected.
- Terrorists need international financing and safe places to keep funds. In this case the group had a Swiss Bank account with ample funds in it accumulated as a result of past exploits.
- Weapons stashed from previous actions are important as are sources of new weapons that can be readily purchased. In this case weapons were stashed across the Argentinian border from Paraguay where Somoza was lodged and subsequently killed. In addition the group bought weapons for their training exercise from another sympathetic revolutionary group in Colombia.
- The ability to exchange linguistic, ethnic or cultural identities is important: in this case Argentinians and Uruguayans were able to lead a group, which, if led by Central Americans, would have caused suspicion. It has been known that the IRA and ETA discussed “swapping” tasks.
- The group needs to be for something worth dying for: in this case freeing the poor and the oppressed. They, therefore, can act anywhere in the world where this belief is relevant. Their original national focus becomes generalized. The more generalized the belief, the better for the terrorist group.
- The group needs to be against something worth dying for: in this case they are against the tyranny of the rich. Similarly, therefore, they can act wherever this belief is relevant. Again the original national focus becomes generalized.
- Most field terrorists are relatively young. In this case they were all in their twenties or thirties, Merlo being about 37 at the time of the action. Merlo, however, has continued his violent activities into his sixties. There are exceptions!
- The group needs to have some experience or be prepared to be trained by those who do have experience. They also need not only to master the uses of the means of violence but also to be specialists in a relevant “trade”: of forgery, mechanics, driving, communications clandestine methods, disguises and so on.
- Psychologically they must be able to suppress their personalities, likes and dislikes for the cause. One might suppose they need to be of psychopathic tendencies, but the evidence of their personalities does not reinforce this. Indeed, it would be a mistake to suppose that they are mad, uncontrolled or insane in any way.
- They need to be able to link with criminal mafia: in this case while training in Bogota, Colombia they used criminal contacts as they did with smugglers in moving previously stashed arms across from Argentina to Paraguay.
- Cross border escape routes are important. There were many examples but an important one was most could travel to Spain undetected and assemble there. The same is obviously true of the current wave of Islamists who may meet in British, German or French cities where they have legitimate raison d’etre.
- Safe houses are crucial for both before and after action. Here some sort of international ideology binding groups and individual sympathizers is helpful In this case there were many socialist sympathizers ready to take risk on behalf of the oppressed. Islam and anti-US or anti-Globalization sentiments provides a similar set of underlying beliefs.
- Interestingly, they were more prepared to merge gender roles than is normal among, say, criminal groups. Women did not always perform the subordinate roles expected of them as among more common criminals. The forgery specialist was a woman and the women were all expected to undergo arms training and they were all prepared to use them in action, even the one who became pregnant during the operation. Merlo was even prepared to allow the pregnant member to continue even though she was more likely to be a security risk if she were captured because she was more likely to break under torture. Some of the men recognized the authority of women where their specialist role dictated. However, none of the women were assigned to do the actual killing in this case, though all were prepared to do so.
- Most were well educated or at least had a skilled trade. They were in no way lumpen of any kind.
- While international, they did benefit from a national base: in this case it was the Argentine. This is rather similar to the Saudi base of the 9/11 hi-jackers.
In applying these observations to the current main thrust of international terrorism, led by Islamists and their sympathizers, one is tempted to predict that it will be a long time before terrorist acts, such as took place recently in Spain, will subside. Iraq and Palestine now provides the training grounds for new generations of terrorists as did the Latin-American countries in the 60s, 70s and 80s. While some of the individuals remain, whole generation of terrorists have sunk into history despite the continuation of such unrepentant individuals as Merlo. He was imprisoned eventually but escaped, was picked up again in Mexico and sentenced again in Buenos Aires. He was released from prison with a pardon from outgoing President Duhalde only recently. We may yet hear from him again, but whether we do or not we will go on hearing from the many freebooting and splinter terrorist movements claiming to be for Islam and against US led Globalization. Only history will change this: in the meantime let’s hope we do not lose too many lives or liberties in the international containment of violent splinters.
De los Setenta a La Tablada. Memorias de Enrique Gorriarán Merlo
E. Gorriarán y D. Díaz. Planeta, Buenos Aires, 2003. 616 pp. 29.50 €
Enrique Haroldo Gorriarán fue condenado a reclusión perpetua, ingresó en la cárcel de Devoto, y puesto en libertad tras recibir el indulto. Este libro es el resultado del repaso con amigos y colaboradores a la memoria imprescindible para reconstruir su historia, la del accionar político de uno de los más importantes líderes guerrilleros del continente.