Slain American’s legacy shines on in Nicaragua

Ben Linder, an engineer from Oregon, was the only U.S. citizen killed by the contras—25 years ago last week. First in a two-part series on Ben Linder’s legacy.

JINOTEGA—At the end of a steep switchback footpath that twists through the darkened jungle covering the mountains of San José de Bocay, Tim Takaro, a Canadian doctor and former internationalist who worked in Jinotega’s warzone health clinic in the 1980s, sits quietly on a rock overlooking the waterfall where his friend, Ben Linder, was killed by contras 25 years ago.

The last time Dr. Takaro saw his friend was when he received his body at the Matagalpa hospital on April 28, 1987—about eight hours after Linder was ambushed. The contra strike force had come down the river and attacked from the high ground above the waterfall, where the U.S. engineer was taking measurements to build a small hydroelectric dam. Linder, who was carrying an AK-47 assault rifle and was accompanied by half a dozen Sandinista militia members, was injured from a grenade hurled from above. Moments later, he was shot in the temple at point-blank range after the surviving Sandinista militia members fled the scene. Two other Sandinista patrolmen— Sergio Hernández and Pablo Rosales—were also killed in the attack.

“I was thinking back to all the things that we used to do, all the dreams that all of us had—dreams that some of us got to live and some of us didn’t,” Takaro said of his introspective moment on the rock overlooking the waterfall. “That’s what I was doing up there—just remembering.”

Takaro, who now works as an associate dean at Simon Fraser University in Canada, was one of 27 people who last week commemorated the 25th anniversary of Linder’s death by trekking up to the northern mountain communities of El Cua and San José de Bocay to visit the area where the 27-year-old Oregon native paid the ultimate price for his efforts to bring electricity and drinking water in the 1980s. In addition to building small hydroelectric projects for the Nicaraguan Energy Institute (INE), Linder also entertained Nicaraguan children by dressing as a clown and getting kids to follow him on his unicycle to the health clinic to get their vaccines.

Clowning Around: Ben Linder would dress as a clown and ride a unicycle in his free time. This mural is painted on the hydroelectric pump house in San Jose de Bocay (photo/ Tim Rogers).

A quarter of a century later, Linder’s legacy continues to shine brightly in the rural mountain communities were former enemy combatants now coexist and benefit equally from the electricity and potable water projects started by the U.S. internationalist. Both El Cua and San José de Bocay—two communities separated by 60 kilometers of yawning mountain divides near the Honduran border—continue to honor Linder’s memory and treat his loss as their own.

“He was our leader,” says Carlos, a 12-year old school boy in San José de Bocay, who was born more than a decade after Linder’s death, yet knows the North American’s story as it gets passed down through the generations.

The gifts of laughter and light

Linder is remembered fondly for his clownish antics and revered for his selfless dedication to the poor of Nicaragua. The cyber café and youth baseball league in San José de Bocay are named after Linder, and every time someone flips on a power switch in El Cua, it’s a 60-watt tribute to the North American idealist who first brought electricity to their community.

 “His art, the gift that the Holy Spirit gave him, was to bring happiness to a land of chaos, to a place of war,” said Father José Ramon López, the Roman Catholic priest in San José de Bocay. “Even in war and danger, there is always hope. And Benjamin and those who died with him were symbols of a hope that will never extinguish in our hearts.”

More concretely, Linder’s electrification projects—in a country where 50% of the countryside is still without power in 2012—helped bring the seeds of economic progress and basic advances in health to what was once a dirt-road outpost in the mountains.

“The potable water project in San José de Bocay has, by my estimate, saved several thousands of lives,” says Dr. Takaro. In the 1980s, he says, 20% of children born in Bocay would die from diarrhea before the age of five. Now, the town’s hydroelectric plant helps pump water to a treatment plant where it’s chlorinated for consumption, preventing parasites and other intestinal ailments that can be life-threatening conditions in rural areas.

Other “benefits” of rural electrification probably weren’t envisioned by Linder, such as the half-dozen slot machine casinos that have popped up in El Cua in response to the town’s excessive spare-coin problem.

“I really would like to know what Ben would think about the way that development has happened,” Takaro says. “I think he would be fine with it; he was very much live and let live.”

Controversy surrounding Linder’s death

Twenty-five years after the fatal ambush that sent shockwaves through Nicaragua and the United States, there is still controversy surrounding the death of Ben Linder. Even members in the group of former friends and peace activists who went to visit his grave in Matagalpa and the spot where he was killed in Jinotega disagree—in quieter moments—over whether Linder went too far by toting an AK-47 into the angry hills.

Gutted: Joan Kruckewitt, Linder’s biographer, stands in front of the original hydroelectric plant that Linder built in El Cua. The pump house is now out of use and has been looted and stripped by the local community (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Even though he was dressed as a civilian among militiamen, some think Linder was “pushing the envelope” by packing heat. Others, however, say he would have been foolish to go into the mountains unarmed, given the threat of contra ambush.

There is also controversy over whether Linder was specifically targeted for who he was, or whether his death was a case of mistaken identity. Immediately after he was killed, rumors started that the contra had mistaken Linder—a scraggly-looking chele—for a Cuban, who apparently were considered fair game at the time. Others think that story is a cover.

True or not, it’s the story that many are sticking to, even decades later. In 1996, Joan Kruckewitt, author of “The Death of Ben Linder,” and journalist Paul Berman, of the New Yorker, hiked up into the mountains of San José de Bocay carrying a collection of freshly released CIA documents identifying the contras responsible for Linder’s assassin. They eventually found the former gunman—now an Evangelical preacher—living in a remote mountain community four hours outside of Bocay, near the edge of the map.

 

Scene of the Crime: A kid from Bocay looks at the waterfall where Linder was ambushed 25 years ago (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“He told us about the ambush; he said he heard there was a Cuban in the area but found out later that [Linder] was a North American. And the contras were scared because they thought they had fucked up, and they were afraid to go back to their camp in Honduras after that,” said Kruckewitt, who was on last week’s trip to Jinotega.

Kruckewitt says she also thinks the excuse about Linder being mistaken for a Cuban might be “a cover that became fact over time.”

However, if the contra really targeted Linder to send a warning message to other North American internationalists working in solidarity with the Sandinista revolution, they certainly didn’t seem to send their best men to get the job done.

Kruckewitt says the contra-turned-evangelist was “probably no more than 16 years old at the time of the ambush,” and was part of a unit of “low-level contras wandering around the mountains shooting up things.”

Rationale and revisionism aside, Linder’s death is still a source of outrage and profound sadness for many.

“His only crime was to try to bring electricity to San Jose de Bocay and to help health authorities with vaccination campaigns,” says Matagalpa resident Aleyda Morales, of the “Benjamín Linder” Association of Rural Development Workers, an NGO that installs electricity and potable water projects in Jinotega. “Benjamin is present with us; his ideals, dreams are alive with us.”

 

 

*A version of this article was published in the Miami Herald

Next: How Linder’s death helped energize a solidarity movement that continues today.

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  • de Las Sombras

    In no way condoning the death of Linder nor the actions/reactions by both sides during the violent, troubled times of the 80’s…

    A ‘non-combatant’ carrying a weapon, especially a military assault rifle such as the iconic AK, in a known combat zone during one of the largest military counter-offensives during the war, while in the company of armed camouflaged personnel was probably NOT the most intelligent thing to do.

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  • Don Macleay

    There is a lot wrong with this article and some of the comments. We were not packing heat, we were trying to survive a situatuation where all civilians doing civil work were targets. Road workers, vaccination volunteers, teachers and many more were killed just because the Contras targeted all progress informed by a CIA Manuel of sabotage and assasination. Thousands of unarmed government workers were killed.