Nica News
February 1999

The Assault on Coyotepe
U.S. Marines Trounce Rebellious Liberals

 by: Pat Werner

On a leisurely drive to Masaya from  Managua, looming up on the left of the highway
is the old mountaintop  fortress, Coyotepe. Many tales have been told about it, usually
bloodcurdling stories of torture during the rule of Somoza or the Sandinistas, depending
on one's political bent. What is almost never  heard about is something that really
 happened on this hill. One of Nicaragua's national heroes, Benjamín Zeledón, is associated
with this place. It is an interesting story with a variety of versions.

One battle was fought there in October 1912. Lasting perhaps one hour, maybe less, it
established Zeledón as a national hero and martyr, kept President Adolfo Díaz in power
until the 1916 elections, and began the tradition of direct, American involvement in
Nicaragua's internal politics.

1909 was a turbulent year in Nicaragua. The regime of José Santos Zelaya, subject to
many Conservative uprisings and a poisonous relationship with the Catholic Church,
finally tottered and fell when a Conservative "revolution" headed by Juan J. Estrada in
Bluefields finally appeared to have the military power to defeat Zelaya. Two
mercenaries from the United States contracted by Conservatives to sabotage ships in
the harbor had been caught by the authorities and summarily executed. U.S. Marines
were sent to the rescue and landed in Bluefields to insure that the revolution would not
fizzle out.

 Zelaya reportedly consulted with his friend to the north, Dictator Porfirio Díaz of
 Mexico, who advised him to get on a boat and leave. With the end of the Zelaya
 regime, a period of instability took hold in Nicaragua that was supposed to end with the
 naming of mining accountant Adolfo Díaz as president. A member of a shaky
 Conservative coalition that was supported by only a small minority of Nicaraguans, Díaz
 did not lead many except his immediate followers and members of his household.

 Soon he had a rebellion on his hands when two generals -one Conservative, General
 Mena, and one Liberal, General Benjamín Zeledón- joined forces at Masaya, formed a
 rival government, and threatened to march on Managua. Díaz hit the panic button and
 asked for the Marines to land and save his regime. Mena's forces had commandeered
 U.S.-owned river steamers and the railroad for strategic reasons, and so the U.S.
 obliged and sent 3,000 Marines to protect "American lives and property." They
 marched on Masaya and Granada.

 General Mena finally capitulated and agreed to keep his garrison in its barracks in
 Granada, but Zeledón still had to be disarmed. In 1910, at the age of 31, Zeledón had
 been Minister of War in the cabinet of Zelaya's presidential appointee José Madriz,
 earning that post for his fame as a hero in the victorious war with Honduras and El
 Salvador in 1907. Zeledón -born in San Rafael del Norte, Jinotega- was strongly
 opposed to the U.S. intervention and was prepared to die in order to defend his country
 from what he called "foreign despotism."

 By 1912 he was the last leading Liberal still in the field who actively desired the
 immediate toppling of the Díaz government, which he regarded as a puppet of the
 Americans. Zeledón's hostility toward the Díaz regime, and subsequently toward the
 U.S. Marines, brought on the confrontation at Coyotepe in October 1912.

 Storm the heights

 Located on the end of the Masaya Lagoon are two large hills, one called Coyotepe and
 the other called La Barranca. Before the Marines showed up, Liberal forces fortified
 both hills. Coyotepe was the more strategic of the two as the main railroad leading from
 Granada to Managua passes directly under its heights; a few small pieces of artillery on
 Coyotepe can effectively disrupt traffic since it also overlooks the main road between
 Masaya and Granada. It was obvious that the Marines would have to take the hill in
 order to control access to Granada and defeat the rebel coalition of Zeledón and Mena.

 Telegrams were exchanged between the U.S. forces and Zeledón: the Marines asked
 him to leave Coyotepe: he politely refused and told them they would have to fight him.
 Before dawn on October 4, 1912, Company "C" of the First Battalion, First Provisional
 Regiment, U.S. Marines, Nicaraguan Expedition, under the command of Colonel
 Joseph H. Pendleton, assembled at the foot of Coyotepe Hill and made ready their

 At first light they started up the hill. They shot their way to the top, and took control of
 Coyotepe Hill. Zeledón's forces had retreated off the hill as the Marines approached the
 summit. Irregulars from Conservative forces began combing the area for Zeledón and
 his men. The next morning near Diriomo, Zeledón ran into a Conservative force and
 shot it out with them.

 He was struck in the spine by a bullet. He was taken by mule or by wagon, according
 to different versions, to Catarina. The wound had been fatal and he was dead on arrival.
 Another version has Zeledón being captured in Catarina and taken to Masaya where he
 was executed on orders from the Marines. The corpse was then paraded through the
 streets. A young Augusto César Sandino may have witnessed this procession, or
 perhaps his burial in the cemetery at Catarina. Zeledón lay there, unremarked upon, until
 Sandinista Comandante Tomás Borge dedicated a large monument in the form of a
 Winchester rifle to him in 1980.


Regarding the assault, the only accurate account of the battle and the condition of
 the hill at the time of the battle is found in an address that Colonel Pendleton gave in
 1913 at the dedication of a plaque to honor the dead who took part in that battle. That
 plaque is mounted on a wall in the Marine barracks in Boston, where the great
 majority of the men who took part in the assault had come from. Pendleton finally
 told what happened on the hill outside of Masaya.

 Commanded in the field by Captain Fortson, Company "C" had made it part way up the
 hill before they were detected by a sentry stationed on the summit of Coyotepe, who
 started waving a sword.

 The strategy of the Marines was to have one group of soldiers pin down the defenders
 with accurate rifle fire as the others climbed the hill. This worked until the Marines
 reached an open space right under the summit. A machine gun had been placed to
 cover it, and it was also blocked with barbed wire.

 As soon as the Marines made it there, three were shot dead and several others were
 wounded seriously. A fourth Marine named Durham continued forward and was shot
 down, but not before he had managed to cut the barbed wire. The Marines then took
 the summit. The assault on Coyotepe was over. American losses were four killed and
 several wounded; Nicaraguan losses unknown.

 It is also clear from Pendleton's description that the summit of Coyotepe was lined with
 trenches and that there were no buildings there at that time. This lays waste to versions
 that have the fortress being built late last century.

 Judging from the architecture, it appears that the fortress was built between the two
 world wars. Though it surely does command the Masaya Highway and old railway line
 to Granada, it could easily be destroyed by one 500-pound bomb.

 In the mid-1960s, the Somoza family had turned the old fortress over to the Boy
 Scouts, who used it for their annual jamboree. Somoza's National Guard apparently
 used it briefly during the insurrection against him in 1979 to shell the Masaya. The
 dungeons below were reportedly used to isolate political prisoners then, and again
 during the 1980s when the Sandinistas were in power. However, the tales of brutal
 torture of prisoners during either regime are undocumented, though they lend an aura of
 intrigue while one walks around inside. In the early years of the Sandinista revolution,
 the authorities turned Coyotepe over for use by the Association of Sandinista Children,
 a Nicaraguan version of the Pioneers in Cuba.

 By 1988, it was completely abandoned, adorned with spray-painted graffiti, including
 some elaborately drawn pornographic sketches. It has been returned once again to the
 Boy Scouts, probably its most effective use. Meanwhile, you can visit the installation
 and let your imagination run rampant as you walk the underground corridors past the
 cells in this 20th century dungeon.