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
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,
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
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
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.