Roberto Martínez was born a revolutionary, but not a warrior. That part had to be learned.
The first time his guerrilla unit came under enemy fire on May 28, 1979, the skinny 18-year-old’s instinct was to run as fast as he could, despite lumbering under a clunky FAL assault rifle and a backpack that was nearly half his weight.
“I ran faster than (Olympic sprinter) Ben Johnson,” Martínez remembered.
Separated from his rebel unit in the hills outside of Rivas, Martínez huddled down between two rocks on a dark hillside to wait out the crossfire between the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the dreaded Nicaraguan National Guard.
“It was real – I was going to die,” Martínez remembered. “I starting thinking: I’m young; I haven’t even had a girlfriend or enjoyed life. The last thing I was was a warrior – I was just trying not to be a victim.”
Less than a year earlier, Martínez, a promising young student from Granada, had been studying for a law degree at the University of Central America (UCA) in Managua. But he was so offended by the Somoza regime’s repression of other students, he began to opt for street justice over the legal system.
In 1978, Martínez’s father, a jeweler in Granada, got involved in the Sandinista underground and his family home became a rebel cell and safe house to store guns and hold clandestine meetings.
“People kept coming to the house to give talks, even Sandinista Dora María Téllez (Commander 2) came once,” Martínez said.
In September 1978, Martínez participated in the indigenous insurrection of Monimbó, Masaya. But his rebel cell was inexperienced and unarmed. Martínez’s participation was mostly limited to running around in the streets looking for weapons on fallen combatants.
When his house was eventually discovered by the National Guard several months later, Martínez, his father and six brothers split up and left home, each to give themselves fully to the revolution that had already consumed their lives.
Martínez went to Costa Rica for basic guerrilla training at a secret Sandinista camp at the base of Orosi Volcano. Two months later, he was being sent into Nicaragua as part of the frontline of the Sandinistas’ Southern Front, led by historic guerrilla hero Edén “Comandante Cero” Pastora.
After surviving the brutal fighting in Ostional, in which hundreds of rebels were killed, Martínez went on to fight in the battalion that took the border towns of Peñas Blancas and Sapoa. His unit then spent several months of entrenched fighting inside Nicaragua against the elite battalion led by National Guard Major Pablo Salazar, better known as “Comandante Bravo.”
For two months, the National Guard held the line against the Sandinistas’ Southern Front at the famous battleground known as “Colina 50.” Thousands of Sandinista rebels were killed in what was some of the bloodiest fighting of the insurrection.
“Bravo was winning the battle because we were just kids without any military training – all we had was our bravery,” Martínez said.
On several occasions, Martínez barely survived attacks that killed the other men in his unit. During one attack, he took shrapnel in his back and leg.
On July 18, 1979, when it looked like victory was impossible, the unlikely happened: President Anastasio Somoza fled the country and the feared National Guard quickly disbanded and retreated.
The next day, Martínez and the rest of the Southern Front arrived in Managua to celebrate the revolution’s triumph. But even then, amid the ecstasy of victory, Martínez said he couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy about the future.
“As a young man it was all very confusing,” he said. “I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen next.”
What Came Next
After the triumph of the revolution, Martínez was sent to the Sandinistas’ new military school in Managua, where he eventually was named head infantry instructor at the age of 19. While working at the school, a Cuban aviation commission visited, looking for recruits to become part of a specially trained fighter jet squadron.
Martínez, with his leadership skills and previous education, became a top candidate. His better than 20/20 vision also made him a natural.
Martínez was selected as part of a team of 30 Nicaraguan pilots and mechanics sent to Sofia, Bulgaria, where he spent the next five years learning how to work on planes and fly Russian MiGs. He also met a young communist woman from Ecuador and fell in love.
He learned Bulgarian and excelled in his studies.
“It’s incredible,” Martínez said. “I never forgot Bulgarian, and it has been 20 years and I never use the language.”
When Martínez finally returned to Nicaragua in 1985, the decision was made not to buy 21 Russian MiG fighter jets as planned.
The Sandinista government had finished building the four-kilometer airstrip north of LakeManagua, but feared warnings by U.S. President Ronald Reagan that the United States would bomb the airbase if the MiGs were brought into Nicaragua. Instead, the Sandinistas purchased Mi-24A Russian attack helicopters, which were viewed as “defensive weapons” that would be better suited for fighting the opposition “Contras” hiding in the mountains.
Still, Martínez put his training to use by flying more than 100 combat missions in the much slower, push-pull Cessna, which he said “felt like flying a hot air balloon after the subsonic speeds of the MiGs.”
His plane almost was shot down several times, including once when it was riddled with 27 bullets.
“I would throw the throttle and try to get away, but the plane just wouldn’t go fast enough,” he said.
Martínez was eventually trained to fly Russian attack helicopters, and he flew several missions before becoming a victim of Sandinista paranoia in the late 1980s.
“Cuban intelligence discovered that my family was living outside of Nicaragua, and the Cuban revolution had a bad experience with that situation, so they told Nicaraguan intelligence to keep an eye on me,” Martínez said.
Despite Martínez’s impeccable service record, the Sandinistas begin to suspect he was planning to steal one of their helicopters.
At the time, Soldier of Fortune magazine was running an ad offering any Sandinista helicopter pilot $2 million to steal a helicopter and defect to Honduras.
Martínez was grounded and – he found out years later – tailed by Sandinista spies for more than a year. But they never found anything suspicious about him.
“I was a good revolutionary, a founder of the military school, a good compañero and the second best pilot in my class,” Martínez said. But that wasn’t good enough for the Sandinista Front.
Frustrated with the treatment he received, Martínez used his medical condition as an excuse to retire from the Air Force in 1988. He retired without any military pension.
“I never imagined that my destiny would be anything other than aviation,” Martínez said. “Maybe I would never be rich, but I would have been able to live comfortably. Now I live sort of comfortably.”
Today, at age 49, Martínez has returned to a quiet life in his hometown of Granada, helping foreigners buy real estate and tending a small family cigar shop called Sultan Cigars, facing the Central Park. He said once in a while he accidently slips a Bulgarian word into a sentence when trying to speak English to tourists.
“I played the role that history asked of me,” he said of his revolutionary years. “I was a student, a combatant, a pilot and a Sandinista.”
“I will always be a Sandinista militant,” Martínez insisted. “That is my identity. I
can’t deny my nature.”