The revolutionary government has arrested a Nicaraguan Red Cross official on charges he carried out spying mission to gather sensitive military intelligence for American military officers attached to the U.S. Embassy here.
The case, partially reported by the government-guided press, has helped confirm for the Sandinista government and the general public widely held suspicions that what they call "la CIA" (pronounced see-ah) is actively working to undermine this country's three-year-old revolution.
If accusations contained in the indictment against the official and statements in a confession videotaped after his arrest in July are true, they also provide an unusual glimpse of methods used for collecting on-the-ground intelligence despite diplomatic travel restrictions, and spotlight the U.S. military's continued desire for such first-hand observation even in an era of spy satellites and high-flying reconnaissance planes.
The alleged spy, Nicaraguan Red Cross operations chief Jose Rene Talavera, has said his confession was obtained under duress.
The United States, while maintaining that information gathering is a normal part of a diplomat's work, has said that all American personnel attached to its embassy here function within internationally accepted norms. But Washington has not yet replied directly to an official note, dated Sept. 9, from the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry alleging CIA links to a series of terrorist acts and sabotage here and complaining specifically about the Talavera case. The note, handed to the U.S. Embassy, "strongly condemns and protests" what it called "this espionage work" and demands "sufficient clarification."
The Foreign Ministry also provided the embassy with the videotape of the alleged spy's confession, which it described as "grave accusations that affect the diplomatic functionaries referred to."
According to an indictment handed down Nov. 5 in Judge Yolanda Huembes Ramirez's Managua district criminal court, Talavera carried out intelligence-gathering assignments in Nicaragua's militarily important Atlantic Coast region from the beginning of 1980 until March of this year.
Talavera, 40, traveled to the troubled region as part of his job to inspect projects for Miskito Indians, the indictment said. But he also reported back, at first to Col. Allan Charles Cornell, then to Maj. Arturo Barrera, U.S. military officers assigned to the Military Liaison Office in the U.S. Embassy here, it added.
His assignments included gathering intelligence on deployment of Nicaragua's Soviet-designed T55 tanks, numbers of troops and patrol boats at Puerto Cabezas, improvemnt of a landing strip just north of the sleepy little port, suspected stationing of Soviet-made Mig fighter-bombers at Puerto Cabezas and a suspected Soviet offshore submarine tending base near Corn Island in the Atlantic, the indictment said.
Talavera reported finding no Migs at the airstrip, the indictment said. It added that, after assigning a fishing boat captain to have a look near Corn Island and Grand Cayman Island, Talavera also reported back to his American contacts in Managua that no Soviet submarine-tending facilities were to be seen.
Talavera also was asked to find out whether Soviet or Cuban doctors took part in the forced transport last December of about 12,000 Miskito Indians from the Coco River that forms the northern border with Honduras to a settlement at Tasba Pri to the south, the indictment said. This is a particularly sensitive subject since the Sandinista government has been charged with abusing Indian rights in the resettlement, ordered to avoid Miskito collaboration with counterrevolutionary guerrillas infiltrating from Honduras.
Talavera reported all the doctors involved were Nicaraguan, the indictment said.
Talavera first became acquainted with Cornell by passing on letters sent to Cornell from the United States by Jinny Down for her husband, former National Guard captain Erich Aguilar Down, who the indictment says is serving a 24-year term in the Jorge Navarro Social Readaptation Center for activities under the overthrown government of president Anastasio Somoza. With Red Cross credentials, Talavera could visit the center and turn over the letters.
After some time, Cornell recruited Talavera for spying and, at the end of his assignment in Managua, introduced the Nicaraguan Red Cross executive to Barrera as his new contact, the indictment alleged. The letters became pretexts for visits to the embassy to report on the Atlantic Coast region after Talavera's visits there, it added.
Talavera's lawyer, Leonel Blandon Juarez, declared in a court deposition that his client confessed only under duress, including death threats and physical abuse that has left him anemic. Blandon categorically denied all charges leveled against Talavera, including a government statement that Talavera spent three years in the national military academy under Somoza and subsequently became an informer for the dictator's National Security Office.
Managua assistant prosecutor Jose Antonio Bolanos Tercero, who is handling the government case, will seek to prove Talavera acted out of political conviction against the Sandinista revolution, rather than for other reimbursement, Blandon said in an interview.
Talavera was arrested in the first week of July at his Red Cross office, Blandon said. Since then, he has been held in La Chiquita, a maximum security prison in Managua, he added.
Barrera, Cornell's assistant who became Talavera's alleged contact on Cornell's departure, left Nicaragua on July 16, according to Foreign Ministry records. He had been accredited in Nicaragua since Sept. 5, 1980, and left after what the Defense Department in Washington said was a normal tour.
The Military Liaison Office here currently is headed by Lt. Col. James Kelly. Barrera has not been replaced.
Such offices, separate from ordinary defense attaches, normally administer U.S. military aid. Although the United States has technically budgeted aid to Nicaragua, the Reagan administration has decided against providing it to the present government.
[A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said Barrera's main job was to "maintain personal contacts in the government" since there was no aid to administer. Another Pentagon official said the Defense Department has no plans to keep the office open after Kelly's tour ends since "we've got better things to do" with U.S. military personnel.]