The Chargé in Nicaragua (Hanna) to the Secretary of State

No. 1008

Sir: I have the honor to report that on a number of occasions recently when I have been in conference with President Moncada he has brought up the subject of bandit activities and, in the course of his remarks, has pointed out that the military operations against the bandits are completely under the direction of American officers, and that he has carefully abstained from interfering with their plans because, as a military man himself, he realizes that interference would be a violation of sound military procedure. It appears to me that he made this statement without intending to criticise although it doubtless reflects his preoccupation if not his dissatisfaction with existing conditions. I do not know that he intended the statement to be a disclaimer of responsibility but it amounts to that and also implies that the United States Government and its military agents here are primarily if not entirely responsible for the reestablishment of order in Nicaragua. It would seem that President Moncada has thus presented a situation that should receive early and careful consideration.

As stated in the Legation’s telegram of May 8, 9 a.m., concerning the first of the conferences mentioned above. General Moncada intimated [Page 567]that he thought much more vigorous measures would have to be adopted before banditry is suppressed, and that he comprehended that the Marine forces are operating under conditions and limitations which restrain them from adopting measures which might be resorted to if Nicaraguan forces under the command of Nicaraguan officers were responsible for the character of the operations. He also expressed the opinion that native troops, because of their lighter impedimenta, familiarity with the country, greater endurance under the special conditions and other reasons, are better adapted for continuous and close pursuit of bandits than are the Marines, especially during the six months rainy period which has just begun. In a subsequent conference he repeated this opinion and, by way of illustration, mentioned what had been accomplished by Escamilla, the Mexican who has been in command for some time of a considerable force of the recently created Volunteers. Practically all of the volunteer forces have been disbanded with the exception of Escamilla’s and even his have been materially reduced. It seemed to me that President Moncada does not approve of the proposed disbandment of Escamilla’s forces. On the contrary, he thinks that they should be materially strengthened and that their field of operations should be greatly increased.

President Moncada probably finds himself in a trying position with respect to military operations in Nicaragua. There is a continual outcry in the press here concerning the disorder in the country. The Conservative press has been attacking the employment of Escamilla and the Liberal press expresses general dissatisfaction with the failure to stamp out disorder. Much of the criticism is directed against the President. At the same time, General Moncada, as a military man, probably has decided ideas as to how he would proceed if he were personally conducting the operations. Under the circumstances, it would seem that he is exercising great self-restraint in publicly disregarding the criticism and in continuing to give his loyal support to the American officers in command.

The situation described above was fully discussed with Generals Williams and McDougal at the last weekly conference in the Legation on the 22nd of this month. They are not in complete accord with General Moncada’s views as to the comparative effectiveness of military operations by Marines and natives. Neither do they place such a high estimate on the services rendered by Escamilla and his forces. Of course they are both opposed in principle to the existence of a force of volunteers separate from the Guardia and it has been a part of General McDougal’s plan to lose no time in mustering out the volunteers. At the same time, they desire to give President Moncada’s wishes the importance they merit and they now have them under consideration. The advisability of taking Escamilla and his [Page 568]command into the Guardia has been mentioned and General Mc-Dougal spoke of the possibility of giving him command of a selected force within the Guardia which might be termed “scouts”.

To dispense with Escamilla’s services at this time would undoubtedly be displeasing to General Moncada and his closest advisers. The accounts of his operations indicate that he is energetic and at times ruthless in his methods, but many Nicaraguans probably think such methods necessary. He has been bitterly criticised in the opposition press as a Mexican adventurer, a mercenary soldier, a murderer and cut-throat, and his operations described as a series of outrages against innocent parties. On a number of occasions this portion of the press has appealed to the President to relieve him of his command and deport him from the country. This outcry, however, may be an indication of the effectiveness of his methods. The Liberal press does not have much good to say of him but neither does it oppose or criticise his operations. He is looked upon as the agent of the Government, not of the Guardia, and all the criticism for employing him is directed against the Government and not against the Marines and Guardia. For this reason it would seem preferable, if his services are retained, not to attach him to the Guardia but to permit him to continue operating as a force for which the Government is primarily responsible.

In my opinion the following facts stand out very clearly in relation to the military situation:

The eradication of banditry and the complete restoration of public order in all Nicaragua must be accomplished before there can be real progress in any other direction. It is believed here, and perhaps quite generally in Latin America, that we have assumed the task of pacifying this country. The result of our present effort to aid this country will be judged largely by our success in performing that task. The bandit infested regions are still in a state of great disorder and improvement is not rapid. If the existing methods for restoring order are to be made more effective or if they are to be supplemented by others, the initiative must come from us. A failure to restore order within a reasonable period would be unfortunate to say the least.

I understand from military officers here that the banditry has reached a phase that seemingly can not be combated effectively by force alone. Some officers of long experience go so far as to say that the task of exterminating the remaining bandit groups is not a military problem. The proximity of the Honduran frontier and the seeming improbability of preventing the outlaws from freely crossing it add greatly to the difficulties of the problem.

It would seem that the time had come when military operations against the bandits should be supplemented by other methods which [Page 569]may induce the outlaws to return to the pursuits of a peaceful existence. It is reasonable to suppose that they are made up in a large part of misguided souls who would abandon their present precarious mode of existence if they could escape the influences that are holding them and find some other method of supporting themselves and those dependent upon them. I am strongly of the opinion that if they could be assured a steady job at reasonable pay with a positive guarantee against punishment or persecution for previous offenses, they would desert their leaders and once more become law-abiding citizens. A concrete method for doing this would be to start road construction in the bandit infested regions in accordance with a carefully matured plan which would give work to all who applied from specified districts, and would guarantee protection for the laborers, preferably through amnesty.17

I have touched upon this subject with President Moncada as well as with his Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister of Gobernación, all of whom have received the idea favorably, the two latter, however, with more enthusiasm than the former. The President probably hesitates because he does not know how he could procure the necessary funds for carrying on the work without giving up other projects, such as railway construction, roads in other regions, schools, and municipal improvements, to which he has committed himself. However, it ought to be possible to convince him that nothing should stand in the way of restoration of order and that it is unsound policy to undertake extensive public works and other improvements in the public service before order has been reestablished in the Republic.

The Minister of Gobernación, Mr. Sotomayor, who is a resident of Nueva Segovia, gave me an idea of what it might cost to carry out such a plan. He estimated the total unemployed in the portion of Nueva Segovia which would be embraced in the operation of such a plan, including bandits, at one thousand men, and said a reasonable wage would be sixty cents per day without food. He said the number in Jinotega would be much less, probably only one-half so many. Even allowing a large factor for error in his estimates and for other necessary expenditures, the total cost per day would probably not exceed $1,500.00, or approximately $40,000.00 per month of 26 working days. This is about half the present average cost of the Guardia.

Of course, the construction of roads in these regions would have a lasting influence for peace and would at the same time greatly facilitate the quelling of disorder should it occur in the future. General Williams has repeatedly told me that the absence of roads or even trails in a portion of the region makes military operations well-nigh impossible unless communications are first opened. In other words, [Page 570]the Marine forces are confronted by the necessity of opening up roads as an incident in their military operations, and if they have not the authority at the present time to engage in such work it would seem that the authority should be given together with ample funds, whatever the amount, to do the work with native labor. The Marines can not be expected to do such work themselves in this climate. Without such authority and funds from the Navy Department the Marines can not thoroughly penetrate the infested districts, but if they can engage in this road construction they will not only make their military operations effective but will also assist in restoring order by peaceful means. It is the most powerful as well as economical weapon our Government can place in their hands.

I have not discussed this subject of road construction by the Nicaraguan Government and the Marines with either General Williams or General McDougal, because I have not wished to divert their minds from their purely military task and encourage any tendency which may exist to consider that task completed, but I have reason to believe that they would both support my ideas in general. Nor do I wish to pursue the subject with Nicaraguan officials if it should be deemed unwise by the Department. Admiral Campbell18 is expected here in about a week or ten days and General Williams told me yesterday that he and the Admiral desire, at that time, to confer very fully with the Legation on all matters relating to the military operations. It would be appreciated and most helpful if the Department could furnish me with its views before the Admiral’s visit.

I have [etc.]

Matthew E. Hanna
  1. See pp. 696 ff.
  2. New Commander of the Special Service Squadron.