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COLUMN ONE : Stalking the Rich for Ransom : An illegal arms depot blast in Nicaragua reveals a far-reaching network of terror--a ring of leftist rebels who kidnaped Latin America's wealthy.

July 28, 1993|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Operating from this Sandinista sanctuary, the international kidnapers stalked their victims, documented their habits and calculated multimillion-dollar ransoms.

They followed one prominent Mexican businessman to a church Mass for his dead wife; they staked out the homes of others from nearby bus stops and parks. They knew the bank account numbers, quarterly earnings and favorite colors of Latin America's richest men and women.

"Ignacio Aranguren--he has a lot of money," the kidnapers observed of the Mexican food magnate. "Very much loved by his family. Would negotiate."

The ring, linked to at least six kidnaping cases, might have gone undetected had a huge and illegal arms depot belonging to Salvadoran guerrillas not exploded on the outskirts of Managua in May. Secreted along with guns and missiles were the kidnaping files as well as hundreds of passports, equipment for falsifying identification papers and guerrilla propaganda.

Now in the hands of a judge here and subject to the scrutiny of the FBI and police agencies from four countries, the stash revealed a vast kidnaping and weapons-smuggling network run by Latin revolutionaries for much of the last decade.

The staggering collection of documents provides a rare, panoramic look at the shadowy underworld of the radical left, the cooperative relationships among guerrilla organizations and their plots to raise money through ransoms and arms deals.

The network's tentacles reach far and wide, implicating Spanish Basque separatists, South and Central American Marxist groups and two convicted Canadian kidnapers languishing in a Brazilian prison.

It may also have ties to the World Trade Center bombing in New York, according to investigators.

"This is a real Pandora's box," said Judge Marta Quezada, who is in charge of the case.

Passports from almost two dozen countries were found, including several blank U.S. passports--a valuable commodity even in the most advanced terrorist circles.

People appear with multiple identities. One key figure, identified at one point as Julio Aguilar Cruz, turns up in six passports, each with a different name and a different nationality.

The discovery revived memories of the Sandinistas' recent past, when, as rulers of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, they converted the country into a haven for radical leftists from around the world. And it raised questions about the present: The arsenal and the network almost certainly could not have existed without the knowledge of Sandinista officials, diplomats say. They add that the network could still be active.

Its presence in Managua greatly embarrassed the government of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. She defeated the Sandinista Front in 1990 elections and professes to have reined in Sandinista intelligence operations and other clandestine activities--claims now cast in doubt.

The greatest political damage is falling on the Salvadoran rebels whose arsenal exploded. They had claimed they disarmed last year as part of a U.N.-brokered peace treaty that ended the Salvadoran civil war. Now that they have been caught in a lie--and as evidence emerges that ties one Salvadoran faction to the kidnapings--the rebels' efforts to join mainstream politics are becoming increasingly difficult.

*

Three blasts shattered the balmy midnight air on May 23.

Moments earlier, several men had begun removing guns, mortars and explosives from a warehouse under an auto repair shop in the Santa Rosa residential neighborhood. The men were loading arms into a red Volkswagen for transport, and perhaps sale.

No one knows for sure why the weapons blew up. No one is sure how many people died--the pieces of flesh recovered in the debris revealed only one blood type. At least two people, though, are missing.

"It was like hell, believe me," said neighbor Albertina Martinez, whose house was destroyed. Her children were burned, and a grenade launcher landed in what was left of her front yard.

The owner of the auto shop was a Basque who came to Nicaragua in 1982 and obtained citizenship from the Sandinista government in 1990, using the name Miguel Antonio Larios and an Ecuadorean diplomatic passport. Larios disappeared the night of the blast. His car was later found near the border with Costa Rica.

In the first few hours after the explosion, as firefighters battled the flames and police removed the remaining weapons--including antiaircraft missiles--a parade of curious arrived. Among the pre-dawn visitors was Tomas Borge, former interior minister and intelligence czar of the Sandinista government; he reportedly showed up in his pajamas.

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