(Mountains north of Maturín in eastern Venezuela)
Mauro Ortega, El Gato, lay on a ridge above the lonely rancho and observed the events below.
The morning had dawned bright and sunny, but by early afternoon clouds began to gather in the north along the coast. The November rainy season would bring moisture to the mountains by late afternoon. High on the ridges a few miles south of Cumanacóa an adobe house nestled into a shelf on the slope above the floor of a small ravine. A thatched roof extended out from the structure providing a shaded area occupied by two hand-made wooden chairs and a small table. Purple bougainvillea grew up along one side of the dwelling. On the upper slope behind the house the brush had been cleared and maize planted in the meager soil.
In the floor of the ravine bananas hung from a half dozen trees. Two wild Lechosa trees, (papayas), bore pendulous fruit nearby. Bushy yucca, a form of manioc, grew close to a small stream that rushed through the clearing and down the ravine. It was swollen with the flow of the rainy season, but sometimes late in the dry verano while it still carried water, it would be sluggish and water had to be drawn from muddy pools to slake the thirst of the inhabitants. A dozen chickens wandered and pecked their way around the adobe house and the surrounding clearing.
This was the home of the campesino Juan Murga and his woman, Eulalia. They had two small children. They had lost two others, one in childbirth and one to gripe. Gripe, or influenza, in its many forms, was a common killer of the campesinos who lived in the hills without access to medical assistance.
The tranquility of the scene had been disrupted by the presence of a three-quarter ton military vehicle. It had followed the winding dirt road into the mountains and finally forded the stream to arrive at the Murga homestead. Two soldiers lounged against the canvas covered truck bed, smoking. Eulalia and her two children huddled in terror next to the bougainvillea in front of the adobe. From inside cries of pain could be heard.
Two soldiers held Juan Murga while the officer and his cabo, a corporal, interrogated him about what he knew of El Gato Ortega and the guerrilla force he commanded. Murga admitted to giving patrolling guerrillas food and water when they passed by, but he knew nothing of their campsites or activities.
El Gato turned to his companion, Tito, and told him to run to the team of guerrillas patrolling near the Maturín - Cumaná highway. He ordered an ambush set up near the mouth of a tunnel less than a hundred meters from where the dirt track to the Murga adobe joined the highway. It would take the soldiers in their truck twice the time to descend the almost impassable muddy road as it would take Tito and the guerrillas to arrive below on foot and set up their trap.
El Subteniente Alfonzo Francisco Encarnación de Viloria y Saavedra was the scion of a wealthy and politically influential family in Caracas that proudly traced its origins back to the Conquista and the high plains of Castile in Spain. Alfonzo didn’t have to be a soldier. He chose to be one. He thought of the lower orders of society, when he thought of them at all, as ignorant savages, barely human. They lacked education, lived in filth and bred like rats. He saw his mission as one of preservation of the state. The army was the repository of the state, the guarantor of stability for his family and his class. Neither he nor his family regarded democracy as anything more than a compromise with modernity. Alfonzo de Viloria saw his service in the army as a mission to restore the old way of life. He had a degree from the Universidad Católica in Caracas. It was a conservative institution providing education to the children of the wealthy class. The sub-teniente was barely 22 years old.
The interrogation had rendered little of substance. De Viloria ordered his corporal to bind Murga’s hands and feet and place him in the truck. If Murga wouldn’t respond to his gentle ministrations, more skillful interrogators were available among the counter-insurgency troops in Puerto la Cruz.
The sub-lieutenant stalked out of the adobe, brushing dust from his sleeves, and inadvertently stumbled over a wandering chicken. “Kill these filthy birds!” He shouted at the two soldiers lounging against the truck. “Burn the house, cut down the lechosas and bananas,” he added as an afterthought. His corporal and the other two soldiers emerged from the adobe dragging a beaten and bloody Juan Murga. Eulalia screamed and ran to him. A soldier brutally struck her in the head with the butt of his rifle. Blood burst from the wound as she fell to the ground. A second blow followed and she lay lifeless in front of her children. Murga struggled helplessly.
The soldiers threw Murga into the truck. The other two soldiers fired random shots at the chickens, killing a few. The soldiers laughed. Feathers floated in the air. Most of the chickens escaped into the brush. The soldiers climbed the slope and torched the maize, and then returned to torch the roof of Murga’s house. Black, greasy smoke billowed from the thatch. “Vámonos,” shouted the cabo.
The corporal gestured to the two hysterical children clutching at their dead mother. The sub-lieutenant glanced at them, shrugged and spat on the ground, “Leave them.” The soldiers climbed in back with the bound Juan Murga on the floor and the corporal took the wheel of the truck. The sub-lieutenant sat beside him in the cab and calmly lit a cigarette. The truck moved ponderously up the dirt track that led out of the ravine and along the ridge before beginning its descent to the highway.
El Gato did not wait for the soldiers to depart. He gave no thought to the two abandoned children. He turned and swiftly began his descent to the ambush site.
By the time Ortega arrived at the highway his clothing was soaked in sweat and he had a bloody scratch on his forehead. Tito met him by the road. “We have the Russian antitank rocket. We can destroy the truck and the soldiers without risk.”
“No, save the RPG,” El Gato Ortega replied.”I want the campesino alive. The pigs murdered his wife, burned his home and left his children to die.”
Ortega thought for a moment. “Stop a car on the highway and place it across the junction of the dirt road'. The truck will not be able to go around because of the drainage ditch. When they stop to remove the car, we will kill the soldiers.” The guerilla leader paused, “Set up roadblocks at the tunnel mouth and north of here. If the roadblocks stops civilian, just hold them until we are finished. If more soldiers come, use the RPG.”
Traffic was light, because the highway was a known guerrilla haunt. Still some found the road a necessary route to the market towns. A couple in a dilapidated Ford pickup emerged from the highway tunnel. Chepe and his woman Cachi were taking chickens to the open market in Cumaná.
As he emerged from the darkness of the tunnel, Chepe found a dozen armed men lined up on both sides of the road with automatic weapons pointed at him. A man stood in the center of the road and flagged him down. He had no choice but to stop.
Ortega commanded, “You and the woman will please step out of your vehicle. You will be our guests for a short time.”
Chepe and Cachi fearfully descended. “Who are you?” He asked. “We have no quarrel with anyone.”
“I am Comandante El Gato del Frente Maragüey, a sus ordenes. We have urgent need for your vehicle. We will return it to you shortly.”
El Gato turned to his subordinate, “Tito!” Tito leapt into the pickup and rubber squealed as he drove it up the road a hundred meters and parked it across the entrance to a dirt road.
El Gato returned his gaze to his unfortunate guests, “Please wait here with Fabio.” He waved at a youthful guerrilla standing nearby, and then ran toward the place where the pickup had been positioned at the roadside.
The wait was less than ten minutes when gunfire erupted further up the road. The three watched the as Venezuelan Army truck was shredded by a torrent of automatic fire.
It was over in an instant. Fabio led them to El Gato.
The army truck was a smoldering ruin. The bullet shattered windshield and the doors were spattered with blood. The canvas cover hid the carnage in the back of the truck. One of the guerrillas climbed inside to inspect their handiwork. Juan Murga had survived the attack by virtue of being bound on the floor. All but one of the soldiers had perished.
Ortega turned to one of his men, “Traigame el campesino.” Two of his men assisted Juan Murga out of his bonds and helped him descend to the road. “Look at this man.” Anger filled El Gato’s voice. "American trained soldiers tortured this man. They beat him. They burned his home. They destroyed his crops and murdered his wife! His children remain alone with their dead mother on the mountain top!” He glared at Chepe and his woman.
“Señor Gato, we are not political,” Chepe pled.
“It is a political choice to be unpolitical.” The guerrilla leader continued to glare at his unhappy captives. He was interrupted.
“Comandante,” called one of his team. “Este muchacho vive.”
“Ortega refocused his glare on his captives. “Come, one of the soldiers still lives.”
They approached a soldier lying on the ground. He wasn’t seriously wounded, but would need medical assistance. He was a boy in uniform. He might have been 16 or 17 years old, perhaps younger.
“Murga!” The comandante called peremptorily. His men escorted the victim of torture and the murder of his wife to look upon the injured soldier.
Murga stared down at the helpless youth. Fear filled the boy’s eyes. “Deme un machete,” Murga demanded. A guerrilla handed him the weapon. The boy’s eyes widened with terror. He looked desperately for a sympathetic face. A circle of stony eyes stared down at him. Juan Murga swung the machete with all of the force in his faded strength. The boy’s head rolled away from his shoulders and blood spurted from the neck of the convulsing body. Chepe and his woman gaped at the scene in horror.
El Gato again focused on them. “What am I to do with you?” He appeared to consider their fate. Then he threw the keys to the pickup at their feet with disgust. “Not political,” he spat at the ground. “Go,” he said.
Chepe recovered the keys to his pickup. He took Cachi’s hand for the first time in years and guided her back to his vehicle. He hunched his shoulders, expecting a bullet at any moment.
El Gato turned away, forgetting Chepe and Cachi. He waved his arm. Gasoline was poured over the shot-up vehicle followed by a match. It became the funeral pyre for Subteniente Alfonzo Francisco Encarnación de Viloria y Saavedra and his unfortunate subordinates.
El Gato eyed the campesino. “Murga, ahora que?” What now?
Murga bent down, still in pain from his beating, and retrieved one of the dead soldiers’ weapons. “I will take my children to my sister in Aragua. Then I will return for this.” He held the weapon high. He started back up the road to his children.
El Gato turned to Tito. “You see how our enemies recruit for us?”
Copyright © 2020 by Robert Bruce Drynan
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