By Michael E. Miller
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Finding him in South Florida: Somewhere on Palm Island, Miami Beach. Pablo whips off his wrap-around sunglasses, eyes wide with excitement. "Anastasio Somoza? The Nicaraguan dude! Nobody wants to see his place anymore."
Pablo wears his long hair bushy and tied into small bunches, Jack Sparrow-style, and glistens with sweat from a long day of hustling tour boat tickets to hordes of visitors at Bayfront Park. "You want the Island Princess, bro. My boy Gustavo will hook you up," he says.
Fifteen bucks (plus a discreet fiver for a tip) later, Gustavo — captain of the Island Princess — motors a group of sunburned tourists out onto Biscayne Bay.
"If you look to the right, this place belonged to Robbie Van Winkle, better known as... Vanilla Ice!" Gustavo says as "Ice Ice Baby" blares from the speakers and the palatial Venetian Islands pass on the north. "Now he's broke, broke, baby." The tourists titter. Next comes Shakira's digs."Waka Waka" blasts as the boat drifts farther east.
"OK, look to your right. That white mansion belonged to Anastasio Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua!" Gustavo says in his usual cheery voice. There's no music to play. This is not a mainstay on the tour. After a few moments of awkward silence and a couple hundred feet of water, Gustavo sighs and cues up "Material Girl." "Alllll right, who knows who lived in this lovely mansion?" he asks.
Dictatorial rule, it seems, doesn't cut it on a celebrity cruise.
The aftermath: Though no property records directly tie Somoza to a Palm Island mansion, he likely spent some time there during his dictatorship, George says. Other stories from the '70s link Somoza to a property on Sunset Island. Thanks to his liberal personal use of Nicaraguan tax dollars, he might have owned multiple properties in the Magic City. Either way, the war against the Sandinistas intensified throughout the '70s, and in 1979, Tachito gave up his family's grip on power and tried to flee to Miami. The United States, however, refused to grant him asylum, so he booked it to the friendly confines of Paraguay. He didn't stay safe for long. Just after 10 a.m. September 17, 1980, a team of Sandinista commandos attacked Somoza's Mercedes as he left his Asuncion estate. One assassin dodged Somoza's bodyguards and pumped dozens of machine gun rounds into the limo, riddling Somoza with at least 25 bullets. Just for good measure, another executioner launched a B-50 rocket into the vehicle, ripping the top off like a can of beans and decapitating the driver.
Terrifying nickname: Bandit of Battalion 3-16
Iron-fisted infamy: In the '80s, the CIA hired a crack team of assassins to carry out its nefarious plans against leftist guerrillas and politicians throughout Central America. Among the deadliest was a group of Honduran special forces with the ominously boring name of Battalion 3-16. Juan Angel Hernández Lara joined the battalion as a young army recruit and quickly became an officer. He later admitted his duties included shoving metal pins under suspects' fingernails, firing bullets into people's hands to force them to talk, and using plastic bags to smother government enemies.
Finding him in South Florida: 376 Arcadia Dr., Wellington, purchased for $256,500 in 2003. Wellington, an upper-class town on the edge of the Everglades in Palm Beach County, is known for equestrian sports and feels about as edgy as a Harlequin romance novel. At the end of a small cul-de-sac on Arcadia Drive sits a sprawling brown-brick suburban home. Like all the others in the neighborhood, its front lawn looks ready for a croquet match. A classic black mailbox with a little red flag stands near the street.
Susan — a trim, tiny-boned lady with brown permed hair — has lived next door for more than a decade. She remembers Lara even though she didn't talk to him much after he moved in with a woman who lived there. He was a hard worker, up at 7 a.m., and kept to himself when he returned home, Susan says.
The neighbors, of course, didn't know it, but Lara was by then on his third illegal sojourn to the United States. Each time, beginning in 1989, he made his way north to Texas and then traveled to Palm Beach County. He even had the gall in 2001, after being caught for the second time, to plead with a judge to grant him asylum because he was afraid of being tortured back in Honduras. The judge denied the motion and returned him to his homeland — where he was promptly freed. Weeks later, he again made his way north.
Susan knew Lara only as a nice guy who worked as a bricklayer and a construction assistant. But she also recalls the time a SWAT team showed up in 2004. "Oh yeah, we all remember that day," she says. "This is a quiet neighborhood, you know. They mostly rent that house out to equestrian folks working with horses around here. So you remember a police squad swarming around the house like that."
The aftermath: In August 2004, Lara received eight months in federal prison for lying on his immigration forms.