On April 28, 1987, Benjamin Linder and six Nicaraguans were ambushed by contras in northern Nicaragua. Ben was wounded and then shot at point-blank range. A 27-year-old engineer from Portland, Oregon, he was the first United States citizen killed by the contras.
On April 20, 1988, Ben Linder’s family filed a $50 million lawsuit charging the contra leaders and their organizations with responsibility for Ben’s murder.
Ben went to Nicaragua in 1983, after graduating from college with a degree in mechanical engineering. He spent almost four years there, bringing light and electricity to rural communities in the mountains of northern Nicaragua.
In the town of El Cua, he completed Nicaragua’s first mini-hydroelectric plant. When the plant started up at the end of 1985, townspeople danced at midnight under the first street lights in the region’s history.
Classes can now be taught at night and the clinic can refrigerate medicine and vaccines. The plant also provides electricity for a machine shop where Nicaraguans are trained to repair agricultural equipment and vehicles. Describing this progress, Ben wrote his family, “This is the war that is also being won—the war against poverty, illiteracy, and disease.”
One week before his death, Ben started working on a second hydroelectric plant to serve the nearby town of San Jose de Bocay.
At 8:30 on the morning of April 28, Ben and his coworkers arrived at the construction site. Minutes later, while Ben was taking notes, twelve contras attacked with machine guns and grenades. They wounded Ben and then—as powder-burns surrounding the fatal wound prove—they shot him through the head at point-blank range.
The contras also killed two of Ben’s co-workers. They wounded Pablo Rosales and then stabbed him in the heart. They shot Sergio Hernandez through the head.
Who Killed Ben Linder?
The contras who killed Ben have all been identified. They were members of the Francisco Rodriguez Task Force of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the contra army. According to their own affidavits, they received orders to attack from superior officers.
Responsibility for Ben Linder’s murder reaches beyond the contra soldiers who carried it out. The Linder family’s lawsuit names the four top contra leaders as defendants: Enrique Bermudez, FDN military commander and a colonel in the National Guard of the former dictator, Anastasio Somoza; Adolfo Calero, FDN President; Indalecio Rodriguez; and Aristides Sanchez.
These men made up the civilian-military command of the FDN at the time Ben was killed. Their soldiers and their orders are responsible for his murder.
The assassination of Ben Linder was part of a deliberate policy designed by the defendants and the CIA to murder civilians working in education, health, and development programs in order to destroy the gains of the Nicaraguan revolution. In 1986, the contras extended this policy to include foreign workers, killing five West Europeans.
An investigation by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the Linder family, found that Ben’s murder was part of a series of attacks on his electrification project.
- One month before Ben’s death, 100 contras attacked the El Cua power plant and the home of the plant operators.
- Contras kidnapped the sister of one of the plant operators, and told her they would kill everyone working on the project.
- According to the contras who killed Ben, they knew that he and his crew were building a new hydroelectric plant. They attacked the site again after Ben was killed.
This series of attacks could only have been carried out with the approval of the top contra leadership, according to former contra commanders.
Responsibility for Ben’s death also lies with the government of the United States, which designed the contras’ strategy and gave them the means to carry it out.
The CIA provided the contras with a manual on how to carry out assassinations, helped select contra targets, and instructed the contras to destroy Nicaragua’s electrical system.
The Reagan Administration has publicly defended the contra attack which killed Ben, and destroyed critical documents to protect the contras who killed him.
Justice for Ben Linder
Ben’s life and death have touched many people. After he was killed, his family told his story throughout the United States and Canada. Thousands of people contributed the money needed to complete the development project that Ben was working on when he was killed. Two engineers took Ben’s place and more people than ever volunteered to work in Nicaragua.
Ben’s family has now taken the next step by demanding that those who killed him pay for their crimes.
A victory in the lawsuit will exact a high price from the contras—politically and financially. The chief architects of the war will be judged guilty of murder before the entire world. Every dollar the Linders receive in court-awarded damages will go to projects like Ben’s, repairing the destruction caused by the war.
For the first time, the contra leaders will have to answer questions under oath about their role in ordering the assassination of civilians. Trial testimony will also reveal the extent of CIA management of contra operations.
Justice for Ben Linder depends on you. No lawsuit can bring Ben back, but with your help in publicizing and supporting the lawsuit, we can help change the policy that killed him and 25,000 Nicaraguans.
Ben was known by many Nicaraguans not only as an engineer, but also as a skilled juggler, clown and unicyclist. A few weeks before his death, Ben dressed in his clown costume and rode his unicycle through the streets of El Cua, leading a parade of children to receive measles vaccinations.
After one performance, Ben wrote to a friend:
“We were in a very poor neighborhood. The kids were running around, staring out of their houses, and just plain being kids. And here we were. A bit of cheer, something new and exciting. There is a slogan that goes ‘Los ninos nacen para ser felices’ — children are born to be happy. And that’s a governmental policy, and that is what they believe, and that is why we go to the neighborhoods. And that is what those — in Washington are trying to destroy. And it brings tears to my eyes.”
In El Cua, Ben lived in a small room with no running water and a makeshift woodstove. He felt at home in Nicaragua. He was committed to his work and inspired by the hope and dedication of the Nicaraguans he knew. In his last letter, he wrote to his sister:
“[Despite the war] there is peace at certain times. One of my favorite times is when I’m walking along a stream, looking at the stream for its own sheer beauty or for the electricity it will generate, or just walking along, scrambling over rocks, taking a quick bath in a little pool . . . these are the moments when I feel good, sometimes calm, sometimes excited, but with that deep down feeling of contentment.”
Ben is missed by all who knew him, but as is written on his gravestone:
The light he lit will shine forever.