Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

Lencho’s War

By Jack Ewing

1948 is a special year in Costa Rican history, but its significance was perceived differently by different people. If you were on the winning side you would remember it as a heroic revolution. The losers would call it a power grab. Most outside observers saw it as a bloody civil war, and none of the participants will ever deny that it was bloody. Today everyone recognizes that the single most important result of the war was the abolition of the Costa Rican armed forces six months after its conclusion.

The war of 1948 had been brewing for some time, but the incident that triggered the eruption of violence was alleged election fraud in the elections of 1948. The people who lived in Hatillo de Aguirre knew that there was an election, but didn’t care who was running, much less worry about the outcome. Had there been a place to vote, none was eligible, as all were Panamanian citizens. The government barely knew that Hatillo existed, so the people weren’t much concerned with who ran the government. Likewise the war wasn’t of any special importance to them. It wasn’t their war. For that reason, when word arrived that the soldiers were coming, Marvin Espinosa called a family meeting. It wasn’t very democratic because Marvin made all of the decisions. But everyone had their say, the men at least.
Hacienda Baru

The Espinosas were the first pioneers to settle the area around Hatillo. Fabio came in 1925 and carved out a homestead in the fertile rainforest soils along the Hatillo Viejo River. Later followed Marvin and Carmen. Young Florencio, more commonly known as “Lencho,” arrived in Boca Barú (present day Dominical) in 1934, at the age of two, with his mother, Magdalena Espinosa. They moved to Hatillo in 1939, by which time Magdalena’s brothers Marvin and Carmen possessed most of the land between there and Hacienda Barú. By 1948 young Lencho was 16 years old, a perfect age for cannon fodder, and cannon fodder is what the soldiers were after.

When the Espinosas met, they agreed that the rumors about the soldiers were probably true. They didn’t know for sure which side the soldiers were on, only that they were coming. They also knew that all of the men and boys would be forced into the war at gun point, so they decided to head for the hills.  It wasn’t their war.

“But, what about the women? cried Magdalena.

“You’ll get by,” replied Marvin gruffly. “Better to do without your men for a few weeks. If we’re here when the soldiers come, you may have to get along without us forever. We’re heading into the jungle. Tell them that some soldiers came from Quepos and took us with them. They’ll believe that and can’t verify it.”

Deep into the rainforest they went, traveling two days on foot to a place called “Dos Bocas.” The group was comprised of Lencho, his brothers Gustavo, Primo and Pablo, his cousin Serafin and his uncles Marvin and Carmen. They took rice, beans, sugar and lots of salt. Their camp, consisting of a crude thatch shelter and a cooking fire, was located near the head waters of the Hatillo Nuevo River. Occasionally one of the men would cut a Chonta palm for the palm heart, but mostly they lived on wild meat. The meat they didn’t eat was salted and dried to preserve it and would be taken back with them when they returned to Hatillo, all they could carry.

The Espinosa men loved to hunt, and hunt they did, to their heart’s content. There was plenty of wildlife around Dos Bocas, a hunter’s dream come true. Lencho recalls that they always went in pairs, and he usually accompanied his uncle Marvin.

One day they headed up toward a place called “Las Nubes” to try their luck. Thirty minutes out of camp they came across a white-lipped peccary (wild pig) trail. The spoor looked fresh and the pungent odor of peccary was strong. “Whew, smell them pigs. We ain’t far behind em,” exclaimed Marvin excitedly. “There must be a whole mess of em, look at all them tracks. The breeze was in their faces as they followed. The pigs wouldn’t catch their scent. With a herd that size it didn’t take much tracking skill. After an hour they began to catch a glimpse of a straggler here and there and were able to calculate where the main group was headed. “Let’s go up on that ridge and git around em. Then we kin drop down by the creek and surprise em.”

The two men moved up to the ridge line and skirted the peccary herd. After about 30 minutes they worked their way back down where the pigs would probably be. They weren’t disappointed. Coming around a big tree next to the creek they came face to face with a herd of around 150 peccaries. Lencho scampered up a tree for safety. Marvin held his ground, raised his 28 gauge shot gun, fired, and hit a big boar broadside with a full load of buckshot. The boar dropped to its knees momentarily, but quickly regained its feet and bolted off with the fleeing herd. “He won’t git far,” shouted Marvin. “Git yer butt down outta that tree and let’s go.”

They followed the blood trail about 300 meters but never spotted the boar. Suddenly they came face to face with a big sow. Marvin fired head on at close range. She dropped near a large fallen kapok trunk, and lay on her side kicking and twitching. Marvin nodded at the dying sow. “I don’t wanna waste no buckshot on her. Bleed her out and gut her. I’m gunna go after the herd an’ see if I kin git us another un.” Lencho didn’t have a gun. He didn’t even have a real machete, only a broken hand-me-down about a foot long. It would do to remove a pig’s entrails. Lencho cut her throat and watched the blood pour out on the ground.

Suddenly from behind him Lencho heard a loud “thump, thump” of something striking the hollow kapok trunk. He whirled around to find himself face to face with a jaguar, the mighty claws of both paws gripping the trunk, enormous head and chest at eye level. The boy leaped over the sow to put her between him and el tigre. The big cat eyed him. Lencho whacked a limb of the fallen trunk with his knife, hoping to scare it away. It flattened its ears and crouched. The eyes narrowed to form small black beads. The sow kicked a leg and shuddered a dying spasm. Lencho slapped her belly with the flat side of his knife, “whap.” Again, “whap.” The jaguar raised up slightly, thumped the trunk again with its paws and looked at the sow. Its tail began to wag, the last thing a jaguar does before attacking. It occurred to Lencho that el tigre was more interested in the pig than in him, and also that it had probably taken the wounded boar. Then he remembered his uncle Marvin.

Tio, tio,” he shouted, for all he was worth. “It’s el tigre come ta eat our pig.”

“I’m on the way,” echoed the distant shout.

The jaguar perked up its ears and snapped its head toward Marvin’s voice. Then, like magic, it disappeared. Lencho heaved a sigh of relief. Thinking back on the incident he doesn’t recall being afraid, but was certainly impressed by the power and magnificence of the big cat.

After about three weeks, Pablo sneaked back to “La Casona” in La Guapil, where the women were staying. He received the news that the soldiers had come and left. They had apparently believed the story about the men being in Quepos. Also there were rumors that the war was over. Pablo returned to the hunting camp in Dos Bocas with the news. The weary hunters headed home. It had been an unforgettable hunting trip, and they brought home enough dried and salted meat to last the clan for a long time. When they returned to Hatillo they found that the women had gotten along just fine without them.

[Author’s Note: The bulk of this history was recounted to me by Florencio Lencho Espinosa. The basic facts are accurate, and the people are real, but a few of the details, such as thoughts and conversation included for the purpose of making the story more readable, are products of my imagination.]