Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Guarding Alfredo - #22

As the Federal Sky Marshal (lately, Air Marshal) program ambled along through late 1971 and into 1972, we shifted from chock-a-block flights here and there as undercover, in-flight, armed guards to other kinds of jobs. At SFO we initiated pre-flight inspections with Magnetometers – the first carry-on baggage screening apparatus, we ran errands for the local Customs brass, and we provided in-flight escort for assorted dignitaries…which is how I came to meet General Alfredo Stroessner, then the dictator (oops) President of Paraguay.

At the time, Stroessner was about mid-way in a reign that was to span nearly 35 years, beginning with the 1954 military coup that he lead against his mentor Federico Chaves, and lasting until he was overthrown by his own top aide, General Andres Rodriquez, who also happened to be an in-law. However, in 1972 Stroessner was firmly astride Paraguay thanks to an anti-Communist stance that pleased the US Government, and a windfall of graft surrounding the construction of Itaipu dam which was eventually completed in 1985, and benefited few others than the members of Stroessner’s Colorado political party.

Back in 1972, Stroessner and about 70 groupies were traveling to and from Tokyo on what I was told was a trade mission. Since he chose to travel to Japan and back on scheduled PanAm flights, those flights were assigned Sky Marshals for Stroessner’s protection – even though he traveled with his own Chief of Security. More about the COS later.

The trip from Asuncion, Paraguay to Tokyo, and back, was broken up into multiple legs. I and my partner drew the final return leg of the trip from Panama City to Asuncion. We flew to Panama the day before to get a few hours of sleep before joining Stroessner’s party.

I’ve forgotten the departure times and other such details, but I clearly remember the pre-flight briefing that I and my partner attended with Storessner along with his COS, who we’ll call Colonel Boca de Riego, because he was built like a scary, 250 pound fire hydrant…Throughout the briefing, Col. de Riego looked at me with the beady eyes of a Marine drill sergeant contemplating a fresh maggot, that is to say, new recruit for which he had little regard. He didn’t say a word to me that I recall, but I got the sense that if anything happened in-flight he was going to shoot me first.

For the final leg of Stroessner’s journey, PanAm had scheduled a 707. My designated seat was the aisle seat of the first row in First Class – directly behind the cockpit door and across from the 707’s galley. Seated next to me in the first row was Col. de Riego. Directly behind us were seated Stroessner and the groupies who rated First Class seats. The rest of El Presidente’s party had to content themselves with riding in Coach…or so I thought.

Once we reached altitude and the seatbelt lights were turned off, I got up to stretch my legs and was immediately swept up in the tide of sycophants that rushed forward from the back of the plane to curry favor with Stroessner. The scrum around El Presidente was so thick that I spent the rest of 6-hour (at least) flight shoved into the plane’s galley while Col de Riego looked daggers at me.

Eventually, we landed in Asuncion. The plane taxied some distance away from the terminal to accommodate the pomp and circumstance scheduled for Stroessner’s arrival. Arrayed in tight ranks opposite the plane appeared to be the entire Army, Air Force and judging from their uniforms Paraguay’s Navy. Being a land-locked country is no reason to pass up the opportunity to dress like an Admiral.

Stroessner and his party disembarked to the sound of rifle salutes and a marching band. A line of black limousines had drawn up a few feet away from the rolling ladder. At the head of the limousines was an open Mercedes Benz touring car for Stroessner, in which he stood waving to the multitudes as the limousines pulled away from the plane. But before that could happen there were some speeches and more rifle salutes and band playing.

Once Stroessner's entourage departed and the noise finally died down I stuck my head out of the doorway. It was a warm, clear night so I decided to get some air while they refueled the 707. I climbed down the ladder, turned and walked under the fuselage…and ran smack into a Paraguayan sentry who immediately swung around, pointed his rifle at me and began yelling at me in Spanish. From behind me came a short, sharp command and just as suddenly the trooper lowered his weapon and came to rigid attention. I turned to see Col de Riego give me one final glare before he left to catch up with El Presidente.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

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