MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Operating from this Sandinista sanctuary, the international kidnappers stalked their victims, documented their habits and calculated multimillion-dollar ransoms.
They followed one prominent Mexican businessman to a church Mass for his dead wife; they staked out the homes of others from nearby bus stops and parks. They knew the bank account numbers, quarterly earnings and favorite colors of Latin America's richest men and women.
"Ignacio Aranguren -- he has a lot of money," the kidnappers observed of the Mexican food magnate. "Very much loved by his family. Would negotiate."
The ring, linked to at least six kidnapping cases, might have gone undetected had a huge and illegal arms depot belonging to Salvadoran guerrillas not exploded on the outskirts of Managua in May. Secreted along with guns and missiles were the kidnapping files as well as hundreds of passports, equipment for falsifying identification papers and guerrilla propaganda.
Now in the hands of a judge here and subject to the scrutiny of the FBI and police agencies from four countries, the stash revealed a vast kidnapping and weapons-smuggling network run by Latin revolutionaries for much of the last decade.
The staggering collection of documents provides a rare, panoramic look at the shadowy underworld of the radical left, the cooperative relationships among guerrilla organizations and their plots to raise money through ransoms and arms deals.
The network's tentacles reach far and wide, implicating Spanish Basque separatists, South and Central American Marxist groups and two convicted Canadian kidnappers in a Brazilian prison.
It may also have ties to the World Trade Center bombing in New York, according to investigators.
"This is a real Pandora's box," said Judge Marta Quezada, who is in charge of the case.
Passports from almost two dozen countries were found, including several blank U.S. passports.
People appear with multiple identities. One key figure, identified at one point as Julio Aguilar Cruz, turns up in six passports, each with a different name and a different nationality.
The discovery revived memories of the Sandinistas' recent past, when, as rulers of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, they converted the country into a haven for radical leftists from around the world. And it raised questions about the present: The arsenal and the network almost certainly could not have existed without the knowledge of Sandinista officials, diplomats say. They add that the network could still be active.
Its presence in Managua greatly embarrassed the government of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. She defeated the Sandinista Front in 1990 elections and professes to have reined in Sandinista intelligence operations and other clandestine activities.
The greatest political damage is falling on the Salvadoran rebels whose arsenal exploded. They had claimed to have disarmed last year as part of a U.N.-brokered peace treaty that ended the Salvadoran civil war. Now that they have been caught in a lie -- and as evidence emerges that ties one Salvadoran faction to the kidnappings -- the rebels' efforts to join mainstream politics are becoming increasingly difficult.
Three blasts shattered the balmy midnight air May 23.
Moments earlier, several men had begun removing guns, mortars and explosives from a warehouse under an auto repair shop in the Santa Rosa residential neighborhood. The men were loading arms into a red Volkswagen for transport, and perhaps sale.
Stunned at the magnitude of the discovery, the Chamorro government quickly arrested eight people. One man has been cleared, four others have been linked to the arsenal and three were found to be one-time members of the Basque separatist group ETA; the three were immediately deported -- over Sandinista objections. Two of the men face seven murder counts in pending cases in Spain, including the 1973 assassination of Spain's prime minister.
The deportees said that in Managua, they had been employed by the Interior Ministry and obtained Nicaraguan citizenship with Sandinista-supplied false documents.
The long-tolerated presence of ETA in Nicaragua was only a fraction of a widening tale of intrigue and mystery:
One of the Salvadorans reportedly involved with the arsenal was found murdered in his home with a single gunshot wound in his neck a few weeks after the explosion. And the serial numbers on 16 of the 19 Soviet-made missiles recovered from the arsenal were missing -- apparently erased after the weapons were in police custody, diplomatic sources said.
Then there were the documents. Extracted from the concrete pit below the auto shop were detailed archives on 120 of Latin America's wealthiest families.
There also were 310 passports from 22 countries, immigration stamps from many countries and scores of drivers licenses, Sandinista police gun permits, fake press credentials. There were brand-new political pamphlets belonging to the Salvadoran rebels and detailed descriptions of escape routes through Latin America.
"It was a one-stop shopping center for Latin terrorists," a diplomat said.
Agents from the FBI and the U.S. State Department came to Managua to inspect the documents. Their interest stems in part from the discovery that one of the suspects in the World Trade Center bombing had five false Nicaraguan passports.
Ibrahim A. Elgabrowny was reportedly holding the passports for El Sayyid A. Nosair, who is serving a prison sentence for crimes related to the 1990 slaying in New York of Rabbi Meir Kahane. The passports bore photographs of Mr. Nosair and his family but the names of a family that apparently does not exist in Managua.
A court in April convicted a former Sandinista Interior Ministry employee and five other people in connection with a forgery ring that produced these and other fake passports. The former ministry employee has since been freed.
Nicaraguan citizenship was hastily granted to 890 or so leftists from several Arab countries, Spain and Latin America shortly after the Sandinistas' upset loss in the 1990 election, but before they left office, according to diplomatic sources.
Of special concern to American investigators are the U.S. passports found in the Santa Rosa arsenal. Three are blank, absent even of numbers. This seems to indicate that they were obtained directly from the passport agency in Washington, American officials said. The blank pages are printed with Liberty Bells, which suggests the passports date from around 1976.