Ocotal early in the morning smells of pine wood smoke on which thousands of breakfasts are being cooked. Ocotal looks unlike most other Nicaraguan towns and most resembles a town in Chihuahua back several decades. The houses, mainly of adobe, are made like the jacales of Chihuahua, and the early morning is broken by the braying of burros, still a major means of cargo and rural transport. The name itself means pine grove, and remnants of pine forests surround the town on nearby hills and mountains. The accent of northern Nicaraguans takes on some Honduran sounds and words. It is on the border.
Founded in 1781, Ocotal has been a quiet border town, with some noticeable times that were not so quiet. In 1856, the last Conservative, or Legitimist, Nicaraguan president, JoseMaria Estrada, was assassinated by a Liberal hit squad trying to escape as he crossed the Dipilto River by Ocotal ( Another version has Estrada assassinated in Somoto, a nearby town.).
The next peccadillo in Ocotal concerned the US Marines, and Agusto Cesar Sandino. At the end of the 1927 Civil War, when Jose Maria Moncada had defeated the Conservative regime of Adolfo Diaz, all of the Liberal chieftans demobilized except Sandino, who loathed and detested Moncada. The Marines were called in and garrisoned Ocotal. In July, 1928, several hundred Sandinistas surrounded the 50 man Marine garrison, based in the city hall building on the north side of the town square. In a series of colorful exchanges, Sandino and the Marine commander, Captain Gilbert Hatfield insulted each other, and at 2:00 a.m. on July 16, 1928 Sandino attacked Ocotal. Well planned, the coordinated attack continued through the morning. One Marine was killed. A flight of U.S. army planes flew over Ocotal, saw the melee, and returned to Managua for reinforcements. The squadron of planes arrived later in the day and began dive bombing the areas of the town surrounding the Mayor´s office. In terms of strategy it was reportedly the first use of dive bombing to break off an enemy attack. The attack failed, and the Marines and Sandino fought it out for five more years, squaring off for a last time at the battle of El Sauce in December 1932. There is a picture of Captain Hatfield standing in front of the bullet pock marked city hall on the day after the battle. He looks pretty tired. And today, the same building is still city hall, sans the bullet holes.
Ocotal for the next few decades prospered as a center for the pine lumber industry, and some basic grain production. In the late 1970´s the Sandinista guerrilla movement picked up and by 1979 the Sandinistas won the revolution. In May, 1980 the Contra War began in Quilali and by 1982 fighting spread to several areas in northern and eastern Nicaragua. Chief contra planer was Emilio Echeverry, friend of Honduran politicians, who had some military training. A large scale plan was devised to try to capture Ocotal as a Contra stronghold, with attacks taking place on several towns and villages in the north. The result was Operation Marathon. Ocotal was not captured, but perhaps a third was pretty well shot up, and the government radio station was destroyed. After that battle things quieted down at least around Ocotal. The war ended in 1990, and the pine lumber industry picked up in the Cordillera de Dipilto north of town. Now it is hard to find any remnant of that battle. There are a few foxholes and many cartridge casings on the Cerro la Campana, a mountain of black marble, located two km west of Ocotal. That is all.