Commando Raid AKA Getting Unimogs out of Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
Rule #1: It is never as easy as you think.
Postulate #1: I already thought it was going to be difficult.
Result #1: My expectations were met and exceeded.
Following are excerpts from my report on the Unimog extraction mission performed at the port of Limon, Costa Rica on April 19th, 2006. A full report has been submitted to my superiors at headquarters.
Definition of Unimog: A rugged 4wd off-road vehicle built by Mercedes Benz, frequently utilized for military use. These particular target vehicles were Danish Army 416’s, retirees, with low mileage and great maintenance. They were diesel engine trucks, perfect for travel in Costa Rica.
April 19th, 2006
Wednesday, 0300 (3 AM) - First Leg:
I left the Nicoya peninsula in the middle of the night, driving Old Blue, our ’81 Land Cruiser. My first destination was Puntareñas, where I was to meet Jimmy and two hired drivers. Our plan was for all of us to pile into the Studebaker Lark wagon, making the trip in style, across country. The trip to Puntareñas was uneventful. I arrived to my destination point early and in time to enjoy desayuno (breakfast) at a Soda (small restaurant) which had just opened.
Wednesday, 0630 - Unit Formation:
Met Jimmy and the two drivers (Don Hidalgo y Adrian) at Claymore Self-Storage/Bodegas (where we have our Lark stored and Jimmy works). Jimmy had prepared the Studebaker the day before and she was looking sweet and ready to roll! Swapped Old Blue for the Studebaker. We all shook hands, piled into the Lark, and were off. Or so I thought….
Oh- did I mention that Jimmy belongs to Costa Rica Full Carry- and is of the persuasion that owning and carrying firearms is a Costa Rican right? We were equipped with a fully loaded .38 firearm safely tucked under my front passenger seat position in the Lark. It may have been her first intimate contact with a firearm.
0700 –0 745 AM - False Start:
Traffic was heavy this first 30 minutes, going up the hill to rim above the capitol of Costa Rica, San Jose. We worked our way up into thick traffic and were nearing the top, and suddenly Jimmy cursed and shouted, realizing he’d left the Studebaker registration documents at the bodega. We took a vote, Jimmy definitely wanted to go back, I was for just going for it, and the two drivers didn’t really care either way. But you have to know about Costa Rican law and bureaucracy. They are sticklers for the correct paperwork. Jimmy was right. If we had not gotten the papers, we’d have been stopped and ticketed. It’s not uncommon here. Keep this point in mind as our Blog progresses.
0745-0830 - Retreat:
Drive back to the bodega for the papers.
0830-1030 - Second Leg:
Re-departure, with papers. Traffic was a lot heavier this time. We inched our way up the hill. Made it into San Jose safe and sound, not having been stopped, of course. We drove into La Uruca (an area outside of San Jose).
1030 – First Casualty:
We stopped here to gas up and to check the Lark’s fluid levels. It was a warm humid day and everyone got out for a soda. I went around front and lifted her hood and proceeded to give her a visual inspection. I wanted to check the coolant level. But I was worried because the engine was hot. As you probably know, it is very dangerous to check an automobile cooling system when it is hot and under pressure. I squeezed the upper radiator hose to test for cooling system pressure. It didn’t appear to have too much pressure. Thinking of safety, I had installed a lever vent radiator cap. I lifted the lever vent, and no pressure escaped. Having checked the hose, feeling no pressure, and lifting the lever vent, I concluded there was no pressure. I went straight to opening the radiator cap. I promptly copped a face full of hot, scalding coolant. Imagine my surprise! I stood there and replayed the whole scenario and what had happened. I was astounded I let myself get burned like this. It started to hurt immediately. I rinsed the coolant off with water and I couldn’t tell yet the area of the burn exactly. Just that it was around my face, nose, and mouth. I re-inspected the lever vent and there was my answer. The lever vent device had failed! While there was not excessive pressure in the cooling system, there was enough for me to burn myself. For the rest of the mainly hot, humid and uncomfortable trip I was constantly aware of my burned, throbbing face. The only time I didn’t think about when I was engaged in conversation with others.
1100 - Mission is “a Go”
We all re-loaded back in the car. Next stop: Puerto Limon on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. Keep in mind I started from the Pacific coast at 3 AM. Before leaving, I called our attorney’s office for Adventure Motors and he confirmed that we were “all clear” to pick up the Unimogs- for paperwork, etceteras.
1100-1300 - Crossing High Lands and Low Lands
The drive to the Caribbean/Atlantic coast passes through an amazing forest reserve. We climbed the mountains out of San Jose and it was cool and breezy and had amazing views of the jungle, different flora and fauna in that region. After passing through the forest reserve, we drove a down grade of miles and miles. We finally hit the flatlands where we entered into gigantic banana plantations. It was a long, uneventful stretch through the flatlands. We all passed into our own contemplative states, and not much was said for at least an hour. I thought of my face.
1300 - Mission Thwarted
We arrived in Puerto Limon, hungry. We asked for a few directions and found our way to the Caribbean coast. It was hot and muggy in Limon. Parked the car outside of a nice restaurant. I had Jimmy park it where I could keep an eye on during lunch, as it doesn’t have locks, and is an eye-catcher here. We had been told that this restaurant was one of the best in town. Whoever told us that was half-right. When we were finally served, the food was great. The service left a lot to be desired. Up to now, the boys and I were feeling great. We had powered all the way across country and just had a very satisfying lunch. And we were excited to pick up these Unimogs and head on home.
While finishing lunch, I received a call from our attorney. Everything was great until he called. What he said to me was:
“Rick, I’m sorry to inform you that there is a problem. The customs workers at the port have been operating a work ‘slow down’ for the past three or four days. They are complaining about their pay. I have just heard a report that there has been rock throwing. Police and riot teams are responding. It is completely unsafe and you cannot pick up your trucks today. I’m sorry, it’s not your fault, it’s not my fault, but it is something that can’t be helped. I’ll call you when you are able to pick the trucks up, but it won’t be today.”
Well, imagine my disappointment! We were basically dealing with an aggressive pre-strike situation. Jimmy and I talked it over, and we were both of the same idea: that we should not give up on this. Heck, I had hired these guys, driven across the country, and got myself burnt! I was hot, sore, and fatigued. I did not want to go home empty-handed. So we made up a plan. We decided if we could just go to SEE the trucks that would be something. I wanted to see what they looked like, check their condition after shipping from Germany, check the fluid levels, kick the tires, you know… and maybe, just maybe, steal them out of their prison.
1430 - Commence Operation Commando Raid
The attorney had informed us that the trucks had actually arrived in the port of Moin, a few minutes from Puerto Limon. It is a port with facilities for accommodating larger ships, like the one which had brought the Unimogs. We took the coastal road from the restaurant. And wound our way north and east towards the port. We topped a hill and there below us on the ocean side, to our right, was the port facility. It was big, barren, with very little activity, and completely surrounded by a 10 foot chain-link fence with razor ribbon topping. We continued along the road, which was also along the fence line. Up ahead appeared the entry, and we re-formulated our plan amongst ourselves. Jimmy rechecked his firearm. As we pulled up to the guard shacks, it was obvious that there was something happening. There was very little traffic and numerous armed guards at the shack. Jimmy spoke briefly with one of the guards who was armed with an automatic rifle. He said the right things and we gained passage. Over to our left, we spotted our targets (see photo of: Orange, Yellow, and White Unimogs).
1500- Full Out Action:
In the next few minutes, things happened very fast. We drove to where the Unimogs were. The trucks were being completely swarmed over by people I didn’t know. The truck doors were all open, one of the engines was running, and people were standing around them, looking at them and climbing in and out of them. I couldn’t tell who was friend or foe. I picked out two guys; one looked like an attorney, or legal type. I quickly determined that this was my man, my customs broker: Rolando. The other guy was the customs authority. As it turns out, all of the other guys were also customs authorities of different ranks. In quick order, we had to get the trucks out with all due haste. Rolando told us: “Get the trucks out, right away.”
All of the customs fees had been paid and all of the paperwork completed. Some of the customs authorities were saying the trucks were not ready to leave. This was their method of enacting their slow down. They wanted to thwart our operation for their own objective: POLITICS! In addition, two of the trucks were missing keys! The port officials had misplaced the keys. That’s why only one engine was running! I got Jimmy into the one that was running, the White truck, and had him go drive it, to learn how to shift it (these particular Unimog 416’s have numerous shift levers for different operations. Also they have 4 reverse gears and 8 forward gears).
I started working on the possibility of hot-wiring the other two, keeping an eye on the Studebaker, which was currently drawing a crowd. Good distraction. It seemed like only a few moments had gone by, when Rolando approached me with a worried look on his face and told me: “You have to get these trucks out Now, Now, Now!” Some authorities were telling us we couldn’t go, while Rolando was saying we were clear. There was no time. I had to move quickly against the wishes of some of the authorities to accommodate Rolando, the authority who was in agreement with our objective. I flagged down Jimmy, who was thoroughly enjoying himself, doing donuts in the port parking lot. I told him to drive the White truck out immediately. He proceeded with trepidation, to the gate, while I went back to the other trucks. No need for the .38 yet.
The head port authority guy appeared with one more key for me. He was on our side! I tried it in the Yellow truck, but the key would not turn the ignition. I hopped out with the key, ran to the Orange truck, and voila! One more truck running! I put one of the other drivers into Orange and sent him out, hoping he’d make it through the gate, as had Jimmy just moments earlier. I went back to Yellow, again, investigating what it would take to hot wire it. All around Yellow, there were four of the customs authorities; all trying to make it very clear to me that the truck would not be leaving. By the way, this is all in Spanish, which I am learning. Luckily however, I am trained to read body language and intonation. I replied with a practiced “no comprendo”. I looked up, and saw that the two trucks which had made it to freedom were doing donuts outside of the compound. Still, I needed a solution for getting Yellow out of there, and I needed it fast!
1530 - No Man Left Behind!
I shouted out for Jimmy, to have the third driver bring me Orange’s key and pass it through the security fence. I was going to make this key fit. I had no diagnostic tools, no information, nothing for the purpose of hotwiring this thing. That other truck’s key was my only chance. The clock had stopped ticking by this point. Remember, the first time I tried this key on Yellow, it did not work. And, all around me was pandemonium! There were men blocking my every move, trying to tell me I couldn’t take the truck out of the compound. Jimmy trotted over with the only key we had. I faked a man with a false start to the left and went to the right and met Jimmy at the fence. White has something different, it’s not really a key, it’s a military ignition switch and it would not work with either Yellow or Orange. It had to be THIS KEY-as it was the ONLY KEY. I glanced at the Lark and formulated a plan to sprint to the car, if needed, for escape or protection.
I went back to Yellow with the intention to drive the sucker out of there. I put the key in, pressed, shook, wiggled, and by gosh, it finally turned! I got it running, dropped it into reverse to back it out, careful to not make eye contact with the customs authorities surrounding the truck. I backed it out of the spot and headed for the gate. So far, so good. Two down and just one to go! This time it was my turn to drive a truck through an armed and guarded gate. Jimmy had come back in and was covering my back with the Lark, by driving right on my tail. Unlike the customs authorities, the heavily armed gate guards took a cursory look at my papers and waved me on. I was through! I pulled the truck forward and parked it next to the other two.
1545 - Mission Accomplished
With all three trucks outside the compound fence I thought we were home free. The four of us were standing around, admiring the trucks and congratulating ourselves on having escaped the customs compound without major incident. As we were standing there, Rolando, our customs broker, jogged over from the compound. And he told us, in no uncertain terms, “You have to get out of sight and away from, the customs compound, fast!”
Quickly, I scanned the compound. There were no immediate threats. No guns pointed at us, no men running our direction. We all hopped into our respective vehicles, Jimmy took the Lark and the rest of us took the Unimogs and we headed to nearest gas station as a convoy. How did we do this with only 2 keys (one military key, one regular key- three trucks)? We found out that while Orange was running, we could pull the key out and keep driving it. With that find, we made our way to the gas station. We checked fluid levels while Jimmy got a copy of the key made. We made it, with not a moment or key to spare!
Our trip home was not uneventful, but after having made it out of the commando raid alive and getting trucks out of customs when it looked like it was going to be impossible, the events on the homeward journey were tame by comparison. Again, a full report to head quarters is on file. For this abbreviated record, no shots were fired and there was only one casualty.
Labels: 4 Sale, 4wd, Costa Rica, Inventory, Mercedes Benz, Military, Studebaker, Unimog, Vintage