José Figueres Ferrer, the man who abolished Costa Rica’s army in 1948, was 5-foot-3 but larger than life. Costa Rica recently inaugurated a museum honoring “Don Pepe,” and one moment that occurred 49 years ago stands out:
In December 1971, during his third term as Costa Rica’s President, Figueres received word about a hijacked Nicaraguan airplane at Juan Santamaría International Airport. The hijackers, members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), were holding dozens of passengers captive and demanding fuel to fly to Cuba.
“I became very angry when I heard, and made immediate arrangements to be driven to the airport,” he said, per a contemporary New York Times report.
Figueres soon arrived to a tense situation at Costa Rica’s largest airport. One of the hijackers had a gun pointed at the head of a flight attendant, only angering him further.
The President took matters into his own hands. Wielding a submachine gun, he walked onto the tarmac to confront the kidnappers himself.
“Figueres stood on the runway and pointed a submachine gun at the cabin until the hijackers surrendered,” the Los Angeles Times described.
Things didn’t end peacefully. As the hostility escalated, Figures ordered authorities to shoot out an engine of the BAC One-Eleven jet and flatten its tires. When the plane began to burn, the hijackers freed the captives in exchange for another aircraft.
But Figures had no intention of letting the hijackers fly to Cuba. When they left the stricken plane, a shootout ensued. Among tear gas and bullets, two of the hijackers were killed, and the remaining pair were detained by a gun-toting President Figueres and Costa Rican authorities.
Not too shabby, Don Pepe!
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