The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

56 DECEMBER 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Kate Applegate joined the Foreign Service in 2015 after 20 years in journalism. She has served overseas in San José and Ciudad Juárez and for the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement in Washington, D.C. She is currently posted to Tegucigalpa as a political officer. FEATURE In February 2023, some 200 political prisoners were spirited to the United States from Nicaragua. Here’s the story of that unforgettable freedom flight. BY KATE APPLEGATE T he plane took off after midnight, mostly empty. Sitting in a largely vacant cabin, 10 U.S. Civil Service and Foreign Service officers chatted, listened to music, and tried to calm their nerves. One moved back to an empty seat to pray. Two days earlier, most had had no idea what was about to unfold. Lance Hegerle, then deputy director for Central American affairs at State, had reached out cryptically, inviting colleagues on a mission with the barest of details: Spanish speakers. Plane travel. Diplomatic passport. Twenty-four hours. Just before takeoff from a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, late on Feb. 8, 2023, the team learned their full mission. It sounded more Hollywood than HST. They would leave Norfolk Naval Station on a USAID-funded jet, land in Managua, pack the plane with some 200 political prisoners pulled hours earlier from their jail cells, and spirit them to the United States, all in a matter of hours. The mission was unclassified, but lives were at stake. Loose lips could sink the trip, condemning the political prisoners to continued imprisonment under the regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo. Many political prisoners had spent years behind bars. The plan to free them came about in a matter of days, NICA WELCOME OPERATION