Nicaraguan Indian Rebel Leaders Scramble for Power in Refugee Camps

Times Staff Writer

Leaders of Nicaragua's Indian rebels fighting to oust their country's Sandinista government are spending much of their time battling each other for control of the guerrillas and for support from nearly 30,000 Indian refugees.

These power battles, being played out largely in steamy U.N. refugee camps here in Honduras, have led to kidnapings, forced recruitment and other human rights abuses, according to refugee officials and Honduran military authorities. Instead of attracting new supporters, the rebels' tactics appear to have frightened many of the Indians, who originally fled from Nicaragua to escape fighting and harassment by the Sandinistas.

"There is tension in all of the settlements," said retired Col. Abraham Garcia Turcios, the top Honduran refugee official. "The camps are the scene of internal struggles between the many (guerrilla) commanders in the zone."

So far, the Indians have played a minor role in the war against the Managua regime by the contras, as the primary Nicaraguan rebels are called. The main rebel Indian fighting group, KISAN, says it has about 2,500 combatants, a figure some observers say is high. Their forays have been restricted to ambushes and small-scale attacks in their ancestral homeland of northeastern Nicaragua and along that country's northern Caribbean coast.

U.S. Aid Expected

KISAN's leaders, expecting to receive a share of the $100 million in military and other aid about to be committed to the contras by the United States, say that with U.S. supplies and training, they can double their guerrilla force and expand operations against the Sandinistas. They say they hope for the first time to be able to coordinate their actions with the much larger Nicaraguan Democratic Force, and to close off Sandinista supply routes along the Caribbean coast.

But the factional disputes cast some doubt on the Indians' ability to organize an effective guerrilla front.

Most of the Indian refugees living in the swampland settlements of eastern Honduras are Miskitos, who speak a staccato dialect and little or no Spanish. There are also Sumos and Ramas, members of two smaller Indian tribes.

The KISAN organization--an acronym for the phrase Coast Indians United in Nicaragua--was formed last year after Indian rebel leader Steadman Fagoth, a Miskito, was ousted in the wake of violent internal conflicts. KISAN's leader, Wycliff Diego, is a Protestant clergyman, and the organization is governed by a traditional Indian decision-making body, called the Council of Elders.

Effort From Exile

Fagoth was expelled from Honduras by the government sometime afterward and moved to Miami. From there, he continues working to reassert his leadership.

Another Miskito leader, Costa Rica-based Brooklyn Rivera, also has been trying to assert authority with the Indians in this area. Misurasata, a smaller Indian guerrilla band that Rivera heads, has been vying with KISAN for influence among the refugees.

Rivera dismisses KISAN as an organization put together by the CIA. While KISAN is allied with the United Nicaraguan Opposition, a U.S.-backed rebel umbrella group, and is strongly anti-communist, Rivera stresses the long-standing issues of Indian autonomy, language, land and resource rights, and previously has been willing to negotiate with the Sandinistas.

The struggle has been fierce. Death threats and hot words have been exchanged between the rival leaders. Fausto Vargas, president of the KISAN Council of Elders, calls Fagoth "a crazy man who could kill us all." In turn, a KISAN leader whose pseudonym is Nutri threatened that Fagoth would be "one man less" if he returned to Honduras.

Last month, when Rivera visited this region to discuss with KISAN guerrillas and with noncombatant refugees his proposal to unify the KISAN and Misurasata groups, with himself at the helm, he nearly came to blows with a KISAN leader, according to rebel sources.

Kidnapings Reported

Rebel and refugee sources say that since June, KISAN partisans have kidnaped between 25 and 40 supporters of Rivera or Fagoth from the U.N.-protected refugee camps along the Mocoron River. KISAN spokesman Roger Herman denied the charge.

Herman, leader of KISAN's political commission, admitted that the five Rivera or Fagoth supporters were captured by his group and held; they were "traitors" to KISAN, he said.

Refugees tell of other acts of violence--of women being whipped and a rebel being confined in a hole in the ground by KISAN guerrillas.

A well-informed refugee official, who asked not to be further identified, said of such incidents: "KISAN has a tremendous problem where each commander does his own thing, almost like a system of warlords. Once a (new) leadership emerges, that is not likely to be a problem, but now there is a situation where nobody is in charge."

In addition to leadership rivalries, there are signs of tribal rifts. The Sumos say they distrust the Miskitos, feeling that tribe, which heavily outnumbers them, takes advantage of them.

One Sumo leader, Elias Lopez, 20, said in an interview that he wanted to pull out of the KISAN guerrilla group and urged all Sumos to do the same.

'No to War'

"We Sumos are very few and that is why we do not want war," Lopez said in broken Spanish. "No to war. No to dirty politics. I do not want to send Sumos to war."

A four-year veteran in the guerrilla war, Lopez would not say why he chose now to distance himself from the war, and he was careful not to criticize the rebels. But he said that he would ask for U.N. protection and that he feared for his life.

An atmosphere of intimidation has even affected U.N. refugee workers. In recent weeks, the refugee official said, one worker found a snake left on her doorstep; guns were fired 10 yards from one of their houses, and one worker left the area for several days after receiving a death threat.

In June, one relief worker resigned after witnessing the abduction at gunpoint of 28 Sumo Indians by rebels from the Tapalwas refugee camp about 20 miles southwest of here. Four of the kidnaped men escaped and eight were freed, but the other 16 apparently have been forcibly recruited into the guerrilla ranks, according to relief workers and rebel sources.

Nearly 30,000 Indians are in Honduras. The troubles between the Sandinistas and the Indians began in late 1981 when cross-border raids by Honduras-based contras brought Sandinista retaliation. In the course of those operations, the Sandinistas killed 17 Miskitos at Leimus, on the Coco River.

Forcible Relocation

More Indians turned against the Sandinistas the following year when government troops burned several of their villages and forcibly relocated thousands of Miskitos in camps away from combat areas. Last year, the Sandinistas moved nearly 15,000 of the Indians back to their home villages, but most have not forgiven the upheaval.

The forced resettlement and fighting in the northern jungle triggered the exodus. Now, about 17,800 of the refugees live in the U.N.-run settlements, unable to leave without permission from Honduran military authorities or the relief officials. The rest live along the Coco River that marks Honduran-Nicaraguan frontier, many in wood and palm-thatch houses perched on stilts above mud caused by 10 months of rain a year.

In the camps, the refugees rely on minimal food handouts from relief agencies, fish from the rivers, and the meager crops that will grow in the swampy soil.

Relief officials say refugees are being pressed to join the guerrilla war or to support it by supplying food. They say that men and boys as young as 13 are told it is their duty to fight and that Indian camp officials are told by KISAN that they must make sure that guerrillas return to the battlefield after going on leave.

Neutrality Violated

Relief workers charge that guerrilla recruiters show up at refugee camps armed, violating the camps' neutrality. But KISAN spokesman Herman asserted that all 450 new combatants recruited in the last two months, many of them from the camps, are volunteers.

Meanwhile, relief workers say, it is difficult to measure support for the rival rebel factions. The Indians, they say, are secretive by custom and confide in few outsiders. Many of the refugees appear to be confused and nervous, they add.

"They've been used to following leaders, but all of the sudden they have three different leaders," one relief worker said. "They just want peace. They want to go home and to be left alone."

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