Climate of Fear Thwarting Effort to Disarm Contras


Last Tuesday was a historic day in Nicaragua, the day that the Contras, finally gathered in cease-fire zones, began surrendering their rifles to U.N. peacekeeping troops. But to farmers in the nearby village of El Anzuelo, it was a night of terror.

Armed men, some wearing combat fatigues, shattered the settlement’s midnight calm with automatic weapons fire. They kicked down doors, asking about people who had fed and sheltered the U.S.-backed rebels. Villagers, who fled in panic, said the intruders raped five women, rustled cattle and stole what few possessions they found--money, watches, radios, clothing.

“When the Contras were around, we lived in peace,” said a 19-year-old rape victim who expressed the view of others in the village. “But now we are in danger. The Sandinistas have come and inflicted this grief on us. . . . They hate us for supporting the Contras.”

Police said they are not sure whether the attackers were members of the Sandinista-led army or criminals pretending to be soldiers. Nonetheless, the raid dramatized the insecurity felt in much of rural Nicaragua as President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro’s new government moves to disarm the antagonists in an eight-year war.

A pact with the president, who took office April 25 after a decade of Sandinista rule, obliges the anti-Sandinista rebels, numbering 8,000 to 10,000, to hand over their weapons by June 10. Then, on that day, she is to announce plans for reducing the 90,000-member army, led by Sandinista officers under her command.


The process is starting slowly, however, because of distrust on all sides of a conflict that took 30,000 lives: by Contras who fear harm by vengeful Sandinista gunmen if they go home unprotected, by Sandinista cooperative farmers reluctant to disband their militias, by pro-Contra civilians who want the rebels to stay armed to discourage Sandinista attacks on their villages.

By week’s end, 330 rebels had turned in their weapons--far fewer than the 100 to 200 per day that Chamorro had predicted would do so in each of the seven cease-fire zones. In a radio speech Friday, she appealed to the “good will” of the Contras to “help us achieve peace.”

A reporter’s visit last week to two of the zones--isolated rural areas typical of the war’s main battlegrounds--indicated that the pace of disarmament is unlikely to speed up soon.

Addressing some of the 1,600 troops in Zone 5, in southeastern Nicaragua, top rebel commander Israel Galeano gave his fighters credit Tuesday for having forced the Sandinistas to hold elections and accept defeat. But because Sandinista officers still dominate the army, he said, “We didn’t achieve the end we wanted, to take away the insecurity in the countryside.”

Then, he called for the first volunteers to disarm, and 80 stepped forward.

Lining up at an abandoned granary, they handed over worn AK-47 assault rifles, ammunition belts and camouflage uniforms to U.N. troops from Venezuela, who cut the guns in two with welding torches. Each received a pair of blue jeans, rubber boots and a striped shirt; sacks of rice, black beans, cornmeal and cooking oil; an identification card certifying that he had disarmed and a truck ride home.

Galeano has won a commitment from Chamorro to help his fighters build pioneer colonies in permanently demilitarized rural areas. But details of the program are still vague. In the meantime, the rebels face a hard personal choice: whether to return to homes and families they fled years ago--often because of trouble with Sandinista authorities--and have not seen since.

“Anyone who goes now goes at his own risk,” said a rebel political officer from Matiguas who calls himself Seven Leagues. “At home, I really don’t know what to expect. They could shoot me like a dog.” Like many others in Zone 5, he said he will wait to hear if the first disarmed rebels are left in peace.

Throughout the war, hundreds of former Contras have returned home, accepted amnesty and been allowed to work. But others have been harassed by the army, and cases of harassment are still reported--even after the Sandinistas’ electoral defeat on Feb. 25 led to a definitive cease-fire accord.

A two-year Contra veteran, Luis Alberto Castillo, 16, caught malaria last month. On May 1, his commander took away his rifle and said, “Go home and get well. The war is over.”

But five days later, a Sandinista patrol raided the boy’s farmhouse near Matiguas. His father, who fled with him, said the soldiers took the rest of the boy’s combat gear--boots, a hammock and camouflage fatigues--as well as a watch and $100 cash from the sale of some pigs.

After hiding four nights in the jungle, father and son hitchhiked last Wednesday to cease-fire Zone 3, 25 miles northeast of here, to get the boy an official U.N. demobilization certificate in the hope that it will shield him from harm.

Two days into the disarmament period, only six of the 2,600 rebels in Zone 3 had opted for civilian life. Others said they were waiting for their commanders to disarm first, or for word from their families on conditions back home.

After six years with the rebels, Maximo Dubon Montenegro said he could wait no longer.

“My wife is counting the days,” said the 27-year-old Contra medic, who gets letters from her. “She has told my children (ages 6 and 8) what I fought for. Now she says they want to know me.”

“Some of us thought we would win with bullets, but it didn’t turn out that way,” he reflected. “We won a better way. We won politically, through an understanding that spared us more bloodshed. For me this is a victory. . . . Now we must comply with our end to give the agreement a chance to work.”

Triumphant as he may sound, Dubon will not return to La Pavona, the hamlet where he served as an Assembly of God deacon before fleeing Sandinista army recruiters in 1984. He is moving to Jinotega, the nearest city. “In La Pavona, I would stand naked against the Sandinista army,” he said.

Zone 3 is full of civilians from other hamlets with the same fear; to them, the only government presence is the army. They have come in truckloads, from outside the zone, to live under rebel protection or even to pass themselves off as rebel soldiers.

Although estimating the number of real combatants at no more than 10,000, U.N. officials say 14,000 people calling themselves Contras have gathered in the seven zones.

Rebel leaders say they are under pressure from civilian supporters to keep their weapons.

“We have a dilemma here,” said Commander Cuerito, the acting chief in Zone 3. “Dona Violeta has asked us to give up our guns, but the people around here, who helped us in this war, are against that. The Sandinista army would eat them alive.”

At least one farmer from El Anzuelo headed for Zone 3 after the attack on that village Tuesday night. Residents said the rebels had kept a near-constant presence in El Anzuelo during the war--eating, sleeping and recruiting there--before withdrawing to the cease-fire zones two weeks ago.

Villagers blamed the attack on members of a 50-member army militia at San Antonio, a nearby grain cooperative often raided by the Contras. Capt. Cesar Altamirano, the police chief in Matiguas, said he thinks the assailants were free-lance gunmen who staged 13 other robberies here in the past week, but he promised to question the militiamen.

Militias were set up throughout rural Nicaragua during the 1980s to defend Sandinista-organized cooperatives from rebel attack. Under pressure from farmers who benefited from Sandinista land reforms, the army has refused to disband the militias--except for the few inside the cease-fire zones--until all Contras disarm.

Altamirano, a Sandinista kept in his post by the new government, said he has no orders to disarm the militias, even though his 25-member police force is spread too thin to offer much security to former Contras here.

“They have a right to protection by the state,” he said, holding up a copy of the constitution. “But if they want a greater margin of security, they had better make sure all their people comply with the (disarmament) agreement by June 10.”