Hilario Vargas, a slight, soft-spoken agronomist, became mayor of this cattle town last May after voters all over Nicaragua swept the Sandinistas from office. A month later the local Sandinista army captain had him arrested.
A renegade Contra, defying a post-election peace pact, had shot a Sandinista lieutenant to death in a diner that day and escaped. Tension ran high. For an hour and a half, Vargas recalls, Capt. Francisco Henriquez held a pistol to his head, threatening to kill every government supporter in town. "He was hysterical," the mayor said.
Capt. Henriquez later apologized, but Vargas and the townspeople didn't forget. Joining a popular revolt across southeastern Nicaragua, they shut down the country's main east-west highway for 18 days this month to demand removal of all Sandinista soldiers and policemen from the region.
The blockade was the first serious challenge to President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro by her right-wing supporters, who question her survival strategy of leaving the military under Sandinista command. The protest gained weight when Vargas and seven other mayors from the region, where Chamorro ran strongest in the election, carried the demand to Managua.
After negotiations failed, Chamorro moved to end the conflict unilaterally. She sent an army convoy to clear the highway, then announced last Wednesday that 18 of the region's 34 army bases would be closed and 500 officers, nearly half those on duty there, would be retired by Dec. 31. But the mayors were not satisfied and asked local officials elsewhere in Nicaragua to join new protests.
"The war is over and the Contras have disarmed, so why do we need the military?" Vargas asked. "They are not doing anything but rustling cattle, stealing from homes and threatening us. They are nothing but parasites."
During the 8-year-war, the southeastern region embracing Boaco and Chontales provinces and southern Zelaya province were the U.S.-backed Contras' most secure haven. The frontier ranchers and dairy farmers remained aloof from the Sandinista insurgency that seized national power in 1979. Afterward, they resisted the arrival of Sandinista teachers, collective farms and army recruiters so stubbornly that Chontales became known as "La Vaca Echada"--the cow that lies down and won't move.
Although Chamorro polled 70% of the region's votes and remains enormously popular here, her government is earning the same defiance by failing to curb abuses by Sandinistas who kept their weapons after nearly 17,000 Contras laid down theirs.
Some mayors of her National Opposition Union, or UNO, say that the army or police routinely bar them from recovering municipal property stolen by their Sandinista predecessors. Forty-four former Contras have been arrested in a campaign of harassment, according to international officials supervising their resettlement.
"In every town I visit, people who are UNO activists have been arrested, tortured and accused of being delinquents," said the Roman Catholic bishop of Juigalpa, Pablo Antonio Vega, who joined protesters at the barricades. "There is no legal security here. Armed Sandinistas are the only law."
Vargas and other mayors want the region disarmed except for municipal policemen chosen by and responsible to them, not to the Sandinista command in Managua. Because such forces could include former Contras, the Sandinistas pressed Chamorro to resist.
"Their criminal purpose is to dismantle the army so they can get on with the pleasurable task of sticking the knife to the hated Sandinistas," declared the Sandinista newspaper Barricada.
The protest was sparked by the arrest Oct. 28 of a former Contra commander known as Oscar who, as part of the rebels' demobilization accord, had been allowed to set up a 30-man rural police force in a small resettlement zone in the southeast.
When Oscar decided to expand the force to 79 and refused to take orders from Managua, the government sent troops and helicopters to seize him and disarm his men. Two protest rallies ended in bloodshed when troops opened fire on Oscar's supporters in Yolaina and Nueva Guinea, killing five of them.
Former Contras, also angered by the government's delay in providing land for their resettlement, built the first barricades at the eastern end of the Rama Road on Oct. 31. But as the protest spread west to Juigalpa--throwing up 16 barriers of boulders and parked vehicles along a 110-mile stretch--it was joined by thousands of people who had never picked up a gun. The mayors' participation helped keep the roadblock gatherings peaceful and festive.
"This is a rebirth of civilian activism," said Roger Garcia, a Ministry of Education official who helped build the barricade here. "There are no more Contras. This is the people. . . . After so many years of trauma, we just want the Sandinistas to go away."
The protesters' demands for security were backed by Nicaragua's Roman Catholic bishops and Vice President Virgilio Godoy. He called their action, which caused shortages in Managua of the isolated region's milk and cheese, "a beautiful act of civic protest."
Chamorro branded it the work of "extremists." Negotiations broke off when she refused to dump Sandinista Gen. Humberto Ortega as army commander and her son-in-law, Antonio Lacayo, as minister of the presidency. The crackdown came after four policemen were killed by one of their own grenades while trying to stop the protest from spreading to the Pan American Highway.
The army cleared the barricades with little resistence last weekend. Police arrested former Contra leader Aristides Sanchez and raided the Contras' resettlement office, seizing field radios, computers, military uniforms and a few AK-47 rifles and grenades.
Chamorro promised an investigation of the shootings at Yolaina and Nueva Guinea. But so far the conflict has only increased resentment among the president's supporters over hers and Lacayo's perceived leanings toward the Sandinistas. Said Garcia: "I'm afraid we are seeing the beginning of a new dictatorship."
As traffic resumed on the Rama Road last week, Sandinista troops and police were deployed to prevent new blockades.
"It's true that the majority of the people here want us to march out of this zone with our heads hanging low," said Lender Aleman, a policeman who was guarding a bridge Friday near Santo Tomas. "But it's not their decision to make."