SANTA FE, NICARAGUA
'WE aren't playing. We have the capacity for war," warns "Comandante Indomable" (indomitable). The intense, gaunt-faced guerrilla is accompanied by a dozen young soldiers toting AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, and a mortar launcher.Since this "born-again" contra fighter led a six-hour attack on the isolated mountain town of Quilali in northern Nicaragua July 25, the government of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro is taking seriously the threat of contras rearming. The contra war is supposed to be over. But for months now, small bands of ex-contras have been digging up hidden arms caches, buying or stealing rifles, and heading back to the hills. Shortly after center-right President Chamorro's National Opposition Union (UNO) coalition ousted the Soviet-backed Sandinista National Liberation Front government in democratic elections last year, some 18,000 United States-backed rebels turned in their weapons. But hundreds of so-called "re-contras" claim they have been unable to return successfully to civilian life due to harassment, threats, and killings by police and Army forces still run by the Sandinistas.
Back to the mountains "Every day we learn of new groups forming," says Santiago Murray, director of the Organization of American States' (OAS) program to demobilize and assist former contras. He estimates that 350 to 500 ex-contras are roaming the mountains. The possibility of another war is real, says Mr. Murray. "Everything we've done is in danger of coming apart." Until now, the Chamorro government has branded the re-contras as little more than land-hungry "thieves." After the Quilali attack, the vice-minister of police, Jose Pallais, said such postwar action typically originates with "people who can't adapt to civilian life." But Aug. 8, Minister Carlos Hurtado took a more conciliatory tone, calling for more dialogue, during a visit to the hot spot. Last week central government officials met - under a white flag - with Comandante Indomable and, on a separate occasion, with Comandante Dimas (head of another rebel group) to discuss demands. Their initial seven-point list includes the disarming of Sandinista farm cooperatives, the removal of Army bases in the region, removal of police and Army officials with known records of human rights abuses, investigation of Sandinista Party members who allegedly assassinated former contras, and indemnification of the families of ex-contras killed. The government has agreed to respond to the demands in another meeting on Aug. 15. A fundamental cause of the re-contra movement appears to be concern for personal safety. OAS figures compiled from July 1, 1990, to April 30, 1991, show demobilized contras reported 159 threats, 218 illegal detentions, 84 cases of armed aggression, and 52 deaths. About half the deaths are attributed to the police or military. Comandante Indomable, whose full name is Jose Angel Moran Flores, alleges that his farmhouse was fired on by police and military forces Dec. 12, 1990. He escaped, but his wife later died of a bullet wound. The Feb. 16 assassination of former high-level contra leader Enrique Bermudez outside a Managua hotel has also been a catalyst for the re-contras, says Mr. Murray of the OAS. "Many demobilized contras feel that if Bermudez, a well-known figure, can be killed with impunity, what chance have they got?"
Former state police To some degree, the problem stems from the feared Sandinista state security police. Disbanded under Mrs. Chamorro, 500 of the 1,700 members were transferred to local police forces. In every human-rights case investigated by Americas Watch, the finger is pointed at former state security members. The Chamorro government has moved some officials to administrative positions, but others have simply been transferred. Indomable argues that if Chamorro removed some of the police officials and cut the Army to about 12,000 troops (it currently has 28,000, down from 90,000 last year), there would be more money for the woefully underpaid police and more harmony in the countryside. Mayors from half a dozen towns in the north came to last week's peace talks to speak in support of re-contra demands. But Managua resident David Dye, who is coauthoring a book on the Chamorro transition, argues this is not just a fight for personal security. He points to the larger political battle over land as the subtext. "The big [pre-Sandinista] landowners and UNO mayors want to get rid of the Sandinista police so they can take back land distributed to the poor," Mr. Dye says. "If the contras get their way, it opens the door to a right-wing offensive." Some analysts see the re-contra movement as short-lived. "Who's going to finance them or offer sanctuary? Neither the US nor Honduras will," says Oscar Rene Vargas, a leftist political scientist. "It's in no one's interest to destabilize the country now. The re-contras will seem more and more like common thieves." Government officials say there are increasing numbers of highwaymen, both ex-contra and ex-Army, in the mountains. "The re-contras are cattle bandits. They're violating the peace agreement," says Claudio Mendoza Ubeda, director of a Sandinista cooperative chicken farm not far from where Indomable operates. "The government should go after them and kill them." Indomable denies ever having stolen food. And he says he will not need the support of the US. "There are plenty of weapons and ammunition left over in Nicaragua. We don't need a sanctuary. The people are supporting us." Juan Palacios, a farmer living a half mile from where Indomable was interviewed, says, "We don't want another war. It's the campesinos who suffer and we've suffered enough. But the Army has to be brought under the control of Violeta. "We voted for her, not the Sandinistas," he says. "We cannot permit them to assassinate the demobilized, including Indomable."