EL ZUNGANO, NICARAGUA
COMMANDER "Jackal" emerges from a squat, rust-scarred hut. He glances at the ominous gray cloud preparing to dump more rain on the lush volcanic peaks of northern Nicaragua.
"This is the only step left," the leader of the Northern Front 3-80 Rebels says, as justification for his action. "The government is supposed to represent all sectors of the country. Here it only represents one: the Sandinistas."
Jose Angel Talavera, known as the Jackal, is holding 16 hostages (out of 38 originally seized on Aug. 20) in another hut not far down the muddy road. In retaliation, 175 miles away in Managua, a group of ex-Sandinista National Liberation Front soldiers have 18 of their own hostages (out of 34 taken on Aug. 21), including Nicaraguan Vice President Virgilio Godoy Reyes.
Mediators shuttling between the two camps have secured the release of some hostages. But the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro is caught in the pull of a crisis, struggling to escape the hateful currents of a war that officially ended three years ago.
Within months of the war's end, small bands of disgruntled former contras (now known as recontras) and ex-Sandinista soldiers started taking up arms to demand promised land, steal, and settle old scores. But many of the recontras, including the estimated 1,500 now backing Mr. Talavera, have also been politically motivated.
The recurring demand over the last two years has been a call for Sandinista Defense Minister Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra and President Chamorro's son-in-law and presidential minister, Antonio Lacayo, to step down.
In 1990, Chamorro led the 14-party National Opposition Union (UNO) coalition to an electoral victory over the Sandinistas. But she alienated most of her UNO coalition by allowing the Sandinistas to control the Army, police, and Supreme Court.
With Mr. Lacayo managing the process, Chamorro has sought to heal war wounds through a policy of reconciliation, which means including the Sandinistas - the largest and most unified political party - in her government.
But her supporters feel betrayed. And extremists on both sides have become more militant in recent months over broken promises of land, money, and other forms of government compensation. Violence in the countryside has surged. A power struggle that paralyzed the Congress was finally resolved with Sandinista help. But a moribund economy and high unemployment continue to fuel discontent.
Talavera says he will lay down his arms if Ortega and Lacayo are ousted. He also wants a plebiscite on disbanding the Army.
Shifting slightly to ease the pressure on his prosthetic leg (the result of a war wound), Talavera commends efforts of conservative United States Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who engineered a cut-off in US aid to Nicaragua last year and is behind a similar move this year.
"Millions of dollars won't solve anything if...we don't solve the political problems in the country," the rebel leader says.
Talavera and his men are fully outfitted in combat fatigues and new boots. They carry radios and are armed with AK-47 rifles, grenade launchers, and surface-to-air missiles. Nicaraguan Army officials say the group is supported by excontras living in Miami. Talavera says his support comes from national and international "amigos." When asked to define amigos, Lt. Col. Jose Esteban Martinez Gonzalez responds, "A friend is someone that if you ask him for his shirt, he gives it to you." And if you ask for wea pons? "They give us whatever they can," he replies.
Back in Managua, ex-Sandinista Maj. Donald Mendoza says he will not release his hostages until Talavera releases those being held in the mountains. Negotiators are working to secure a simultaneous release.
There is speculation that Major Mendoza and his men were collaborating with former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega and other Sandinista leaders. Mr. Ortega and Mendoza deny it.
Meanwhile, the Chamorro government is emphasizing a silver lining in the dark cloud. Political leaders of all stripes have been united by the crisis. The result is a signed accord committing them to work together to resolve the key problems facing the nation.
Assuming the crisis is resolved peacefully, analysts say there is no guarantee the root causes will not give rise to new tensions. The historical record of distrust here is not promising.
But that won't keep some Nicaraguans from trying. Doris Maria Tijerino, a Sandinista legislator being held hostage by Talavera says, "I am optimistic that we as Nicaraguans have the ability to overcome this, even though the efforts to date haven't borne much fruit. I think we can do it." And just as the slate-gray sky lets loose she adds, "We have no choice."