Teen draft dodgers flee from fighting Nicaragua war
Julio's plan is to slip out of his house at dawn, travel south in a cargo truck, and rendezvous with a campesino guide who will smuggle him past military patrols and across the border into Costa Rica. He has prepared five months for the trip -- an exit without passport or visa to escape Nicaragua's military draft.
``They [the Sandinistas] never explain. They say, `Here's a gun, go to the mountains,' '' 19-year-old Julio says two days before his planned departure from Managua. ``I don't have any enemies and, until I do have enemies, I won't go,'' he says.
Few of the Sandinista government's policies have provoked as much protest as the obligatory patriotic military service. Protesters erected stone barricades across streets in a town near Managua to keep out Army recruiters in late December. Many draft-age youths are fleeing into the cover of Nicaragua's rugged countryside. Others have sought out a developing network of smugglers, who supply the means for crossing the borders.
Sandinista leaders, who began a military draft a year ago, admit that discontent and desertion are problems, but argue that many young men willingly join the service.
Comandante Carlos Nuez, one of the powerful nine-man Sandinista directorate, says that the draft problems should be viewed ``from the perspective that the United States has declared war on us.
``In a time of war, obviously there is resistance,'' he says.
And government leaders say recruitment will be stepped up, despite any reluctance to serve.
``We have to increase massive mobilization, to fortify the spirit of incorporation into the war,'' Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega Saavedra said during an end-of-the-year address.
The smugglers who help young Nicaraguans escape the draft are a mixed lot. According to human rights workers, political party members, and friends and relatives of draft-age youth (age 16 to 22), they include profit-minded civilians, campesinos familiar with the border regions, and even military personnel. There is no consistent price for the smuggling and the youths are delivered across both the Honduran and Costa Rican borders.
Julio says his contact, one of several who offered him the service, is a Managua father of draft-age children who objects to conscription. Julio said he expected to pay 7,000 cordobas (about $230 at the official rate) for his clandestine truck ride and guide.
A Nicaraguan journalist says that his aunt paid a friend in the military 55,000 cordobas to escort her son across the Honduran border six weeks ago. Another Managua resident says he met two Nicaraguan youths on a plane bound for Mexico who had purchased medical excuses exempting them from service. He said one youth paid 15,000 cordobas and the other $500 to military personnel.
Some 200 people reportedly have asked Lino Hernandez, a director for the Permanent Commission of Human Rights here, for help in arranging arrange political asylum or a passage out of Nicaragua over the past year. Mr. Hernandez says he not help in these efforts.
``They know that there is a way to do it, but they don't know how to find the right people.'' Hernandez says he knows of four youths who paid to be taken out of the country.
The litany of complaints about the draft is long. Many Nicaraguans say the Nicaraguan armed forces -- an estimated 100,000 people, including the regular Army, militia, and reserves -- is large enough without more recruits. Sandinista Army representatives have said that about 15,000 youths have been drafted; a Western analyst estimates as many as 50,000. Some Nicaraguans say the youths are not sufficiently trained before heading into the mountains to fight the rebel contra forces.
``We want to study, work, not join the Army,'' Julio says. ``I have nothing in this country.''
A father from the town of Nagarote, who is in his 40s, empathizes. ``They [the Sandinistas] are not defending the country. They are defending their own power.'' The man's farming town, about 25 miles from Managua, was the stage Dec. 27 for the most serious protest since conscription began.
Nagarote residents, many of them women, erected barricades to block military vehicles and recruiters on an early morning drive to round up draft dodgers. Recruiters broke windows and doors of houses suspected of secreting the evaders. Residents said many people, including mothers of draft-age youth, were bruised or cut during the clash and that 46 people were imprisoned for the night.
``They came to the door and said, `We are the law, we give the orders,' '' says Carmelita Guzman, who said her 60-year-old husband was one of those imprisoned for the night.
Government leaders say they do not have figures on the number of deserters from military service, but the incidence appears high.
Jos'e Gallo, mayor of Nagarote, said many draft-age youth are hiding out in nearby fields. Four families interviewed in the town have at least one relative who has deserted, become a fugitive within Nicaragua, or left the country. One deserter told Lino Hernandez that 3 to 10 people were fleeing his military base daily before he, too, left.
``The resistance is at times spontaneous and at times induced,'' Comandante Nuez says. ``We have here political parties, among them the Social Democrats and the Social Christians, who make a business with the Servicio Militar Patriotico, offering a quantity of money to take the youth out of the country.''
Both parties deny the charge.
``It is certain that those people exist, but we're not involved,'' said Tomas Coe, a Social Democrat.
Several of Nicaragua's opposition parties, including the two accused, have publicly criticized the draft, demanding a revision that would allow for ``conscientious objector'' status.
Hernandez says that in recent months the draft has been more vigorously applied and that incidents of ``indiscriminate'' roundups of youths from movie theaters, discos, and buses have become more frequent.
The Sandinistas have rejected opposition political proposals for negotiation with the rebels, charging that the contra forces are an artificial force created by the United States with no popular support in the country.
The anti-Sandinista guerrilla war, which has been supplied with covert funding from the United States, has been going on for nearly four years. Daniel Ortega, in a speech Jan. 10, reported that 7,698 people had been killed since the war began.
``We see as one of our main responsibilities finding a way to put an end to this war, using all of our forces,'' says Comandante Nuez. ``This a war is not going to end if everyone stays in their houses,'' he said.