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Nicaragua Lifeline for a Rebellion

5 minute read
Ricardo Chavira

Since the U.S. resumed military aid last fall to the contras in their seven- year-old war against the Marxist-oriented Sandinista government, the rebels have left their training camps in Honduras and established new bases inside Nicaragua. Their aim has been to resupply troops in the northern province of Jinotega. While still small in number, the camps are becoming an important adjunct to the air-supply operations that furnish rebels in Nicaragua with the bulk of their food and weapons.

With the contra military effort in full swing last week, moderate Rebel Leader Alfonso Robelo said he would not seek re-election to the directorate of the United Nicaraguan Opposition, the umbrella group that oversees contra operations. Robelo’s move, coupled with last month’s resignation of fellow Moderate Arturo Cruz, could greatly strengthen the political role of Adolfo Calero, leader of the main contra military organization, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force. Amid the swirling political crosscurrents, TIME Correspondent Ricardo Chavira visited several contra bases last week in Nicaragua. His report:

The banks of Nicaragua’s Bocay River were once dotted with Sumo Indian villages. Until the early 1980s the Sumos, surrounded by dense tropical forest, farmed and fished as they had for centuries. The Indians are gone now, forcibly moved to Sandinista resettlement camps, and the once sleepy river teems with guerrillas of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force. Rebel dugout canoes ply the Bocay deep into Nicaragua’s Jinotega province, carrying food and ammunition to contras in the interior.

The lifeline begins at a camp at a hidden airstrip along the Nicaraguan- Honduran border. From there, goods are piled into motor-driven dugouts and shipped down the Bocay to remote supply points. Much of the traffic goes through a hilltop base deep inside the jungle. Armed guards are posted outside the facility, which is little more than a day’s march from the fighting in central Jinotega. At the base, located some 25 miles inside Nicaragua, boxes of ammunition and mortar rounds are secured beneath camouflaged tarpaulins, and a radio operator maintains static-filled contact with forces far to the south.

“This is the axis of our resupply effort,” says a lanky guerrilla known as Comandante 42, the second in command of an 800-man force that protects the supply lines. The axis, though, is fragile. Contra sentries are posted up and down the river, but Sandinista troops may lie in ambush. Government patrols can call in air support when they encounter the guerrillas.

Even so, the perilously thin lifeline has lifted the contras’ spirits and military fortunes. “These bases are an important advance for us,” says Comandante 42. “The big difference in the past few months is that our men can get resupplied here rather than at the border.” Sandinista troops showed just how dangerous border supply operations can be when they overran the main contra base near Yamales, Honduras, in March 1986, with a 3,000-man force. The rebels beat back the soldiers after a nine-day battle.

The guerrillas have few illusions about maintaining supply lines without U.S. help, and they are eager to impress listeners with their needs. “We know what has been said about private aid to the contras,” said a rebel calling himself Renato, who heads a 500-man unit that helps guard the supply line. “But when the American Government was not providing assistance, we suffered. People naturally saw us as losing the war.”

While resumption of U.S. aid allowed the contras to return to the Bocay region, the area has changed greatly through Sandinista resettlement efforts. “Before they took our aid away we had many supporters among the civilian population here,” said Renato. “We could walk around unarmed. The people sold us food, and we had many secret couriers. Now the civilians are gone. When the Sandinistas took our people away, we lost an important base of support. We have to walk days and days to find civilians.”

Still, many of the contras say they are making progress. “We used to have to battle daily,” said a veteran guerrilla named Hernan, recalling combat two years ago. “The Sandinistas were always on top of us, attacking. Now they are giving up territory, and we are the ones on the offensive.” Guerrillas say they have downed five Sandinista battle helicopters in the past two months with Soviet-made SA-7 missiles bought with U.S. aid, a claim the Sandinistas deny. One rebel said contra forces in the area have 40 of the Soviet-made antiaircraft weapons and expect delivery of 200 more.

No one, however, takes the Sandinistas lightly. A guerrilla named Huaspaca recalled fighting last February in the Matagalpa region to the south: “It was rough, and the Sandinistas invaded our positions. They use less men than before, but they employ a lot more artillery.” Added a contra known as Chicle, who was a sergeant in former President Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard: “The Sandinistas use everything at their disposal. When they are in trouble, they call in air support or artillery. Under those circumstances we have to curtail our operations. They are capable in war, but remember they are being advised by the Cubans and Soviets, who are very experienced in warfare.”

The contras in the jungle watch Congress almost as closely as they do the . Sandinista forces. The rebels are aware that congressional ire over U.S. arms sales to Iran, and the subsequent use of proceeds to supply the contras, could mean another aid cutoff. The guerrillas claim to be undaunted, but the claim does not ring altogether true. Declared Chicle: “If Congress stops our aid, fine. But they can’t stop our will to fight. It’s stupid to say that that wouldn’t hurt us profoundly. However, we will keep fighting any way we can.”

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