Fear increases as Nicaraguan vote nears Authorities worry gangs will impede democracy


JINOTEGA, Nicaragua -- When Mervin Gonzalez returned to this remote mountain area from South Florida exile, he didn't expect masked kidnappers. Or a gun in his mouth. Or two men shot to death during a rescue attempt.

Unlike hundreds of others who have died in Nicaragua's smoldering "silent war," Gonzalez survived to describe the 1995 adventure.

"When I came back to Nicaragua, I didn't expect to carry a gun," said Gonzalez, 33, a coffee farmer who once worked at one of Miami's best-known restaurants. "I didn't want to carry a gun. I wanted peace."

With the Nicaraguan presidential election four months away -- the first since Violeta Chamorro upset Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra, in 1990 -- authorities fear that gangs of roving marauders will transform their shaky democracy into chaos.

In June, a gang led by a former contra fighter kidnapped 33 election workers for several days, demanding that the army withdraw from this area near the Honduran border.

In January, a group dressed in Sandinista colors shot at leading presidential candidate Arnoldo Aleman of the right-wing Liberal Alliance.

More than 420 people have died in the fighting since January 1995. Scores have been kidnapped. Cars have been destroyed, farms burned and peasants brutally tortured.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of farmers chose not to register for the vote before the June 21 deadline. Many feared the wrath of warriors with nicknames like "Black Bismarck" and "Werewolf."

Although it's unclear whether the violence will help Aleman or his chief opponent, Ortega, it now seems certain the loser will question the result after Election Day in October.

"This is not just a problem for the military but for the whole society," Nicaraguan army Capt. Milton Sandoval said. "The murders are coldblooded. They kidnap anyone with enough money to pay."

The fighting can be traced to the U.S.-supported contra war against the Sandinistas that ravaged Nicaragua from 1982 to 1990, killing about 51,000 people and sending the nation into an economic tailspin.

The Reagan administration bought millions of dollars in arms for contras, whose headquarters were near Gonzalez's home in Jinotega. Cuban President Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union supplied weapons to the Sandinistas.

To many, the end of Sandinista rule in 1990 seemed to signal an end to violence.

Foreign governments, including the United States, spent more than $30 million to pay for land grants, agricultural loans and technical assistance for demobilized rebels.

Thousands of warriors exchanged machine guns for plows. A contra named "the Jackal" and his followers, for instance, now harvest sorghum and corn on the plains of nearby Esteli.

Yet many have refused to end the battle. Some of the fighters are former Sandinistas frustrated in the search for work. Nicaragua's 70 percent unemployment rate pushed them to plunder.

Many others, like the group that kidnapped election workers, are re-armed contras called "re-contras." They want to topple the government -- any government -- that stands in their way.

Although Nicaraguan authorities estimate there are only 488 gang members -- mostly criminals without political affiliation -- local coffee growers insist there are far more.

"Thousands and thousands," said Francisco Lanzas, president of the Association of Coffee Growers in Matagalpa.

L The battle is being fought with arms left over from the war.

In the capital, Managua, a fully automatic machine gun costs less than $100. Russian bullets, still sealed in cans from wartime, sell for a few cents each.

"This is business for them -- they take the help that governments offer them, stay three or four months, then head back into the mountains," said Lanzas, who travels with two bodyguards. "Our area is a combat zone."

Lanzas, 35, left Nicaragua after the Sandinistas took over in 1979 and went to Florida. In 1991, he returned to his family coffee plantation.

Like many others, he missed the rain forests, gallo pinto -- rice and beans -- and volcanoes of home.

Similarly, at least 10,000 Nicaraguans have left the United States to go home since 1990.

Although Lanzas acknowledges that the gangs cause less trouble than in 1990, those who are left are "hard-core assassins," he said. Overwhelmed police just can't keep order. The country is drifting toward war, he said.

All 1,348 members of Lanzas' organization -- about half of whom say they have been victims of kidnapping, robbery or other crimes -- have hired personal guards. They have a considerable cache of weapons.

Kidnapping is just one problem faced by election workers. Nicaragua is expected to run an $8 million debt preparing the ballot. That could severely hamper security when votes for president and local offices are cast in October.

"There's no doubt that this assault, stealing and blocking roads is a political phenomenon," said Fernando Caldera, chief of police for all Nicaragua. "These bands are [going to] make it tough to live in many places."

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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