TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Guerrillas have streamed out of Nicaragua by the thousands during the past four months, holing up in Honduran territory to await desperately needed combat supplies.
Idle rebels on the Honduran side of the border currently number as many as 7,000, about half the total of insurgents facing the Managua government, according to guerrilla leaders.
The pullback has peaked as Congress prepares to vote next week on a Reagan Administration proposal for $14 million in new aid to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas known as contras-- short for counterrevolutionaries in Spanish.
Congress cut off funding for CIA aid to the contras last spring, and the rebels soon began to suffer severe shortages of ammunition, uniforms and boots. In January, contra troops began pouring across the border from Nicaragua to Honduras, their clothing in tatters and their ammunition all but exhausted.
In forested mountains near the border, contra bivouacs are spread out for miles around a rebel base. Some men patrol the border, others take training courses, and many pass the hours playing cards, talking and milling around.
They sleep in makeshift shelters made of sticks and sheet plastic, and they gather for meals--mostly rice, beans and tortillas--at rustic mess shacks scattered through the area.
"Some people have been waiting six months for equipment and haven't been able to go back in," said a regional commander who calls himself Jimmi Leo. "I came in two months ago to get supplies, but there weren't any. The day we get resupplied, we're out of here."
Troops are told to be patient, that supplies are on the way, Jimmi Leo said. "Sometimes we have to lie to them to keep morale up."
He led a visitor into a dusty ravine where dozens of guerrillas were taking it easy in the shade of tall, wispy bushes. Some of the men were bootless, including one known as Maynor. The soles of his feet were calloused and cut.
Barefoot for a Week
Maynor, 27, said he had arrived from Nicaragua the day before after hiking barefoot for a week with a combat group of 47. Five of the 47 arrived without boots.
"We're waiting to go back to Nicaragua," Maynor said. "So far, they haven't told us anything, but we have faith that they will give us equipment to go back."
Also waiting for equipment are hundreds of young recruits who have yet to see their first combat. Rebel leaders said that new volunteers arrive every day, but few can be outfitted for training.
Shortages of ammunition, boots and uniforms have not only kept fighters idle in Honduras, but also have forced contras still in Nicaragua to scale down their attacks against the Marxist-led Sandinista government.
"Right now, we are at the worst point," said Indalecio Rodriguez, a top rebel political leader.
A Drastic Reversal
The retrenchment is a drastic reversal from a year ago, when the rebel army was on the offensive, spreading its forces into Nicaragua and reducing its use of Honduran territory as a base for cross-border raids. Rodriguez said that as recently as November and December, no more than 1,500 rebel combatants were on the Honduran side of the border at any time.
Rodriguez, 47, is a member of the policy-setting directorate of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest and most important of the rebel groups.
The contras have survived, Rodriguez said, thanks to aid from political parties, private organizations and businesses and individuals in different countries, including the United States. He refused to name any of the donors but said that substantial new military supplies are on the way and will reach rebel troops by the end of April.
Col. Enrique Bermudez, the military commander of the contra army, blamed the current supply problems mostly on logistical difficulties encountered since the CIA stopped delivering aid.
Logistics, Red Tape
With official American help, the contras did not have to worry about supply logistics. Without that aid, Bermudez said, it has been hard to master the intricacies of buying from private arms dealers--"the dealers promise you everything, even if they are not sure they can deliver the goods"--and of coordinating transportation.
Outside sources say the problems also result from Honduran red tape, which has slowed the flow of supplies through this country, and a contra cash-flow crisis.
"They are running out of money," one Western diplomat said.
Although "delivery schedules have been delayed since last fall," Bermudez said, "I think that after this month, we are not going to have any more problems because everything has been worked out."
Bermudez, 52, sat at an outdoor table in his hillside command compound, an assortment of tents and sheds surrounded by gray-barked zapote trees. A few miles away, over a ridge wooded with the same tall trees, lay the Nicaraguan border.
Vows to Carry On
The colonel vowed that the contras in Honduras will return to Nicaragua with or without official U.S. aid. Still, he said, the aid is needed: "It will give us a superior offensive capacity."