JUIGALPA, Nicaragua — As usual, this year's fiesta marking the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin was an orgy of mud and blood.
Young men fortified with alcohol did their best to stay astride lurching, ill-tempered Brahman bulls. Several were thrown into the mud, kicked and gored.
But this year there was an overlay of pathos to it all, for in the countryside not far away, another sort of mayhem was being carried out--mud and blood without sport, the guerrilla war.
Anti-government rebels--counterrevolutionaries, or \o7 contras\f7 , as they are called--recently made their first incursion into the mountains and pastureland that ring Juigalpa. The Sandinista government's soldiers gave chase, and a bit later there were 13 new graves in the town cemetery, local boys killed in action.
The fiesta was affected by all this. Not as many farmers as usual were willing to travel the country roads to get to the fairgrounds. Fewer young men turned up to ride the bulls, and townspeople retired early, wary of gunfire in the night.
War Cuts Attendance
"We are naturally affected by the situation of aggression we are suffering," Alvaro Reyes, a Red Cross paramedic, told a visitor as he tended to the injuries of some of the riders. "Many boys are off to war, and others can't come to town for fear of ambush. That some boys have fled the draft is an indispensable part of it all."
Juigalpa, population 23,000, is the capital of Chontales province, one of Nicaragua's more important cattle-producing areas. The towns, the roads, the pasturelands--it is all like something out of a Remington painting.
In normal circumstances, the sound of horses' hooves is more common than the roar of engines. On the dirt roads, one sees cowboys in straw hats and jeans, moving cattle along as they have for generations.
Until recently, the rebels had been active in areas to the north and south of Chontales, but rarely in the province itself. But now they have moved in. In a single recent attack, on the town of Cuapa, 50 Sandinista soldiers were reported killed.
Regime Discounts Attacks
The government line is that these attacks amount to no more than propaganda, that they are meant to show rebel strength where there is none.
According to Rafael Enriquez, a young army officer stationed in Santo Domingo, 25 miles northeast of Juigalpa, the rebels "want to appear to be dominating terrain, to be opening new zones of operation, but in fact we have them on the run."
Santo Domingo looks like a confusion of movie sets, bits of "Rio Bravo" thrown in with bits of "The Longest Day." As cowboys tie up their horses in front of the cantina, armored cars head into the mountains in search of rebels.
Boys play war with marbles and cartridge cases; the marbles are bombs and the cartridge cases, soldiers.
The results of the rebel offensive are mixed. The attack on Cuapa, in early August, is regarded by the contras as an important victory, but beyond that the rebels have made little impact.
On one occasion, the rebels entered the village of San Pedro Lovago, which at the time was defended by a small militia unit. Only one defender fired his gun (he was drunk, according to townspeople), and the rest hid their weapons.
Searched for Officials
The contras searched for Sandinista officials, presumably to abduct them or perhaps execute them, but found none. A militiaman, Carlos Manuel Blandon, was taken prisoner but managed to escape. He said later that the contras beat him and tried without success to set him on fire.
"A miracle of God," Blandon said.
For a time, it seemed that Juigalpa's fiesta would have to be canceled. The police called in members of a Roman Catholic Church committee taking part in the preparations and questioned them about reports that they have been helping young people to escape the draft.
Msgr. Pablo Antonio Vega, the conservative bishop of Juigalpa, threatened to withdraw the church's blessing for the fiesta unless the police backed down. "They stopped the oppression," the bishop said later, "and we agreed to support the fireworks and music."
Vega is an unbending foe of the Sandinista government. His position is shared by many in this area, where cattlemen tend to resent the Sandinistas' intrusion into political and economic affairs.
Vega's flock recently gave him a Peruvian-bred horse and made him honorary president of the local riding club. "Here," the bishop said, "you are not a person unless you ride."
'Nothing Stops the Bulls'
He was asked why the military action failed to bring cancellation of the fiesta this year, and he replied, "Nothing stops the bulls." He added that the practice of riding bulls may have begun as a form of religious penance, or perhaps as a way to thank the Virgin Mary for some favor.
"Now," he said, "it has degenerated. This is an event without norms or rite, completely outside of any frame of reference."