MASAYA, Nicaragua — Jose Nery Hernandez, 10 years old, awoke to the sound of gunfire that hailed the New Year and went outside to watch in fascination as red tracer bullets streaked the midnight sky.
Suddenly, a stray projectile from an AK-47 assault rifle tore into his skull, making the boy this year's first reported victim of the guns that are supposed to shoot U.S.-backed contras in the Nicaraguan war.
As grieving relatives buried the frail farmer's son Saturday, voices in the leftist Sandinista government called for "exemplary punishment" of trigger-happy soldiers and militiamen who make the cities as dangerous as the war zones on certain holidays.
"When the counterrevolutionaries and the Reagan Administration are killing our people every day, it is incredible that a Nicaraguan child has to die from a bullet fired by someone who does not deserve to wear a uniform," said commentator Luis Cabrera on the Voice of Nicaragua, the government radio.
Guns at Celebrations
Long before the Sandinistas fought their way into power against a 15,000-man National Guard in 1979, guns competed with fireworks on Christmas, New Year's and Purisima, a weeklong Roman Catholic celebration in the first week of December that honors the Virgin Mary.
As the Sandinistas built Central America's biggest army to fight the contras, the guns have come to dominate those celebrations. Defense Minister Humberto Ortega said recently that 300,000 Nicaraguans, one-tenth of the population, have been issued guns to combat the rebels, including militiamen and reserves.
After five years of fighting and about 35,000 war casualties, the Sandinista army has the upper hand over the contras.
But to some in the government, what happened on Christmas was a sign that discipline in the army may not be as rigid as desired. Six people were wounded by wild gunfire during that holiday and 33 soldiers were arrested, the police said.
Festival Happiness Marred
"Those who shoot, drunk or sober, do not seem to realize that they are committing a serious crime," the official Sandinista party newspaper Barricada said in a Dec. 26 editorial. "They disobey, Olympian-style, the leaders of the revolution, damage the image of the armed forces and destroy the sane happiness of the people's festivals."
Challenging military and police chiefs to control their forces, the editorial concluded: "Maybe we can try harder on Dec. 31."
Police officials promised to put 60% of the force on the streets that night. But by its own account, Barricada was disappointed.
On a highway outside Managua, it reported, a drunken army lieutenant emptied six magazines from an AK-47 at passing vehicles on New Year's Day, wounding a truck driver in a 20-minute barrage before he was captured.
Meanwhile, two soldiers and two civilians shot up the town of Diriamba from a jeep, the newspaper said, and when a police patrol tried to end the joy ride, one of the revelers tossed a hand grenade, wounding nine policemen.
Nine soldiers were reported arrested in other shootings.
Commentator Fled Indoors
"Everybody knows somebody who was either wounded by a bullet or had one fall on his roof, patio or car," said radio commentator Cabrera, who himself fled indoors when bullets rained on his Managua neighborhood.
The bullet that killed the Hernandez boy came from the direction of Masaya's 62nd Army Brigade many blocks away, according to people at the wake in his family's modest wood and adobe house.
But there was so much shooting that night, they said, that nobody can be sure who fired it. Lt. Alejandro Campos, a brigade spokesman, said a canvass of the area was made and no suspects were found.
"He was asleep when he heard all the noise and wandered out in the street to gaze at the sky," said the boy's father, Augustin Hernandez. "He was sitting right there when he was hit," he added, pointing to a water meter on the dirt street in front of the house.
The boy was driven that night to a hospital 16 miles away in Managua, where he died Friday.
Relatives and neighbors, who gathered around his body in a wooden coffin in the living room of the house, told of their frustration in trying to get the police to take the case seriously at first.
"They would not believe there was really a victim until we applied for permission to go to Managua to pick up the body," said Ignacia del Carmen Pavon, the boy's aunt.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood Sandinista Defense Committee had gathered the names of six soldiers, militiamen and veterans in the area who had been seen firing weapons on New Year's Eve, but by the time the police were willing to act, just one of the six was still at home. He was taken in for questioning.
Mood of Resignation
The mood at the wake seemed more one of resignation over what many called "an accident" than fear or indignation over the proliferation of weapons in the neighborhood in recent years.
"It is OK to arm these people but not when they're drunk," Pavon said.
Under army regulations, soldiers, militiamen and reservists who are not on patrol are required to turn in their weapons three days before certain holidays such as Christmas and New Year's. Bullets must be accounted for, and anyone firing weapons except for combat or target practice can be called before a military court.
An Interior Ministry spokesman, Mario Sanchez, said that 112 soldiers were arrested last year for illegally firing their weapons. But he admitted there were far more violations.
"The problem is that we have been at war so many years," said a government official. "So many people have guns and know how to use them. It is hard to control, but we're doing much better than the early days of the revolution."