MONTERREY, Nicaragua — In October, 1983, people here recall, the contras walked into town unchallenged. They set fire to the coffee warehouse, gathered the 400 townsfolk for an anti-Sandinista lecture and left with several teen-age recruits.
But when U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels returned to the farming community twice this month, they had to wage firefights with the 15 men of its newly created self-defense force.
"They came down that hill yelling at us, 'Surrender, you mad dogs! Turn in your weapons!' " recalled Jose Maria Hernandez, a 20-year-old militiaman. "We yelled back from the other hill, 'Nobody surrenders here!' "
The midnight attacks on this mile-high settlement in northern Nicaragua were part of an offensive by thousands of contras who have slipped across the rugged border from camps in Honduras since December to try to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Managua.
Aiming for Supply Lines
With $100 million in new U.S. aid committed last year, the contras hope to mass enough forces along Nicaragua's central mountainous spine to cut government supply lines from Managua to the Atlantic coast, according to Western officials and rebel leaders.
Since the contras' last big offensive in 1983, however, the Sandinistas have created militias in scores of rural communities like Monterrey to keep the rebels at arm's length and limit popular support for a sustained insurgency.
President Daniel Ortega said recently that the effort has involved moving 110,000 peasants from small, isolated farms that once fed the contras and resettling them as farmer-militiamen in private cooperatives or state-run collectives.
In doing so, the 70,000-man Sandinista Popular Army has expanded its reserves and militia forces to 230,000 men, according to Defense Minister Humberto Ortega.
One reaction has been fiercer rebel attacks against some of the newly militarized settlements. During a 2 1/2-hour battle here March 10, several witnesses said, the contras burned down a house, blew up a tractor and hurled a dozen grenades, one of which killed a 13-year-old boy fleeing his home. The child's stepfather and one combatant on each side were wounded.
That week, in the same area around Lake Apanas, the contras also killed four soldiers in a roadside ambush, burned a silo full of grain and set a land mine that destroyed a highway repair truck and wounded its driver, the army reported.
Last Thursday, about 60 rebels returned to Monterrey. Witnesses said they killed the head of the militia and a civilian, while burning down 12 more houses and two warehouses full of coffee.
The government reported three other rebel attacks in northern Nicaragua on Thursday. Ten contras, four Sandinista militiamen and a 16-month-old boy were killed, it said, and six civilians were wounded as the rebels destroyed a coffee warehouse, a clinic and several grain silos.
War Has Intensified
Government soldiers and travelers in the region say the war has intensified in recent weeks. Tim Takaro and Susan Cookson, a husband-and-wife medical team from North Carolina, say they have been unable to reach tuberculosis patients in three villages north of their clinic in Jinotega since January because the roads have been closed by fighting or land mines.
Despite the attacks, Sandinista army officials say the rebels are more isolated from the civilian population than at any time in the five-year-old war and are being slowly exhausted by the pursuit of special Irregular Warfare Battalions.
"Perhaps our greatest achievement in the past year was taking away the social base of the contras," Capt. Ricardo Wheelock, the army's chief of intelligence, told reporters recently. "The contras are no longer a strategic threat to the revolution."
4,200 to 12,000 contras
Rebel commanders say 12,000 of their fighters have entered Nicaragua since December. Western officials say the number is closer to 7,000. Wheelock contends that no more than 4,200 contras are inside the country.
By any measure, the rebel infiltration is a major challenge to the Sandinista army.
Each day, wounded Sandinista soldiers arrive for treatment at the German Pomares Ordonez Hospital in Apanas. Next door, an army training school by the same name is running hundreds of fresh conscripts through a 45-day crash course to refill the counterinsurgency battalions.
In separate interviews at the hospital, six wounded members of these units said the contras have marched from Honduras in groups of several hundred, then broken into bands of as few as 20, trying to avoid face-to-face combat as they trek deeper into Nicaragua.
'They Keep Fleeing'
"We follow them, but they never stand and fight," said Evin Ines, 22. "They just keep fleeing."
Even so, most of the soldiers, who were wounded in hit-and-run ambushes, said they had seen more fighting this year than in all of 1986.
The rebel offensive followed months of Sandinista incursions into Honduras last year to try to keep the contras pinned inside their base camps in that country.