MANAGUA, Nicaragua — As 70 fresh conscripts languished in an army induction center the other day, waiting to go to war, Nicaragua's ruling party ordered up movies, soft drinks and a mariachi band to relieve the boredom.
Suddenly, in the street outside, a middle-aged woman stepped deliberately into the path of an oncoming car and cried: "Let me die! Let me die! They're taking my son away!"
Other women quickly pushed her back onto the sidewalk.
"I want somebody to destroy this government!" she screamed. "Oh my God! How can you let them sacrifice our sons?"
Once Provoked Riots
Three years ago, when the Sandinista National Liberation Front instituted the draft, the rage of such women set off riots. So militant and widespread was the resistance that it seemed to threaten the Sandinistas' ability to fight a U.S.-backed insurgency and keep control of the country.
But in Managua's latest induction scene, the band played on. The conscripts took no notice of the commotion, and their mothers moved to calm the anguished woman rather than take up her cry. An hour later, the boys were off to basic training, whooping it up aboard two East German-made army trucks.
The festive send-off was part of a government shift away from harsh recruiting methods and toward more sophisticated management of the draft. Through a combination of persuasion, social benefits and selective coercion, it has brought explosive unrest against conscription under control.
Since late last year, the Sandinista front has taken a leading role in this shift, using the eyes, ears and energies of neighborhood party militants to track draft evaders and deserters, recruit volunteers and allay the fears of mothers.
As a result, conscription is proving to be a reliable Sandinista weapon as the war drags into its sixth year. Sandinista officials say the army, 70,000 strong, will replenish a third of its ranks with new fighters this year and even expand slightly as the guerrillas, the contras, throw their last reserves into a major offensive.
"The draft was a traumatic social problem at first, partly because of the way the law was applied," Vice President Sergio Ramirez said in an interview. "This has been overcome with time. Today, the recruitment of young people is no longer on our agenda of problems."
In scores of conversations over the last month, city youths expressed a wide range of attitudes toward the draft, from patriotic acceptance to determination to evade it. Most viewed the draft as an unwelcome but unavoidable obligation.
"They say we are being attacked by imperialism, but I don't know much about that," Julio Ernesto Sanchez, 17, said as he lined up for a pre-induction physical in Managua. "Where I'm sent, I have to go. To violate the law here is very dangerous."
Escape From Buses
The lingering unpopularity of the draft was underscored last month when 200 conscripts escaped from three buses refueling in the city of Matagalpa en route to basic training. Army officials admit that desertion rates in the war zones, though reduced in recent years, still run 8% to 10%.
But the draft itself has disappeared as a contentious public issue and become a grudgingly accepted institution. Some opposition leaders call the process a case study of how the Sandinistas, in general, have tightened their grip on the country after nearly eight years of rule.
"Without appearing to be totally repressive, they have brought the situation under control," said Mauricio Diaz of the Popular Social Christian Party. "Psychologically, we have learned to live with the draft, just as we have learned to live with press censorship and food shortages."
The draft law requires all males from age 17 to 22 to register for two years of military service. They can be exempted for medical disability but not for conscientious objection. There is no alternative service.
Criticized by Church
As it took effect in early 1984, the law came under attack from Roman Catholic bishops and from opposition politicians campaigning in that year's national election. They charged that young men were being conscripted to fight for a single political party, the Sandinistas.
Other complaints centered on violence or deceit by recruiters, whose methods included organizing neighborhood dances and then surrounding the dance halls with troops to round up any males without draft cards. Draft dodgers were also swept up in Saturday night raids on movie theaters and discotheques.
While making house-to-house searches in some areas, soldiers often ran into street barricades manned by rock-throwing mothers of draft-age youths. Thousands fled Nicaragua to avoid military service, and many more went into hiding.
Army officials now admit that they erred by using such methods and by reacting so harshly to protests.