El CUARTELON, Nicaragua — The contra combatant named Scorpion crossed a hilltop trench abandoned by Sandinista soldiers and stepped carefully along a narrow path that had been cleared of enemy land mines.
Five times in the last four years, the Sandinistas have routed the contras from this rain-soaked outpost on the Bocay River. Five times, the contras have returned.
"This position is ours," Scorpion said as he surveyed the remains of a Sandinista command center.
The battle for El Cuartelon is more than stubbornness on the part of the U.S.-backed contras. The muddy Bocay connects to the Coco River, which marks the border with Honduras, and the Amaka River, which runs southeast into Nicaragua. Together the three rivers provide an important supply and infiltration route for the contras.
One of the rebels' bamboo-thatched field hospitals is hidden in the thick foliage of the remote border area, as are their small base camps along the Coco River.
A Political Battlefield
The border region is likely to become a political battlefield in the coming months as the Central American governments implement a regional peace plan that prohibits Honduras from allowing its territory to be used by the rebels. The accord apparently allows for inspection of border zones and military installations by a commission of Latin American observers.
The political battles over a peace plan that the contras did not sign and future funding from the United States have the rebels most concerned these days. They do not believe the leftist Sandinista government will honor the provision calling for democratic reforms, and they fear the peace plan will lead to a cutoff of U.S. aid that could prove fatal to their seven-year war.
Contra commanders allowed two journalists to visit their camps and outposts for two days last week on the condition that their exact locations not be revealed. The contras want to show that they are back in an area the Sandinistas took from them so publicly last May--the Sandinistas carried journalists in by helicopter after the battle--and to declare their resolve to continue the war.
"We are not going to give up our weapons at any time," said Scorpion, who at 24 has spent the last five years at war.
Other contra commanders were equally adamant that they would never accept an amnesty called for in the peace plan agreed to by the five Central American presidents in Guatemala on Aug. 7. Under the plan, the Sandinistas must restore civil liberties suspended by a wartime state-of-emergency law and allow opposition political parties and the press to function freely by Nov. 7. The plan calls for cease-fires in the region's wars, amnesty programs and an end to outside aid to the rebels.
'I Will Never Surrender'
"I prefer to die in combat than to live in exile or under the rule of the Sandinistas," said Fernando, 28, who has been fighting for seven years. "I will never surrender."
Contra commanders say that 12,000 of their fighters have infiltrated into Nicaragua in the last 10 months. Under a $100-million U.S. aid package, the contras have received U.S. training, intelligence, communications equipment and weapons, including sophisticated Redeye anti-aircraft missiles.
The contras have extended their fighting throughout northern and eastern Nicaragua and increased the frequency of combat. They have destroyed three Sandinista helicopters--hits that were confirmed by the Sandinistas--and may have knocked down or damaged a dozen more.
But the contras have yet to enter towns and cities or to claim a major military victory. Their focus has been on economic sabotage in a war of attrition that may last many years.
The contras have lost one of their own helicopters in recent months, and contra sources say they are having trouble recruiting new forces. The rebels say the primary reason is that the Sandinistas have relocated so many peasants from areas where the rebels used to recruit, but they acknowledge that the uncertain future of the war has added to their difficulties.
Urged to Step Up Pressure
The contras' U.S. advisers are urging them to step up military pressure on the Sandinistas in the next two months, and they have nearly doubled the CIA-directed air supply drops to the rebels in Nicaragua from Swan Island in the Caribbean and Aguacate military base in central Honduras.
But contra commander Mike Lima--like all the combatants, he uses a nom de guerre-- says many units in the field are more concerned with conserving ammunition now than with mounting an offensive.
"Each unit is trying to save what they can for their own survival," Mike Lima said. "How are we going to plan an offensive when we don't know if we'll have more aid?"
Mike Lima fought against the Sandinistas as a member of the National Guard under dictator Anastasio Somoza and joined the contras in 1981. He lost his right arm to a mortar in 1983, the year the U.S. Congress cut off covert aid to the rebels because the CIA helped to mine Nicaraguan harbors.