EL HIGUERO, Nicaragua — Led by a one-armed peasant guide, 40 Nicaraguan guerrillas crawled up the steep jungle trail to the old man's shack. Word of their arrival spread, and two dozen farmers gathered from nearby hollows.
A gangly, long-haired rebel known as "Sheriff" gave a political speech. He said the Sandinista government had not lived up to its promises under a Central American peace agreement due to take effect today. The Contra war would continue, he declared.
In the audience, a young man said that the Sandinista army had forcibly moved his family and those of 27 other rebel collaborators to a distant collective farm last year. But he had escaped and returned home.
"God willing," he said, "we shall go forward in this struggle--we as civilians and you as soldiers, working together."
The meeting last Sunday evening, far from the nearest road or army position, offered a rare glimpse of the clandestine rural network that supplies the Contras with food, medical care and military intelligence, enabling them to roam freely through much of the Nicaraguan countryside.
For the last year, since they were re-equipped with $100 million in U.S. assistance, the Contras have spread virtually all their 10,000 or more troops deep into Nicaragua from base camps in Honduras.
Now, with future U.S. support put in doubt by the peace accord, rebel leaders say the internal network is strong enough to keep their six-year-old insurgency alive and rooted inside the country.
To demonstrate this, a rebel field commander and his men led three American reporters on a three-day march through a small, isolated segment of embattled Jinotega province. It was the first such press trip arranged by the Contras that did not start at a camp in Honduras.
In interviews at 13 houses along the way, rebel soldiers and the peasants helping them said their once-sporadic collaboration had become systematic during the past two years and would continue. Some Contra supporters said their work had become somewhat easier because Sandinista harassment of them has diminished.
"They used to torture you if the Contras came to your house, but things have changed," said Maribel, a Contra fighter's wife who runs messages to the rebel army from her coffee farm. "Before, if you collaborated, someone would inform on you. Now everyone is collaborating, and the Sandinistas know there is nothing they can do."
It is not clear whether there is such close collaboration in other parts of the country. International human rights groups have accused the Contras of forcing civilians to feed them or join their ranks. But the peasants around here do echo the same complaints--of forced military conscription and statist agricultural policies by the Sandinistas--that, in other places, have fueled what is essentially a rural insurgency.
Reporters who toured the area were escorted by a guerrilla leader called Comandante Ruben and two 20-man rebel detachments. With rare punctuality for Central America, they emerged from the woods at a prearranged roadside rendezvous about 10 miles north of the town of Pantasma.
Less than two miles away, Sandinista soldiers flanked the road to protect a construction convoy that was to pass 20 minutes later.
From the main road, the rebels vanished into a maze of footpaths that led east and then south, through jungles, across fields and over hills from one solitary, unpainted farmhouse to another.
Marching for nearly 20 miles, they crossed the Gusanera River and dodged a Sandinista army lookout post before ending up in this hamlet, at the end of another road.
Like much of what lies beyond the highways and dirt roads of rural Nicaragua, it is a hidden world of poor cattlemen and coffee growers with no electricity, no cars or trucks, no medical clinics and hardly a school or store.
Proud of Independence
Politically conservative and proud of their independence, they have stubbornly resisted the only serious Sandinista missions in the area since the 1979 revolution--visits by army patrols seeking recruits and government agents trying to ration their food and set prices for their crops.
From 12 of the 13 farms where Ruben and his men ate and rested, men or teen-age boys had left in recent years to join the rebel army. Their relatives appeared to be at ease with the commander, who greeted them by name and offered cash for food. Some of the farmers refused payment. At one house, a bull was donated and slaughtered.
Along the way, farmers swept away footprints and sent couriers ahead to make sure no Sandinista soldiers were near. Some of these collaborators gave their names to reporters, but others, fearful of reprisals, withheld them.
"If we did not have the support of the people, we would not be fighting," Ruben said. "They give us information. They care for our wounded. Sometimes they even fight for us."
Know Enemy's Moves