LAS ANIMAS, Nicaragua — In wartime, Maritsa Bonilla Alvarez never ventured south from Chontales province's capital of Juigalpa. Life changed, or so she thought, when the Sandinista government and U.S.-backed Contras agreed to a truce.
The young woman, who works in a civilian office that serves Sandinista army veterans and draftees, started visiting her boyfriend at the army training school here, trusting that the 40-mile journey by dirt road was safe at last.
But peace in this part of southern Nicaragua was shattered on July 4 when about 80 rebels on both sides of that road attacked a Soviet-made army truck with grenade launchers and automatic rifles, four witnesses said. Bonilla, who is 21 and agile, leaped out before the truck exploded in flames, then ducked a hail of gunfire. But seven civilian travelers and five Sandinista soldiers died.
The daylight ambush, less than 3 miles from the army training school, was the bloodiest breach of Nicaragua's 16-week-old cease-fire and the second Contra attack to kill civilians in four days. It followed a breakdown of negotiations on a final armistice and an increase in reported skirmishes throughout June as rebel forces reinfiltrated into Nicaragua from base camps in Honduras.
Officially, Contra leaders disavowed the ambush, and neither side renounced the truce. For now, both armies have their own good reasons to avoid a return to full-scale combat.
For some rural residents, however, the random violations of this shaky peace pact do not look much different from the declared war that swept in and out of their poor farming settlements for six years, at a cost of more than 26,000 lives.
"The truce gave us great hope there would be no more killing, but now there is no more hope," said Pedro Jose Villegas, 53, whose son was killed in the ambush. "If Ronald Reagan wants to finish us off, let him declare war once and for all or leave us alone."
The 12 ambush victims were instructors, conscripts or cooks at the army training school and members of a farming cooperative across the road. Villegas' son and another man were co-op leaders going to buy bulls in Juigalpa. The cooks were women going to buy food. One woman was 67. Another was a hitchhiker from the co-op who was pregnant.
Six of the bodies lay under fly-covered sheets on the dirt floor of Pedro Joaquin Espinoza's living room in the co-op while carpenters hurriedly built coffins the day after the attack. Forty or more mourners crowded into the tin-roofed shack, most of them staring vacantly. A few women cried hysterically and fainted. One of the dead was the third Espinoza son to die at the hands of the Contras.
Grief on such a scale had not visited Nicaragua since well before the warring armies signed a truce March 23 and pledged to negotiate a lasting political settlement. That effort collapsed June 9 when the Contras rejected a government offer of promised political reforms. But to the surprise of military specialists here, neither side has moved to declare war.
'Worse Than Mafiosi'
President Daniel Ortega said in a speech last month that his government was losing patience with the Contras. Calling them "worse than Mafiosi," he said, "It would be more fitting to make these criminals pay for their crimes." But he declared an extension of the cease-fire through this month and offered new peace talks.
The Contras also extended the truce but refused to resume the talks. Since Congress cut the rebels' military assistance in February, they have negotiated from a position of weakness and want the aid restored first--a move that the Reagan Administration is considering.
While Contra leaders hesitate to fight without U.S. support, the Sandinistas want to avoid a military provocation that might prompt Congress to renew it. Sandinista officials say time is on their side. They are using the truce to re-equip their forces with Soviet hardware and retrain hastily prepared conscripts.
The Contras' plea for new U.S. aid may have been aided by Nicaragua's expulsion this week of U.S. Ambassador Richard Melton and seven other diplomats. The Reagan Administration retaliated, ordering the same number of Nicaraguan diplomats to leave the United States. A group of U.S. senators is reported to be working on a proposal for about $30 million in Contra aid.
Another reason the cease-fire is still formally observed is that it has created such high hopes for lasting peace that either side would pay a political price for renouncing it.
About 450 Nicaraguans died in the war in each of the three months before the truce was signed, according to the Foreign Ministry. Since the agreement, the Defense Ministry has listed 38 Sandinista soldiers dead. Witness for Peace, an American war-monitoring group, has confirmed war deaths of 19 civilians in that period. The Contras have not announced their casualties.