EL CUA, Nicaragua — The Contra war ended formally last June with the last of 17,000 U.S.-backed guerrillas turning in their weapons. But Ciriaco Palacio found no peace.
Returning to his farm in Waslala, he found, instead, that his Sandinista enemies, who had just lost the government in an election, still ran the army and the police. He and other former rebels complained of police harassment. A protest march on Waslala's police headquarters last Oct. 1 ended with the fatal shootings of four unarmed anti-Sandinistas.
Palacio, who led a rebel squad in the 1980s, reacted the way he knew best. He picked up a rifle, reassumed the wartime code name Sombrerito (Little Hat) and headed back to the hills, creating a sight that Nicaraguans hoped they would never see again.
Sombrerito is part of a growing movement of Contra rebels roaming the rural highlands of northern Nicaragua, rearmed and dressed for combat. Although the "re-Contras" apparently number no more than a few hundred and have yet to confront the army, their presence is a powerful symbol of discontent among former rebels with their treatment during Nicaragua's year of peace.
President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's 13-month-old government is treating the rebellion as an economic matter--attributing it to the fact that 4,000 former rebels still await resettlement. The government has stepped up the distribution of farmland and equipment to them.
But the rebels insist that the real problem is their personal security.
Speaking to 120 sympathetic farmers in a jungle clearing here the other day, Sombrerito, 27, propped the butt of his AK-47 assault rifle on a log and explained.
"When the war ended last year, I asked, 'Now who is going to protect me?' and they said this card is my life insurance," he began, showing his certificate of disarmament. "While the Sandinistas are still armed, do any of you think I feel safe with just this card?"
"No!" came a chorus of shouts.
"I didn't rearm myself for the hell of it but because it's my right, my insurance," he declared. "The Sandinista army has to be abolished. A new army has to be elected by the people. If the Sandinistas don't disarm, we will not disarm!
"Is there anyone here who thinks I should give up this rifle for a piece of land?" he asked.
"Nobody!" the crowd replied.
"For a house?"
"For a car?"
"You'd better keep that little gun, sonny," chimed in Tonita Suazo, an elderly white-haired woman. "You'll need it."
"Well then, I'm not going to turn in this weapon," Sombrerito concluded. "I'll turn it in when the people tell me it's time. I obey the people."
Standing behind Sombrerito were 16 other armed men, flirting with farm girls and calling themselves the Democratic Guerrilla Columns. Sombrerito leads one of the columns in their wanderings through the northern provinces of Matagalpa and Jinotega.
The overall leader, Augusto Rizo, who fancies the \o7 nom de guerre \f7 Rojito, claims to command four columns with 275 combat-ready men. He spoke of unidentified superiors with larger commands but said his men lack radio contact with other rebel units and operate on their own.
Interviewed separately, most of the 17 men here said they had taken up arms since February--some by stealing or buying Sandinistas' rifles, others by digging up secret Contra stockpiles buried before the disarmament ceremonies last year--and organized their columns in mid-March.
One guerrilla said he had never given up his AK-47. The column leader called Fausto was more typical. He said he tried to resume life as a farmer only to be bullied off his land in Matagalpa by a boyhood enemy who grew up to be an armed Sandinista.
Farmers here said a 70-man Sandinista army patrol set out May 1 to pursue Rojito's men. Neither side has reported combat, but the rebel leader warned that the cat-and-mouse game cannot remain harmless for long.
"We're not calling for war, man, but we cannot accept the peace the Sandinistas are offering," Rojito said. "We're going to set a deadline, and if they are not out of here, we're going to hit them hard. We don't want to see a single Sandinista in El Cua."
Asked to specify his deadline, Rojito stared at his watch for a minute and then looked up. "Ten days," he declared.
The improvised threat echoes a recent headline in the pro-Sandinista newspaper El Nuevo Diario: "Phantom of War Hovers Again."
Since discovering the re-Contras last month, Managua newspapers have speculated about gun-running from Honduras and headlined a rebel attack on an army road-building crew. The story proved false; farmers burning a field had accidentally set off two land mines, causing the road crew to panic and open fire.
Government and army leaders have tried to play down the danger, or even deny the existence, of rearmed Contras. President Chamorro said during a recent visit to the United States that she learned of them only this month and didn't know much about them. Antonio Lacayo, her chief adviser, called them "hot-headed citizens" with no popular support.