WASHINGTON — In an echo of the Central American conflicts of the closing days of the Cold War, the Clinton Administration said Saturday that the discovery in Nicaragua of a cache of arms linked to leftist rebels in El Salvador jeopardizes the peace agreements that ended civil wars in both nations.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the weapons, including 14 Soviet-made antiaircraft missiles, were discovered in Managua last Sunday along with documents linking the arms to one of the five Salvadoran groups that make up the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, known by its Spanish initials FMLN, which agreed last year to end its armed rebellion and become a legal political party.
"We want to treat the FMLN just as we do any political party," Boucher said. "However, our attitude toward the FMLN cannot fail to be affected by whether or not it lives up to its obligations under the peace accords."
At the same time, Boucher said the incident underscores American doubts about the control that the Nicaraguan government of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro exercises over the country's security forces. When Chamorro defeated the leftist Sandinista government in 1990 in free elections that were intended to end Nicaragua's civil war, she agreed to leave Sandinista officers in charge of the army, a step Washington has often criticized.
Another State Department official said there is substantial evidence that Sandinista-led elements of the army were implicated in allowing the illegal arms dump to operate.
The incident strikes at the heart of the precariously balanced agreements that ended the conflicts that dominated U.S. policy toward Central America during the Ronald Reagan Administration.
In the most open demonstration of his Cold War policy of backing anti-Communist insurgents against leftist governments, Reagan supported guerrilla groups, known as Contras, who fought a bloody war against the Soviet-backed Sandinistas.
The war ended after Chamorro's opposition political group defeated the Sandinistas at the polls. In a plan intended to prevent the Sandinistas from turning to armed rebellion, the new president struck a number of compromises with the outgoing government, including the controversial one regarding the security forces.
In El Salvador, where the United States supported the anti-Communist government and the Soviets backed the FMLN, the 12-year-long war ended last year when the FMLN agreed to demilitarize and enter politics as a civilian party.
In the latest incident, the weapons, which had been hidden at an auto repair shop in Managua, were discovered after some of them exploded. The blast killed two people and did substantial damage, but authorities were able to recover pamphlets and internal memos linked to the Popular Liberation Front, an arm of the FMLN, as well as large numbers of unexploded rockets, mines, explosives and surface-to-air missiles.
The shop is owned by a Spanish immigrant who was granted Nicaraguan citizenship by the Sandinista government less than a week before Chamorro's inauguration, the State Department official said. The owner was thought to have ties with the Basque terrorist organization ETA, a group that cooperated with the Sandinistas.
"We understand that Nicaraguan authorities are conducting an investigation, which we expect will include an examination of any involvement or cooperation on the part of any individuals in Nicaragua, including members of Nicaraguan security forces or the Sandinista party, in establishing or maintaining this arms cache or otherwise aiding terrorist groups or activities," Boucher said.
The other official said the Chamorro government appears to be serious about investigating the matter. But he added, "If the Nicaraguans had been moving to put their security forces under (civilian) control, they would be in a better position to root out this sort of thing. We have long urged President Chamorro to exert full control over her own security forces because they have been known to be involved in things like this."
In Managua, Gen. Humberto Ortega, chief of the Nicaraguan army, accused the Salvadoran leftist group Saturday of acting "irresponsibly, illegally and immorally" by moving the huge weapons stockpile into Nicaragua, the Associated Press reported.
Ortega, the brother of former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, said his Popular Sandinista Army "has absolutely nothing to do with these criminal acts."