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Contras and Sandinistas Start Talking

July 9, 1991

EL CUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ A dozen survivors of a bitter war, Contras and Sandinistas, met at the police station. They studied their shoes, hardly looking at one another, as they discussed life, death and the future.

The lack of eye contact was not surprising. For nine years, they had tried to kill each other.

When the Sandinistas lost the elections last year, the Contras disbanded. They resent the continuing Sandinista influence in the army and elsewhere, however, and some have rearmed, claiming the government has come up short on its promises to them.

Others seek to talk away the differences instead of fighting again.

Lt. Gerardo Casco of the Sandinista People’s Army called the meeting after three days of looting and death threats in San Jose de Bocay, 25 miles away. Former Contra rebels, armed once again and known as re-Contras, started the looting and Sandinista villagers also took part.

El Cua and San Jose de Bocay are collections of wooden houses in what was the heart of Contra country. They share a Sandinista mayor and El Cua’s police chief is a Sandinista.

Two Sandinista police officers were sent to San Jose de Bocay last year, but pro-Contra villagers ran them out.

When the looting started, the six soldiers in San Jose de Bocay did not intervene. The army has orders not to fight the re-Contras, lest the war start again.

Looters broke into warehouses belonging to U.N. and Organization of American States missions that help former rebels return to civilian life. They sacked a country store owned by a Sandinista farm cooperative and robbed the local bank.

Even after 20 soldiers arrived by the third night, mobs looted a warehouse because they were convinced the soldiers would not confront them.

That atmosphere of lawlessness led to the meeting.

Across a table from the mayor, Lt. Casco and the police chief were six former rebel commanders, all community leaders in this pro-Contra town.

″It is shameful that these things happen,″ Casco said, staring at his hands. ″Violence doesn’t solve any problems.

″What we want is for you, the leaders of the Resistance (Contras), to make suggestions so this doesn’t happen again.″

Silence.

The six examined their feet, fingernails and the far walls.

Casco tried again, idly turning the pages of a notebook:

″The army is able to deal with this problem, but the best thing would be to talk to these people and reach a solution the peaceful way.″

Cesar Echavarria, a former Contra leader, responded: ″The government hasn’t come through with any of their promises.

″Last year, the government gave a farm to a group of demobilized combatants. Last Monday, a lady came with a piece of paper from the government saying that was her land and we had to get out.″

″The government treats us differently,″ said another former rebel. ″When the Sandinistas do that (loot or riot), the government comes and says, ‘All right, what do you want?’ When we do it, they throw us out by force.″

Complaints, comments and suggestions began rolling out from both sides. Hours later, at dusk, they were still talking.

In San Jose de Bocay, another town meeting was held in the village square.

Capt. Jose Dolores Hernandez led the discussions from a wooden porch.

Some people suggested a 9 p.m. curfew. ″That way, anybody walking around after that hour can be controlled,″ said a man on horseback at the rear of the crowd.

″Then we might as well be in jail, the whole town 3/8″ said a woman in a ruffled apron with a kerchief on her head.

Since many of the looters had been drinking, someone suggested confiscating stills used to make cususa, a powerful brew distilled from corn.

″That’s impossible; everybody makes it,″ someone else countered.

Doris Lopez, a representative of the 14-party governing coalition led by President Violeta Chamorro, said after the meeting that people in mainly Contra village want police forces of demobilized Contras.

″The government promised us a mayor who is one of us,″ she said, but ″we were so repressed by the Sandinistas that they put their own man.″

″We are very unhappy with this president,″ Ms. Lopez declared. ″Yes, everybody here has weapons. If the government doesn’t start delivering on its promises to us soon, we’re ready to use them.″

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