On the muddy banks of the Mocor'on River and in the dense forests of eastern Honduras, a fierce battle is under way for the hearts and minds of 20,000 Nicaraguan Miskito Indian refugees. The outcome could determine the contra rebels' future on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. The Mosquito Coast, as it was known to the English pirates who roamed its length two centuries ago, could prove the Sandinista government's Achilles' heel, military experts say, if the contras are able to exploit the situation. Living in villages scattered throughout the remote region, the Miskitos have mistrusted the Sandinista revolution from the start. A political tinderbox for Managua, the coast could become a dangerous military threat as the contras' eastern front, rebel planners say.
But divisions among Indian leaders have so far dashed those hopes, and in the refugee communities dotting this distant region of Honduras, rumors of a new power struggle are flying thick and fast.
Time and time again, the key contenders' names crop up in conversations with Miskitos about their hopes for the future.
In the forefront is Steadman Fagoth, a former Miskito contra leader who is known to have returned in secret recently to Honduras, after more than a year of exile in the United States.
Fighting to retain its influence in the face of Mr. Fagoth's comeback is Kisan, the organization led by Wycliffe Diego. Kisan is the Miskito partner in the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), which groups all the contra forces that are US-backed.
Watching carefully from his base in Costa Rica is Brooklyn Rivera, an old rival of Fagoth's for Miskito loyalties. Mr. Rivera's Misurasata organization has long rejected any links with UNO because it is simply pro-Indian rights, not counterrevolutionary.
In the shadows backstage stand the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Honduran Army, playing roles unclear even to the key actors in the drama.
Inside Nicaragua, the Sandinista government - in hopes of pacifying the coast - is anxiously trying to assuage the bitterness provoked by its 1982 forced relocations of the Miskitos by offering a plan for Indian autonomy. The Sandinistas forced thousands of Indians from their homes along the Coco River in an effort to remove civilian support for the Miskito Indian rebels and to create a free-fire zone. The government allowed them to return in 1985.
New uncertainties have arisen, say Miskito community leaders and Western relief workers here, because of Kisan's failures. Widely regarded as a brainchild of the CIA, Kisan was created in September 1985 at an Indian assembly. It was designed to unite the fractured Indian exile groups, and to fight as UNO's eastern flank, Mr. Diego said at the time.
But the organization has deeply disappointed the Miskitos with its failure to seriously engage the Sandinistas in combat and its rough treatment of refugees.
``Kisan has done nothing except violate the refugees' human rights,'' says a relief worker here. In dozens of interviews around the Mosquitia, the Indians' traditional homeland along Nicaragua's and Honduras's eastern coast, Miskitos recalled how Kisan troops had forcibly recruited young men into their ranks and threatened and beaten refugees who refused to do their bidding.
One refugee, who asked to be identified only by the pseudonym Juan Rodr'iguez for fear of reprisals, said he was kidnapped by a group of Kisan rebels one night in August, taken to a remote spot, and repeatedly beaten with rifle butts. ``They thought I could tell them where to find Tiles,'' a former Kisan commander now negotiating with the Sandinistas. Mr. Rodr'iguez says he favors a negotiated settlement of Miskito grievances against the Sandinistas, a route Kisan rejected when it joined UNO and won official US support.
Widespread anger at such behavior has robbed Mr. Diego of most of his following. ``Some people back Kisan, but more people fear it,'' a refugee official says.
Says Brooklyn Rivera: ``There is a leadership vacuum in the Mosquitia, and Kisan cannot fill it. Fagoth comes back to Honduras, and he can [return]'' because of his charisma and history of leadership.
Those qualities counted for little 15 months ago, observers familiar with Miskito affairs say. Fagoth was expelled from Honduras after running amok and holding three members of the Miskito Council of Elders hostage. The assembly called days later to create Kisan rang with denunciations of his cruelty, rages, and reputation for ordering the murder of anyone who ran afoul of him.
Today, those memories seem to have dimmed, as Fagoth loyalists spring up all over the Mosquitia to herald their leader's return to the region and to regroup his old organization, Misura. Fagoth's aides in the Mosquitia promise the refugees their leader has returned to Honduras to lay groundwork for talks with the Sandinistas, in harness with Rivera, to end the fighting and shape Miskito autonomy.
Fagoth, interviewed in Central America on the condition that the exact location not be specified, says he is preparing for negotiations with the Sandinistas should the US not invade Nicaragua. ``We [Indians] must be ready for two things,'' he says. ``Either the US invades, or the mercenaries [Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the main contra group] will go away. Either there is a war or there is no war.'' In the event of an invasion, Fagoth says, ``We are not in a position to mobilize our people, to work out what the [Atlantic] Coast needs. Others would fill the political space that we haven't filled.'' But if there is no invasion, ``I am not going to play cat and mouse. Our people can't die'' in their refugee settlements. ``If the people wanted to go back home, I'd join in, I wouldn't oppose it.''
But outside observers, recalling Fagoth's close ties to the Nicaraguan Democratic Force before his expulsion from Honduras in 1985, are skeptical about his motives for returning to Honduras now. ``Fagoth's arguments are a trick,'' says a foreign relief worker with several years' experience in the Mosquitia. ``Kisan is collapsing, the people are very demoralized, and Fagoth's men are simply taking advantage of the situation.''
Rivera, who says the US and Honduran Army have blocked his bids to establish himself in the Mosquitia, agrees. ``I know Fagoth is using my name, talking of a supposed alliance between us. That is ... totally false. I have nothing to do with Fagoth.... He has done incalculable damage to the Indian resistance by falling into the hands of the counterrevolution and foreign interests.''
Rivera says he does not know who exactly is protecting Fagoth and encouraging him to reorganize Misura, and it is unclear what role US officials are playing in current developments, or what view they take of them. Rivera sees CIA involvement behind Fagoth's activities.
But Western observers familiar with Miskito politics say the US is still committed to Kisan. ``Fagoth's past of murders and corruption makes him unacceptable to the US Congress. But you cannot discard the possibility of different lines of thought in the US administration, and perhaps the CIA has other plans,'' an observer says.
Fagoth insists the CIA has nothing to do with his return to Honduras, and that indeed the CIA is seeking to have him expelled from the country. He is, however, receiving aid from the Honduran Army. Col. Mario Amaya, head of the local Honduran Army battalion, is helping enlist Fagoth loyalists, providing transport to carry recruits, and keeping a register of the volunteers, say Fagoth's organizers and refugee workers. Neither Colonel Amaya nor his deputy was available for comment. So far, about 500 men have joined, organizers say. The recruits are drawn from refugees in Honduras.
Amaya's assistance appears to be only part of the support Fagoth is enjoying from the Honduran Army. Western diplomats say that only with military protection could Fagoth have entered Honduras while he is officially forbidden to be here.
Rivera, meanwhile, still in Costa Rica, says he has sent a top aide to start regrouping his Misurasata organization among the refugees. ``We have to neutralize Fagoth,'' he says. None of his estimated 1,000 troops in Nicaragua are fighting, Rivera adds, because of insufficient supplies, and because he wants to keep open the possibility of renewed talks with Managua. Three sets of talks collapsed in 1985, with Managua accusing him of ``intransigence.'' But Rivera says he is ``still ready to consider serious suggestions to resolve our political problems within the framework of the revolution.''
Rivera believes it is that stance that led the CIA, which is disbursing the $100 million in contra aid approved last fall, to block his portion. Congress allocated Misurasata $5 million despite the group's refusal to join UNO. Rivera says none of his money has been disbursed.
With Miskito leadership thrown into doubt, the call for a new Indian assembly is gathering force among the refugees. Meanwhile, the refugees wait in their settlements, anxious to go home.
Last of four-part series. Previous articls ran January 21 through 23.