Idle Nicaraguan Troops Battle for Benefits

THE former soldiers who fought a 24-hour battle to take the northern Nicaraguan town of Esteli last week claim they fought for more than the benefits President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro promised them when they left the Army. They say they want the government to change its economic policies toward Nicaragua's poor.

The Esteli battle suggests the Chamorro government is facing an increasing threat from soldiers who fought on both sides of Nicaragua's eight-year civil war, which ended three years ago.

Tens of thousands of these soldiers remain idle, waiting for land, tools, and help that was promised them by the government. On July 19, former president Daniel Ortega Saavedra told a 40,000-strong rally that if Mrs. Chamorro did not abandon her stringent, International Monetary Fund-style economic policies, she would not serve out her full term.

The fighting began July 21 when more than 150 recompas (cashiered soldiers from the Sandinista military) and their followers rode into Esteli, attacked the local police station, robbed banks, and entrenched themselves in city hall.

The Chamorro government immediately sent in a 1,500-member troop of the Nicaraguan Army, which is still composed of Sandinistas, to clear the recompas out. According to Army figures, the ensuing 24 hours of battles along Estels narrow streets left 45 dead, 98 wounded, 59 rebels in captivity, and many buildings riddled with bullets.

The town's recompas call themselves the "Revolutionary Front of Workers and Peasants" (FROC) and are led by Victor Manuel Gallegos. Mr. Gallegos is a Honduran national who joined the Sandinistas during the 1970s, rose to the rank of major in the Sandinista Army during the contra war, then was let go along with thousands of his brethren when the Army downsized in 1990.

Rejecting negotiation with the rebels, Chamorro said, "I don't want to see people taking up arms and assaulting banks." As fighting stopped, Gallegos left with sacks of cash estimated at some $4.5 million.

But while he is a common criminal to some, to others Gallegos is a Robin Hood in Nicaraguan Army fatigues. In Esteli, some aver that he has showered the proceeds from a series of bank robberies on poor peasants who have been denied bank loans by the Chamorro government and in some cases have nothing to eat.

Bolstering this impression, the FROC broadcast a political message claiming they were fighting for jobs for Nicaragua's legions of unemployed, credit for small farmers, and more health and education spending.

While most Esteli residents rejected Gallegos' tactics, some express sympathy with the aims of the FROC. Rosa Ruiz, who operates a food stand in Esteli, says, "Gallegos's ideas are right, although his methods are not. We do not have health care because medicine is being privatized."

There are also indications that some young men in Esteli picked up guns and fought alongside the recompas against the government Army. According to Organization of American States sources in Managua, the FROC also enjoys substantial support in rural areas north of Esteli, from where some of Gallegos' assault force may have come.

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