The Honduran Army has imposed a new policy of dismantling the training camps of anti-Sandinista guerrillas near the Nicaraguan border and dispersing the rebels either into Nicaragua or to isolated sites deeper inside Honduras.
Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary guerrillas for months have used the camps as bases to launch cross-border strikes designed to harass the Sandinista government in Managua. The new restrictions and increased Honduran Army patrols on this side of the border took effect about three weeks ago, according to Honduran military and civilian sources and Nicaraguan exiles with ties to the rebels.
The shift coincides with preparations for President Reagan's visit to Honduras Saturday and postponement of joint U.S.-Honduran military exercises near the eastern border with Nicaragua, which Sandinista leaders had been denouncing as an inflammatory gesture of U.S. support for the exiles.
It could not be determined whether the new policy is tactical and temporary, or whether it signals a new Honduran determination to end Nicaraguan guerrillas' use of Honduran territory -- as recent public assurances have indicated. One source with access to official thinking made the point that the new policy does not mean the exile activists have been shut out of the country.
The policy change follows a burst of publicity supporting Sandinista charges that the United States, with the cooperation of the Honduran Army, is financing and encouraging the campaign of cross-border subversion.
According to Honduran sources, the crackdown amounts to an effort to gain better control over the Nicaraguan guerrillas and also reflects U.S. desires to lie low while Reagan is in the area and Honduras is projecting an image of accommodation with Nicaragua.
"This U.S. government, I think they want to lay off for a while," said a Nicaraguan exile activist closely involved in the harassment attacks.
Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, chief of the Honduran armed forces, insisted in a meeting with journalists last week that there are no counterrevolutionary camps on Honduran soil. He conceded the possibility that Nicaraguan guerrillas have infiltrated back and forth, however, adding that "it is very difficult to control the border with Nicaragua meter by meter."
A visit to this tiny village in rugged hills four miles from the border and 120 bone-jarring miles south of the capital, showed what he meant, at least in one instance. One of Alvarez' soldiers, in a conversation over warm Coca-Cola, described how about 200 counterrevolutionaries were headquartered in a coffee farm here until the second week of November, when he said they were trucked away to "little places" in mountains back from the border to continue training.
About half the band had modern arms, the soldier remembered, but only a few displayed signs of real military training. The Army now regularly patrols the area including Benjamin Ponce's coffee farm--to avoid "problems" on the border, he added. Residents of El Jicarito and the neighboring village of El Llano recalled the Nicaraguans as uniformed in olive green, so similar to the Honduran Army, one said, that "it is difficult to tell them apart."
Three weeks ago, Capt. Cesar Largaespada, a Sandinista Army officer, told reporters in Somotillo, just across the border, that El Jicarito was the main camp for approximately 200 exile guerrillas who had been attacking his sector in Nicaragua's Chinandega Province.
Nicaragua's Army intelligence also included the Honduran border town of Las Trojes on a list of alleged counterrevolutionary camps in Honduras.
It was an all-day jeep ride to Las Trojes, cupped in a valley midway along the 420-mile border. Filipe Castro, a Nicaraguan who said he had just returned from "a base inside Nicaragua," recalled there that more than 800 armed exile guerrillas had been training at Las Trojes until the first week of November. "They are all inside" Nicaragua now, he said. "That is where the war is. That is where it must be fought."
The Nicaraguan list, released to reporters in October, said guerrillas at Las Trojes were advised by a "North American" named Danielito. Castro said Danielito used to be with the Nicaraguans in Las Trojes, but has gone. In any case, Castro added, Danielito was Nicaraguan.
A thick-browed Nicaraguan woman, who was walking among the houses of Las Trojes looking for cold medicine, said her four sons had been headquartered nearby until about the same time, when they told her they were sneaking back inside Nicaragua to stay and fight. "They have gone in to stay," said the woman, who called herself Rosalita. "They said they will stay. But I think they will have to come back sooner or later."
Stung by the Sandinista charges of Honduran complicity in the guerrillas' activities, President Roberto Suazo Cordova's government issued a formal communique Nov. 16 that Honduras will prevent unlawful acts by "all those foreigners who breach the neutrality of the nation." The statement followed by four days a visit to Managua by Foreign Minister Edgardo Paz Barnica.
Amilcar Santamaria, the Honduran government spokesman, conceded that the wording of the communique amounted to "tacit" acknowledgment that Nicaraguan guerrillas have been using the Honduran border hills as a haven. But he underlined the government's new determination to patrol the border and make sure that attacks do not become a cause for hostilities between Honduras and Nicaragua.
Dismantlement of guerrilla camps and pressure on the exiles to relocate within Nicaragua or farther inside Honduras were cited by well-informed Honduran sources as evidence that the government was carrying out its pledge. They also pointed out that Jose "Chicano" Francisco Cardenal and Enrique Bermudez, the most prominent guerrilla leaders, have left Tegucigalpa for Miami.
Cardenal, a former businessman in Nicaragua, heads the political wing of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force--the main anti-Sandinista group. Bermudez, who was a national guard officer under the late dictator Anastasio Somoza and who also served as military attache in Washington, heads its military wing as chief of ex-guard officers.
Nicaraguan authorities and Nicaraguan exile sources in Miami say this is the most effective military force because of outside funding and training. They said this included help from Argentine military officers stationed in Honduras.
Estimates on the force's strength have varied widely. Reliable assessments in Miami put it at about 2,000 armed men, with smaller groups amounting to several hundred more. Nicaraguan officials in Managua contend that as many as 4,000 are in Nicaragua or Honduras.
Visits to the border and conversations with Hondurans in the capital and border villages indicated most counterrevolutionaries move in bands of one hundred or fewer, coming and going across the border and using Honduran villages for rest, training and supplies.
It is unclear whether the new controls include attempts to restrict such cross-border movement as well as the more permanent camps. A high official of Cardenal's group, speaking by telephone from Miami on condition that he not be identified, complained that the United States is not providing enough aid to the counterrevolutionary effort. But he emphasized that the departure of Cardenal and Bermudez from Honduras was voluntary, adding that they could return any time.
Reports from Honduran border villages nevertheless indicate the new restrictions have taken a toll on the exile forces. Pressed by their commanders to cross into less secure hideouts in Nicaragua, these reports say, a few guerrillas recently deserted and sought work cutting coffee beans on Honduran farms.
In addition, an agreement reached this week between the Honduran government and the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees could reduce the counterrevolutionary access to safe havens. The estimated 3,000 Nicaraguan refugees, including many families of guerrillas, are to be moved 30 miles from the border.