RIO BLANCO, NICARAGUA -- Teofilo Espinoza got his throat slit by rebel fighters for accepting a government amnesty allowing rebels to lay down their arms and go home.

Espinoza, 35, had only been a rebel recruit for three days in 1985 when he decided the guerrilla life was not for him. He later claimed he was drunk when a friend persuaded him to march into the hills to join the cause of the U.S.-backed rebels, known as contras.

Espinoza bolted and turned himself in to Sandinista government soldiers, who let him go free under the amnesty. But in February 1986, contras caught him and accused him of having acted as a Sandinista spy.

The contras cut his throat, stabbed him twice and left him for dead. He managed to stagger to a nearby farm for help, and he survived. As Espinoza told his story in an interview here, he showed a roughly healed gash in his neck and jagged scars on his chest.

The amnesty is important to the leftist government's strategy to undermine an estimated 10,000 contras fighting in Nicaragua with $100 million of U.S. aid. The Interior Ministry says 4,768 Nicaraguans have registered under the amnesty since it began in 1983, including more than 2,000 this year.

"We see it as low-cost contra casualties, where we don't fire any bullets or spill any blood," said Lt. Roberto Alfaro, who heads the Interior Ministry office here in north-central Nicaragua.

According to lawyers, human rights groups and former contras, both sides have committed serious abuses against combatants who have sought amnesty or refuge.

The program is also crucial to any future settlement of Nicaragua's conflict, such as a peace proposal by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that is to be discussed Thursday at a meeting in Guatemala of the five Central American presidents.

Arias' plan calls for the government to restore democratic rights, then for the contras to lay down their arms and return to Nicaraguan society. Regional leaders are treating the amnesty progam as a test of both sides' willingness to compromise for peace.

To take advantage of the amnesty, a contra fighter usually communicates his intentions to Interior Ministry police through a trusted intermediary. The police then hold public ceremonies to ensure it will be widely known which fighter has agreed to the amnesty. Many contras bring their weapons, Alfaro said.

Amnestied contras must submit to a round of interrogation and report periodically to police, Alfaro said. They are closely watched, and their movements may be restricted. The amnesty is open to any contra except those captured in combat.

Some contras who have thought they were going home ended up in prison. Seven Miskito Indian contras remain in jail after they gave themselves up and asked for amnesty in the village of Pajra last August, according to relatives and their lawyer, Owyn Hodgson.

Their decision followed a bloody battle in Pajra Aug. 20 in which 22 of a band of 30 Indian contras died fighting the Army. The other eight -- five of whom have said they were forcibly recruited into contra ranks -- hid in the bush and resolved to give up, said Zoila Mateo, 45, mother of one of the Indians.

In the following week, the eight survivors approached security police and asked for amnesty. Instead, seven were detained and held incommunicado for a month, Mateo said. One was released, because he was only 12. She said her 23-year-old son, Alfredo Emos, appeared to have been severely beaten when she saw him in jail in late September. He hobbled and could not talk clearly, she said.

"I called on my son to stop fighting and come home. I told him to have faith, and the government would leave him alone. But everything came out the opposite," the haggard-looking Miskito mother said through a translator.

"These cases made a big impression in our communities," said Reynaldo Reyes, leader of a group of 400 Indian contras who negotiated a separate peace agreement with the Sandinistas. "Others want to join the peace, but now they're scared. Politically, the Sandinistas are shutting the door on us."

Luis Moreno Payan, one of the contras' most experienced field commanders, said in a recent interview that he now believes 100 or more contras who deserted this spring and made public appearances under the amnesty had actually been Sandinista infiltrators working as spies in contra base camps in Honduras for up to two years.

Others, however, see the amnesty as a way out of combat. Clemente Gonzalez, 33, who fought for almost four years, deserted with his younger brother, Matias, in Rio Blanco last December. He was the contra equivalent of a platoon commander.