EL ALMENDRO, NICARAGUA -- The ragtag remnants of what was once the contra army wander the unpaved streets of this fetid little town in a listless daze, remote from the rush of events in Managua and bitter about their fate.

Under the terms of their demobilization deal with President Violeta Chamorro's new government, the contras were supposed to have a kind of guerrillas' golden parachute: a "development pole" in this corner of Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border, about 175 miles southeast of the capital.

Here they would work, play and live, unmolested by the Sandinista army. They would receive international assistance to start them on their way through the first planting seasons and to provide food and housing and medical supplies. It would be such a garden spot, contra leaders predicted, that tourists would one day come to marvel at the bounty.

Things have turned out differently.

Since the spring, when more than 8,000 rebels laid down their weapons here, aid has been slow in arriving, and so has development. The only food is beans and rice. There's no potable water, no plumbing and no electricity beyond what a few small generators provide. Tourists, who usually insist on such amenities as working toilets, have not discovered El Almendro.

With such unpromising conditions, two buses leave town every day, usually crammed with former contras heading for their hometowns in the north. The diaspora has left barely 3,000 of the rebels behind -- about half the total the contras planned on -- and the number is slipping fast. The contras are not only demobilized and disarmed -- they are rapidly scattering.

"This is a sad situation," said Rigoberto Herrera Zelaya, who as "Commander Waslala" used to be in charge of 400 men. "We're short on funds, on shoes, on medicine. We have no soap, no money. We're not being helped at all."

Some diplomats have suggested that it was the very disintegration of the contras as a force to be taken seriously that emboldened the opposition Sandinista Front to mount strikes against the government last week and in May.

The Sandinistas had stressed that dismantling the contras was their number one priority, and they pressed that demand before and after Chamorro was inaugurated April 25.

As long as the contra army still had weapons and a command structure, it represented a threat to the Sandinistas, diplomats say. But with the disappearance of that threat, they said, there was nothing to restrain the Sandinistas from carrying out a violent strike that exposed the government's lack of authority. The strike last week left at least five dead and more than 90 injured.

"The Sandinistas would never have pulled off a violent strike like this if the contras were still around," said a Western envoy. "They knew they had carte blanche."

There were reports early last week that armed contra commanders and troops had joined a mob of government supporters who had gathered around the headquarters of the pro-government Radio Corporation in Managua's Ciudad Jardin (Garden City) neighborhood. There were other reports that rightist opponents of the Sandinistas, including former contras, were organizing themselves into Brigades of National Salvation.

The reports, trumpeted by the Sandinista media, raised the specter of an organized vigilante movement that would challenge Sandinista militants in the streets, perhaps renewing civil war in the densely populated capital.

But interviews with contra commanders and officials with close contacts with the contras suggest that while some former members of the rebel army probably took part in the recent street battles around Managua, there is no indication that contras or rightist activists are reorganizing to fight the Sandinistas.

"If there were {former contras} who participated in activities, it was their own individual decision," said Roberto Ferrey, the Chamorro government's liaison with the rebels. "There was nothing organized."

However, Ferrey said that if there is another Sandinista strike against the government, it could become a catalyst for what he called the "spontaneous" formation of vigilante groups.

In interviews last weekend, just before the violence erupted in the capital last Monday, former contras were uniformly angry at what they consider to be the negligence of both the Chamorro government and the international community that promised to ease their transition to civilian life.

However, they were divided over whether to press Chamorro for more help, with many former rebels saying the new president faces enough problems in trying to handle the Sandinistas without having to face demands from the contras.

"Many people think that the same day they handed over their arms they should have received a piece of land," said Juan Betanco, the second-ranking member of a volunteer police force in the former rebels' enclave. "But we didn't fight only for land. We fought for democracy -- that was objective number one. Donåa Violeta has a lot of problems to solve and people should just be patient."

Ferrey said that of $30 million approved by Congress for the contra demobilization, only $10 million has arrived in Nicaragua. The rest, he said, is tangled in red tape in Washington and in the United Nations-Organization of American States commission in Nicaragua that is handling the aid program.