When Nicaragua's new government was sworn in last April, it moved immediately to erase the visible legacy of the Ministry of Interior, the powerful security apparatus that helped define and sustain the Sandinistas.

At the ministry's antenna-topped headquarters, workmen hurriedly changed the official name to Ministry of Government. The guards, who had carried machine guns, were removed. Painters covered over the Sandinistas' Orwellian slogan, which declared the ministry to be ``the guardian of the people's happiness.'But inside the imposing building, once shrouded in secrecy, officials of the new government have faced a far more difficult job dismantling, or even controlling, the Sandinista security and espionage network, which was widely regarded as one of the most effective in the hemisphere.

The role of the former Interior Ministry has become a major object of dispute between President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's conservative allies, who have urged her to purge and rebuild it from the ground up, and government officials, who say the former Sandinista forces must be handled gingerly to avoid a political explosion.

``We have tried to manage this process in an orderly, measured way,' said Carlos Hurtado Cabrera, the 38-year-old agricultural engineer who was appointed as the new minister of government. ``We have done so precisely to avoid more conflicts, more tensions that could endanger everything we have accomplished thus far.'

Despite formal agreements subordinating the police to civilian control, the new government has managed to place only about 100 of its own people in the renamed ministry, which includes at least 11,700 officials and other personnel from the former government.

In addition, government and Sandinista officials say, the main elements of the Sandinista domestic espionage network, including key secret police officials, have been transferred intact to the Nicaraguan army, which remains under Sandinista leadership.

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