This was published in the Costa Rican newspaper “Semanario Universidad” on August 7, 2018, located on the campus of the University of Costa Rica in San José. It provides a window into the lives of people who participated in the protests and saw themselves forced to flee the country and sought refuge in Costa Rica because of the violence.
“My Head has a price in Nicaragua”, fleeing to Costa Rica to Survive.
Published in Semanario Universidad August 7, 2018
By Yamlek Mojica Loásiga
Since the crisis began in Nicaragua, a new wave of migrants began that are fleeing to Costa Rica to survive. They do not come just in search of work, studies or health care. They did not plan their trip as a strategy to improve their living conditions, but as the only path to continue alive. These are some of the stories of these Nicaraguans.
The decision was already made. Lesly Mayorga would escape from Jinotega through the mountains along with his entire family on July 25th, before the Orteguista paramilitaries would be able to penetrate the “barricades” that were protecting his town. No one had a passport and no one wanted to leave their lives behind, but all wanted to save them. Without knowing exactly where they were going, seven days later they arrived at their final destination: Costa Rica was welcoming them.
Today Lesly wakes up on a mattress on the ground along with his entire family, within an improvised tent in the Center for Temporary Attention to Migrants (CATEM) in Guanacaste. He says that every day he silently cries out of nostalgia and impotence, but does not hesitate to state his happiness for not feeling afraid of being murdered. “Oh, I am happy. It is more comfortable here than sleeping on the ground in the forest,” he jokes.
In the northern CATEM the days pass slowly. For the more than 15 Nicaraguan migrants sheltered there the calm turns odd and suspect. After nearly four months of being witnesses to extreme repression on the part of the government of Nicaragua, the tranquility has become foreign to their sense of normality.
The Center is located five kilometers before reaching La Cruz, and more than 20 minutes from the border post of Peñas Blancas. It is an arid land, unpaved, with 25 green tents put up for around 40 immigrants, including Nicaraguans and extra regional migrants (as the African immigrants are administratively classified).
It is here that the authorities come to allow the migrants who are seeking asylum to enter the country. When Lesly arrived with his family of eight members to Peñas Blancas, they took down their data, offered them a migration appointment in La Uruca in San José, and drove them in a truck with his entire family to the Center. “We walked for more than five days. Going in the pickup gave me an incredible sense of peace,” he says.
More than seeming like Costa Rican soil, because of their [Costa Rican`s] obvious hostility and the origin of the tents where the refugee sleep, the place resembles the military camps in Irak. According to people responsible for the site, up to 25 people can be sheltered in each tent, and in their most crowded moments they can receive up to 300.
Within the Center the stories about the repression in Nicaragua are recounted all the time, and each person compares their experience with the experience of others. Even though all the immigrants come from different provinces, the stories are similar to one another.
Lesly Mayorga defended his trench in Jinotega from April 20 to a day before escaping. As he tells it, their weapons were mortars, rocks, and from time to time he had a machete, which months previously he used in farming. From the first day that he joined the Self Convened Movement he began to receive threats against himself and his family.
“One of the most difficult things was that the paramilitaries tried to burn down my house when I was not there. Since they were not able to, they took it out on my 15 year old daughter. They shot mortars at her body, they attacked her,” he said.
Currently there is an arrest warrant out for Lesly in Nicaragua for the crime of terrorism.
Nevertheless, he says his family was the principal reason why he had to flee the country. His daughters, all minors, had been threatened with being raped after putting him in jail.
He was left with nothing. In spite of his sturdy physique, Lesly appears vulnerable, sad. In his handbag he has the deeds to his house and a yellow list of the names of people who threatened him since he went into the trenches. Of all his belongings that he packed when he fled, these are the only papers that he has left.
Inside there is a tent with toys where the refugee children can play, but they have to play in the mud that the rain leaves. It is lunch time and the refugees make their own food on the fire. Among all the Nicaraguans they cook beans and rice and whisper among themselves. They smile at the cameras and look anxiously at the pot of food. Some, like Juan Carlos Espinoza, had not tasted food for more than five days.
Juan Carlos traveled from Managua to the border of Peñas Blancas, as he recounts, fleeing from the Sandinista Youth of his neighborhood. They recruited him months ago as a paramilitary, but he refused due to the fact that “he did not want to kill people.”
“One day they came to the house of my aunt, where I was living, to invite me to “Operation Cleanup”. They offered me 500 córdobas a day [some US$16] and an AK 47 to be out defending the Comandante from the “coup plotters”, he explained.
Juan did not finish high school but he was working in a barber shop. He earned less than US$100 a month and had several children to support. Even so, he states, he rejected the offer that they made him. From there began the intimidations against him and his family. He says that while he was going toward his house, people with their faces covered in a Hylux [pickup truck] got down and beat him, stole his identification, money that he was carrying and his cell phone. “After that, my aunt told me that she could not have me there (in her home). That I should leave. That is why I came to Costa Rica, “ he says.
Most of the way he traversed walking in the brush and without eating a bite. On arriving in the country, he did not ask for asylum, because he did not know that he could. “I had not eaten nor drunk anything in days. When I got to Costa Rica I looked for work on a pineapple farm and they told me that they were not hiring illegal immigrants. I went back, asked for water in a house nearby. They gave me money and told me about the shelter. I came in bus and taxi, and between those two things was left without any money again. But I got here and now was able to eat. I am now OK, “ he explains.
Juan Carlos´s voice is subdued, sad. He says that he does not have hope. He wants to go to the appointment to ask for asylum in La Uruca, but he does not know how to get to San José. The Government does not assume the cost of transportation, and each immigrant goes to their appointment on their own; most do not have their own money, therefore the only way of traveling the 267 kilometers of distance between the two places is hitchhiking. According to the Costa Rican office of Immigration and Foreign Status, they are working on immigration units closer to CATEM.
Most of the immigrants who live in the refugee center come into the country illegally. Among their reasons for coming in this way are the lack of money to process a passport and visa, or the fear of being stopped in the immigration post of Nicaragua.
Álvaro González came in this way, for those two reasons. He is 22 years old, but his tired face adds several years to that. He has used a wheel chair for two years now, due to the fact that while he was working as a newpaper delivery person he was attacked with a screwdriver in the back by gang members in a marginal neighborhood of Managua. Since then he has not been able to work, therefore processing a passport, he says, it economically impossible for him.
Since the beginning of the protests his brother entrenched himself in a university in Managua. A month ago he was captured within his house and they also tried to arrest Álvaro, “They (the paramilitaries)” came in to take my brother away and they wanted to lift me out of the wheelchair, saying that I was playing sick so that they would not arrest me,” he relates. When they realized his disability, they kicked him and threw him on the ground. “You cannot live in Nicaragua like that,” he laments.
Wth the help of his family he started to look for money to cross the border of Peñas Blancas with the help of coyotes. They told him it was nearly impossible to cross him over, and therefore they were charging him nearly double. The young man does not like to talk about how he was able to get to Costa Rica.
He goes ahead in the story and begins to remember how with his partner he was asking about the Refugee Center that he had seen in the news. He found it, but it did not have the capacity to receive him. Álvaro continues awaiting responses about where he will live temporarily. For now, he admits, it reassures him to live in a place where he does not hear bullets every half hour. For him it is worth sleeping on the ground if that allows him to survive.
La Cata of Jinotepe
“Ortega leaves and the next day I go back to my land.”
In the town people knew about the attack before the 8th of July. The rumor of the massacre in the province of Carazo got to La Cata, the coordinator of the local 19th of April movement, four days before with an additional specification: “they are coming for you”. Awaiting the attack of the paramilitaries meant her death or kidnapping. She left the “safe house” where she was, and without knowing it, began a journey that would take her to Costa Rica in search of staying alive.
Seated in some place in San José, she sees the videos of the massacre in her town and crying is unavoidable for her. She also sees the photos of walls of houses marked with threats against her, “Where is the torturer? LEAD for the coup plotter!” According to what she says, the writings were the minimum of what they wanted to do to her. “They wanted to kill me,” she explains.
Three months prior, La Cata lived in the municipality of Jinotepe in Carazo. She worked in a marketing company and was far from politics. Nevertheless, she explains, the governmental violence used in the protests within the capital against the reforms to the National Social Security Institute (INSS) caused in her a enormous feeling of indignation. On the afternoon of April 19th she decided, along with no more than 20 people, to do a peaceful sit in in Carazo demanding the repeal of the law.
20 minutes went by once they placed their posters in front of INSS when they were removed from the place by state workers with threats of violence. “They (the state workers) tried to intimidate us with stones. We withdrew from the area, but we went to other streets to continue fighting,” she tells.
As the deaths increased with the protests at the national level, she along with other people organized more demonstrations against the Government. The intimidation quit being with mortars and stones, they began to use bullets and shot to kill. The rise in the violence forced them to create “barricades” in the principal entrances to the province. “We made the barricades to put pressue on Ortega, but also for protection, to prevent any paramilitary from entering to kill innocent people,” she says.
Her leadership meant being the person resonsible for communication among all of the self convened. Her fight was not shooting mortars, given that she says that she was never able to manage them, but taking food to the barricades, creating assemblies to understand the needs of the people, being the spokesperson for all. Her resistance quickly turned into a threat for the Government and her name began to circulate in the social networks. She was related to political officials, they labelled her a “coup plotter”, and every day they would go to the home of her parents to shoot off mortars.
La Cata had to leave her home to hide in “safe houses”. In Nicaragua homes in zones outside of the cities have been turned into hideouts for the youth who are persecuted by the State.
“They are watching us,” she says. The indicator for having to change safe houses was waking up with a contact bomb at the door. It was a sign that the paramilitaries left behind to let her know that it did not matter where she hid, they were going to find her.
The threats increased. They would pass by the house of her parents machine gunning it, and in the social networks her “head” (capture or death) was worth $1,500. She was called a criminal and blamed for the murder of people she never knew. In spite of everything, she did not want to leave Carazo, much less the country. She saw it an unjust, inhumane. She did not want to leave her life behind. She felt that leaving was abandoning her fellow fighters who had nearly become her brothers and sisters.
But they were the ones that took her out of Carazo when the rumor came that the paramilitaries were “coming with everything” to attack them.
-The specific rumor came to us: “they are coming for you”. They decided to get me out of Jinotepe before the attack, but it was not our objective to come to Costa Rica. The point was to try to keep ourselves safe, isolated from everything. Without talking with anyone in the outside world. We thought that we had to go back to organize and get to the town with a better strategy.
When did you decide to come to Costa Rica?
– We decided to come when they began to find us. When they got to one of the safe houses outside of the province and took away some companions to El Chipote, now they are trying them for terrorism. They followed all the rules that we agreed on and even so they captured them. There we decided that the coordinators had to leave. We had to go, but we did not think about it nor did we want to. We never imagined Costa Rica as our final stop. We were traveling in the bus and we thought that we were going to go back, but all this got more and more difficult. There is more and more despair about returning soon. We continue hoping to return. Daniel (Ortega) has to go. I do not know how but he has to go. Ortega goes and the next day I will return to my land.
The attack by the paramilitaries on Carazo happened on July 8th. Up to now there is no exact count of how many people died that day. Some say 14 and others calculate it at 40. There is more than a hundred disappeared and around 10 people captured and accused of terrorism. The house where she was sheltered before leaving Carazo was left completely ransacked, they were after her. “It is horrible to think about what they could have done to me. But it is more horrible to not know what happened to people I knew, with whom we fought shoulder to shoulder,” laments the young woman.
La Cata continues alive but feels that each day she dies a little more. The impotency eats away at her and she says that there has not been one day in which she can go back to normal. “It was not for this that I fought for three months. When we started we did not think that the hate was going to reach such dimensions. I feel impotent and even selfish because my brothers continue there. Ortega hates us,” she says firmly.
Her story was validated by the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) when they offered her and her family precautionary measures so that the State of Nicaragua might respect her human rights. La Cata now is one of the more than 8,000 people requesting refuge in Costa Rica, a country that according to her “has opened its arms when we most needed them.” She gives thanks to God for being alive, but she also prays for her brothers in the struggle. That gives her the most hope in the midst of everything.