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Latin America

In the midst of repression, rebels youths flee Nicaragua to "save their skin"

More than 50 young Nicaraguan rebels fled cross-country to Costa Rica last Sunday after police and paramilitaries linked to the Ortega government unleashed what some are calling a "witch-hunt" against anti-government protesters.
12 Jul 2018 – 02:34 PM EDT
'Erick,' (not his real name) in white, with two companions fled a road block in the city of Jinotepe after raids by police and paramilitiaries.

Of a group of 55 youths who fled the Nicaraguan department of Carazo bound for Costa Rica on Sunday, only six say they managed to cross the border. According to three of them, most of the others remain in hiding while some were kidnapped by paramilitaries associated with the ruling Sandinista party.

The six rebels who reached Costa Rica fled their home towns July 8, when the paramilitaries perpetrated the worst massacre witnessed so far in nearly three months of anti-government protests: with 24 deaths in one day in Carazo alone, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh).

The massacre was carried out via a combined attack by the national police and paramilitaries in the cities of Jinotepe, Diriamba and Dolores, to "cleanse" the Pan-American Highway of anti-government road blocks, known as 'tranques' - one of the main instruments of the opposition. Carazo was one of the few areas that had resisted a nationwide "clean-up operation" launched by the government of President Daniel Ortega under the guise of "enforcing the constitutional right to free movement."

The road blocks in Carazo came under constant attacks, but it wasn't until dawn on Sunday when almost 50 pick-ups loaded with paramilitaries and police took the protesters by surprise. The cleanup, according to the citizens themselves and independent media, was ruthless, as the rebels were swept aside in a hail of bullets.

Human rights organizations say it was followed by a "witch hunt" of protesters were hunted down in their homes, with as many as 200 people abducted on Sunday.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned "illegal raids and arbitrary arrests in different cities of the country" on Wednesday in an update of its work in Nicaragua before an extraordinary session at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington DC.

"The information indicates repeatedly that the arrests were made without a warrant, detainees were not informed of the cause of detention, they were not taken before a judge or given access to relatives or defense lawyers," the commission said. This "generalized practice" criminalizes social protest, according to the IACHR.

The group of 55 who fled were manning a road block at the San José college on the Pan-American highway in Jinotepe. They took to fields and rural byways to "save their skin," according to their own accounts.

The six who managed to reach Costa Rica, agreed to tell their story to Univision News on condition of anonymity. "We want to return to our country, and if they know who we are, they'll kill us," said one of the rebels, a 32-year-old man, bricklayer and plumber by trade, who Univision is calling 'Erick' (not his real name) for the purpose of this article.

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escape route

The San José road block rebels fled at 4pm on Sunday afternoon, hoping to make it to the Costa Rican border, about 70 miles south of Jinotepe. By then, the paramilitaries had taken control of the city and the Santiago Regional Hospital, where some of the injured were "captured." Armed, hooded men went house-to-house searching for rebel youths. Erick said they were afraid of being found, nor did they want to put their families at risk by hiding them. Without time to get their identity documents, they escaped the city.

According to his story, the first night they ran through the bushes and fields until they reached the neighboring municipality of La Conquista, 11 miles from Jinotepe. After more than 12 hours of battling the paramilitaries and police, they had not eaten, or had any water. "We ran and we walked about six hours. At dawn, I do not know what time, we fell to the ground from exhaustion."

The next day, they found out they were in La Conquista. The group of 55 were still together. They collected whatever money they had four of them went to buy food and water. They never returned. The paramilitaries captured them in the village on Monday morning, betrayed by their filthy clothes.

Others left the group to bathe in the Cascalojoche River. While they were washing they were intercepted by the paramilitaries. The rest of the group took flight again reaching the city of Nandaime, in the department of Granada. There they got help at a farm. They ate, rested a bit, and contacted relatives.

Erick says he contacted a family that had provided food and financial support to the road block. He explained he had fled and asked them to let his relatives know that he needed clean clothes and identity documents to escape to Costa Rica. Not all in the group wanted to cross the border. Most opted to stay in hiding for fear of reprisals against their families. "We don't want to go, but we have to do it to save our skins," Erick said.

The six who decided to cross the border got clothes and cash and took a bus to the border at Peñas Blancas. "We were very afraid, nervous of being captured," Erick said. At a police checkpoint on the Ochomogo bridge, police officers were checking vehicles and they feared the bus was going to be stopped. But their luck held and the bus was allowed to continue unimpeded.

At the Peñas Blancas border, they contacted a coyote to get acrosss to the Costa Rican side. Before closing the deal, they asked for a discount as they had little cash. "We explained our situation to the coyote and he felt sorry for us," Erick said. Usually, the coyotes charge 3,000 córdobas per person, ($100). "He charged us 600 pesos, $20 per head. I felt that was worth my life at that moment: 600 pesos," he said.

They returned to the byways. It was raining and the way was muddy. Once in Costa Rica, they managed to reach the city of Liberia. The coyote took them to a house so that they could clean up to avoid attracting attention. As they weren't carrying suitcases, it was easier for them to go unnoticed.

"By sheer luck, one of the youths recognized a truck driver who had been held up at the Jinotepe road block, whom he had befriended," Erick explained. "The driver greeted us, put us in the trailer and took us to San José."

A friendly truck driver

After reaching the capital, San José, on Tuesday July 10, Erick contacted a cousin who had migrated to Costa Rica years earlier. The six Carazo rebels now hope to seek refuge from the Costa Rican government.

Since the sociopolitical crisis spiralled out of control in Nicaragua, thousands have opted to flee the country. At the Costa Rican consulate in Managua, visa applications have surpassed the capacity to handle them, so the consular services have expanded the number of daily requests to 600 people. Despite this increase, Alexander Rivera, spokesman for the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry told Univision that migration flows "remains normal."

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However, due to the crisis that has cost 350 lives and more than 2,000 wounded, since April, the Costa Rican government has come up with a plan to allow Nicargauna to seek refuge.

Requests by Nicaraguans have shot up at the immigration office in San Jose, accoding to Rivera, though he said some undocumented migrants "have taken advantage of the situation to seek refuge."

Of those seeking refuge, "80% are people (already) living in Costa Rica. They should have a concience with their countrymen, the 20% who really need it," Rivera told Univision.

The refugee status does not come with any economic assistance, just a residency permit, which takes about a year to be approved. Rivera said he was not familiar with the case of the six rebels from Carazo, but said they were welcome to approach the immigration authorities.

"We have not gone to the immigration office yet for fear that they deport us to Nicaragua we get killed," Erick said before hanging up the phone to go to meet another group of rebels who arrived in San Jose on Wednesday, also crossing the border illegally at Peñas Blancas.

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