By Wilfredo Miranda Aburto
LA CRUZ, Costa Rica (AA) – Freddy Mondragon and his group had been lost for three days in an orange plantation between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
On July 15, they decided to flee their native Rio San Juan a day after their barricade set up as part of a round-the-clock protest against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was torn down by police and paramilitary forces loyal to him.
After they crossed the San Juan River, they wandered for many days without a clear destination. They drank water from broken pipes and ate oranges, as they fled Nicaragua without any provisions.
“If we did not get out, we would have been killed,” said Mondragon, who worked as a farmer back home.
The seven-man group arrived at a “dead-end” known as Cuatro Esquinas, or ‘Four Corners’. They crossed on the 18thof July, a day before Ortega celebrated the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution and declared being a victim of a “coup d’état” carried out by these men, whom a week later he called “terrorists”.
Mondragon is one of around 24,000 Nicaraguans that have traveled to Costa Rica in search of asylum since April of this year, when the sociopolitical crisis started, according to data from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Costa Rica has maintained an open-door policy towards Nicaraguans that flee the economic crisis and political persecution.
When Mondragon reached Costa Rica, he instantly sought the migration authorities. He was moved to one of the temporary migrant reception centers created to help those fleeing Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan refugees must reach Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, in order to ask for asylum. The process takes between one and two years. While it is being completed, however, they can stay legally in Costa Rica.
The migration authorities don’t know the exact number of Nicaraguans that have entered their country during the past four months. But the number of Nicaraguan refugees sleeping in parks has triggered xenophobic incidents and serves as a reference to the magnitude of this exodus.
Costa Rica’s Migration Directorate had on average received between 60 and 120 refugee requests each month. But this number has surged during the last few months due to the influx of Nicaraguans. In June alone, Costa Rica received 5,200 requests.
Rodrigo Alberto Carazo, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the UN, said the crisis in Nicaragua has had “grave” consequences for them in the fields of “migration, society and economy”. This statement was made during a UN Security Council meeting where Ortega’s government said that the crisis “was not a threat to regional or global security”.
“The deepening of the political, social and economic crisis in Nicaragua, the pressure and disrespect shown towards basic liberties and human rights by the authorities have the potential to create an ever-escalating crisis that could directly impact the stability and development of Central America,” said Carazo.
Most of the exodus has occurred in the so-called “blind spots” along the border.
“Students, doctors, all kinds of people flee Nicaragua, hoping that the police won’t catch them,” said a human smuggler locally known as a “coyote”.
He charges between $60 and $80 per person smuggled into Costa Rica.
“First, we think about our safety, since if we’re caught in Nicaragua, they could make us disappear in the orange plantations,” said Mondragon, referring to Ortega’s official and paramilitary forces.
Nicaraguan army troops have been sent to these “blind spots”, carrying with them a list of people considered “terrorists”. In Peñas Blancas, the army has captured various protest leaders who were trying to flee, including Christian Fajardo and retired colonel Carlos Brenes, who are now among Ortega’s 400 political prisoners.
“A lot of people are missing. We don’t want refuge. We want the help of the international community”, said Mondragon.
“Daniel Ortega could not be ousted by means of peaceful demonstrations or popular revolt…We have to find a way to liberate the country”.
*Ahmed Fawzi Mostefai contributed to this story