(Above) Jonas Cruz, 18, and Moises Rivas, 19, exiled university students, wrestle in the San José home where they take refuge.
Since April 2018 at least 55,000 Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica, according to the United Nations. Most reside in the nation’s capital, San José, in outer suburbs with poor living conditions and high crime.
Ortega’s Most Wanted
Costa Rica has become a precarious refuge for thousands of Nicaraguan exiles since April 2018. In the streets of San José, they continue to feel President Ortega's reach.
Forty years ago, President Daniel Ortega and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo hid together in safe houses in Costa Rica’s capital while waiting for the imminent fall of Anastasio Somoza. Today, thousands of their exiled compatriots hide in the same streets, awaiting the fall of the presidential couple.
We went to San José to interview and photograph Nicaraguan exiles from every walk of life: students, politicians, journalists, human rights activists, civic leaders. Some made media headlines worldwide when they left Nicaragua. Most are anonymous citizens. All have one thing in common: if they returned home, they say they would be arrested, tortured, or killed. They are some of Ortega’s most wanted.
If they returned home, they say they would be arrested, tortured, or killed.
Nicaraguan exiles are grateful to their southern neighbors. But most are hardly surviving in a foreign environment where they feel Ortega’s presence around every corner. “This is not a safe exile for me”, says Nemesio Mejia, a renowned farm leader who only sees his wife and children twice a month to elude danger. A defected member of the Nicaraguan riot police lives in seclusion on the outskirts of the capital: “I feel like a rat”. It took seven weeks for Rafael Solis, one of Ortega’s former closest allies, to find the right place and time to be photographed — “I am not afraid, but I take precautions”, Solis claims.
Alvaro Leyva, the exiled president of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, wrote a letter to Costa Rica’s President Alvaro Quesada on March 15, 2019, asking for help after documenting multiple cases of harassment and persecution of refugees by people “who are presumably part of intelligence units of the Nicaraguan Government […] and have been sent to Costa Rica to operate as paramilitary.” Victor Barrantes, Costa Rica’s Vice Minister of Government and Police, asserts that “the government has no concrete evidence that would suggest that Nicaraguan paramilitary or counter-intelligence groups are operating in our country. However, we continue investigating, as we do receive complaints.”
Nicaraguans continue crossing the southern border, but their journey in exile is not as well documented as the continued repression back home. In this project, based on over 50 interviews in a four-month period in San José and Managua, we hear their voices and see their faces, as they recount their wounds and hopes in the midst of uncertainty.
“The government offered us $5,000 per kill.”
“Vice President Murillo issued an order offering us $5,000 per kill in the protests. But I refused to participate in that massacre.” The 35-year old man in the picture provided testimony on the condition of anonymity. A former Nicaraguan police officer, he currently lives in Costa Rica. After refusing orders, he was captured and taken to El Chipote prison in April 2018. “Everyone was naked and crying.” Over the course of sixteen days he was raped, mutilated and suffered electroshocks to his genitals. During his torture three toenails were removed, his jaw dislocated, and two teeth yanked out. “At the end, they took me and four others, threw us into Tiscapa Lagoon and shot at us. I don’t know where I got the strength from, but I started running.” He was found by university students. After recovering in Jinotega, he and his wife crossed the border. He is undergoing continued psychological treatment. “San José is infested with Nicaraguan intelligence. I don’t want to live in fear, but I can’t sleep at night.”
“I was raped by five policemen.”
Ericka Sanchez, 32, at a restaurant in San José. Ericka was the leader of a barricade in her native Masaya. She was captured in the early morning of June 2nd 2018 and taken to El Chipote. “They forced me to take photos in front of a lot of weapons, saying that I was a terrorist. They hit me when I protested. After being undressed and blindfolded, I was raped by five policemen. Then they threw me into a cell that was pitch black. It smelled like death. The next day they forced me to read a false statement on camera incriminating 15 of my neighbors.” A day later, human rights defenders helped release some prisoners, including Ericka. She returned to her barricade, where she provided food and weapons, until Masaya was taken by government forces on July 17th. “My group was the last. We resisted until midday. While running to hide, I was shot in my buttocks. We killed the person who did it.” Two days later, she crossed the border and was transported to San José in an ambulance. “I live in fear. The paramilitary are here looking for me.”
(Above) A Nicaraguan refugee at his improvised home in a parking lot in San José.
(Right) Local nonprofits provide food to Nicaraguan refugees. Although Costa Rica maintains an open border policy towards Nicaraguan refugees, it cannot provide for all of them. Most rely on themselves and the charity of local and international organizations for their daily needs.
“Nicaraguan exiles have major psychological problems.”
Ricardo Pineda, 55, was a doctor at a private clinic in Managua before becoming a nationally renowned figure for his leadership in providing medical assistance to student protestors. “I suddenly saw many hospitals closing their doors to injured students. That made the protests very personal to me.” Ricardo was one of the doctors at the Church of Divina Misericordia the night of July 13th. “I recorded a video inside the church, and within minutes it spread all over Nicaragua. I began receiving death threats via text, including a graphic that said: ‘We’re giving 50,000 cordobas to whomever kills the doctor’. As we left the church, I started heading to the Costa Rican border.” Ricardo is not allowed to practice in San José, but still volunteers to help newly-arrived Nicaraguans. “Some people come here badly wounded, many raped. The government uses rape as a weapon of war. Nicaraguan exiles have major psychological problems, like PTSD. Meanwhile, Nicaragua provides housing, food and resources for its paramilitary here.”
@Justa42517276: “[Ricardo Pineda] manages international funds using his position in the Medical Association; he keeps whatever money he raises because he’s a consummate thief… and we definitely have to arrest him because he has mental disorders and he’s armed and very dangerous.”
The author of this public Twitter response is Justa Pérez, Minister of Family Economy in the Government of Daniel Ortega.
Besides Ricardo Pineda, every person we interviewed showed evidence of how Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp are primary tools used by Ortega sympathizers to intimidate, defame and persecute dissidents.
(Above) Bullet holes are still visible at the church of Divina Misericordia in Managua, Nicaragua, seven months after the night of July 13th, 2018 when two students taking refuge inside were shot and killed. That day marked the end of student protests in Managua.
(Right) The grave of Gerald Vasquez, one of two students killed on July 13th, at the Santo Domingo cemetery in Managua.
“I don’t want to die in exile.”
Dr. Estrada (first name omitted), 60, in the garage bedroom he shares with four other exiled Nicaraguans in San José. When the protests began, Dr. Estrada left his job to serve as a medic in a makeshift clinic in the main square of his native Monimbo, Masaya, an emblematic locale since the Sandinista Revolution. “We used restaurant tables, a tent, and some stretchers. In 88 days, we treated about 2000 people. We hardly slept. But it felt good to serve my town.” On the 17th of July, 2018, government forces regained control of Monimbo, and Dr. Estrada walked for six days towards the Cost Rican border. “I received money to maintain the barricades, and now the government is accusing me of funding terrorism.” Unable to find a job in San José, Dr. Estrada lives off donations. “I am living a slow but sure death if I continue here. I don’t want to die in exile without seeing my family again. The world needs to do something, quickly. Ortega is destroying us.”
A year later, life goes on around the bullet-ridden bell tower of the church of Magdalena in Monimbo, Nicaragua, where a heavy police presence remains.
Shortly after these photos were taken, our photographer, Jorge Cabrera, was detained and interrogated by local police for two hours.
On July 17th 2018, Monimbo was taken and its barricades removed by government forces. At least four died and dozens were injured.
Today, locals still report the sounds of firearms ringing throughout the night.
“They are looking for me everywhere.”
Dulce Porras, 67, demonstrating the position she held for six hours inside a closet at Apostol Santiago church when pro-government forces attacked her hometown of Jinotepe on the 8th of July, 2018. “Six of us had to crouch, one next to the other, behind the robes of the priest. The church shook with gunfire. If hell exists, then I passed through hell that day.” Dulce comes from a family of politicians and is a founding member of the Sandinista Renovation Movement party (MRS). When the protests unraveled on the 18th of April, students went to Dulce for support. “I have been falsely accused of terrorism, organized crime, torture, looting, and funding the protests through MRS party funds. They are looking for me everywhere.” Dulce crossed the border into Costa Rica with her son two days after the July 8th attack. “It is difficult living in exile. I left my heart on the other side of the border.” She continues to receive death threats.
“I was convicted of false charges and sentenced to two years in prison”
Raul Oporta, 53, praying inside La Merced church in San José. Raul was an active community leader in Boaco. He founded a new political party called Citizens for Freedom soon before the protests, during which he established himself as a logistical leader. Raul was arrested in early August while sitting on his front porch. He was charged with damages against State property – which he denies – and was put on trial. “The witnesses appointed by the prosecutors and police did not want to show up in court to incriminate me because they knew it was all false”. On the 14th of December, 2018, only one witness testified, a neighbor. “I am convinced he was coerced to lie. With just one witness, I was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. During recess, I fled.” Disguised as a priest, he escaped to Costa Rica on a Raybar 250cc motorcycle. In San José, Raul participates in political meetings of exiles to organize and discuss the future of Nicaragua.
Raul Oporta showing the original court documents that sentenced him to two years in prison.
Oporta’s restaurant business in Nicaragua, currently managed by his wife, was recently denied the renewal of its alcohol license. The official letter from the Nicaraguan National Police, dated April 10, 2019, states that they “will not authorize business permits for people who participated and were investigated for their actions in the failed coup”, and affirms that Raul “wants to use his business as a meeting point with the only goal of continuing his terrorist acts.”
Food and second-hand clothing from the U.S. are distributed to Nicaraguan refugees at this refugee center in San José, sponsored by Al-Barro Foundation and Operación Nicaragua.
At the Center for Migration of the Costa Rican government in San José, Nicaraguans wait to apply for asylum.
As of March 2019, almost 30,000 Nicaraguans have formally filed asylum applications. According to the UNHCR, “with reception capacity overstretched, 26,000 others are waiting to have their claims formalized.”
“I am optimistic.”
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, 62, at Teletica studios in San José, where he works as an independent journalist. The most renowned journalist in Nicaragua, Chamorro went into exile in Costa Rica in January after police raided the offices at Confidencial, of which he is founder and editor. “We filed a lawsuit against the government for robbing us during our broadcasts of the protests. Shortly after, I appeared as one of the first names on a notice of capture. But I’ve been persecuted these last ten years, it didn’t just start in April 2018. There is massive repression of news channels in Nicaragua.” In San José, Chamorro continues working on stories, now broadcast via Youtube. “I am optimistic about the crisis resolving itself through political means. But a quick exit isn’t just going to fall from the sky. The agenda for democratization goes hand in hand with the agenda for true justice. We need the international community to reach a negotiation with or without Ortega.”
“Ortega has tried to silence us, but we’re reporting from here.”
Leticia Gaitán, 29, preparing for recording a news segment at the provisional studio she has set up in San José with colleagues from 100% Noticias, the independent news channel that was closed down by the Nicaraguan government on December 21st 2018. Leticia, one of the most visible faces in the channel, covered the protests starting in April and, on multiple occasions, was assaulted and had equipment confiscated or broken while reporting. While traveling to cover protests in Ticuantepe in June, her station van was intercepted. “They ransacked our vehicle and stole everything. The entire time they held an AK-47 to my head and whispered lewd sexual comments in my ear.” The intimidation continued until the day in December when police stormed her office. Today, the building of 100% Noticias is still guarded by armed police; Miguel Mora, owner, and Lucia Pineda, news director, were recently released after months in prison, accused of “terrorism”. “Ortega has tried to silence us, but we continue reporting from here.”
(Above) A man selling papers on the streets of Managua. Nearly all media outlets in Nicaragua are owned by allies or members of the Ortega family. Since April 2018, the Nicaraguan government started an extensive crackdown on independent media. Dozens of journalists have been beaten and threatened, and roughly 70 of them have left the country.
(Left) La Prensa, Nicaragua’s most widely read newspaper, recently ran a blank front page to protest the confiscation of its printing supplies by the government.
(Left) Canal 12 continues its broadcasts under threats. In January 2019, the government asked Canal 12 to stop broadcasting all programs by Carlos Chamorro. That same month, over 30 police officers entered the studio and asked journalists to present their identification.
(Right) The office of 100% Noticias in Managua, closed and permanently guarded by the police since December 21st, 2018.
“Violence will not solve this crisis.”
Rafael Solis, 65, at a coffee shop in San José, Costa Rica, where he sought refuge after resigning as Supreme Court magistrate and Sandinista party affiliate in early January. Considered one of Ortega’s closest allies for decades, his public renunciation letter described Nicaragua as a “dictatorship” and a “state of terror”. Solis championed the controversial legal modifications to allow Ortega to run for re-election in 2011. “I made a mistake”, says Solis. “Nicaragua needs a profound judicial reform, or even a new constitution. And we need a truth commission to investigate everything that happened since April.” Solis is hopeful about the opportunities for dialogue. “Violence will not solve this crisis. We need dialogue, and it’s not easy. But Ortega has to free all political prisoners. We need to be patient.” This is the first time Solis has been photographed in a public space in Costa Rica. “I take precautions here, but I am not afraid. I am a strong person. I risked my life against Somoza’s dictatorship as young man. I have faith.”
Exiles gather in Parque de La Merced in the heart of San José to network.
Newly arrived Nicaraguans struggle to find employment in Costa Rica. Refugees are not allowed to work until three months after they are granted resident status, but the job market is dire.
“We are interrupting Costa Rica’s democracy.”
Nemesio Mejia, 43, is one of the leaders of Nicaragua’s largest farmers’ movement. A farmer from Chontales, he has been at the head of 97 marches since 2013 during which he advocated against the controversial Nicaragua Canal. “Many farmers have been killed in the past six years. What happened in April 2018 is not new to us — Ortega’s regime has consistently tried to silence us. He has sold our land to the Chinese.” Nemesio was responsible for the national coordination of the farmers’ barricades. “We faced a lot of crises because we had different views on how to approach the protests. We don’t agree with violence.” On July 14th, with his town under heavy attack, Nemesio fled. “We lost many people that day. I don’t know if they’re alive, dead, or in jail.” Nemesio’s wife and children joined him in Costa Rica, but he only sees them twice a month. “This is not a safe exile for me. I know they’re trying to kill me. In a way, we are interrupting Costa Rica’s democracy, because Nicaragua is sending paramilitaries after us. Part of the Nicaraguan conflict is now here.”
“My child was dead inside me for a week.”
María Alejandra Castillo, 20, with her mother (left), boyfriend and other family members in downtown San José. On July 13th, 2018, she was three-weeks pregnant when police attacked the campus of UNAN, where she served as logistics manager for all 89 days of protests. “We cooked, showered and slept on campus. At night we played cards and sang songs.” For two months, María hid in three secret safe houses until her capture in late September. She was taken to El Chipote, dressed in blue prison clothes, and presented to the press by the police. “It was a total charade. I suddenly was all over the media as a dangerous delinquent.” In prison, María slept on the floor and was beaten regularly. She was denied medical attention until October 18th, when an ultrasound revealed that her child had died. “My child was dead inside me for a week.” She was released but continued being harassed by government forces. Soon after, María arrived in Costa Rica with her mother, exactly three weeks after her 20th birthday.
January 20th, 2019. Nine months after the protests in Nicaragua started, hundreds of exiles marched through the streets of San José to demand the resignation of Ortega.
Public protests in Nicaragua have nearly come to an end. Neighborhoods and university campuses that were once bulwarks of the opposition are now under firm control of police and the Sandinista Youth.
“I pretended to faint because I knew they would kill me.”
Jonas Cruz, 18, at the apartment he shares with five other exiled Nicaraguan students in San José. During the first week of protests in April, Jonas, who studied civil engineering, witnessed the deaths of 14 fellow students. “I suddenly saw myself in the middle of a war. I had never seen someone die before. I wasn’t ready.” In early May, he joined the trenches at the UNAN, where he stayed for 77 days. “It was beautiful to see the whole city unite and support one another.” Jonas was arrested and taken to El Chipote prison on the 24th of July. “They threw me into a one-by-one meter cell. I was tortured every day by four masked policemen. They used electric shocks and a baseball bat. I never received food or water. I lost consciousness several times during the interrogations. On the fifth day, I pretended to faint because I knew my torturers would kill me. Luckily, they sent me to a hospital. I had four fractured ribs.” Jonas escaped the hospital and took refuge in a safe house until he crossed the border, still wearing a bandage around his ribs. “I am free here, but it’s very hard to survive in Costa Rica.”
Memories and scars of torture endured by Cristopher Gaitan, 19, and Carlos Fisterra, 21, exiled university students in hiding on the outskirts of San José.
(Above), Wilfredo Porras, 41, shows the scars from bullet wounds he obtained during the protests on July 8th, 2018, in Jinotepe. He moved with his family to Costa Rica shortly after.
(Left) Documents of a defected Nicaraguan riot policeman at his refuge in San José. Multiple reports from multilateral and human rights organizations have established that arrested men and women face sexual violence, psychological and physical torture in Nicaragua’s prisons.
“We won’t have peace without justice.”
Dr. Alvaro Leiva, 55, assisting two newly-arrived Nicaraguan journalists at the office of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights in San José. “I have been documenting the human rights violations committed by my government since the 1990’s. During the first week of protests in April 2018, I submitted an official report to the Public Ministry of Nicaragua, pointing to specific officials responsible for the deaths of 42 young people. We also know the government purposefully obscured its public morgue records during the protests.” Two months later, Dr. Leiva received a call from a friend informing him the government had filed papers declaring him a terrorist and ordering his capture. “He told me: ‘Alvaro, you need to run’.” He fled to Costa Rica with his team of human rights defenders. “I picked up dead bodies from both sides. I don’t defend parties, I defend humans. But it’s hard to remain impartial. We won’t have peace without justice.”
“Terror has not stopped.”
Vilma Nuñez, 81, is an internationally renowned activist and the president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), one of the NGOs whose legal registration was canceled by the National Assembly in December 2018. “The police entered our office at night and took everything we had. After that, many of our colleagues left the country horrified. But I decided to stay in Managua.” Vilma says that CENIDH is rebuilding. “Terror has not stopped. People are still imprisoned, tortured and disappeared here. Our prisons are torture centers. Government officials, judges, police, paramilitary, spies –they all continue acting with impunity. Our fear is not pathological: it’s real fear. The government is crushing our ability to fight. All the while, our exiles in Costa Rica are facing a humanitarian crisis.” Vilma’s life has changed since April. “I was a political prisoner under Somoza, and I was tortured. But this is much worse. I am a bit lonelier now. My friends are afraid of being seen in my company. Spies take pictures of me wherever I go. But I am not going to hide.”
Life continues in Nicaragua, though remnants of the violence and signs of continued political unrest are visible.
A woman sweeps inside the sanctuary of Divina Misericordia church in Managua, where the bullet-ridden windows have not been replaced.
“I am not free yet.”
Zoilamerica Ortega Murillo, 51, the daughter of the presidential couple, who accused President Ortega of sexual abuse in 1998, at her home in San José. “I am not free yet. Nicaraguan exiles live like prisoners in Costa Rica. We’re trapped in a system of constant persecution. We cannot visualize our future. Since April, 2018, the situation has become much worse. I fear for my life on the street. My mother Rosario Murillo called me three months ago to threaten me again after years of silence. If I return to Nicaragua, I am sure I would disappear”. Zoilamerica also opened up about her father. “Daniel Ortega is dominated by fear. Nothing scares him more than his own death. And losing power would mean death for him. He suffers panic attacks because he’s aware of what he’s done, and that state of mind defines his actions. That’s why he’s so dangerous. To be judged for his crimes would be his biggest nightmare.”
Zoilamerica Ortega Murillo at home with her youngest son.
“For the past six years, since I arrived in San José, I have changed homes constantly for my own safety. But without refugee status I cannot travel outside of the country.” At the time of this interview in April 2019, the Costa Rica Government had not yet granted Zoilamerica refugee status. Shortly after this report came out on The Guardian three months later, Zoilamerica and her son finally received their refugee papers. The Embassy of Nicaragua in San José, however, continues to deny her right to a passport.
Our team tried numerous times to secure an interview and photo session with President Daniel Ortega. While we received three prompt responses from his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, stating that they were “grateful” and would “notify us soon”, communication ceased upon our team’s arrival in Managua. A month later, Vice President Murillo asked us to send her our questions by email.
The presidential couple remains unresponsive today.
This project was produced by DAWNING. It is an independent effort, self-funded, non-partisan and non-ideological, in the tradition of social science and journalism in the public interest.
Project Director: Raul Roman
Executive Editor: Rafe H Andrews
Creative Director: Joey Rosa
Creative Consultant: Nick Parisse
Fieldwork Logistics Manager: Norman Fitoria
Research Managers: Ana Acosta & Mees Van Der Werf
Research Assistants: Diego Rivera & Alberto Molina
Illustrations: Riccardo Vecchio
Photographs, Interviews, and Transcripts:
Jorge Cabrera, Juan Carlos Ulate, Ana Acosta, Mees Van Der Werf, Diego Rivera, Alberto Molina, M Sawyer Ballance, Rafe H Andrews, and Raul Roman.