Forty years ago, Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo hid together in safe houses around Costa Rica’s capital while waiting for the imminent fall of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Today, thousands of their exiled compatriots hide in the same city, San José, awaiting the fall of the presidential couple.
Nicaraguan exiles come from every walk of life. All of them 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.
Víctor Barrantes, Costa Rica’s vice-minister of government and police, says “the government has no concrete evidence that would suggest that Nicaraguan paramilitary or counter-intelligence groups are operating in our country. However, we are investigating, as we do receive complaints.”
In this project, based on more than 50 interviews over 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 great uncertainty.
‘I don’t want to die in exile’
When the protests began in April 2018, Dr Estrada left his job to serve as a medic in a makeshift clinic in his native Monimbó, an emblematic locale since the Sandinista revolution.
“We used restaurant tables, a tent and some stretchers. In 88 days, we treated about 2,000 people. We hardly slept. But it felt good to serve my town.” On 17 July 2018, government forces regained control of Monimbó, and Dr Estrada walked for six days towards the Costa 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. “It’s a slow but sure death if I continue here. I don’t want to die in exile without seeing my family again. Ortega is destroying us.”
The government offered us $5,000 per kill’
“Vice-President Murillo issued an order offering us $5,000 per kill during the protests. But I refused to participate in that massacre.” The 35-year-old officer spoke on condition of anonymity. After refusing orders, he was captured and taken to El Chipote prison in Managua in April 2018. “Everyone was naked and crying.”
Over 16 days he was raped and mutilated and, suffered electroshocks to his genitals. Three toenails were removed, his jaw dislocated, and two teeth yanked out. “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 students. After recovering in Jinotega, he and his wife crossed the border. He is undergoing 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 was the leader of a barricade in her native Masaya. She was captured and taken to El Chipote. “They forced me to take photos in front of a lot of weapons, saying I was a terrorist. They hit me when I protested.
They undressed and blindfolded me. I was raped by five policemen. Then they threw me into a pitch-black cell. 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. “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.”
‘I was convicted of false charges’
Raúl Oporta 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. Raúl was arrested 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.”
In 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 motorcycle. In San José, Raúl participates in political meetings of exiles to organize and discuss the future of Nicaragua.
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 police 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 Raúl “wants to use his business as a meeting point with the sole goal of continuing his terrorist acts”.
‘I am optimistic’
The most renowned journalist in Nicaragua, Chamorro went into exile in Costa Rica in January after police raided the offices of 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 10 years. 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. 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, one of the most visible faces in the channel, covered the protests since April and, on multiple occasions, was assaulted and had equipment confiscated or broken.
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.”
Today, the building of 100% Noticias is still guarded by armed police, and Miguel Mora, owner, and Lucía Pineda, news director, were accused of “terrorism” but released from prison in June.
In January 2019, the government asked Canal 12 to stop broadcasting all programs by Carlos Fernando Chamorro. That same month, more than 30 police officers entered the studio and asked journalists to present their identification.
Violence will not solve this crisis’
Rafael Solís was considered one of Ortega’s closest allies for decades, but his public renunciation letter described Nicaragua as a “dictatorship”. Solís championed the controversial legal modifications to allow Ortega to run for re- election in 2011.
“I made a mistake”, says Solís. “Nicaragua needs a profound judicial reform, or even a new constitution. And we need a truth commission to investigate everything that happened since April 2018.”
Solís is hopeful about the opportunities for dialogue. “Violence will not solve this crisis. We need dialogue. But Ortega has to free all political prisoners. We need to be patient.”
This is the first time Solís has been photographed in a public space in Costa Rica. “I take precautions here, but I am not afraid. I risked my life against Somoza’s dictatorship. I have faith.”
‘We are interrupting Costa Rica’s democracy’
“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.” In July, 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’
In July, she was three weeks pregnant when police attacked the campus of Nicaragua’s National Autonomous University (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 an ultrasound revealed 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.
‘I pretended to faint because I knew they would kill me’
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 barricades 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. “They threw me into a 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 the 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.”
We won’t have peace without justice’
“I have been documenting the human rights violations committed by my government since the 1990s. During the first week of protests, 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, 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: ‘Álvaro, 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’
“The police entered our office at night and stole 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. Our fear is not pathological: it’s real fear. The government is crushing our ability to fight. Meanwhile, our exiles in Costa Rica are facing a humanitarian crisis.”
I am not free yet’
“I am not free yet. Nicaraguan exiles live like prisoners in Costa Rica. We’re trapped in a system of constant persecution. I fear for my life on the street. My mother called me three months ago to threaten me again after years of silence. If I return to Nicaragua, I am sure I would disappear.”
After six years in Costa Rica, the government has not yet granted her refugee status. The embassy of Nicaragua refuses to renew her passport. “I am changing homes constantly for my own safety. But without refugee status I cannot travel outside of the country.”
Zoilamérica also opened up about her father. “Ortega is dominated by fear. Losing power would mean death for him. That’s why he’s so dangerous. To be judged for his crimes would be his biggest nightmare.”
This project was produced by Dawning, an organization devoted to investigative journalism. It is an independent effort, self-funded, non-partisan and non-ideological, in the tradition of journalism in the public interest.
Photographs, interviews, and transcripts by Jorge Cabrera, Juan Carlos Ulate, Ana Acosta, Mees van der Werf, Diego Rivera, Alberto Molina, M Sawyer Ballance, Rafe H Andrews, Raúl Román, Joey Rosa and Nick Parisse.