The country that criminalized solidarity with immigrants

Ramón Villareal Bello/ Courtesy

MANAGUA—When David and Yandelis left Haiti to emigrate to the United States, they din't expected their trip to get cut short in Nicaragua. But when Yandelis' pregnancy became too much for her to continue on, the couple was forced to stop and hide from the Nicaraguan military in the hills outside of San Juan del Sur, a popular tourist town near the Costa Rican border.

The Haitians spent 20 days surviving on the charity of kindly Nicaraguans who lived in the area. But it was a risky situation for everyone involved.


That's because Nicaragua's Sandinista government, which has militarized its southern border and ramped up its patrols for undocumented immigrants, has essentially banned Nicaraguans from helping immigrants who are trying to sneak across the country.

The motto of Sandinista government is "Christian, Socialist and in-Solidarity," but so far that hasn't applied to the huddled masses of African and Haitian immigrants stuck on Nicaragua's southern border. In fact, the Sandinistas are now treating solidarity with the immigrants as an illicit act. Nicaraguans who offer water, food, lodging or any other type of aid to desperate immigrants trying to sneak through the country are now at risk of being accused of human-trafficking by the Ortega government.

Two girls wait in a tent on the Costa Rican border. They're part of the growing group of Africans and Haitians whose journey to the U.S. has been halted by the Nicaraguan army
Carlos Herrera

Nicaraguan school teacher Nilamar Alemán learned that lesson the hard way when she tried to help a 27-year-old Congolese woman with a sick 10-month-old daughter. Professor Alemán offered the African immigrants food, lodging and help getting to the border. But her kindness cost her dearly. Alemán was arrested and accused of trafficking and will now go before a Sandinista judge on Sept. 20.


The Congolese woman she tried to help is Neohamo Zephirin, who was part of a group 51 African and Haitian immigrants who were smuggled across the Nicaraguan border one night in late July. The group was abandoned on a desolate beach by coyotes who told the group they were already in Honduras.

A makeshift refugee camp on the Costa Rica- Nicaraguan border is full of African and Haitian immigrants
Carlos Herrera

Lost and desperate, the group entered the dark Nicaraguan forest on foot to try to continue their trek north. But Zephirin's young daughter, who had fallen ill with a lung infection, kept coughing and crying—drawing unwanted attention to the group as they sneaked through the forest.

Fearful that the baby's cough had become a liability, several of the men in the group allegedly tried to smother the child, prompting Zephirin to take her baby and flee on her own. She walked another five kilometers until she came to a small clearing of houses, one of which belonged to the Nicaraguan teacher.


Zephirin reportedly told her story in broken Spanish to villagers who gathered around to listen. The Nicaraguan teacher, a longtime Sandinista, took pity on the woman and gave her shelter and food for 15 days while her baby convalesced. After two weeks of hosting the Congolese refugees in her humble home, professor Alemán decided to help them on their way to the Honduran border, according to her family members.

The Nicaraguan teacher took the Congolese women and her child on a bus up north, but was arrested when police boarded and searched the vehicle in the northern city of Ocotal. Sandinista police commissioner Francisco Díaz says the Nicaraguan teacher had provided the Congolese woman with a fake ID, which made the situation worse.


The teacher's family members deny the trafficking charges, and say professor Alemán was just acting in solidarity with the Congolese woman and her child. In a country where the justice system is heavily influenced by the president, the teacher's family is now trying to appeal to the "heart of Comandante Ortega" to release her from jail.

Nicaraguan school teacher Nilamar Alemán is arrested by police and accused of trafficking after trying to help a desperate woman and her sick baby from the Congo

The issue has rocked the community of San Juan del Sur, where African and Haitian immigrants continue to arrive by the dozens after getting smuggled across the borders and abandoned on beaches or in the forest.

Many Nicaraguans, known for their solidarity and hospitality, have been taking the refugees into their homes. But the teacher's arrest has put the whole community on alert.


"If she is a Sandinista and they throw her in jail for trafficking, just imagine what would happen to us non-Sandinistas," said a resident in the nearby community of El Ostional, who has been providing shelter to several other immigrants and asked to remain unidentified.

Nicaraguan immigration expert Martha Cranshaw, director of the organization NicasMigrante, says the Ortega government needs to do a better job defining the difference between human trafficking, which is a crime, and charity, which is not. She says the law should go after the real traffickers who are profiting from smuggling people across the border, but not criminalize immigrants or decent Nicaraguans who are just trying to help people in need.


Gonzalo Carrión, legal director for the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, has criticized the Sandinista government for militarizing its border in an attempt to halt immigration.

"This retaining wall does not fit with human rights," Carrión said.

Nicaraguan soldiers try to hold the line against immigrants on the border
Tim Rogers

Nicaragua originally sent troops to its border last year to stop the flow of Cuban immigrants. The roadblock led to a humanitarian crisis of 4,000 Cubans stuck on the border. Nicaraguan intransigence caused the rest of the region to huddle and come up with a solution: an airlift to get the Cubans up and over Nicaragua to a place where they could continue their journey.

The place where the Cubans once gathered is now the scene for a growing group of some 1,400 mostly Africans and Haitians who are occupying similar makeshift refugee camps under the gaze of Nicaraguan soldiers across the border.


But unlike the Cuban pileup, which generated international headlines and a regional solution, nobody is talking about how to help the Africans and Haitians. Instead, trafficking networks responding to the demand by smuggling small groups across the border.

The results have been disastrous. Last month, a group of 10 Haitian immigrants drown in the Sapoá River in an attempt to sneak across the border. Their bodies were found washed up on the shore Lake Nicaragua, in a gruesome scene reminiscent of the drowning death of three-year-old Syrian child Aylan Kurdi who washed up on the coast of Turkey last year.


Sneaking across the border is risky venture in any circumstance, especially when you're pregnant. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and Haitian couple David and Yandelis didn't see any other option.

But after three weeks of surviving on Nicaraguans' solidarity in the hills outside San Juan del Sur, Yandelis started to have labor pains and so the couple turned themselves in to Nicaraguan authorities in hopes of appealing to the Sandinistas' motto of "Christian, Socialist and in-Solidarity."


They were looked at briefly by a Nicaraguan doctor, then immediately deported to Costa Rica—and now they're someone else's problem.

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