Why you should care
Because Nicaragua’s refugee crisis is expanding across Central America.
Luis Sandino and his band of 14 political fugitives had been hiding in the jungle on the apron of Ometepe Island’s volcanoes for 18 days. The Nicaraguan military was tracking them with dogs and drones. They were almost out of the bread and honey they had subsisted on. They were growing desperate. Their only chance for escape? A shoddy wooden boat.
Now Sandino, 29, lives in exile in Costa Rica, scrounging for necessities as he seeks asylum status and a work visa. But he is also organizing alongside the 40,000 (and growing) Nicaraguans who have fled to the neighboring Central American nation. They marched in protest against President Daniel Ortega’s regime along the border last month, as the government’s purge of dissidents leads to a mounting regional crisis.
“The march was the result of many exiled social movements coming together in Costa Rica. We can achieve a lot from exile,” says Sandino, who vows the next demonstration will grow from 5,000 to 20,000 people. “I hope to show the world that we want to return to our homes and families, that Ortega is a liar and that we are not terrorists. A government like this cannot last.”
The police think I am someone powerful … but that is not true. I am just a youth of 29 years. Strength comes from the unity of the people.
Ometepe Island, a popular tourist destination on Lake Nicaragua covered in lush jungle and capped with two volcanoes, was one of the last places hit by a quiet campaign to selectively target anyone deemed a political enemy of the state — a designation that has become increasingly easy to attain.
“Ometepe has always been an oasis of peace. But now, the oasis has been lost and it has become a prison for all of the islanders here,” says Juan, 21, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of retribution after participating in the anti-Ortega protests on Ometepe and in the capital city of Managua. “They wanted to take Sandino more than anyone, dead or alive.”
Police and paramilitary squadrons had an initial target list of 20 that expanded to more than 100 during the early October raids, according to Yasser Marin, an Ometepe resident who works for the island’s tourism association and was previously a member of the Sandinista Youth. “Because of the international attention, they are searching for a strategy that creates the appearance things are normal here, that there is no repression, that there is no imprisonment,” Marin says.
Ortega claims his government is restoring order by prosecuting extremist terrorists in the wake of the political crisis that swept the country on April 19, with protesters taking to the streets en masse and calling for the president to step down. Despite a heavy propaganda campaign, CID Gallup polls found that just one in five Nicaraguans believe that those who participated in the marches are violent terrorists and 60 percent want Ortega to step down and hold elections.
Despite some cases of vandalism during protests, investigations by human rights organizations including Amnesty International concluded that the marches were generally peaceful, and the government has used disproportionate force to silence dissent. According to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), which had its offices raided by police after the government rescinded its legal status in December, there are now 610 political prisoners in Nicaragua, up from just two before the crisis. (By comparison, Venezuela has 340 political prisoners.) About 300 people connected to the protests have been accused of terrorism, organized crime and murder. CENIDH lawyer Wendy Flores says they face trials with a “flagrant disregard for due process,” in cases based largely on the inconsistent testimony of masked witnesses, which critics say is fabricated.
Sandino has eluded this kind of so-called justice — for now.
He is short and speaks forcefully but informally, peppering his speech with Nicaraguan colloquialisms like maje (dude). “The police think I am someone powerful, like Augusto Sandino [a revolutionary legend, no relation]. But that is not true. I am just a youth of 29 years. Strength comes from the unity of the people.”
He began his activism several years ago as a local organizer for Movimiento Campesino (“peasant movement”) protesting a Chinese canal that would have devastated Lake Nicaragua. The Ortega government’s 2014 crackdown on those protests proved to be a harbinger of things to come. Come 2018, Sandino was briefly thrown in jail for manning the street barricades that are a popular and controversial form of Nicaraguan protest.
He was wanted for stockpiling weapons, a charge he vehemently denies, describing himself as a lifelong pacifist. “Our only crime is holding a blue and white flag,” he says.
Eleven people were detained the first week on Ometepe, but Sandino was able to escape. After 14 days in hiding, one member of the group who had been only marginally involved in the protests — he asked to be identified only as “Carlos” because he, too, fears government retribution — grew tired of the jungle and went back to the village of Urbaide, where he lived near Sandino. Two days later, the 19-year-old woke up to find his home surrounded by about 30 masked paramilitaries.
They struck him in the face with the flat side of a machete, Carlos says, and hauled him into a truck along with his two brothers. They were beaten and interrogated about Sandino’s whereabouts, but Carlos didn’t know and the police let them go. His left eye was still swollen shut when I interviewed him days later. A neighbor corroborated Carlos’ account, while police headquarters in Managua declined to comment on the crackdown on Ometepe.
Having heard stories like this for months, Sandino’s group decided their only option was to flee. Sandino rowed away from Ometepe under the cover of darkness after 20 days in the jungle, unable to use a motor for fear his small group would be detected by the navy’s radar. They followed a spotlight flashed in code by Movimiento Campesino leader Ronald Delgado to a safe house on the coast of San Gorge, at least 12 miles away.
The authorities were close behind them: On Oct. 31, shortly after Sandino departed the safe house, police arrived and detained Delgado. But Sandino’s group made it to Costa Rica after 10 days on foot, avoiding public transport for fear of being detained.
One day, the most wanted man on Ometepe Island hopes to return to his idyllic home. But Sandino might have to wait out Ortega. As crackdowns continue across Nicaragua, the president shows no signs of softening.
Read more: Nicaragua’s Forrest Gump runs against Ortega.