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From Río San Juan to San José: A Nicaraguan refugee in Costa Rica tells his story (Part 2)

Nelson Jesus Zeas Paz, 25, is one of the 55,000 Nicaraguan refugees and exiles who have fled to Costa Rica. 

In Part 1 of this story, he described witnessing much of the unrest that occurred from his perspective as a protestor and leader in the Movimiento Campesino (Farmers Movement).


Here is Part 2 of our interview with Nelson Jesus Zeas Paz. It has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity and readability.

The Tico Times: How did you get to Costa Rica?

Nelson Jesús Zeas Paz: Walking. By mountains and forests, because I was already on the list. I wouldn’t be able to get on a bus because paramilitaries would be set up … checking to see who’s on the list, and they’d ask for my name, and I’d come up on the list of enemies of the state because I was a territory leader.

I paid a coyote to help me because I didn’t know the area well and it was winter. We crossed the muddy roads through forests, bushes and over the mountains.

At some point my feet surrendered. I could no longer bear to push my body so much.

I got the Río San Juan in the middle of the night, and that’s where the coyote left me. “Leave me,” I said. “Go home. Thank you for taking me this far and say hello to my mother.” 

My mother had stayed behind to take care of my two little brothers, because my older brother left four days before me. He went to the United States. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t go with my brother, but to get to the north of the country from the south of the country I would have had to pass by lots of police checkpoints and I would have been captured and kept prisoner. Or worse, killed or tortured. Only God knows, so I had to go this way.

At the Río San Juan, a man came in a small boat, and I asked him if there was military on the other side of the river. He asked me where I was going. And so I started to look him over. “I’m going to Costa Rica,” I said. But I didn’t tell him I was leader in the Movimiento Campesino or anything like that. He seemed like a sensible guy. I told him I wanted to go to Costa Rica to look for work, because in Nicaragua there isn’t any work, and with this revolution, well, the whole country has been disrupted. “Look,” he tells me, “there is a military base … and through there you go to get to Costa Rica legally.” 

“No,” I said. “I’ll come with you in your boat. Do me a favor. I’ll pay you if you take me away from here, take me across the San Juan to where there aren’t police.” Finally I told him who I was, that I was a leader in the Movimiento Campesino and that my comrade in the fight, Victor Manuel Díaz González, is a political prisoner of the dictatorship and was suffering persecution. I, too, needed to leave the country because if I don’t they’d kill me if I stayed. If not, then they’d imprison me.

“Ah,” he said. “Now I understand. Let me call my cousin, who will help you cross.” 

That’s how I crossed the San Juan, with the cousin of this man with the boat. We crossed the marshes and then over the mountains and through some orange groves. And that’s where he left me, in the orange groves, and he told me if I hear a motorcycle that would be the army and that I should run. So I went running and he pointed to a mountain and he told me that mountain is Costa Rican territory. … If you can get to this mountain, they can no longer persecute you. So that’s how I went.

And then I heard the motorcycle behind me so I took off running toward the mountains.

At this point, I had already walked for 12 hours, faint with hunger, but I had to keep going to save my own life.

I think of the pain of my mother who had stayed in Nicaragua without knowing what happened to me. And the fear, because I had been told that the Nicaraguan army had set up mines on the border to stop “escaping terrorists,” who were supposedly us. …

But I finally made it over the border and got in contact with a taxi that the cousin of the man with the boat had called. … I got in his car, and he took me to Los Chiles de Costa Rica.

And so I was saved, thanks to God. I went to the Costa Rican migration offices, very dirty. And everyone was looking at me weird, asking, “Where has this person come from? Who is he?” 

Nelson Jesus Zeas Paz
Photo by Jacob Spetzler.

I presented myself to the Costa Rican police and I told them I was a leader of the Movimiento Campesino de Nicaragua, that was I was in the in the tranque Del Tule, and I had been present for the massacre at the Mothers of April protests, and that I had been in the fight for five years.

So they took my fingerprints and my name and my other data and documents, and they gave me a code and told me with this code, I would be safe in the country without danger of deportation. But that while the government of Costa Rica was committed to giving me security, that I should not leave the country or, even worse, approach the border with Nicaragua because I could become a persecuted person by the regime again.

TT: What has happened since you’ve arrived in Costa Rica?

Nelson Jesús Zeas Paz: I came to San José, Costa Rica, and I’ve been here for seven months since September. At first I was in a tiny town called El Rosario, living on a coffee farm with a Nicaraguan family who cares for the farm. So I was there for seven months, in cold and precarious conditions.

Thanks to God, I never went without food, because this family helped me with provisions.

At this point, my brother was on the border with Mexico and the United States, and it was terrible. At the border with Mexico, the border guards captured my brother and gave him to the North American police … who put him in jail in Florida. He was a prisoner for four months, with four months of danger of being deported.

If he had been deported, he would have been sent to the National Airport of Nicaragua, where the police there would have taken him because he was my brother. … 

I went to the UN offices here in Costa Rica and explained the situation about us having to leave quickly because of the [Nicaraguan] regime, and everything that happened with our families in danger in Nicaragua. That I had a brother who was a prisoner in the US because he had illegally entered the country. … We got in contact with Human Rights Commission in Miami to have them help get my brother out of the North American jail and not deported to Nicaragua, where he obviously would have been imprisoned.

Over months, with their help, we were able to get a card that showed a violation of human rights of my brother in Nicaragua just for being my brother. They sent it to the immigration offices in the United States.

Thanks to God, in February of this year, they let him out on a bail of $20,000. That’s on top of the $10,000 it cost to get my brother out of the country. That’s to pay for the coyote, transport on the road out of Nicaragua.

He wasn’t deported, and he’s out on bail for an undetermined amount of time. I’m not really sure how this works in North America but for now, he’s free.

TT: What will your brother do now?

Nelson Jesús Zeas Paz: He’s seeking asylum as a political refugee for being persecuted as my brother by the regime.

Now he’s with my dad, thank God. And during this time I was here in the bache [a kind of refugee camp] for 7 months. 

But we give thanks to Costa Rica for opening their doors to us. Hugging us to their chest and giving us the security that I we didn’t have in Nicaragua. The march on May 30 is a great example. … They respect the fundamental human rights of free movement, free expression, and it’s a democratic country.

TT: What has your life been like here in San José, since leaving the coffee farm?

Nelson Jesús Zeas Paz: I live in place, a house that I don’t want to say the exact location of for security reasons. But I live with other Nicaraguans. We’re all activists as defenders of human rights, and we’re also academics. …

To be honest, the life here is a little difficult, because there are so many immigrants. There’s Nicaraguans but there’s also Venezuelans who are suffering persecution. It’s hard to find work. We have permission to work, but it’s hard to actually find a job.

It’s difficult for us as leaders to see our people. In a certain way, they’re okay. In Nicaragua, at least they were able to eat. But that was before their rights were violated, before the April insurrection. Now sometimes they eat, sometimes not. Sometimes just once a day. There are some that sleep in fields, others who look for food in garbage dumps. Boys in the street who can’t find work, selling anything they can.

It has been difficult, and it will be a difficult life, but we are waiting, day by day, adapting. And waiting to see what comes.

Nicaraguan demonstrations in Costa Rica
Jacob Spetzler / The Tico Times

Read more in The Tico Times about Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica: 

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