“I was always hot and sweaty,” Valeria Fernanda said. The three-year-old squirmed in her chair, her ponytail bobbing, as she described the month-long trip that began in July 2018, when she and her mother migrated from Estelí, Nicaragua, to Reynosa, Mexico. Then, turning to her mother, Hazel Yolibeth Argueta, 22, who has matching gold-flecked hazel eyes, she said, “I want to go play on the swings,” and pointed to the playground. The two were staying at the Casa Hogar del Niño shelter while they applied for asylum in Mexico. Argueta, a single mother and a second-year nursing student at the university in Estelí, found her life upended when protests, which had erupted in Nicaragua in April, turned violent. It wasn’t long before she began receiving death threats and decided to flee.
Daily life in Nicaragua during the protests was a challenge. As Argueta described, “We were in danger because my country is in bad shape; food is expensive, there are national shortages all the time, you can’t leave the house because you might get hit by a stray bullet and there is no functioning police force.”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who was re-elected in 2006 (he served his first term as president from 1985 to 1990), has argued that early elections, which citizens have demanded, will create instability, and that the best thing for the country would be to keep him in office until 2021. In Nicaragua, presidents have traditionally been limited to two consecutive terms of five years, but in 2014 the Nicaraguan National Assembly approved changes to its constitution to allow Ortega to run for a third term.
In addition to cracking down on press freedom and freedom of expression during his time in office, in April 2018, Ortega decreed social-security reforms that would have increased taxes and decreased benefits for a population that was largely living on the edge of poverty already. In response, senior citizens and students joined forces to protest in the streets, and eventually, pro-government paramilitary forces responded with violence. By August, pro-government forces had killed over 300 students around the country, including some still in elementary school. The government has tried to dissociate itself from the violence by saying that those who have killed students are civilians, but students and other protesters believe that only the government could afford to train and hire snipers, and would have the motivation to do so, to quell protests.
When I traveled to Nicaragua shortly after interviewing Argueta, I met with some of the 400 Mothers of April whose children had been murdered or disappeared by pro-government forces. Josefa Esterlina Meza, 55, is the mother of Jonathan Morazán Meza, 21, who was shot by a sniper at a protest in May. After Jonathan’s murder, she sent her eighteen-year-old son to Costa Rica, where he would join some 23,000 other Nicaraguans fleeing violence. Meza stayed in Nicaragua to fight for justice, to march with the other mothers. “I'm not scared. Because if [Ortega] is going to kill, he will always kill people, because he is a murderer,” she said. “And even if he kills 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 or 100,000 people, he can kill, but he can’t kill everyone.”
When I interviewed Jacqueline Valdivia, 41, the mother of Christopher Nayrobi, eighteen, who was a student in León, she described how the police illegally detained him for protesting. “We are being repressed for expressing our views,” she said. “They want to silence us. And my son doesn’t like that.” At the time of our interview, she had traveled to Managua to request that the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights help get her son out of detention before he was tortured, as so many students have been.