“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.