On January 17th, 2018, some migrants got out of a white Mitsubishi and entered a house located in the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, on the Costa Rican side. 90 minutes later, only a nicaraguan woman and an african man came out and left in the same vehicle.
The Costa Rican immigration police, who were spying on them at the time, suspected that those who did not leave had illegally crossed through the patio of that house towards Nicaragua.
They were monitoring them because nine days before, on January 8th, the Costa Rican Prosecutor’s Office bagun to investigate a migrant smuggling network that allegedly paid $35 to officers, in order that they leak information of where were duty officers. On other occasions, they paid them to let them go when officials stop them on route and they were carrying migrants. Accomplices officers also informed them when and by what routes to transport migrants through Costa Rican territory without being detected by the authorities.
The woman who left the border house that day was Ana Yansy López Martínez. She’s a 48-year-old Nicaraguan whom migrants and coyotes call “Mama Africa.” The man who accompanied her is her husband Adnan Abdul Wahab, originally from Ghana, in Africa, whom was known in La Cruz as ‘Mohamed’.
In 2016, the Costa Rican authorities had already raided that house, due to another investigation for the crime of smuggling of migrants. But that’s not the only house under the spotlight of the police. Many families in the area charge to allow people to cross through the patios of their homes to Nicaragua and vice versa, and that’s how those families end up getting involved in the illicit business of trafficking networks.
Starting in January 2018 and for a year and a half, the police authorities of Costa Rica, along with those of Panama, followed the trail of ‘Mama Africa’ and other traffickers. They assure that the same network to which López belongs to, moved some 249 migrants from Africa, Asia, Cuba and Haiti who were seeking to reach the United States. To do so, they were crossing Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.
The investigation concluded with simultaneous operations in both countries and the arrest of 47 people on July 30, 2019. Among them was López Martínez and two of her four children: Indiana and Benjamín Jarquín López. It wasn’s the first time her family faced something like that: another son, Bayron, had been tried by the justice of Nicaragua and Costa Rica previously for the same crimes. In the house where the López family lives, the police found $ 11,000 in cash and several passports.
She is not the only “Mama Africa” in Latin America linked to extra-regional migrant smuggling networks. This cross-border alliance in which The Voice of Guanacaste participates with CLIP and other 16 journalistic media, carried out Migrants from Another World. The investigation reveals that in Colombia, for example, the authorities prosecuted another lady from the border with Panama who served as a liaison local migrants, and whom they called by the same nickname. Likewise, in Tapachula, Mexico, near the migrant station, another Mama Africa distributes lunches to migrants. On her billboard, everybody leaves messages with recommendations for those who come about how to continue their trip.
Some police sources consulted by this partnership explained that it is an easy name to remember in any language so that travelers can quickly find a local contact from the international network that was in charge of their trips.
Several migrants interviewed in the United States assured that López Martínez had coordinated their accommodation and the leg of their trip through Central America and Mexico. This is stated in an investigation by the Brazilian Federal Police and the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE).
La Voz de Guanacaste interviewed López Martínez, ‘Mamá Africa’, last February at her home in the province of Guanacaste, 20 kilometers from the border post between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and only two from a humanitarian care center where the government serves migrants since 2016.
She remains locked up there with an electronic anklet on her left foot, awaiting her trial. She can go out only three days per week to sell meals she prepares in her house. She says that the judge allowed her so that she could take care of her daughter Wendy, who is quadriplegic in a bed for the last 12 years.
Criminal or benefactor?
“I was instructing them,” she says sitting in a chair in the living room, from where she can see the white Mitsubishi parked on the street. “They would come (and ask me) ‘Mama, what do we do?’ And I told them ‘look, go to the army [Nicaraguan] and ask for help.’”
We already knew her house. It was on the news when the immigration police raided it and found a pile of mattresses in her backyard. The raid that day was broadcast and reported by various Costa Rican and even international media because the director of Migration of Costa Rica, Raquel Vargas, described this operation as one of the largest in the country in the prosecution of the crime of illegal trafficking of migrants.
López denies that she has ever hidden migrants in her home. She would not have allowed it, she says, because she lives with her two daughters and her minor granddaughters. She explains that she let travelers prepare their food in her kitchen during the day because they did not like the food given to them in the humanitarian center.
The most important operations of these organizations are close to the Catem [Temporary Attention Center for Migrants] and it is because they know that this is where the migratory flow is,” explains the deputy chief of the immigration police, Alonso Soto, and maintains that this was how ‘Mama Africa’ worked.
López disagrees and affirms that a combination of factors were what made her look like a criminal. For example, she held parties with Africans, family and friends of her husband. She even recorded videos of her sharing with them, and she says that regrets not being able to watch them again because the police confiscated her phones.
At one of those parties, she says, they named her ‘Mama Africa’. “Among all of them [family and friends of her husband] they said ‘ah, now we are like your children, you are our mother,'” she tells.
That is why they believed that she was a trafficker, López insists, because she was kind to the friends and family of her husband. Also because her eldest son, Bayron, had a history for the crime of smuggling of migrants.
“Bayron was in prison [in Liberia, in Costa Rica] because he was with a man who was carrying some Nicaraguans [to Nicaragua and vice versa]. He crossed them, carried them through orange groves and they grabbed him. Bayron was little, he was barely 16, 17 years old,” she says, explaining that it was about ten years ago.
His second arrest occurred in late 2017, when Bayron was 27.
A Nicaraguan police report says that in September of that year, Bayron and two others transported a group of 13 African migrants in two cars through the department of Rivas, bordering Costa Rica.
Police and the army held a checkpoint at the scene, but Bayron and the other coyotes did not stop, prompting a chase and bullet exchange. A 23-year-old African died at that time. The police captured the coyotes and claimed that López was an accomplice to them. They cataloged her as “fugitive with residence in Costa Rica”.
López denies having been with her son that day or involved in the smuggling of migrants.
In Nicaragua, Bayron was sentenced in the first instance to 23 years in prison: nine for unsuccessful homicide, eight for migrant smuggling and six for organized crime. When López was detained by the Costa Rican police in July last year, her son continued to pay a sentence in a prison in the neighboring country.
However, a Nicaraguan media reported that two years later two public defenders asked the magistrates of the Managua Court of Appeals (TAM, in Spanish) to reverse the sentence because the case “demanded reasonable doubt.”
According to the publication, one of the defenders was Amy Rayo. “At no time has the Office of the Prosecutor demonstrated the existence of the offence of organized crime because there is no evidence to show that they [Bayron and the other two suspects] have committed various crimes in distribution of functions under the hierarchy of a boss to attribute the offence of organized crime,” she said in that moment.
There is no public report, nor local Nicaraguan media report on what happened after the defenders’ request to the TAM, but Ana Yansy López assures that the resolution was favorable to her son and that after that appeal he was released. According to her, Bayron straightened his life and today lives in La Cruz, Costa Rica. He works selling lemons and curds.
The police investigation against ‘Mama Africa’ included telephone interceptions and that’s how they knew that her children, Indiana and Benjamin, detained in the July 30 police operation, had helped move migrants to accommodation houses, taken them to the coast or to the mountains to cross the border by sea or by land to Nicaragua. However, the Costa Rican Criminal Court released them while the judicial process progresses.
The Costa Rican police and prosecutors amassed a thick file of more than 350 pages against López. They say they have the evidence that she and her accomplices coordinated the transfer and lodging of people, even since they were in Panamanian territory, because they had contacts on the border between Costa Rica and Panama. According to the investigation, they charged each migrant between $300 and $1,600 to take them north and crossed them both by land and by sea.
The police assure that they took migrants by boat across the Pacific, usually between 8 and 9 p. m., with a collaborator, apparently Nicaraguan, who was called “Alejandro, the boatman.” In the investigation there are telephone interceptions in which these movements are coordinated.
The authorities have López as a suspect in other cases related to the passage of migrants through the region. In 2017, a 4-year-old Congolese boy named Samuel Bienga Fernand and a man of unknown identity, died when they were crossing by sea from Costa Rica to Nicaragua with 29 more migrants and two coyotes. López and her accomplices managed that same route, according to file.
The Costa Rican coast guard police intercepted the two boats in which they were traveling. In that moment, migrants fell to the sea, the voy and the other migrant died and the other 29 survived. According to the police, the two coyotes fled the scene.
López has another version of the events. She says that she knew the family of the boy Samuel -his pregnant mother, his father and sister of 9-year-old- after they had the accident. She assured she had nothing to do with taking them along the coast to Nicaragua.
“An African woman came here with her husband once,” says López. “She had three children and they were going to travel and went to Puerto Soley [a beach in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border] (…) they were riding in a small boat and they were shot. I said, ‘Who do you think shot you?’”
López says that the Congolese replied: “I only saw people who put a large spotlight on us, they had weapons and the one who shouted was a woman.” Mama Africa says that “it even gave her the chills.” “I told her ‘stay quiet because your child died and nobody is going to pick him up,” and later she said she told her husband Mohamed that they must give food to the family, to see how they can help them. Then, says López, the family continued on their way.
According to the conversations that the police listened to during the time that her phone was intercepted, Ana Yansy López coordinated with migrants even when they were already crossing Honduras and Mexico. She even recommended an Haitian migrant, surnamed Parison, to take care of himself in Mexico because there was “a lot of mafia” and, preferably, not to carry cash.
She asked others for videos in which they related their journey and where and how they were.
They [López and her network] ask the migrants for a video when they are already on their way, which, presumably, they ask it so they can show the relatives that they are doing well and that they have been reaching the countries as agreed”, tells the investigative file of the prosecution and the police.
Investigators in the case verified with US authorities that several of the migrants that López and her network transferred, reached their destination. Several of them are today waiting to resolve their immigration situation in detention centers.
“There are no migrants who come to say that they gave me thousands of dollars”
‘Mama Africa’ contradicts the judicial interpretation of their conversations. She says that both she and her husband “Mohamed” always wanted to help the migrants. He was also investigated and accused by the Costa Rican police, but at the time of the simultaneous operations he had already left to the United States. According to López, he is detained in that country.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to delay your American dream,'” López says. And then he left.
López says she met her husband because a Brazilian acquaintance introduced him to her on Facebook, because ‘Mohamed’ lived in Brazil on that moment. She also tells us that he worked there in a network company. She was not able to explain very well what his work was about.
“The one I met was one who is still in Brazil, I think he was his boss,” says López. “Then he told me that his friend [‘Mohamed’] was coming here, and I said to him: I want to meet his friend and afterwards we started talking ”.
An investigation of this journalistic alliance on how traffickers transport thousands of Africans and Asians annually across the American continent, found that Brazil is the country that concentrates most of the leaderships of these criminal networks.
-Did they give you money?, we asked ‘Mama Africa’.
-You know what? Rather, I gave those people. When I had I gave them away. More to the African. Those people came limited of money, very limited (…) That’s why I say, where do they get that I charged them thousands and thousands? (…) If that one came and said to me: ‘Mama, look, I’m going to give you,’” she says with emphasis in her version.
“‘Thank you, you gave me US $20, it helps me for something,” she replied, and then explains that she didn’t charge them for giving them information. Only what they want to give her. “If one can have access to help, help,” she insists.
She admits that a Nicaraguan army officer, her friend, has collaborated with migrants very close to her (she remembers two who were like her children) to guide them crossing the mountainous area that divides Costa Rica from that country. She assures that her friend, the military man, told her that he could not take the migrants to the migration post because “migration had an order not to know anything about these people [she means that the Nicaraguan government wasn’t accepting them]“, and that she then recommended him to take them, personally, to Nicaragua and to ensure that nothing happens to her “children.”
“He told me ‘we settle for a box of cigars, yes, they have to pay (…) I’m not going to make a profit, but at least they give me something,” she says, adding that sometimes they gave $10 to the military. “Now it is more expensive for them,” López explains, referring to the $150 that the Nicaraguan government charges each person since 2018 for legally allowing migrants to pass through their territory, according to her account and the one of other border neighbors.
The Nicaraguan government didn’t answered to the inquiries that the media of this journalistic alliance, The Voice of Guanacaste, made about this safe-conduct.
López insists that the passports that the police found at her home belong to friends and family of ‘Mohamed’, and that they left them there because they were going to lose them on the way. According to her, the US $ 11,000 in cash seized from her in the operation in late July is from a vehicle she had recently sold.
She also shakes off the judgments that the neighbors make that she is linked to drug trafficking. They say that, she explains, because the house was built just when ‘Mohamed’ came from Brazil. But she says she got it for her job selling clothes, shoes, and food.
She is concerned that the shackle she has had for nine months, has tied her to her house and limits her to continue selling and earning a living for herself and her daughter with disabilities.
They say that I was talking on the phone, because they had everything intervened,” says López, almost ending the interview. “The moment they agreed to put me this on [the electronic anklet] it is because there is a question mark. There is not much hard evidence. There are no people [migrants] who come to say that they gave me thousands of dollars,” she says.
Perhaps it is true that, as she says, the ‘Mama Africa’ who lives in Costa Rica has not become a millionaire with the migrant smuggling, and perhaps she has even done free favors for African migrants. The evidence that the prosecution collected, however, points to the fact that she took economic advantage of vulnerable people, who don’t even speak the local language, and who have been paying dearly for the right of way throughout the trip.
It remains to be seen what justice decides, but even if she was to be condemned as a local link in an international chain of migrant smuggling, the question of if the waker pieces are the ones that end up falling when authorities break the criminal networks.
Migrants from Another World is a joint cross-border investigation carried out by the Latin American Center for Journalistic Investigation (CLIP), Occrp, Animal Político (Mexico) and the Mexican regional media Chiapas Paralelo and Voz Alterna of the Periodistas de a Pie Network, Univision Noticias (United States), Revista Factum (El Salvador); The Voice of Guanacaste (Costa Rica); Profissão Réporter of TV Globo (Brazil); La Prensa (Panama); Semana (Colombia); El Universo (Ecuador); Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela); and Anfibia/Cosecha Roja (Argentina), Bellingcat (United Kingdom), The Confluence Media (India), Record Nepal (Nepal), The Museba Project (Cameroon). They gave us special support for this project: The Avina Foundation and the Seattle International Foundation