Every time a car parks on the side of the Pan-American highway, two kilometers before the border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, a dozen men appear as quick as a flash. They open the doors and stand near the trunk, saying phrases like “let me help you,” “we can help you with your luggage,” “two thousand colones (around US$4) to carry your bags.”
“We also help negritos (darkies),” says Oscar Jose Castillo Mendoza, a small, Nicaraguan man with his face burned from the sun and dress up in brown pants, green t-shirt, and pink flip-flops. He and some others refer to the African immigrants as “negritos”.
Every day, thousands of people cross to Nicaragua and back through clandestine trails like this one, in Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, evading the immigration checkpoints from both countries (Costa Rica and Nicaragua).
It is clandestine, yet well-known flow… at least until the Costa Rican police shows up. When this happens, people run to hide out in any small business or behind the bushes.
People from Costa Rica and Nicaragua transit the most throw these trails. However, in the last 5 years, the transit of Haitians and Cubans is increasing rapidly. All together, or in smaller, segregated groups, hundreds of people come from Africa or Asia, some of them after crossed half the continent already.
Many of the clandestine trails start in the backyards of the houses near the border. According to a court ruling from 2017, the families charge a toll of US$15 to allow migrants to cross.
However, the most transited and known trail its “el callejón” (alley in English), just a few minutes’ walk away from the barbed fence. From December to April, it is a dusty zone with a few withered trees, and full of the garbage the passers-by leave behind. And from May to November, the path becomes muddy. Some neighbors, like Maria Estela Hurtado, make a profit by washing feet.
Hurtado lives just before the fence, in the last house of the alley. She sells tortillas every morning to the people who walk by and the others that work in the rode, like Castillo, who carries bags.
To be honest, a lot of people walk by… Nicaraguans, Cubans, Africans.’ ‘A lot goes on here,’ says lying in the door of her woody house.
From here, you can see a booth from the Nicaraguan military, at only 200 meters away on the same path. Some military officers stand post there to intercept extra-regional immigrants and escort them to the Nicaragua Office of Immigration and Foreign Affairs.
Locals residents from the border zone, migrants, and Costa Rican police authorities told The Voice of Guanacaste that the Nicaraguan government charges every single person –even newborns– US$150 for the travel documents to allow them to transit through the country. The Voice of Guanacaste, partner with CLIP and other 16 media of this transnational and collaborative investigation called Migrants From Another World, sent multiple emails to the Nicaragua Government asking for their perspective, but there was no answer. There is no public information available on this topic either.
It is no news that the Nicaragua government holds up the pass for those who migrate to North America. In 2015 and 2016, Daniel Ortega’s government closed their border and expelled thousands of Africans, Haitians, and Cubans that wanted to get to the United States. This left migrants, that arrived in Costa Rica in different waves, stuck for months.
Hurtado believes the government from Nicaragua created this “champa” (the name that she gives to the booth) two years ago because they saw it as an opportunity to profit from it. If Hurtado and other sources are correct about this timeline, this travel documents policy coincided with the political crisis in April of 2018, which caused 328 deaths, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and led to sanctions from the United States against Ortega’s regime.
Hurtado and Castillo say that this is the only “safe” and available pass for these extra-continental immigrants. However, it is only safe if you pay US$150 to get into the country.
The other paths are even more remote and dangerous than the backyards of the houses. “There are many paths and it’s hard to control,” assures Hurtado. “But most Africans go through “al lado del muro” (the side of the wall),” refers Hurtado to another well-known trail. “There are assailants and coyotes”.
The vice-president of Peñas Blancas Development Association, also known as “Macho Tigre,” agrees with Hurtado. “They arrive in buses late at night, and cross ‘the wall’ before dawn because they cannot afford the travel documents. Sometimes they walk alone, and others followed by coyotes,” says Macho Tigre as he shows a wad of Nicaraguan and Costa Rican bills he keeps for currency exchange for any passers-by that come across his store, near his own house.
To cross through “the wall”, migrants must get to a spot just a few meters before the Costa Rican immigration checkpoint, where there’s a wire mesh with a hole big enough for someone to pass without ducking. There’s a grove at the far end of the property. Once migrants go through these woods, they eventually run into a wall, which they must jump to finally reach Nicaraguan soil.
Street vendors near the border confirmed Hurtado’s story: it’s dangerous to cross the border due to the number of robbers along the way.
They might try that trail to evade the toll stipulated by the Nicaraguan Government, or maybe, as Hurtado says, they already paid someone else to help them cross the border. “There are coyotes that bring them from Paso Canoas, which is the border with Panama. They charge them a lot of money and tell them the Nicaraguan government is not issuing letters of safe-conduct anymore.”
Narin Burung, a 23-year-old Nepali, told CLIP allies that the worst part of their journey was precisely there, crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, on July 2, 2018.
We walked for 36 hours without food and water (…) The mafia was horrible. They raped women, looted migrants, and even stole their clothes. We heard from a Nepali man who crossed before us, and they shot in the stomach when he protested,” said Burung.
“Nicaragua was even worse than the Darien jungle, between Colombia and Panama,” said another Cameroonian migrant named Samuel. He crossed the border in early 2020, a year and half after Burung did. “There were so many mobsters, they stole our phones and the little money we had,” he added.
This crossing is very different from the last one they passed, on the border between Panama and Costa Rica. Both nations coordinate daily the controlled passage of 100 migrants from one territory to another.
Once on Costa Rican soil, the authorities take them to the temporary center of migrant services (Catem del Sur in Spanish) in Golfito, the southern border area with Panama. It is a mandatory stop where they must spend at least one night.
There, the Costa Rica General Office of Immigration and Foreign Affairs submits them to a “biometric control” test with devices that recognize their irises, facial features, and take their fingerprints. This information verifies that they are not being sought by police authorities from other countries or by Interpol.
If the authorities do not find any suspicious history, as it is with most cases, they give migrants a 25-day Entry and Transit Permit (PIT in Spanish), extendable once only for an additional 25 days, so that they can enter the country with a regular migratory status.
This measure was adopted since June 2016, after the closure of the Nicaraguan border left thousands of migrants stranded in Costa Rica. Initially, it benefited people from Africa and South Asia. Over the years, it was extended to anyone in transit, to continue their journey to northern countries.
Migrants receive medical attention at this center, and the authorities suggest they move around on public transportation. Authorities also inform them that if they want to stay, they can submit their application, and then continue to explain their options, such as applying for refugee status.
The southern office of Catem has a very specific and concrete nature because it seeks to organize the migratory flow and to guarantee public safety,” summarizes Alonso Soto, deputy chief of the Costa Rican immigration police, and coordinator of the centers of migrant services.
Between 2016 and 2019, the Costa Rican government registered more than 41,000 migrants from Africa and Asia.
The other center of migrant services in Costa Rica is located near the border with Nicaragua. Unlike the first, this one is not a mandatory checkpoint, so migrants do not have to pass through it unless they want to. There’s a tent with food and hygiene items that are distributed daily to the migrants who stay here, and there is an ambulance that offers around-the-clock medical attention.
“Only those who are tired, sick, pregnant, or don’t have the financial means come here,” says Irlanda Castro, an immigration police officer who works there.
They have set up a makeshift office with a desk and some supplies. There, Castro says that migrants “are waiting for their families to send them money, or they are exhausted and come here because crossing the jungle is very difficult (…) they go by without food, they arrive with allergies, with the flu, and with stomach illnesses.”
But Costa Rica is only a fleeting respite on the journey to the United States. “Entry and transit, not exit,” highlighted the director of the Professional Migration Police (PPM), Stephen Madden, back in October 2019 when we interviewed him at his office in Heredia, a province near San Jose, the capital city.
This means that even though migrants do leave Costa Rica, they cannot go through authorized border checkpoints because there is no agreement between Costa Rica and Nicaragua to organize this type of migration flow. “It is a matter of souveragnity, the Nicaraguan government decides on the process and how these people are going to enter their country,” said the deputy chief of the immigration police.
Nonetheless, the institutions and police bodies of Costa Rica have complete knowledge of migrants leave the territory through the clandestine paths and continue north. “The borders of our countries are very open,” said Officer Madden.
“To stop the extra-regional migration flow means to wear out in a complicated, complex, and expensive operation. It’s best to order it and ensure that anyone who arrives through that flow is documented,” added Soto.
Madden says that “the solution is not to have a police officer every hundred meters because it would be practically impossible to exercise such control.” He specifies that the policing efforts are focused on detecting migrant trafficking networks.
The Costa Rican police is also aware that many other migrants enter irregularly, without being submitted to the biometric control in the southern Catem. They say that criminal organizations dedicated to migrant trafficking prey on these migrants.
Most of them are people who made contracts with these human trafficking networks in their home country,and they take them on different routes through different countries,” said Madden.
The “open borders” and clandestine crossings that Madden talks about are similar to what Hurtado sees every day outside his home: The police cannot control every inch of the border, and many families near this borderline turn migration into a business, even charging a toll to those who walk through theirs backyards.
Passing through these purposefully clandestine routes increases the risk for migrants. For instance, they’re often robbed. In February 2020, according to the immigration police officer Irlanda Castro, a family left the northern Catem but returned just a few hours later because they were assaulted on their way to Nicaragua.
Catem centers, in the end, are also attractive spots for coyotes. “The most important operations of these traffickers’ organizations are close to the Catem,” Soto acknowledges. “It is because they know where the migration flow is.”
Those trails, the cash collections at the border, and the trafficking networks operating nearby make up a rather complicated scenario. A joint investigation by the prosecutors’ offices for migrant smuggling in Costa Rica and Panama revealed that there is also a sea route to move migrants from Costa Rica to Nicaragua or even Honduras.
In fact, in September 2017, an African adult and a child died in a shipwreck when the Costa Rican Coast Guard police intercepted the boat with two coyotes and 31 migrants. They had all stayed at the northern Catem.
There was an accident at sea that caused some of the migrants to lose their lives,” Soto recalled. Costa Rica’s Coast Guard director, Martín Arias, declined to comment on the case. Two and half years after the fact, he argued d that it was still under investigation.
The prosecutors’ joint investigation included 56 raids in both countries. On July 30, 2019, they arrested 52 people, including Ana Yansy López Martínez, known as “Mama Africa,” the alleged gang leader.
According to the Costa Rican Prosecutor’s Office and the Immigration Police, López’ network charged between $ 7,000 and $ 20,000, and moved at least 249 people illegally through Costa Rica.
Several migrants walk through the streets of La Cruz, a Costa Rican border town, just south of Nicaragua. Some walk up to three kilometers from the northern Catem, where they are staying temporarily, to the community park just to sit for a few hours.
We ran into Pascal Belony there, one afternoon in January 2020. A Haitian migrant, he hasn’t been able to continue his journey to Nicaragua because he can’t afford the letters of safe-conduct for himself, his wife, and his children. Belony and his family don’t want to risk crossing through “the wall” or other clandestine trails because of the danger that exists.
Others, like Gafourou Guiro, have decided to change their destiny. On January 27, 2019, Guiro left his homeland Burkina Faso, where he was kidnapped and persecuted. He traveled to Brazil and stayed there for nine months, working. He then migrated to Costa Rica.
Guiro lived for a while in the northern Catem, but he then decided to leave and move in with an acquaintance here. “I am going to seek refuge,” he tells The Voice and shows his application card.
Like many immigrants, he saw compatriots die in the Darien jungle. “We even saw women and children die in the jungle, and people who abandoned children because they could no longer bear it. It was very, very catastrophic,” says Guiro. A nurse by profession, bags groceries at a supermarket in La Cruz.
“I know that the United States is more developed than Costa Rica,” he says. “But I also know that there are many problems in the United States: the insecurity, the racism that we see in the media,” he says in a calm voice, and without blinking for a few seconds. “I know we can find peace, security, harmony, and solidarity here.”
Migrants from Another World is a transnational and collaborative investigation from the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP in Spanish), Occrp, Animal Político (Mexico) and Mexican regional media like Chiapas Paralelo and Voz Alterna from Red Periodistas de a Pie; Univision Noticias Digital (United States), Revista Factum (El Salvador); La Voz de Guanacaste (Costa Rica); Profissão Réporter from TV Globo (Brazil); La Prensa (Panama); Revista Semana (Colombia); El Universo (Ecuador); Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela); and Anfibia/Cosecha Roja (Argentina). Also, The Confluence Media (India), Record Nepal (Nepal), The Museba Project (Cameroon) y Bellingcat (United Kingdom). This project received special support from Fundación Avina and Seattle International Foundation.