Managua―One evening as she watched some local kids play outside in her Managua neighborhood, Nicaraguan Mireya Alegria was shocked to see police, motorcycles and a white van carrying hooded men speed past.
“They started firing,” she says. It was the moment she decided enough was enough.
Now Alegria is one of the thousands of Nicaraguans desperately seeking to process migration documents and flee to neighboring Central American countries, as two months of anti-government dissent has triggered increasingly violent state repression.
“Thousands of people come daily to do paperwork,” said Nubia Manzanares, a migration agent, adding that many come with their children.
Lines in offices such as hers are endless, as families and young people attempt to leave in particular for Costa Rica, the primary destination of Nicaraguans since the country’s 1980s civil war between President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas and the US-backed contras.
Jonathan Pena, 19, says his top reason for leaving is because he sees the government “persecuting and killing young people.”
He spent hours working to get a visa and travel by plane to Costa Rica, because at the land border activists have erected barricades in an attempt to intensify the pressure on Ortega.
According to analyst and ex-deputy of the opposition Eliseo Nunez, part of Ortega’s strategy is to incite panic to trigger migration particularly from the middle class, an especially anti-government sector.
The crisis sparked by relatively small protests against now-abandoned social security reforms morphed into an explosive movement demanding Ortega along with his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo leave office.
But Ortega appears set on staying, and the past two months has seen more than 160 people die in bloody clashes between armed government-backed forces and activists brandishing slingshots and homemade mortars.
The deluge of passport applications has swelled notably in the past two weeks, which have seen a sharp uptick in violence from armed hooded men roaming the streets by night aboard vans and motorbikes.
Nicaraguans say the gangs have marked youth―who have spearheaded the mass movement against Ortega―as their primary targets.
“Now it’s forbidden to be young,” says Xiomara Vargas, a 54-year-old housewife who accompanied her nephew, a computer science student, to the migration office.
Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Epsy Alejandra Campbell Barr said last week her government is prepared for a massive influx of Nicaraguans.
That Central American country also said last week it would provide visas to relatives of diplomats accredited in Nicaragua who want to leave.
Nearly 500,000 Nicaraguans already live permanently or temporarily in neighboring Costa Rica, many of them working in agriculture, construction and domestic service.
Many Nicaraguans like Eime Monge―seeking to move to Costa Rica with her husband and two children―believe Ortega will stop at nothing to maintain power.
The vast majority of the country’s roads are barricaded by protesters, semi-paralyzing transport and commerce in the country, which on Thursday held a 24-hour national strike to protest government repression.
According to the country’s Foundation for Economic and Social Development, the crisis has endangered between 20,000 and 150,000 jobs.
Some Nicaraguans have already lost their livelihoods in recent months, like Manuel Perez, who now has Panama in his sights.
There’s no point in staying, the 40-year-old says, because he doesn’t foresee the country’s “distress” improving anytime soon.
It’s an attitude analyst and former politician Nunez echoes: “Ortega will try to navigate between the rubble and reach the end,” he says.
“Regardless of the human and economic cost.”