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Nicaraguan Refugee Crisis Growing In Central America


A refugee crisis is growing in Central America as tens of thousands of Nicaraguans pour into neighboring Costa Rica. They're seeking safety from a deepening political crisis at home. For more than four months, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has responded to nationwide protests with force. More than 300 people have been killed, hundreds more disappeared and thousands sent into exile. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Last month, police and armed militia stormed into the small central Nicaraguan town where Jose Murillo and his friend Freddy Mondragon manned a blockade, a round-the-clock protest against President Daniel Ortega. Outmanned and out-armed, Murillo says their simple brick barricade quickly fell.

JOSE MURILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The government had us already on their list, a long one of all those in town who supported the antigovernment protests," he says. Murillo, who's 54, says a fellow protester was arrested and told relatives to warn the others about the list.

FREDDY MONDRAGON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "That's when the persecution began," adds Mondragon, who's 43. Both men say they heard that masked men came looking for them at their homes. "We fled into the mountains," they said.

MURILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We survived up there for 15 days. And it was harsh - very harsh. So we decided we had to keep moving. And we came here," says Murillo.

Along with five others from their town, the group crossed illegally into Costa Rica a week ago and arrived here in the small northern city of La Cruz. And they aren't alone. More than 23,000 refugees have entered Costa Rica since anti-Ortega protests erupted in Nicaragua on April 18. The pace of refugees fleeing picked up greatly after Ortega launched a repressive crackdown on protesters in mid-July, killing hundreds and jailing thousands. U.N. officials here say about 200 Nicaraguans are applying for asylum every day.

Most Nicaraguans coming across the border these days have a family member living in Costa Rica. The International Organization for Migration estimates as many as half a million Nicaraguans call Costa Rica home. For those without a relative here, a camp about a mile and a half outside of town with enough tents to house up to 2,000 people is a lifeline.


KAHN: A group of Nicaraguans play dominoes on a picnic table set up in an outdoor kitchen area in the back of the camp. Across the dirt field are a dozen portable shower stalls, port-a-potties and a large stone basin to hand-wash clothes.

URIEL CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Uriel Cruz is sitting out the domino game. He's trying to get a fire started in one of the wood-burning stoves for coffee. A skinny pipe is helping him fan the flames with some direct air.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Cruz, who is 46 and married with two sons, says he worked in his northern Nicaraguan town as a legal adviser to the mayor. After the protests began, he says the city started taking half his paycheck to pay pro-government protesters and paramilitary fighters. He complained and was called to late-night meetings at city hall with unidentified armed men. The last time they called him in, he says he didn't go.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They were probably going to kill me," he says, "or throw me in jail as a terrorist." Thousands have been jailed in recent weeks since President Ortega passed a sweeping new law that critics charge criminalizes all types of protest. Punishment is up to 30 years in jail. Cruz says he hopes talks will resume between President Ortega and a coalition of civic and church leaders seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis and early elections for next year. But he's not optimistic. Neither are others in the camp who say they're willing to take up arms in order to return.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Cruz says he hopes there will be international help coming to remove Ortega because, he says, "so many of us - all we want to do is go back home and soon." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, La Cruz, Costa Rica.

(SOUNDBITE OF KANSAS SONG, "REFUGEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.