Migrant Trafficking on the Nicaragua – Costa Rica Border

A study reveals 51 unmarked crossings used by Nicaraguan migrants. It also highlights the dangers they encounter in their crossing.

A study reveals 51 unmarked crossings used by Nicaraguan migrants. It also highlights the dangers they encounter because migrant trafficking

26 de noviembre 2020


Migrant traffickers have forged an alliance with some members of the Nicaraguan army and certain Costa Rican police. They share information on the irregular crossings of Nicaraguans trying to enter Costa Rica. This information is revealed in an investigation carried out by the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress.

The study uncovered the routes, the risks, and the regular and irregular migrant activities between April 2018 and February 2020. The majority of the migration involved Nicaraguans fleeing their country starting the period when the Nicaraguan socio-political crisis exploded. During 2018-19, thousands of Nicaraguans fled into exile. The investigation doesn’t include changes that occurred when the Coronavirus pandemic spread to both countries.

“Faces of Nicaraguan Exile: Expelled and Vulnerable” is the title of the project. The research it’s based on was conducted from March to August of 2020. The report documents and maps 51 unmarked crossings along the northern border of Costa Rica. These points span the cantons of Upala, La Cruz and Los Chiles. The report also describes the conditions Nicaraguan migrants and exiles have had to endure in their flight.

The study considers the irregular crossing of migrants: “a well-structured activity of organized crime, involving illicit economic activity”. This activity “benefits families on both sides of the border.” These were the perceptions of Ana Espinoza, academic director of the Arias Foundation.

Before the public health crisis, it was estimated that some 500 migrants a day were crossing over from Nicaragua. These were accompanied by “coyotes”, who would get them to their destinations. Now, however, due to increased police vigilance along the border, only some 10% of that number are crossing. Legal overland migration between the two countries has been closed since March 19th, to contain the spread of COVID-19. The study assures that currently the number crossing and the traffickers’ methods have both changed.

The “coyote” or trafficker, doesn’t always accompany the migrants directly, but they coordinate information and guide them via their cellphones. This complicates the work of investigating and detecting illegal trafficking, Espinoza stated.

As much as $250 to cross

Nicaraguans continue crossing the border in conditions of extreme vulnerability, including the illegal payment of migrant traffickers. Their only alternative to these coyotes is to walk huge distances to evade the police officials. The presence of these officials along the border is now much more pronounced.

According to the study’s findings, cross-border movement initiating in either Nicaragua or Costa Rica can be done in several ways. The crossing is possible on foot, in a car or bus, and also by maritime or river routes. Most of the illegal trips are coordinated by individual coyotes or organizations of traffickers, known as “pirates”.

Organized migrant traffickers have allied with certain military officials in Nicaragua and members of the Costa Rican police. With their help, the traffickers obtain information and coordinate the routes. Cooperating officials receive a payment in exchange, although the actual amount is unknown.

The price charged the migrants takes into account factors such as age, gender, or “urgency”. The time of year is also a factor as well as the “services” requested.

For a land crossing, the price varies from around US $33 dollars during the “slow” season, up to US $250 at the height of demand. The price of a boat to make a river crossing can cost from six to twenty-five dollars per person.

The coyotes or pirates charge for extras as well. These could be an extra $3.00 for the loan of rubber boots. Or, if a migrant needs to clean up, they could be charged 1-2 dollars for water and a hose. These details were all part of the study.

At risk

Nicaraguans who choose to migrate via these irregular crossings face a number of risks. They can be detected by the Costa Rican authorities and returned to their point of origin. They also risk robberies, abuse, extortion, scams, kidnapping, human trafficking and rape. Finally, there’s danger from snake and insect bites, animal attacks, climatic factors or illnesses such as dengue and COVID-19.

According to the UN refugee agency, by the end of 2019, Costa Rica had taken in 6,217 Nicaraguans as refugees. There were also 87,190 pending requests for asylum from Nicaraguans.

The study included a section on the precarious living conditions of some migrants, once they reach Costa Rica. Some live in the street, with insufficient food and a high risk of being exploited as workers. Others dwell in crowded and unsanitary conditions, which the COVID-19 crisis has only worsened.


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Katherine Estrada Téllez

Periodista nicaragüense exiliada en Costa Rica. Se ha especializado en la cobertura de temas de migración, género y salud sexual y reproductiva. También ha trabajado en Marketing y Ventas y ha sido Ejecutiva de Cuentas.


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