The worsening police harassment pushed former student leader Justina Orozco to decide to leave Nicaragua after enduring five years of repression in the country. She thought she could leave legally, since she hadn’t participated in any protest activities for several years. However, when she reached El Guasaule on the border with Honduras, two immigration officials pulled her over and interrogated her for over two hours, telling her, with no evidence, that there was a warrant out for her arrest.
The officials claimed that the only way to avoid being arrested was to sign a letter asking Daniel Ortega to forgive her for her “acts of vandalism in 2018.” In the same letter, she had to commit to not returning to the county and “voluntarily” renounce her citizen rights. If she refused to sign, they told her, she’d be taken to the El Chipote jail in Managua. The young woman signed.
“I believe that this situation has marked me and will mark me forever, because they were trying to demoralize me. That’s how I felt at the moment… It’s sad that I should have to abandon my country for the simple fact of thinking differently. It’s unsettling,” lamented the young woman of 23, who’s also the mother of a three-year-old. After being kidnapped in Mexico, Justina eventually succeeded in reaching the United States where she’s now living in exile.
Imprisoned for waving the Nicaraguan flag
Justina was in her second year at Nicaragua’s National Agrarian University, majoring in Agricultural Engineering, when the civic protests erupted in April 2018. She became deeply involved, and quickly developed into a student leader. That in turn led her to the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, an umbrella organization that opposed the Ortega regime. She participated in the marches and flash protests and was detained for 48 hours in 2019, for waving the national flag in a public roadway.”
Justina Orozco decided to bow out of the blue and white movements to participate more closely with the Rural Movement and groups that were aiding the families of the political prisoners. She also had to devote time to her new role as a mother.
Although the young woman attempted to pick up the pieces of her life, the police harassment and surveillance remained a constant from 2018 to this year. She didn’t denounce this for fear of greater reprisals. Despite the worsening de facto police state and Ortega’s witch-hunts against opposition figures, she figured out ways to get some support to the families of the political prisoners. At the beginning of October of this year, the Police followed her as she was covertly distributing a small amount of aid. She couldn’t return home, so she hid outside Managua until her departure on October 15.
Interrogated at the border station
“I left with what I had at hand,betting everything I had on this move,” Justina says. Without the money needed to pay a coyote, she opted to risk crossing the border legally. When she went through the immigration post to depart Nicaragua, she was stopped and interrogated. The first official wanted to know about her participation in the protests, showing her a series of photos of her. He asked about other leaders of the civic struggle and about her activism outside the country.
The second interrogator, a man that Orozco supposes was the head there, because everyone was obeying his instructions, assured her there was a warrant out on her and she’d be going to prison. When she protested and asked him to show her the supposed warrant, he responded with arrogance: “I’m the one making the rules here.” After she signed the letter they forced on her, that official also took on the job of confirming that Justina got on the bus and left the country.
The authorities from the regime’s immigration services never gave her a copy of the letter she signed. Now, Justina Orozco is wondering if the citizen’s rights the immigration officials made her renounce also included her nationality, as occurred with 317 other banished Nicaraguans, some of them released political prisoners and others opposition leaders outside the country. However, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Nicaragua is a signee, establishes that these are inalienable rights and “can’t be renounced, even by one’s own volition.” Hence, the Immigration agents violated the Declaration by having Orozco sign a letter asking for Daniel Ortega’s pardon and “voluntarily” renouncing her rights.
Kidnapped by a cartel in Mexico
Orozco’s plan was to wait in Mexico and request an appointment for asylum in the United States. However, she was twice detained by the Mexican immigration authorities, because the transit permit she had wasn’t valid. With great difficulty, she managed to advance towards Mexicali with a group of Nicaraguans, but was then kidnapped by a drug cartel.
“We spent three days there. Our families had to pay a ransom… There was no food, nothing to drink. We were in the desert, and that’s where we slept – on the ground and on the rocks. I lost the notion of time during those days. They kidnapped us around eleven at night, and we got out between October 31 and dawn on November 1st. They took us close to the US border, told us we had only so much time, and we walked and walked until we crossed the wall,” she says.
“The greatest worry is not knowing about your family, and knowing that your family is worried, thinking you could even be dead, because there’s no way of communicating. They take your phone, your belongings. The threats they repeat every so often – ‘that nothing will happen to you as long as you pay, but if you don’t pay, you’ll never get out of here,’ they’d tell us. There were people they’d been holding there for 15, 20 days.” Justina Orozco’s family paid her ransom.
Justina now says she doesn’t know where she got the strength to walk until she could turn herself in to the US authorities, after spending three days hungry, cold, and afraid. “Never before in my life did I get so excited to see a little box of juice and an apple,” she jokes about the food the US immigration authorities give the migrants they find on the border.
“Leaving your country, having to flee and then reaching a country like Mexico… The authorities don’t do anything to keep you safe. (..) I never imagined myself being in a situation where a cartel grabbed me. I never thought I would get out of there alive. But I’m here, I’m alive, I’m whole,” she celebrated.
After turning herself in at the border, Justina was held at an immigration center in Arizona, until finally, on November 11, they let her out. With the support of friends, she’s now beginning her road of exile, one that she had resisted taking, because she wanted to watch her little one – who had a birthday on November 25 – grow.
“It’s one of the things that weighs most heavily on me. I’d never been far from her,” she admits, after explaining the decision not to take her daughter with her, in order not to expose her to risks. “It’s the fault of all this, she laments, “that I had to separate from what I prize the most, which is she and my family.”
This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.