Caravan migrants fear death awaits back home

Mark Stevenson
Associated Press
Lester Javier Velasquez Gonzalez, 38, and his family are fleeing Nicaragua, where those who have opposed President Daniel Ortega have faced prison, death and persecution.

Huixtla, Mexico — Amid thousands of mostly Honduran migrants hoping to make it to the United States, the Velasquez Gonzalez family from Nicaragua is something of an outlier.

While most joined spontaneously as word of the caravan spread in the last 12 days or so, the long, terrible journey for the Velasquez Gonzalez family began in early July when the Nicaraguan government launched a crackdown on opposition protests demanding President Daniel Ortega leave office.

But they share something in common with many of their Central American brethren fleeing poverty and gang violence: a very real fear that, back home, death awaits.

For the Velasquez Gonzalez family, it’s been months of running and hiding since they fled their home in the Nicaraguan city of Diriamba. After all that, walking through Mexico — still at least 1,000 miles from the nearest U.S. border crossing — almost seems like the end of the journey, rather than the beginning.

Nicaraguan security forces and armed, pro-government militias violently dislodged opposition roadblocks, leaving several hundred dead since April and sending the Velasquez Gonzalez men, who had taken part in the protests, fleeing into the mountains, where they hid for 12 days.

Migrants travel on a cattle truck, as a thousands-strong caravan of Central Americans makes its way toward the U.S. border Friday.

Then came weeks of hunkering down in a string of five safe houses in Managua, the capital, before the family slipped across the border into Honduras.

When they caught up with the migrant caravan a week ago in Guatemala, it was a relief. Those who have opposed Ortega have faced prison, death and other forms of persecution.

“We cannot return to Nicaragua, we simply cannot return … because we know what would happen to us,” said Lester Javier Velasquez Gonzalez, 38.

Lester, his wife Idania Molina Rocha, their 14-year-old son Axel and their 9-year-old daughter Alexa have brought their dreams with them. Alexa has carried her favorite doll, Sofia, through five countries, and hopes to one day play in the snow in the United States — it’s something she has never seen in her tropical hometown.

They’re carrying their nightmares as well. Axel saw his best friend shot to death in the streets of Diriamba when police and pro-Ortega paramilitaries broke up a roadblock on July 8.

“They came in with heavy weapons, sharpshooters,” Axel said, recalling how the intense gunfire kept him from reaching his friend as he bled out from a wound in the abdomen. “They killed my best friend, Josie Mojica … right in front of me.”

Axel was hit in the leg by what was perhaps a police tear gas canister; he described it as a “bomb they shoot through a tube.” The wound is still visible on his femur, and he’s walked from Nicaragua through Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and now southern Mexico on crutches, still limping badly.

Nicaraguans seek asylum in the U.S. in far lower numbers than people from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but their denial rates are similarly high. It’s too early to tell, but Ortega’s crackdown may give some Nicaraguans an opening if they can show they are being targeted for their political beliefs. Already, Ortega’s government has been hit by U.S. sanctions

Qualifying for asylum in the U.S. requires proving a well-founded fear of persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. That last category is the most difficult to define, and it’s how many Central Americans try to get in, claiming they are victims of domestic or gang violence.

The Velasquez Gonzalezes may stand a better chance than many others in the caravan.

They are carrying photos, newspaper clippings and documents from a Nicaraguan rights group describing their ordeal. They even have copies of “wanted” posters that appeared on lampposts in Diriamba calling for their capture dead or alive.

Some Hondurans in the caravan have also said they are fleeing political reprisals, from conservative President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s government, though most talk about the danger of living among hyper-violent gangs.

Many migrants said they felt safer traveling and sleeping with several thousand strangers in unknown towns than hiring a smuggler or trying to make the trip alone.

Edwin Enrique Jimenez Flores, a 48-year-old truck driver from Tela, Honduras, said a gang attacked his brother and threatened him with death after he called police about four months ago.

“I spent four months in hiding” in a relative’s house, he said. “I couldn’t even go out on the street. I can’t go back.”

Migrants also face violence or even death at the hands of Mexican gangs as they make their way north to the U.S. border.

Roberto Mauricio Vasquez, a 33-year-old electrician from Choluteca, Honduras, said he was kidnapped by a Mexican gang in the border city of Reynosa as he tried to reach the United States 13 years ago. He said he was held at a two-story home where gang members beat and tortured migrants to get them to hand over the telephone numbers of relatives who lived in the U.S., so they could demand ransom payments of around $2,000.

“I saw how they killed one guy,” Vasquez recalled as he stood outside a migrant encampment on a basketball court near Huixtla. “They thought we were trying to escape and they blamed him, so they beat his head against a wall until they cracked his skull. Then they beat him with an iron bar until the blood spattered, and tossed him into a basement crawl space where they held wounded people. When they died they went out and tossed their bodies on the border.”

Vasquez’s relatives paid, and he made it across the border — and was immediately deported back to Honduras, where gangs there demanded protection payments from him.

Vasquez says he wants no special treatment because of his horrific experience.

“We are only asking for a chance to work,” he said.

Honduran migrants walking north wave the flags of Honduras and Mexico to passing trucks.