“I was afraid to talk with you,” said the man, a local official who requested anonymity for his safety. “It could have terrible consequences for my security if it leaked. But at the same time, the conviction and the hope that our voice will reach others around the world make us take risks.”
He had waited to leave his home until after the government forces that check in on him every morning had left. They take photos and videos, he says, and tell him he must “walk a straight line.” It’s not an uncommon practice these days for anyone the Nicaraguan regime deems suspicious, the official said.
Then he got in his car, made sure no one was following him, and went straight to the field — the only place where he felt he could say what he needed to say without being overheard: “We need this regime to fall,” he said. “There is no solution other than that…as long as this regime doesn’t fall, Nicaragua will continue to be held hostage.”
Ortega was once a revolutionary. He himself took power after helping overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, but has spent the last few years cracking down brutally on dissenting voices.
In June, Ortega’s government began using a vague national security law as justification to lock up opposition presidential candidates, opposition leaders, journalists, human rights activists and others ahead of this month’s election. Dozens have been hauled off to El Chipote, the notorious prison where Ortega himself was incarcerated as a young man in the 1970s.
Ordinary citizens now live in fear of both the government and of each other, according to the dozen people inside Nicaragua who spoke to CNN. Neighbors rarely talk politics anymore for fear of being denounced as a traitor, they said.
A growing number of critics both inside and outside the country say the only solution now is for the international community to intervene, with proposals ranging from increasing sanctions to cutting off diplomatic relations.
But the regime’s campaign to silence critics does not stop at Nicaragua’s borders — Costa Rican government sources and anecdotal evidence that agents of the Ortega regime have been stalking and threatening outspoken Nicaraguan exiles and, in some cases, are believed to have carried out physical violence abroad.
Detailed questions sent to the Nicaraguan government and to the office of Vice President Rosario Murillo’s office — Ortega’s wife and regime spokeswoman — were not acknowledged or answered.
‘Is tomorrow an execution?’
It was around 8pm on October 2 in San José, Costa Rica, and Berenice Zeledón had lost her cell phone. She’d just left the flower shop owned by her close friend and fellow Nicaraguan Rayza Hope, so they both turned around and went back inside to look for it.
As soon as Berenice reached her phone, the pair heard the metal door shut behind them. A man had entered the shop, hooded and masked. His right hand held a pistol, brought level in a swift motion.
Rayza expected a robbery. But she said their attacker spoke with a Nicaraguan accent and already knew their names. “At first I thought he was there to assault us,” she said. “But then he said, ‘You need to stop f**king around, mother f**kers.’ Then I knew it was something else.”
CNN agreed to use pseudonyms for both women to protect their identities.
The pair begged him not to hurt them. But he started to strangle Rayza and pistol whipped her as she fell unconscious, the women later told police. He then attacked Berenice, shoving her to the ground with enough force that X-rays would show a fractured right knee.
“The first thing I thought about was my son,” said Berenice, tears sliding down her face. “This man is so determined; he’s going to kill us.”
But eventually, the man left. He stole nothing.
When Rayza regained consciousness and spoke to Berenice, they both suspected the same thing — that an agent of the Nicaraguan state had attacked them. That is what they told police when they filed a criminal report.
Both women are relatively prominent in the Nicaraguan exile community in San José, a group whose numbers have surged recently. Each is a vocal critic of the Ortega regime and participated in the country’s anti-regime protests in 2018.
Rayza is also a musician and has written and performed songs critical of the regime. Her Facebook page is littered with photos of her attending protests and marches calling for Ortega’s removal from office.
“I feel like people are watching me,” said Berenice. “I no longer feel safe. He was clear. It was a warning to stop f**king around. So, what happens tomorrow? Is it no longer a warning? Is tomorrow an execution?”
CNN cannot verify if the attacker was Nicaraguan and Costa Rica police would not comment on the case.
Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled their homeland and settled in Costa Rica to avoid persecution since 2018, when the government brutally cracked down on widespread anti-regime protests — the beginning of a new escalation in political repression in the country.
Now the Ortega regime is following them across the border, they say.
The Costa Rican government denies that any such incursions into its territory have occurred. “We have always been very vigilant on our borders,” said Jorge Torres, Director of Costa Rica’s Intelligence and Security Directorate, the country’s main intelligence organization. “We are always maintaining a conversation [with Nicaragua] that shows respect to each other’s sovereignty. We would not permit this type of threat.”
But a senior government official in Costa Rica with deep knowledge of the situation told CNN that Nicaraguan intelligence operatives are indeed currently working in his country — and that their numbers have risen since the 2018 popular exodus. Many of the operatives target Nicaraguan exiles, he said.
“Yes, of course this is happening, I am completely sure that this is happening,” said the official. “We have evidence that they come here to do intelligence in Costa Rica and send the information to the government of Nicaragua.”
His government is hesitant to speak out publicly on the issue for fear of damaging diplomatic relations at a tenuous time, he also said.
Nicaraguan human rights groups say they too have recorded dozens of suspected regime-sponsored attacks in Costa Rica in recent years, though proving the Nicaraguan government is behind them is near impossible.
More than a half-dozen exiles at the office of Unidad de Exiliados de Nicaraguenses, a Nicaraguan human rights group based in Costa Rica, told CNN they had received threats.
The group’s leader, Yefer Bravo, said his house had even been shot up by unknown assailants in 2019 in an attack he believes was carried out by Nicaraguan state agents. He said he had previously been receiving threats online prior to the shooting.
He reported the attack to Costa Rican police at the time but said no suspects were ever found or arrested. Police would not comment on his case.
“The threats have become more direct and concrete,” said Bravo. “I am constantly moving the locations where I live.”
His group also faced increasing harassment in the months leading up to Sunday’s elections. The threats mainly come online and don’t become physical, he said. Nevertheless, they often paralyze their recipients with fear.
Insults, stalking and death threats
Jorge, who asked CNN to withhold his last name due to safety concerns, was active during anti-government protests in 2018 in his native Granada, a picturesque city south of Managua, where he was an active member of the Catholic Church. He was also a prominent figure in his neighborhood — which is why, he believes, Nicaraguan police arrested him in January 2019.
He was held for seven days in a police jail cell where he says he was tortured and interrogated. He provided CNN a picture of his leg, where a clearly visible scar across nearly his entire thigh reads “Plomo.” It means “lead” in Spanish and is often used as a death threat, including in Nicaragua where it is sometimes used as an acronym for a pro-government slogan, ‘Patria Libre O Morir’ — Free Fatherland Or Death. Jorge says police carved it into his leg with a razor blade.
Police never formally charged him with a crime, he said. The Nicaraguan government did not respond to CNN’s questions about his case.
Nothing felt normal after his release. “I was scared of any motorcycle passing by, any car, any noise. I was practically a prisoner in the place…I didn’t even leave my room,” said Jorge.
A few months later, he says police returned to his rental home and spray painted it with the words ‘SI JODES, TE MORIS’ — if you F**K AROUND, YOU DIE.
His landlord promptly evicted him. Jorge fled to Guatemala where he says he felt safe until a photo appeared in his Facebook Messenger inbox, from an account he says belonged to a regime collaborator. The image showed him standing at the bus stop in Guatemala that he used every day to get to work.
“You thought the Guatemalans would take care of you…You and your family are going to pay in blood,” the accompanying text read.
Jorge and his family fled again, this time even further north, to Mexico. He spoke to CNN from an undisclosed location. “My family and I do not feel safe because we know what they can do. We wouldn’t be the first or the last Nicaraguan to be murdered outside the country,” said Jorge.
The family of five is essentially living in limbo, with his wife and four daughters, ages 20, 14, 12 and 8 wondering what’s next.
The most recent threat he received came just a few weeks ago. Jorge had added his name to a list of migrants, organized by a Mexican non-profit group, who were hoping to find a way to legally travel to the United States. A picture of that list, which showed his name and his country of origin, was again sent to his Facebook account.
“Hey, coup-plotter, did you think we weren’t going to find you? You and your family are going to pay for trying to bring down [Daniel Ortega],” read the accompanying text.
CNN has no way to verify if the accounts that sent these pictures are linked to the Nicaraguan government.
The Nicaraguan government does appear to support a robust social media presence through troll factories, however. Meta said last week it recently uncovered a government-backed troll farm and removed nearly 1,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts associated with promoting pro-government content while attacking opposition accounts.
With another term secured, where does it go from here?
If these are the methods already employed by the Ortega regime, what might Nicaraguans inside and outside of the country expect from a regime newly emboldened by its victory at the polls this weekend and another five years in office?
“It could possibly get worse…if the government of Daniel Ortega stays in power,” said the senior Costa Rican government official. “Things will get worse. I don’t think they would get better.”
For so many Nicaraguans who described harassment and fear to CNN, there is only one way out of the nightmare: A coordinated pressure campaign from the Nicaraguan diaspora and international community to hold real, free elections in their home country, or else force the Ortega regime to relinquish power entirely.
Gone are their hopes for internal, democratic pressure. In the current climate of intimidation, protesters in Nicaragua are banned from filling the streets, opposition candidates are swiftly arrested, and newspapers cannot report the truth without fear of retribution.
The pressure must come externally, says Bravo, the head of Unidad de Exiliados Nicaraguenses. No matter the threats that he and his fellow exiles might receive, there is a sense of duty among them — a feeling that they are responsible for the direction of their country and the lives of their countrymen still inside.
“If we don’t do anything for Nicaragua, if we don’t raise our voices to the international community, if we don’t pressure the United Nations, the [Organization of American States], the US Congress, the European Union, to make it clear what is happening in Nicaragua, who else will do it?”