SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — In a tree-shaded downtown plaza, in Central America’s most peaceful nation, few could have predicted the angry mob.
Hundreds of men dressed in red shirts and jerseys marched into La Merced park carrying knives, baseball bats and glass bottles stuffed with gasoline-soaked rags.
Apparently motivated by false and inflammatory online messages, they had come to confront Nicaraguans who had fled their country and turned the park into a base camp, a place to receive free meals and coffee from local churches and charities.
“Get out Nicas!” the crowd chanted, according to videos posted online later. Fights broke out. More than 40 people were arrested, government officials said.
The confrontation that unfolded on that Saturday afternoon last month has shaken a country known as a relative oasis of peace in a tumultuous region where mass migration and gang warfare are common. The arrival of thousands of Nicaraguans in recent months — fleeing President Daniel Ortega’s violent crackdown on protesters — has laid bare undercurrents of xenophobia in Costa Rica and prompted the first major crisis for President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who had just completed 100 days in office.
His administration is investigating whether Ortega’s government, or its supporters on either side of the border, were involved in fanning the anti-immigrant flames.
“Using social media to call people together who were deliberately inciting hate,” Alvarado Quesada said in an interview, “this hasn’t happened before.”
Migration caused by political crises and economic collapse has put enormous strain on Latin America. An exodus of more than 2 million Venezuelans has caused upheaval in Colombia, Brazil and Peru, among others. Although Nicaraguans fleeing across the border constitute only a fraction of that number, the increase has worried government officials and is testing Costa Rica’s generous asylum policies.
“We will protect our country in every way, but these acts are not welcome, nor will they be tolerated in any way,” Foreign Minister Epsy Campbell said. “We cannot permit even the smallest space to feed a xenophobic attitude.”
Since April, Ortega’s security forces and armed militias in Nicaragua have attacked protesters in street battles and house-to-house raids. The government crackdown has left more than 350 people dead and has prompted thousands to flee south to Costa Rica.
“The level of persecution is such that many of those who have participated in the protests, defended the rights of the protesters, or simply expressed dissenting opinion, have been forced to hide, have left Nicaragua or are trying to do so,” said a report released this week by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
The exact numbers of those who have fled into Costa Rica since the unrest began is unknown because many crossed the border illegally and have not identified themselves to authorities. So far this year, more than 24,400 Nicaraguans have expressed their intention to apply for asylum in Costa Rica, compared with 58 asylum applications from January to August 2017.
But a significant portion of these applicants already lived in Costa Rica and decided to apply for asylum given the upheaval in Nicaragua, immigration officials said. As neighbors with intertwined histories, roughly a half-million Nicaraguans lived in Costa Rica when the conflict in Nicaragua began.
At migration agency offices in the capital, hundreds of Nicaraguans lined the sidewalk earlier this summer, some sleeping in tents for days, waiting to apply for asylum. They receive appointments to come back early next year.
Xochil Soto, a 27-year-old accountant at a Catholic church in Nicaragua, and her boyfriend, Moises Alejandro Silva, a 25-year-old accounting student, applied for jobs at a McDonald’s in San Jose after they fled the unrest at home. But they don’t have work permits as they wait for asylum, so they have been making tacos and burritos to sell on the street.
“We hope to get by, little by little,” Silva said. “We have faith we can survive here.”
Some Nicaraguans spend days loitering in parks and plazas, wearing donated clothes, without homes or work permits. Others bunk where they can, with friends and relatives, in shelters or dingy motels.
Scarleth Osorno, 21, and her husband, Cristhian Rosales, 19, spent their first nights as refugees in San Jose sleeping on the ground under a tree in La Merced park with their 8-month-old daughter.
The couple had given coffee and water to protesters manning barricades in their hometown of Diriamba, the site of one of the deadliest clashes with Nicaraguan paramilitaries. They were later identified as dissidents by government loyalists in their neighborhood, and masked gunmen showed up at their home.
“They were armed to the teeth,” said Rosales, a welder. “When they knocked on the door I ran out the back.”
The family escaped through a ravine, caught a bus for the border and arrived in San Jose in late July. They were at La Merced Park on Aug. 18 when the redshirted mob descended, hurling insults, calling them cowards, demanding that they get out of Costa Rica.
Osorno still came to the park each day, hoping someone might donate food for her baby. She looked around as pedestrians streamed by.
“I’m afraid to even be standing in this spot,” she said. “It’s not safe here, either.”
Costa Rica has become familiar with mass migrations. In recent years, thousands of Haitians and Cubans transiting north toward the United States have gathered in Costa Rica as Nicaragua blocked its border to migrants, prompting government officials to organize airlifts. Venezuelans have migrated in large numbers to escape their country’s economic calamity.
The Nicaraguan community is large and well-established in Costa Rica. Many went into exile, or fled the fighting, during the guerrilla war against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s. Among those who fled south were Daniel Ortega, who would later become president. The subsequent Nicaraguan civil war in the 1980s between Ortega’s Sandinista government and President Ronald Reagan’s CIA-backed “contras” pushed thousands more across the border.
The two countries “are like twins, one more rebellious than the other,” said Alejandra Gutierrez, a Costa Rican who married a Nicaraguan, Alfonso Robelo, who was initially a member of the Sandinista ruling junta and then joined the contras and went to war against. “They fight a lot, but at the end of the day they often give each other a hand.”
Last month, on websites and Facebook pages, false rumors began spreading that Nicaraguan migrants had been burning Costa Rican flags. Posts spread quickly that Alvarado Quesada was giving chunks of the Costa Rican budget over to transgender Nicaraguans and that universities were providing refugees full scholarships.
“There was a lot of fake news immediately before the event,” Alvarado Quesada said.
Public Security Minister Michael Soto Rojas said that the presumption is that an “external or internal influence tried to maximize” the protest. Among Nicaraguan refugees, there is widespread belief that Ortega has allies in Costa Rica, surveilling protest leaders who have fled or fomenting disruptions.
Soto said that there is no “conclusive evidence” that Ortega’s government helped organize the protest or has spies on the ground pursuing protesters, “but there’s an expectation that it could occur or is occurring.”
Representatives from Nicaragua’s government did not respond to requests for comment.
Many Costa Ricans have rallied to defend and support Nicaraguan refugees. Catholic and Evangelical leaders condemned the xenophobic attacks, as well as Costa Rican soccer clubs whose jerseys were worn in the protest. Nicaraguan refugees say many Costa Ricans are generous and helpful.
Anti-Nicaraguan feeling “is not the popular sentiment,” said Marcela Rodriguez-Farrelly, an official with the U.N. refugee agency in San Jose.
But the Costa Rican government fears that further waves of Nicaraguans could worsen tensions. Already, many Nicaraguans who played an active role in protests are living like fugitives here, some in safe houses, some under government protection. New arrivals say even though they’ve escaped imminent danger in Nicaragua, they remain uneasy.
“I assumed this country was safe,” said Ariana Gutierrez, a medical student who fled. “Now we’re afraid to say we’re Nicaraguans.”
Ismael Lopez Ocampo contributed to this report.