In the foothills of the Peña Rota bluff in San Juan del Sur there’s a teacher named Nilamar Alemán Mora, better known as the caring “profe” [an affectionate title for teachers in Nicaragua]. Her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews all live on the small piece of land where she has her house with no dividing walls between them. There are no borders here: the green of the dry woods adorns the landscape and in the distance the sound of the sea conveys peace and tranquility.
“Here we are continuing the struggle, after this torment,” comments Nilamar upon receiving us in her house. The teacher is referring to the 46 days she spent in the Ocotal jail in the department of Nueva Segovia, after being arrested on August 13. Her “crime” was to accompany Naimi and Francisca, a migrant mother and daughter who had been stranded in Costa Rica.
The authorities first accused her of “migrant trafficking”; nonetheless, on September 20 the charge was changed to “imprudent human trafficking,” which implies a sentence of 3 – 5 years in prison. The teacher was finally released with a suspended sentence on September 30th, following extensive pressure on the part of the people of San Juan del Sur demanding her freedom.
Teaching since the 80s
Nilamar was born January 29, 1960, in Moyogalpa on the island of Ometepe. At 18, following the triumph of the revolution, she joined the literacy crusade that the Sandinista Front was organizing.
“After the literacy crusade, I wanted to be more than just an empirical teacher, so I enrolled in the Managua Teachers’ Training School to get my diploma in basic education. I wasn’t ready to rest there either, so I later went on to the UNAN [Autonomous University of Nicaragua] to study the Social Sciences. I wanted to offer a quality education. I felt that I owed something to my people, that I needed to help in some way,” the teacher tells us.
Nilamar stood out in the schools she worked in. She taught in the “Dora María Téllez” Institute, part of the National Army in those days. She also worked in the “Latin American” and “Rigoberto López Pérez” schools. This teacher swells with pride when she tells us that among her students were two of Daniel Ortega’s grandchildren, a daughter of Jaime Wheelock Román and Humberto Ortega’s son.
“And many other kids who are going to see me on television. I’ve added my grain of sand to the lives of each one of them, because I’ve always respected values like punctuality, responsibility, and the recompense that each human being receives when they do their work well – because if I don’t do it well I’m also going against the religious principles,” the teacher affirms.
In addition to teaching classes, this teacher has a long trajectory as a Sandinista. “I’ve been with this government from 1980 on. For all this time, I’ve belonged to the political organization of the Sandinista Front, and I know so many things about my party,” she says while recalling the dedication with which she worked in her time for the governing party.
“There are no borders”
Nilamar’s problems with the authorities began when the official policies established a military wall to impede the passing of migrants attempting to cross Nicaragua and reach the United States.
“I’m for an open border policy,” Nilamar affirms while preparing for the October 12 celebration of what in Nicaragua is called “Day of the Race”. The theme of this cultural event is the resistance of the Indigenous, Black and other popular sectors. “I’m proud to have some indigenous features, because one of my ancestors was Chief [Cacique] Aguirre from the island of Ometepe. I’ve studied the Social Sciences a great deal, and I’ve learned about the struggle of my ancestors to survive under colonialism. I’m a teacher, and I oppose all abuses committed against human beings,” she adds.
On July 28, the instructor was startled to discover Naomi and Francisca, a migrant mother and daughter, in her house. That day Alemán had gotten up at four in the morning to prepare the buñuelos that she would sell to the students at the “Emmanuel Mongalo y Rubio” school in the city of San Juan del Sur.
“The woman was in the outside bathroom – I almost died of fright. She (Naomí) handed the sick girl to me. I’m not a doctor, but I believe she had pneumonia. The little girl was in wet clothing because they’d slept for four nights in the folds of the Peña Rota bluff. It’s not my fault that I live right beside this outcropping in a zone that’s vulnerable to the movement of migrants. I’ve never been a coyote (trafficker), I’ve never done anything that went against my principles, and I respect the laws. But this situation fell into my hands. It was in my own house, and I couldn’t refuse to protect that child,” the teacher tells us, visibly moved.
Naomi is supposedly a native of Haiti, although in the beginning she stated that she was from the Congo. During the fever around the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, she and her husband emigrated to work on the construction of the stadiums for the soccer dates. Francisca was born there, according to Alemán.
The lack of documents for many migrants makes it difficult for the Costa Rican immigration authorities to determine the nationality of the thousands of migrants that are stranded on the border.
The situation of Naomi, her husband and Francisca became difficult. After the World Cup, there was less work available, and non-Brazilians were laid off. Naomi’s family members in the United States sent her money to travel North to the US. On the way they were abandoned by coyotes on the Peña Rota beach where Nilamar lives.
“What did she ask you for when she came to your house?”
“She asked for help with the little girl, so that she wouldn’t die. I used a nebulizer to help her breathe. She had a fever, and at least two hundred mosquito bites from the brush. My heart’s not made of stone and I couldn’t tell her to go turn herself in to the authorities, because what they would do is take her back to a holding center,” the teacher told us.
Naomi and her daughter spent 17 days at Nilamar’s house. The educator affirms that she felt pressured, thinking that authorities might come to her house at any moment. “I told her that she could stay here for a short time while things calmed down,” the teacher said, adding: “She told me that she didn’t want to cause problems for me. So eventually I told her that I’d accompany her on her trip to Honduras, for the sake of the child and her safety. I put my head right into the lion’s mouth.”
Forty-six days in jail
Nilamar, Naomi and Francisca were arrested by the National Police on August 13. The informer, Alemán believes, was the driver of the Santa Gema bus they were traveling in.
In the Public Ministry’s accusation, Nilamar was listed as a criminal human trafficker with the added charge of falsifying documents, since she supposedly got Naomi an identity card. The teacher has consistently denied these charges.
“Naomi already had an identity card. I didn’t find out how she got it until she gave her official statement in Ocotal. In this declaration, she said that she bought it for six hundred dollars from the coyote who brought them from Costa Rica. At no time did I give out a card,” the teacher declares.
The educator was detained for 46 days in an Ocotal prison. The first week, she suffered from continual headaches caused by the absence of her glasses.
“My blood pressure shot up because those cells have their walls so close together. I couldn’t read, I had no appetite, but God gave me the strength to endure in that gloomy place where there’s nothing to sit on, and the floor and ceiling are cement. I learned there that cement irritates the skin, scabs broke out on my body,” Nilamar recalls.
The teacher’s hearing was held behind closed doors. On September 20th she was declared guilty of the charge of Imprudent Human Trafficking. Her three to five year sentence was due to be read on October 6th.
Nilamar Alemán considers the judicial process to have been a farce, and that the district attorney was out to harm her. The educator states that the authorities desperately wanted her to make declarations about a network of migrant trafficking that never existed.
“Can you believe that a book by a US writer called The Last of the Coyotes was used as proof? I noted in the prosecutor, a man named Ulises, the intention to damage me. He even claimed that the card that holds bus fare was proof, that my FSLN militant’s card was proof, my social security card was proof, the fact that I had 70 dollars was proof, 500 córdobas was proof of the money I had charged,” she comments.
A huge reception
On September 30, to her great surprise, Nilamar received notification that the sentence had been suspended. According to her lawyer, the judge made the decision based on the fact that she had no prior criminal record and because she had received the minimum sentence of three years in prison.
“Are you negotiating your exoneration with the judge or with the government?
“I’m not, because I’m not in jail, but the people of San Juan del Sur know what this teacher has done for this town.”
“So, who, then, is negotiating a close to this legal case?”
“The people of San Juan negotiated my freedom with their marches. With their marches, every day. In a time of elections, when a political campaign is being launched, a march isn’t very timely for the party.
At midnight on Saturday, thousands from the town of San Juan del Sur turned out to receive the compassionate teacher in the church plaza. It’s estimated that more than 3,000 people participated.
“In the first moments, I felt ashamed and said that I was going to go to Costa Rica. But the night that I came home to my town, no one rested. They mobilized using their own resources. I’m grateful to all those who led the marches, to my family and to all who believed that I’m not a coyote,” expresses the teacher. Following such a huge reception, she considers the government of Comandante Ortega “Pharisees”.
The term “Pharisee” comes from the Bible. They tell me that [the government] is Christian, but one of the pillars of Christianity is solidarity. They’ve put out a little notebook about love for the littlest ones. I have one, and it says that we should protect the children. But later they arrested me for having protected Francisca, and that’s an act of the Pharisees. Who’s a Pharisee? The person who knows that we’re called by our consciences to do good and then doesn’t do so. That’s why I use that term.”
“You’ve been a loyal member of the Sandinista Front. How do you feel after that 46 day ordeal?”
“In principle, there’s no perfect government; I have to think about that, I’m still forming my views.”
“What if another Naomi appeared here with a Francisca in her arms? What would you do?”
“I’d be more careful about my actions, but I haven’t stopped being religious and I’m also not going to reject the fundamental principles that have guided my life for 54 years.”
What torments Alemán right now is her future as a teacher, the profession to which she has dedicated a large part of her life.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to continue being a teacher, because I went to the Ministry of Education today and they put a lot of obstacles in my path. They’re asking me for the judge’s verdict. They were silent about my salary, despite the fact that I’d worked for 20 days. Anyway, I’m not going to die of hunger – I still have two good hands, be it to wash dishes in a restaurant,” the teacher concludes.