Migrants from Another World: Part 3

Forbidden Passages: Human smuggling along the migrant route through the Americas

Ana Yansy López Martínez lives in La Cruz, Costa Rica. Migrants and smugglers call her “Mama Africa.” César Arroyo /La Voz de Guanacaste
06 September, 2020

With reporting from Ronny Rojas, Estevan Muniz, José Guarnizo

On a Tuesday in January 2018, some people got out of a white Mitsubishi and entered a house near the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, on the Costa Rican side. After a while, a couple came out and left in the same vehicle. The Costa Rican immigration police, who were spying on them at the time, suspected that those who did not leave had illegally crossed through the patio of that house towards Nicaragua.

Nine days earlier, they started monitoring the suspects as the Costa Rican prosecutor’s office had begun investigating a migrant smuggling network, after receiving confidential information that the traffickers were paying officers $35 to leak information. The bribed officials told the criminals where the on-duty police officers were. Also, they let “their” migrants through, or they informed the human smugglers when and by what routes to transport migrants through Costa Rican territory without being detected by the authorities.

The woman who left the border house that Tuesday was Ana Yansy López Martínez, a 48-year-old Nicaraguan who lives in La Cruz, Costa Rica, and whom migrants and coyotes, or human smugglers, call “Mama Africa.” The man who accompanied her was her husband, Adnan Abdul Wahab, originally from Ghana, known in the area as “Mohamed.”

Two years earlier, in 2016, the Costa Rican authorities had already raided that house, due to another investigation into the crime of migrant smuggling. Many families in the area charge to allow people to cross through the patios of their homes from Costa Rica to Nicaragua and vice versa. That is how those families end up getting involved in the illicit business of trafficking networks.

Starting in January 2018, and for a year and a half, the police authorities of Costa Rica, along with those of Panama, followed the trail of Mama Africa and other traffickers. They claim that the same network to which López belonged moved around 249 migrants from Africa, Asia, Cuba and Haiti who were seeking to reach the United States. To do so, she coordinated their trips through Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

The investigation concluded with simultaneous operations in both countries and the arrest of 47 people on 30 July 2019, including López and two of her four children: Indiana and Benjamín Jarquín. Another son, Bayron, had previously been tried by the justice systems of Nicaragua and Costa Rica for the same crime. In the house where the family lives, the police found $11,000 in cash and several passports.

López is not the only Mama Africa​ in Latin America linked to extra-regional migrant smuggling networks. The cross-border journalistic alliance behind “Migrants from Another World,” in which The Voice of Guanacaste participated along with CLIP—Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism—and 16 other media organisations, discovered that in Colombia, the authorities prosecuted another woman from the border with Panama who served as a liaison for local migrants, and whom they called by the same nickname. Likewise, near the migrant station in Tapachula, Mexico, another Mama Africa distributes lunches to migrants, who leave messages on her billboard with recommendations for those who come behind them. No one has accused this Guatemalan Mama Africa of committing any crime.

Some police sources claimed that it is an easy name to remember in any language, so that, in some cases, travellers can quickly find a local contact from the international network that was in charge of their trips.

Several migrants interviewed in the United States said that López had coordinated their accommodation and the leg of their trip through Central America and Mexico. This is stated in an investigation by the Brazilian Federal Police and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service.

The Voice of Guanacaste interviewed López last February at her home in Guanacaste province, 20 kilometres from the border post between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and only two from a humanitarian care centre where the Costa Rican government has served migrants since 2016.

She remains locked up there with an electronic anklet on her left foot, awaiting trial. She said that she is under house arrest until there is a sentence and that the judge allowed her home so that she could take care of her daughter Wendy, a quadriplegic confined to a bed for 12 years.

Criminal or benefactor?

“I was instructing them,” she said, sitting in a chair in the living room, from where she can see the white Mitsubishi parked on the street. “They would come [and ask me], ‘Mama, what do we do?’ And I told them, ‘Look, go to the [Nicaraguan] army and ask for help.’”

We already knew López’s house. It had been in the news when the immigration police raided her and found a pile of mattresses in her backyard. The raid that day was broadcast and reported by various Costa Rican and even international media outlets because the director of migration for Costa Rica, Raquel Vargas, described the operation as one of the largest in the country in the prosecution of the crime of the illegal trafficking of migrants.

López denies that she has ever hidden migrants in her home. She would not have allowed it, she said, because she lives with her two daughters and her minor granddaughters. She explains that she let travellers prepare their food in her kitchen during the day, because they did not like the food given to them in the humanitarian centre.

A combination of factors made her look like a criminal, she explains. For example, she held parties with Africans, family and friends of her husband. She even recorded videos of her sharing with them, but regrets not being able to show them because the police confiscated her phones.

“The most important operations of these organisations are close to the Catem [Temporary Attention Centre for Migrants] and it is because they know that this is where the migratory flow is,” Alonso Soto, the deputy chief of the Costa Rican immigration police, explained. This was how Mama Africa worked, he said.

Clandestine trails near Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, headed towards Nicaragua. César Arroyo / La Voz de Guanacaste

At one of those parties, López said, they named her Mama Africa. “Among all of them [family and friends of her husband] they said, ‘Ah, now we are like your children, you are our mother,’” she said.

That is why the authorities believed she was a trafficker, López insisted, because she was kind to her African husband’s friends and family—and also because her eldest son, Bayron, had a history of smuggling migrants.

“Bayron was in prison [in Liberia, Costa Rica] because he was with a man who was carrying some Nicaraguans. He crossed them, carried them through orange groves and they grabbed him. Bayron was little, he was barely 16, 17 years old,” she said, explaining that this was about ten years ago.

He was arrested a second time in late 2017, when he was 27 years old.

A Nicaraguan police report says that, in September 2017, Bayron and two others transported a group of 13 African migrants in two cars through the department of Rivas in Nicaragaua, near Costa Rica.

Police and the army put up a checkpoint, but Bayron and the other coyotes did not stop, prompting a chase and an exchange of bullets. A 23-year-old African died. The police captured the coyotes and claimed that López was an accomplice to them. They catalogued her as “fugitive with residence in Costa Rica.”

López denies having been with her son that day or involved in the smuggling of migrants.

In Nicaragua, Bayron was sentenced to 23 years in prison: nine for unsuccessful homicide, eight for migrant smuggling and six for organised crime. When López was detained by the Costa Rican police in July last year, her son continued to serve a sentence in a prison in the neighbouring country.

However, a Nicaraguan media outlet reported that, two years later, two public defenders asked magistrates at the court of appeals in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, to reverse the sentence because the case “demanded reasonable doubt.”

According to the publication, one of the defenders was Amy Rayo, who said that “at no time has the Office of the Prosecutor demonstrated the existence of organized crime because there is no evidence to show that they [Bayron and the other two suspects] have committed various crimes in distribution of functions under the hierarchy of a boss to attribute the offence of organized crime.”

There is no public or local Nicaraguan media report on what happened after the defenders' request to the court, but López claimed that the ruling was favourable to her son and he was released. According to her, Bayron straightened his life out and today lives in La Cruz, Costa Rica, where he is dedicated to selling lemons and curds.

The police investigation against Mama Africa shows evidence that her other children, Indiana and Benjamin, detained in the 30 July police operation, had helped her moving migrants to accommodation houses and taking them to the coast or to the mountains to cross the border by sea or by land to Nicaragua. However, the Costa Rican criminal court released them while the judicial process progresses.

The Costa Rican police and prosecutors amassed a thick file on López. They say they have the evidence that she and her partners in crime coordinated the transfer and lodging of people even after they were in Panamanian territory, because they had contacts on the border between Costa Rica and Panama. Each migrant was charged between $300 and $1,600 to take them north and across the border by land or by sea.

The police claim that López and her partners took migrants across by boat, usually between 8 pm and 9 pm, with a collaborator, apparently Nicaraguan, who was called “Alejandro, the boatman.” In the investigation, there is proof of telephone interceptions in which these movements are coordinated.

The authorities have listed López as a suspect in other cases related to the passage of migrants through the region. In 2017, a four-year-old Congolese boy named Samuel Bienga Fernand and a man of unknown identity died while they were being transported by coyotes along the same route managed by López and her accomplices, from Costa Rica to Nicaragua by sea.

The Costa Rican coast guard police intercepted the two boats in which the two dead migrants were travelling. There were another 29 survivors and two coyotes. The police said the traffickers fled the scene.

López had another version of events. She said that she did know the family of the boy Samuel—his pregnant mother, his father and his nine-year-old sister—but that she had nothing to do with taking them along the coast to Nicaragua.

“An African woman came here with her husband once,” said López. “She had three children and they were going to travel and went to Puerto Soley [a beach in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border] … they were riding in a small boat and they were shot. I said, ‘Who do you think shot you?’”

López said that the Congolese replied: “I only saw people who put a large spotlight on us, they had weapons and the one who shouted was a woman.” She said that it even gave her the chills. “I told her, ‘Stay quiet because your child died and nobody is going to revive him.’” Later, she told her husband, “Mohamed,” that they had to give food to the family to help them. And then, said López, the family continued on their way.

López was fitted with an electronic tag on her left foot as she waits, confined to her home, to be presented before a court on charges of human smuggling. César Arroyo /La Voz de Guanacaste

According to the conversations that the police listened to during the time that her phone communication was intercepted, López coordinated with migrants even when they were already crossing Honduras and Mexico. She even advised a Haitian migrant, with the last name Parison, to take care of himself in Mexico because there was “a lot of mafia,” and, preferably, not to carry cash.

She asked others for videos in which they related their journey and where and how they were.

According to the investigative file of the prosecution and the police, “They [López and her network] ask the migrants for a video when they are already on their way, which, presumably, they ask so they can show the relatives that they are doing well and that they have been reaching the countries as agreed.”

Investigators in the case verified with US authorities that several of the migrants that López and her network transferred in fact reached their destination, and several of them are today waiting to resolve their immigration situation in detention centres.

“Where do they get that I charged them thousands and thousands?”

Mama Africa contradicts the judicial interpretation of the conversations. She said that both she and Mohamed always wanted to help the migrants. He was also investigated and accused by the Costa Rican police, but at the time of the simultaneous operations he had already gone to the United States. According to López, he is detained in that country.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to delay your American dream,’” López said, and then he left.

López said she met her husband because a Brazilian acquaintance introduced them to each other on Facebook, when Mohamed lived and worked in Brazil in a network company. She does not know how to explain very well what his job was about.

“The one I met was one who is still in Brazil, I think he was his boss,” said López. “Then he told me that his friend [Mohamed] was coming here, and I said to him I want to meet his friend and afterwards we started talking.”

An investigation by this journalistic alliance on how traffickers transport thousands of Africans and Asians annually across the Americas found that Brazil has a concentration of the leadership of criminal networks.

We asked Mama Africa if the migrants gave her money.

“You know what? Rather, I gave them money. When I had I gave it away. Even more to the Africans. Those people came limited of money, very limited ... That’s why I say, where do they get that I charged them thousands and thousands? ... If that one came and said to me, ‘Mama, look, I’m going to give you,’” she said energetically.

“Thank you, you gave me $20, it helps me for something,” she replied, explaining that she did not charge them for giving them information, but only took what they wanted to give her. “If one can help, helps,” she insisted.

She admits that a Nicaraguan army officer, her friend, has collaborated with migrants very close to her—she remembers two who were like her children—to guide them across the mountainous area that divides Costa Rica from Nicaragua. And she insisted that her friend, the military man, told her that he could not take the migrants to the migration post because “migration had an order not to know anything about these people,” and that she then recommended that he take them personally to Nicaragua and ensure that nothing happened to “her children.”

“He told me, ‘We settle for a box of cigars, yes, they have to pay ... I’m not going to make a profit, but at least they give me something,” she said, adding that sometimes they gave $10 to the military. “Now it is more expensive for them,” López explains, referring to the $150 that, according to her and other border residents, the Nicaraguan government charges each person since 2018 for legally passing through its territory.

The Nicaraguan government did not answer to the inquiries that The Voice of Guanacaste made about this safe-conduct arrangement.

López insisted that the passports that the police found at her home belong to friends and family of Mohamed, and that they left them there because they were going to lose them on the way. According to her, the $11,000 in cash seized from her in the police operation in late July is from a vehicle she had recently sold.

She also shakes off her neighbours’ judgment that that she is linked to drug trafficking. They say that, she explains, because the house was built just when Mohamed came from Brazil. But, she said, she got it from her job selling clothes, shoes and food.

She is concerned that the shackle she has had on for nine months has tied her to her house and limits her ability to continue selling and earning a living for herself and her daughter with disabilities.

“They say that I was talking on the phone, because they had everything intercepted,” said López, almost at the end of the interview. “The moment they agreed to put this on me [the electronic anklet] it is because there is a question mark. There is not much hard evidence. There are no people who come to say that they gave me thousands of dollars,” she said.

Perhaps it is true that, as she said, the Mama Africa who lives in Costa Rica has not become a millionaire through migrant smuggling, and perhaps she has even done free favours for African migrants. The evidence that the prosecution collected, however, points to the fact that she took economic advantage of especially vulnerable people, who do not even speak the local language, and who have been paying dearly for the right of way throughout their trip.

It remains to be seen what justice decides, but even if she was to be condemned as a local link in an international chain of migrant smuggling, the fact still remains that if and when the authorities break criminal networks, the weaker pieces often are the ones that end up falling.

The Caravan is serialising “Migrants from Another World.” The other parts of the series appear here.

Migrants from Another World is a transnational and collaborative investigation from the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP in Spanish), Occrp, Animal Político (Mexico) and Mexican regional media such as Chiapas Paralelo and Voz Alterna from Red Periodistas de a Pie; Univision Noticias Digital (United States), Revista Factum (El Salvador); La Voz de Guanacaste (Costa Rica); Profissão Réporter from TV Globo (Brazil); La Prensa (Panama); Revista Semana (Colombia); El Universo (Ecuador); Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela); and Anfibia/Cosecha Roja (Argentina). Also, Confluence Media (India), Record Nepal (Nepal), The Museba Project (Cameroon) and Bellingcat (United Kingdom). This project received special support from Fundación Avina and Seattle International Foundation.