So there I was with a pickup load of Nicaraguans that I was hauling to the immigration office in Puerto Viejo near where my friends in the Comando Atlántico were quartered. In the bed of my truck were the five teenage boys who have taught me how to stay alive surrounded by poisonous snakes, and up front with me are their womenfolk. One is about 17 and is the mother of the baby girl Rosita, the other is the very pregnant 15-year-old. We are headed to La Migra so the immigration office can check their papers.
The boys were smokin’ and jokin’ in the back as usual, but up front, we hardly shared any words. There was tension in the cab of the truck and a kind of fear so real on the faces of the two ladies that it was almost heartbreaking. Their living conditions were so far below the poverty level that I would surely be jailed if they had been working for me in the States. I did what I could to make their lives less mean, including all the pineapple they could eat provided by my German friend, Jörg.
After about a 30 minute drive, we pulled up at the customs and immigration office, a wooden shack with a miserable and inefficient rotating fan aimed at the official behind his desk. There wasn’t enough room for all of us in the tiny sweatbox, so I went in alone while the Nicas looked for shade. Puerto Viejo was always sweltering for some reason, and that day was no different. The official asked for their passports and his dead eyes came to life when I told him they didn’t have passports. I was pretty sure that this was the answer that he and whoever put him up to this charade were hoping for. I wasn’t sure of all the repercussions for hiring illegal aliens in Costa Rica, but I was positive that I didn’t want to find out either.
So, not wanting to run afoul of the law or the authorities who seemed to be tightening the screws on my little operation, I had packed all my Nicas into my truck about a month prior and taken them to the Nicaraguan embassy in San Jose. It was their first trip into a big city and they were amazed by everything, in particular the sharply dressed men and women, the storefronts, and the number and variety of restaurants. They wanted to eat at McDonald’s, so we did. After taking passport photos, filling out the paperwork, and another trip or two to San Jose, the Nicaraguan ambassador to Costa Rica personally met us and presented salvoconductos (travel papers for those without passports) to each of my Nicas. She thanked me personally, saying how humbled and grateful she was to meet someone who was not trying to exploit her people. I even got my picture taken with her.
But, meanwhile, back on the ranch, the immigration officer didn’t look too happy when I told him that although they had no passports, they all had salvoconductos (on which the ink was not yet dry). After checking their papers, he told me that everything was in order but that I should go by the city hall to the social security office, and that they’d be waiting for me. All in all, round two went to the gringo!