Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Sad Exodus From Zapote Kum

Beautiful rural Nicaragua (photo by Jacinto Yoder)
The following dramatic account of a forced migration was written by my grandnephew Jacinto Yoder, who with his father (my nephew Pablo) and others moved from eastern Costa Rica to Waslala, Nicaragua in 1995 to establish churches there. Jacinto was then ordained to provide leadership for a new outreach in Zapote Kum, some distance from Waslala, six years ago. 

Shaking the Mud from our Feet
by Jacinto Yoder:

The home Jacinto and his family left behind (photo supplied)
A few years ago an armed group started up in Chilamate Kum and asked the locals for support, also sending several notes asking members of our church for money. Some of the folks from Chilamate town (we lived on the line between the Zapote Kum and the Chilamate Kum districts) were involved, and it seemed like an extreme-right guerrilla group was in the making, wanting to fight against our leftist president, who has been in office for three terms and wants another. 

After a few months, we found out that the leader of the guerrilla group needed money to fix up a farm in the back country, behind the large Bosawas Reserve and close to the Honduras border. But support for the band ended when they found out where the money was going, and our church members, of course, had chosen not to give money anyway.

Since then, we were getting hit by robbers off and on. They hit Marcelo and I the first time about three years ago. About a year later, they focused on Marcelo and, and were asking him for 30,000 córdobas (a little over a thousand dollars). He chose to go to Managua to visit my Dad, Pablo Yoder, who was in the hospital with GBS over the time of the ransom date.

Over time, we found out who the leaders of the band were,  and this was complicated by the fact that it happened to be that some of Marcelo’s wife’s family members were involved. Some of them confronted Marcelo in the daytime, asking for money, and at first he’d just give them what they asked for, trying to "do good to them that revile you". Over time, this grew, and they just wanted more and more. He finally pulled back and quit loaning them money. This created a general discontent within the neighboring town of Chilamate. Marcelo is a bold, outspoken person, and he often spoke the truth to the village. But through it all, anger toward him was growing.

When Marcelo was hit again six months ago, we figured it was the same band. But the band members were always changing, so we knew there were some new men involved. It happened that some really mean men from Wastarí started coming over the mountain to do their stealing. They worked together with the local band, and things kept going downhill. The Chilamate district, as well as the surrounding districts, have been wracked by robberies ever since. They formed an ever-growing network. Some attacked people on the road. Others held them up at their houses. A separate group was rustling cattle and horses. Eventually we heard that it seemed as if all merged into one big monster.

When Dad hugged the main robber a few months ago in a confrontation at Marcelo’s house, one of the guests took some pictures out the upstairs window. Those pictures confirmed what we thought we already knew. The head man was “Elder.”[1] One of the men who had come across the mountains from Wastarí. Four others of this band had been put in prison.)

Since our church members have family and friends all around, we have found out much of what was happening and who was doing it. It came to the point of being uncomfortable to know as much as we did. At first we were afraid of being questioned by the police, for fear of having to disclose information that would put us in danger. The band is quick to punish anyone that shows any kind of friendliness to the police.

Time went on, and we found out the small, local police force knew as much we did, but refrained from doing anything. They claimed there weren’t enough of them to confront the robbers. Three police against seven robbers didn’t seem to work very well. Especially if the robbers were at home in the woods and knew all the trails and ambush spots.

The police also complained that no one would press charges. However, recently a man did press charges against a smaller arm of the robber band, and the first thing the police asked of him was for some physical proof. We all know that was impossible in these situations. The robbers sent the man some death threats, and he had to quickly move out of the area.

Recently we’d been finding out more and more people were involved in this robber network. Apparently some of the cattle were being crossed into Honduras illegally, and lots of our neighbors had been involved in buying and selling what they know are stolen animals. This gave the robbers a good market. The contraband network has come to the point where even the large farmers of the area were pulled into the game. Once you’d sold one cow illegally, you could get in trouble. And once you were pulled into the game, they’d threaten the ones who wanted to back out. It was the “If you rat on me, I’ll rat on you” game. These cattle robbers also robbed from each other to settle former financial disputes.

As a church we’d had to take a strong stand against anything to do with stolen animals. Everyone knew our members wouldn’t touch one. But they were constantly seeing things happen all around them, and sometimes they even had to speak out the truth about something they’d seen. This caused the robbers to get angry, of course.

Since Marcelo left the area, we came to the conclusion that the cattle rustling network and the assault network were communicating and working together closely. And there were some weird things happening. Some suspects would report missing cattle and make a huge fuss about it, running after the rustlers and demanding their cattle back. But they never caught the robbers, or they conveniently got away just in time. We began to wonder if it wasn't all a plan. The robbers know that if they themselves were not being hit by robbers once in a while, everyone would start saying they were a part of the band.

When the robbers came to our place twice in two weeks, the last guy said something startling. The more I thought about it, the more significance it held. When I told him that we’re non-resistant and don’t use violence on the robbers, he told me they wouldn’t hurt us either. “After all,” he grinned through his mask, “it’s not good to kill the chicken that lays the golden egg.”

So me and “my” church would apparently be expected to lay a golden egg around every two weeks. There were many men living in the woods, and they needed support. We, of course, as non-resistant Christians would provide it.

All this time, we kept wondering what happened to the guerrilla group they constantly talked about, but was never seen in our area. They were supposedly killing robbers to the north, and the area there was reportedly free of robbers. We had concluded they all ran south to Chilamate. What was strange was, that these had a penchant for arms. Everyone who had arms in the area had to really watch their step, since this group was especially targeting their weapons, taking dozens of pistols and shotguns from the locals. We wondered where these arms were actually going, thinking it could be they were ending up with the guerrilla group. Strangely, they didn’t seem to feel it was their duty to stop the stealing in this specific area.

To complicate matters, there was an area of “no man’s land” that had been formed since the guerrillas were north of us. The police wouldn’t enter it after dark, and they’d let everyone know when they were entering and wouldn’t pick a fight with anyone. They knew they were greatly outnumbered. I still don’t know why the police from our district never asked for help from their superiors, but it seemed they are somehow benefiting from, or at least were scared of, this robber network.

The network was definitely involved in the marijuana trade also. The stolen horses and saddles travel north with the robbers’ loot. Once in Wina or Amakón they trade their stolen horses for others, load the marijuana, and travel south along this no-man’s-land corridor, supplying towns along the way. Everyone knows there are horse loads of marijuana moving south through Chilamate at night. And the final destination is through the back door into Waslala. And then from there who knows to where.

Our church members’ land was precisely at the edge of this no-man’s-land. The people from outside said we sympathized with the robbers. We opened our doors when they knocked, allowed them to take our things, and didn’t press charges. The robbers said we sympathized with the police. But for some reason, the robbers liked to camp out on the Mennonites’ tract of land.  

This whole situation had been going downhill fast during the last six months. We’d kept praying, thinking any moment the tide would turn, the government with step in, or something else would happen to make life easier. But the government wasn’t interested in picking a fight with guerrillas north of us. They were purposely ignoring them, since the ruling party in Nicaragua is not well represented in our area, and they don’t seem to care much. Elections are coming next year, and if any kind of war breaks out, it would hurt their image. Everyone expects this to get hotter next year if our president is again reelected.

But what really made us think last week was when the guerrillas made their appearance in Chilamate, a day after the robbers hit Reynaldo Lagos’ place.

The robbers had four shotguns. The guerrillas had four shot guns and a few AK-47s.

There were five robbers that hit Reynaldo’s house. One night later twelve guerrillas hit his house, looting everything and “looking for guns”. In Chilamate, they ransacked some houses and helped themselves to whatever they wanted.

The robbers were mean. The guerrillas were mean.

The robbers asked for 300,000 córdobas as a ransom. The guerrillas knew all about it less than 24 hours later, and blamed none other but Reynaldo himself for not getting the police involved!

Things just looked strangely alike. And though perhaps not the same men, it was looking like they were all working together. And though the guerrillas claimed they were after robbers, to clean up the area, they only managed to find one robber in the whole village! Then they turned him loose easily when a few folks showed up and spoke for him. Something was really strange. And the massive network will probably only grow, at least till next year’s elections.

So on Sunday we decided it was time to just move out, clearly stating we were not with either side. 

We’ve preached many a messages, with words and without. We’ve visited many souls in the valley. Most rejected the Gospel, as did the robbers that came to our door. And as I walked out of Zapote, I literally did what Jesus recommended: “shake off the [mud] of your feet.”

As we came up the main hill out of the valley that morning, Missael, his wife Esmilse, Kendra and I had lagged behind the long train of horses, talking about the sudden turn of events. Our minds were in a whirl, trying to grasp the fact that we were leaving our houses and land and wondering what God was doing.

Missael’s voice was sad now. “Jacinto, do you remember a few months ago when we were able to preach the Word [through two church services] right in the darkest pit on the outskirts of Chilamate [the saloon that is center stage for the robbers]?”

 “Of course I do!” I answered with tears in my eyes. “They rejected us. I mean, they rejected Jesus.”

“Almost everybody in this valley has rejected God,” Missael injected adamantly. “Maybe there are a few Christians that are trying to serve the Lord, but they are not many at all.”

“Right,” I echoed sadly. “Way too many are participating in this network of robbers. Think of it, Missael, how many honest people live in this valley? There are only a few.”

At that moment I felt an urge. I reined in my mule, turned in my saddle, stretched out my arm, looked out over that gorgeous green valley, and cried: “Oh Zapote! Zapote! How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!”

Then we turned again and continued our trek along the muddy trail toward Waslala and a new life.

[1] We nicknamed him this before we knew his real name.

Recently built church at Kapote Kum, now abandoned (photo supplied)

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