Originally published in Americas Program.
The caravan of drug war victims led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, on Sept. 14, where they asked for forgiveness from the migrants who risk their lives to cross Mexico to reach the United States.
Simultaneous marches from the Mexican and Guatemalan sides of the border met on the international bridge that connects the two countries. The Guatemalan marchers greeted Sicilia and the marchers from Mexico with cries of “Long Live Mexico! Long Live Guatemala!”
Standing on the imaginary line that divides the two countries, Sicilia said, “We came to ask our Central American brothers and sisters to forgive us for having not spoken up before, for not having the consciousness and the strength necessary to prevent the kidnapping and murder that has affected thousands of migrants and Mexican citizens and has torn apart their families.”
When the Caravan for Peace set out from Mexico City on Sept. 9, some thirty Central American migrants accompanied it south towards the border. Just before dawn on Sept. 14, about ten more migrants from a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, joined the trek south. In Ciudad Hidalgo, the migrants told of how both organized crime and Mexican authorities abuse them as they cross the country precariously perched on the top of cargo trains.
One young Salvadoran migrant said organized crime members kidnapped him last December in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. The kidnappers called his family in El Salvador to demand ransom money. His family couldn’t come up with the money, so, on Christmas Eve, the kidnappers called his family so that they could hear him being tortured.
The kidnappers beat him has he held the phone in his hands; they told him that they would kill him if he didn’t cry and beg his family for the money. He refused to cry, so they beat him harder. The young man was also forced to witness the torture of other migrants who were being held in the same house. He saw them cut off a 14-year-old’s finger as the boy’s father listened on the telephone, and he was present when the kidnappers raped a woman in front of the rest of the kidnapped migrants.
“I saw with my own eyes that the police came to the place where we were [being held hostage],” he said. “The police are the most corrupt ones here.” Four migrants managed to escape and went for help, which is how the young Salvadoran lived to tell his story even though his family couldn’t pay his ransom.
“[Mexican] authorities have robbed me; they’ve beaten me in my travels,” recalled a middle-aged Salvadoran migrant. “Four months ago, I was violently robbed by [Chiapas] State Police as I crossed the border right here.” His misfortune didn’t end there. “My wife was kidnapped in Mexico State. She’s still kidnapped, and because we’re migrants in this country, the authorities don’t want to listen to us. It’s really difficult to get the authorities to listen to us when we want to report a crime.”
Honduran migrant Daniela Melendez, mother of five, recounted how her coyote, the man she paid to help her cross Mexico and enter the United States, tried to rape her as she traveled through Chiapas. In an attempt to pressure her to have sex with him, he told her, “Here, I’m just one man. But I work with the Zetas, and if I turn you over to them, it’ll be fifteen or twenty men raping you.” Melendez managed to reach the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, run by Father Alejandro Solalinde. “Father Solalinde’s team in the shelter rescued me,” she recounts.
Melendez was spared, but too many undocumented migrant women aren’t. Drug trafficking organizations—particularly the Zetas—have branched out into the sex trafficking industry. The problem is becoming so severe that Fermina Rodriguez of the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center said, “When you talk to women, they consider rape to be part of the price they pay to migrate.” Germán Guillermo Ramírez Garduaza of the “Santa Faustina Kowalska” migrant shelter in Veracruz estimates that 80% of female Central American migrants are rapedas they transit Mexico.
As Mexicos’ drug war rages and more and more migrants fall victim to the cartels that have taken over the migrant routes, many Central Americans are still willing to risk traveling through Mexico to reach the United States because they feel as though they have no other choice.
Unemployment or underemployment are the reasons most Central American migrants give for why they decided to travel to the United States. Two young Guatemalans staying in Father Solalinde’s shelter in Ixtepec, for example, are from sharecropper families who don’t make enough money to survive. Even though they finished high school, the boys haven’t been able to find work. So the boys, who are neighbors, made their first attempt to reach the United States. They want to make enough money to help their families get ahead, and then they plan to return to Guatemala.
Twenty-one-year-old Francisco Rivera* first migrated to the United States from his native Honduras when he was twelve years old. A gang was threatening to harm his family if he didn’t join, and his older brother’s job sewing American Eagle clothing in Honduras’ “free trade zone” wasn’t enough to pay his family’s bills. After several attempts, he managed to reach the United States, but was deported back to Honduras.
In 2008, his father, the leader of an organization that helped landless peasants occupy government land to obtain deeds, was assassinated. Rivera’s family believes a mayor who lost land to his father’s organization ordered the execution. Days after the Honduran coup occurred in 2009, Rivera was nearly shot as a coup supporter opened fire on his neighborhood. As more and more bodies were dumped in his neighborhood in the weeks following the coup, Rivera’s mother told him, “I’d rather you be far away than dead,” so Rivera migrated again. This time, he sought political asylum in the United States. After spending a year in jail in general population as he fought for asylum, his petition was denied and he was deported. Rivera is now on his way back to the United States.
In crafting its immigration policy, the Mexican government is taking a cue from the United States. Whereas migrants cross Guatemala fairly easily and inexpensively by bus, Mexico’s strict immigration enforcement means migrants must take extra precautions. “You can cross Guatemala in a bus, and if the authorities catch you they might make you pay a bribe of 100 quetzales (about $12 dollars),” says Rivera. “In Mexico they have so many immigration checkpoints along the highways. And if they catch you at one checkpoint, they’ll make you pay a $500 peso ($38 dollar) bribe, but then they’ll radio ahead to the next checkpoint to advise them that you’re coming so that they make you pay the bribe at that checkpoint, too. When you get to the last checkpoint they’ll detain and deport you even though you already paid all those bribes.”
Mexico’s immigration checkpoints mean that many migrants prefer to brave the elements while perched on top of cargo trains. Some fall off and are maimed or killed by the train, and others are pushed off by organized crime members looking to extort money from the migrants. Still, every day thousands of migrants ride Mexico’s rails.
Rivera calls Mexico’s immigration policies hypocritical: “Mexico demands respect from the United States for Mexican citizens, but they treat us so terribly, and they accept money from the United States through the Merida Initiative.” The Merida Initiative, an aid package designed to support Mexico’s war on drugs, provides funds to expand immigration databases and monitoring, and equip and train border personnel. It includes support to implement biometric tracking of immigrants and build up security measures on both Mexican borders.
But some studies show that U.S. and Mexico’s tough immigration policies are actually driving migrants into the hands of organized crime. According to a 2003 brief by the American Immigration Law Foundation:
“A July 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that there is no ‘statistically significant relationship between the build-up and the probability of migration. Economic opportunities in the United States and Mexico have a stronger effect on migration than does the number of agents at the border.’ The study found that ‘the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has increased’ since the strategy was first implemented, due in part to the fact that ‘migrants who successfully cross the border stay longer in the United States than they did in the past.’ The study also notes that the more dangerous border crossings have led to the ‘increased use of hired guides, or coyotes,’ which ‘may have expanded the very profitable human smuggling industry.’”
Increasingly dangerous conditions for migrants in Mexico have led them to support the nascent Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which seeks to end violence and impunity in Mexico. While the migrants aren’t the only drug-war victims in the Movement, they are the only ones who have consistently been attacked while participating in Movement-related caravans.
When Sicilia called for a four-day march from Cuernavaca, Morelos, to Mexico City this past May, Central American migrants organized a trek from southern Mexico to meet the march in Mexico City. The plan was to walk along the railroad tracks that lead to Mexico City. The migrants never made it to the march in Mexico City because on May 6 in the state of Veracruz, gunmen attempted to kidnap women from the group. The presence of media that was covering the migrants’ march apparently scared away the gunmen, but they told the terrified migrants that they would return. The migrants called Mexican authorities for help, but for hours no law enforcement agency showed up to protect them. The migrants were left stranded by the tracks for the rest of the day, terrified that their attackers would return.
In June, migrants organized a second protest, this time a five-day caravan that would travel on top of the trains from Ixtepec, Oaxaca, to Veracruz. On June 24, gunmen armed with assault rifles stopped the train and kidnapped 40 to 60 of the 250 migrants who were onboard. Those migrants are still missing.
Migrants organized yet another caravan, the “Step by Step Toward Peace” Caravan from July 25-August 2, to protest violence against migrants. This time, they travelled with family members of Central American migrants who went missing in Mexico. After the second caravan, one of the participants, 19-year-old Guatemalan migrant Julio Fernando Cardona was detained by municipal police in Tultitlán, Mexico State, according to witnesses. Later that day, Cardona’s body was found dumped along the railroad tracks in Tultitlán. He had been stoned to death. Cardona’s participation in the second caravan led to an unusually high amount of media attention to his case. Under pressure, the government investigated the police that witnesses identified, and it found blood in the bed of the officers’ pickup truck, according to a source close to the case.
The brazen violence against migrants participating in the protest caravans has underlined the need for Mexico to make immediate changes to how it treats immigrants. Migrants and human rights defenders demand that Mexican authorities investigate crimes against migrants and punish the perpetrators. Migrants are also demanding that Mexico allow them to legally pass through the country on their way to the United States by cancelling the requirement that Central Americans hold visas in Mexico. North American and European travellers, for example, are automatically given tourist cards when they arrive at any Mexican port-of-entry, making the visa application process unnecessary for them. The migrants say that if they were permitted to legally travel through Mexico, they would stop using the dangerous trains and would start using buses to cross the country.
The migrants on the peace caravan say that despite their fear that their participation in the protests will make them targets, the caravans are working. They note that due to pressure from the caravans, the Mexican government has awarded 300 visas to migrants so that they can safely travel through Mexico. Moreover, two Central American mothers who participated in the “Step by Step Toward Peace” Caravan found their missing sons alive and well in Mexico, thanks to the caravan. Also, the police officers who allegedly killed Julio Fernando Cardona have been arrested, although it remains to be seen if they will do time for the brutal murder.
Many Central American migrants say they are glad to march side-by-side with Mexicans against the drug war, because migrants have to endure the same violence that terrorizes Mexicans on a daily basis.
“We’re here to support Mexico,” says Angie, a 21-year-old migrant who participated in the second caravan and is on the Caravan for Peace with Sicilia now. “There are a lot of people from other countries who migrate through Mexico every day, and we know about the kidnappings and the extortion all too well.”
* This name has been changed.