WHERE ARE OUR MISSING MIGRANTS?
Their faces reflected the sadness accumulated over years, the unending search, the uncertainty, the eternal mourning: a mourning that will only end once they know whether their missing relatives are dead or alive.
The mothers of the missing migrants caravan came to Mexico hoping to find their relatives, or at least to find some clue that will help them to believe that their family members are alive somewhere, so they can continue with their own lives.
Six of the mothers had the good fortune to find their relatives; for the rest, uncertainty remains.
Eventually, it became clear that this caravan was making the mothers’ person struggle into a political struggle and so they started to demand, not to ask, but to demand that the mexican government acknowledge them and take action.
The mothers blamed the Mexican government for the disappearance of their relatives, for having no political commitment to prevent the continued disappearance of migrants in transit through Mexico, for the lack of a DNA database with the genetic information of the more than the 25,000 unidentified bodies.
They exposed the lack of collaboration between the various States of the Republic and the Central American countries. And demanded a Mexican office specializing in crimes against migrants and to punish corrupt officials that extortion migrants in their transit through Mexico.
These mothers have become a symbol of empowerment and strength for all of us, but mostly for themselves. And this force will not abandon them, whether their relatives are find or not, that is the great achievement of this caravan.
TAKE THE BEAST II
After migrants and activists arrived to the migrant shelter of Lechería, in the surrounding of Mexico City, a march began highlighting the importance of respecting migrant’s rights and stopping at different key areas in the community where crimes against migrants have been committed. The march ended up with a Mayor’s meeting in the Town Hall, where little or nothing was achieved. The organizers finally asked the Mayor to support the event by feeding the migrants, the mayor also refused.
There is a total lack of interest by his government to solve the conflicts and to respect the rights of migrants in in his community.
Finally, people moved towards the railroad tracks, where they wait for the whole day for the next train to arrive.
Spending the whole day sitting around and waiting for the journey ahead, trying to eat and rest by lying down on the pebbles.
I show a group of women chatting and I approach them, I realized that one of them was pregnant, six months apparently, although it was hard to see her belly as she was using a think coat, even thought was hot, as to disguise her pregnancy.
She travel with her partner and just had left in Honduras in the care of her ex-mother in law a 3 years child. That was the hardest part, she said, every time I see a toddler the same age as mine I have to swallow my tears, so I try no to think about it too much. But I know is the best for him, that way I can earn money to send him over, so he can have the opportunities that I didn’t have when I was growing up. This is her motivation. I asked her if she wasn’t afraid, doing such a hard journey being quit pregnant and she said, No, I am not afraid. You cannot travel in fear, as bud things will happen to you, I have not fear that is why nothing will happen to me. Quiet a lesson…
Every time a train pass by you can see the expectations on the eyes of the migrants, but they did not stop, eventually at 12 pm the finally stoop and we climb smoothly on top of it.
At first there was a sense of excitement, which quickly disappeared and became an uneasy feeling, as rumors start to spread that an activist was being treated and people might try to board the train in order to attack him. But after a while, and seeing that the train was traveling fast, we all calmed down and decided to get some sleep.
It was difficult thought, considering the cold wind and the uncertainty. Especially when the train passed through certain areas, such as “La Cementera” where is well documented that the organized crime kidnaps people in the area.
Each time the train slowed down, or stopped to change tracks, you could see the migrants heads raising up, and torches pointing to the surroundings, since these are the moments, as migrants have described in many occasions, where strangers can board the train in order to rob, attacked, kidnapped or sometimes kill the migrants. But once they train start moving aging everyone went back to sleep, or rather doze. Finally, dawn woke us all up, there was a sense of relief and the worst was past seemed already over. There was a good atmosphere, everyone was in high spirit, the train arrived at Queretaro, where half of the migrants left to take the route North East to Tamaulipas, we stay in the train and few more hours and we would be arriving to Irapuato, our final destination.
At about 20 minutes after the train left Querétaro the a federal police patrol speed up towards the train, with a tremendous display of lights and sirens, making believe that they were the ones stopping the train, (then we realized that the train stoop to change via) About eight of them with their faces cover up, approach us showing their rifles, and began to order the migrants to get off the train, and move towards the front carriages, giving orders and shouting around to all of us, they were very upset.
We tried to talk to them, explaining that we were carrying out an action to visualized the abductions and violations of human rights that migrants encounter in this journey, but were not interested, they kept on shouting, demanding a spokesman to address them, and threating the migrants with calling immigration officers if they didn’t leave the train and show them their documents immediately. It was a very tense moment and seeing how they behave, we do not have any doubts, that migrants are being target and extorted in that area by officials…
Finally, after half an hour of trying to negotiate with them and thanks to the support of all the people who were participating in the event from the ground, as the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement http://www.movimientomigrantemesoamericano.org/ on their page you can see all the detailed report of the event, got to let us continue and reach our destination without further delay.
TAKE THE BEAST
An action organized by activists and different organizations defending migrant’s rights, was organized after 49 bodies appeared less than two weeks ago in Nuevo León, northern Mexico. 49 bodies wrapped in trash bags, headless, handless and footless, so they could not be identified. Originally rumors swirled that could be the bodies of migrants, or they might be victims of this senseless war that has engulfed the country. It doesn’t really matter, what matters is that these people lost their lives in a terrible way and that somehow this event and the participation of the army as a protagonist in the extortion of migrants and militarization the country, the constant violation of human rights of migrants and extortion by various citizens, organized crime and the three levels of power, were the driving force for this action to be carried out, in order to visualize the terrible journey facing Central American migrants passing through Mexico.
The action began on May 16 in Apizaco, Tlaxcala, where we arrived at 10 am, the guards of the trains would not let us pass, but after some pressure, we managed to enter the station and board the train that would take us to Mexico City. The engineer and those responsible for the safety of the station decided to release the cars where we were and thus boycott the action.
We waited all day and at about 11pm a train pass pretty quickly, but didn’t board it, 10 minutes later a guard told us that a migrants who attempt to approach had an accident and unfortunately lost his foot.
This led to chaos and general shock between migrants and the participants of this action, it was facing the reality of this trip …. is part of the daily tragedy that migrants face, because they do not have a transit visa, to travel freely within Mexican territory. A visa that the Mexican government should give them and is not doing it tin order o avoid conflicts with the U.S.
Migrants and activists finally boarded the train at 4 am and arrived at Lechería, in the State of Mexico at 8:30 a.m. where migrants from the hostel, different organizations, human rights defenders and media were waiting for them.
THE MIGRANT’S BUS
During the night, we arrived to San Pedro Sula bus station in Honduras, with the intention of taking the bus of the migrant, asthe locals call this bus because is always full of migrants heading north.
No tickets for the 2.00 am bus, so we have to take the 11.00 pm, the problem is that this bus arrives at 4.00 am to the border which is not ideal… To enter the bus we are asked to make two different rows, one for “females” and one for “males” I realize that we are just three women on the bus and the other two get off before reaching the border.
This route is notorious for assaults, and that’s what we think is going to happen when five muscular guys board the bus at 3.30 am. They wake up everyone with their husky voice, asking us to show them our ID and saying that they are here to “help the race”
Then one of them looks at me and says “what do you need beautiful” his cap almost touches my forehead and I can feel his stinky breath on my face, look him firmly at him and say “nothing from you, thank you”, he smiles and leave and I can feel my stomach going back to it’s original place.
We finally reach the border and cross over without easily into Guatemala.
But not everyone had the same luck and when we meet the migrants in Esquipulas, we realised that almost everyone has been robbed by the guys that bordered the bus.
“They requested 300 Quetzales from each one, but we do not carry that among even between the three of us,” says a boy with an innocent face. Now we no longer have money to take the next bus.
But the bus driver takes pity on them and let them go without completing the fare and we are on the road again.
Another 10 hours traveling in another bus full of migrants. When we arrive to Sta. Elena they end up sleeping at the bus station, as they cannot afford a hotel.
We come back at 4 am, there is a group of a 15 of them, waiting to take the first bus that will take them to the Mexican border. And from there, they will have to take a raft for 6 hours before they get to Mexico, where thy walk for a day until they arrive in Tenosique where you can relax at “72” a migrant shelter run by Fray Tomas, a great defender of migrant’s rights and Ruben Figueroa, a human rights defender and my companion in this odyssey.
ANA, A PRODUCT OF MIGRATION
Ana is one of many Honduran migrants who left their country in search of a better future for herself and her family. She leaft behind a 3 year old son, a sister and her grandmother, who made the role of her mother. As Ana’s mother also emigrated in search of better opportunities when she was a kid.
Ana left without saying goodbye; she feared that her grandmother wouldn’t agree with her departure, as she had already experienced the disappearance of her own daughter, who after many years of searching appeared in Ciudad Juarez.
But Ana’s mother never returned to Honduras, never made it to the U.S. also, never raised enough money to support her two daughters. Ana’s grandmother had to make an incredible effort as an elder women to raise these kids. Now she also has the responsibility of raising her great grandson, but this time it will be even harder, as she cannot longer work, due to a thrombosis that requires complete rest and Ana’s sister is only 15 years old.
Ana is aware of all of this, she is the product of other people’s migration, but she also knows that in Honduras she has no chance whatsoever, and she is young and has big dreams, just like one day her mother did.
On her journey trough Mexico she was attacked by a group of men that stripped her out of her clothes and touch her, they also robbed her and her companions.
Now she is waiting for a humanitarian visa, this will give her a legal passage trough Mexico and thus avoid being exposed to such a terrible and risky journey.
MOTHER’S CARAVAN OF MISSING MIGRANTS
Recently I found myself in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, with the Caravan of Mothers of Missing Migrants, composed mainly of Central American women, looking for their disappeared sons and daughters.
Some have not heard from them for over 20 years, in other cases, they have disappeared recently, but the common denominator is that they all disappeared in Mexico, while migrating North, looking for the American dream.
This caravan is covered with tears, tears of women who don’t conform not to know what have happened to their sons and daughters, tears that slide down their faces as they travel the same path made by migrants, because they know that somewhere along this route their migrants disappeared.
The mother’s caravan walked between the train tracks, visited bars where women are sexually exploited, went to the ranch in Tamaulipas where 72 migrants were brutally killed more than a year ago and there, they found that many of their belongings were still scattered on the ground. They collect them and gave them to the appropriate authorities, which claimed that all evidence was properly collected at the time and that those things were probably from new migrants passing by. Strange that a migrant would like to walk out of their way in order to sleep in a place that represents death!
The caravan also visited Iztepec Cemetery, where there is a mass grave to bury unidentified migrants “look, they don’t even have a paltry cross” on the mother’s said, let along a DNA database so families could easily search on it, while looking for their missing relatives…
But this caravan is also a caravan of hope; especially when we visit Tapachula’s jail and an officer recognize the photo of the son of one of the mothers.
Apparently, he was admitted to this prison for several years and was recently transferred to another centre, where after 8 years this mother finally gets reunited with her son.
They were posing as if I was taken their wedding portrait, they could not hide their love, not even surrounded by their improvised guests, which decided to hide their faces to avoid interfering in such a beautiful image.
They were expecting their first child and hoping to make it in time to the U.S, so they could provide a better future to their kid, than back in Honduras, their native land.
For their honeymoon they have chosen a journey of over 5000km. Travelling on top of cargo trains, with panoramic views, they are crossing Mexico.
Cautious but unafraid they have travelled for miles, as if there were not dangers on the way, otherwise, if you stop to think about it, you will never dare to do the journey, they explain me.
Once you get to Lecheria, in Mexico City, you have already made it through the most dangerous stretches of the journey, the Southern Border.
They want to go all the way to Texas, for that, they will have to cross the centre of the Republic and the northern state of Tamaulipas, one of the hardest hit by violence in Mexico, where over a year ago, they found the bodies of 72 migrants. Once they have reached the Northern Border, they will have to swimmg to the other side of the Rio Bravo, to finally conquer the U.S.
Goodbye princess, I wish you well. The other migrants laugh as they hear me saying goodbye. But if princesses existed, she would be one; she radiated light, she was an incredibly strong person, self-assured and unafraid, with her son in her belly and her husband on her side.
Margarita has been working with migrants and deported people for over ten years; she explains how a deportee can fall into a circle of poverty within 10 days of being deported. “You can see the rapid deterioration in their faces”
When a person is deported, after taking several years living in the U.S, and with his family on the other side, this person is in shock. Unwilling to return to their place of origin, since they no longer feel they belong to that place and in need to be near his own, although there is a impenetrable wall separating them from it, they get stacked in Tijuana.
Without money, with depression and in a total state of loneliness, these people are highly vulnerable and many people end up looking for a refuge in drugs. Easily available in Tijuana, since it is the last border to cross before the drug enters to their destination place, USA.
The director of the New Hope treatment centre tells how the number of women using drugs is increasing rapidly. In the majority of cases is a personal decision. However, vulnerable women can be easily forced into it. Women are used either by another addict or the organized crime.
In Tijuana there are over 100 rehabilitation centres, of which 46 are attached to the official standard, are members of the Conadit (National Council of addiction) the rest is in process of certification. But there are a number of clandestine centres that are not operating legally, and treatment and facilities for addicts are very questionable, as their main goal is profit.
THE WOMEN’S SHELTER
The women’s shelter is a safe place, where women can rest for few days, before they continue their journey. The mayority of the shelters are full of people going north, but in the Northern border, I found shelters full of people that have been deported from the US, sometimes, after spending most of their lives there. In many ocasions, they have most of their families in the US, or they have never been to Mexico, they are foreigners in their own country. And sometimes I encounter women that they have been forced to be apart from their kids, because their kids have been born in the US but the parents are ilegal in the country.
The US government separates parent from kids on a daily basis and if they don’t have a family member or friend to take care of their kids, children get institutionalised and the parents will never see them again.
I found the separation of parents from kids one of the most terrible crimes a government can do in the name of justice.
Who is doing the real crime here? What will the consequences be, in the middle and long termfor the US goverment and for those broken families? Those kids are US citizens, how could they ever understand and respect a society that keeps quiet, when a government uses policies that are against thier human rights.
Many desperate parents will risk everything to cross into the US, to be reunited with their kids.
On Friday, I found a man trying to jump the wall that separate’s him from his kids. I stopped to chat with him and he told me, “I have tried 5 times and I will try another 5 if necessary, my kids are on the other side of this wall.”
Or a women in the shelter, saying, “their is not wall big enough, that will separate me from my kids, I have to cross it, I have not option.”
LOOKING FOR A “POLLERO”
I was told that if I wanted to find a “pollero” (a person that crosses people illegally into the US) I needed to go to a particular Hotel in the dodgy side of town, where migrants rest before they travel. When I went there and I asked around, people told me that real polleros were long gone, they used to take care of the people and had a good reputation.
I continued my search and I found a “talonero” (the middle man), he agreed to put me in contact with a pollero, and explained the different forms of crossing to the US. I could choose if I wanted to be hidden in a special compartment in a car, or with papers in the passenger’s seat or walking; this is dependent on how much I am willing to pay.
I also found someone who agreed to cross me for a fixed price. All I had to do was to pretend to be somebody else and show some fake papers that they would provide me with, at the border. It was that easy, I didn’t even have to pay until I was on the other side.
Finally I found an interesting woman, someone who used to work, as a “Westerera” A Westerera pretends to be a Pollero and robs the families of the migrants waiting for them in the US.
Everything is done in a matter of minutes, and all she needs is a phone number, the rest will be given in good faith by the person being robbed. The money will be sent over by Western Union that is why it is called ‘money,’ in minutes, she laughs…
THE END OF A DREAM
“El bordo” (as locals in Tijuana called the dry, canalised river) right in front of the US border, is a place where migrants, deported people and drug users hang around and sleep in improvised cardboard houses.
Tijuana was once famous as an easy place for migrants to cross into the US. Over the years what used to be a fence separating the two countries, became a massive militarised wall. Since then, crossing the border in Tijuana has become increasingly complicated. More and more people end up stacked in the city, without money to return to their place of origin, without job opportunities, or a place to sleep therefore rapidly falling into a circle of poverty and drugs.
El bordo represents for many people a broken dream, the end of a journey, the end of the American dream. For others it is a social problem, the epicentre of drugs and criminal activity a lawless part of the city, an uncomfortable community resisting to disappear.
SHACKLES FROM THE KIDNAPPERS
This morning I woke up to a friend’s phone call, telling me that she was at the hospital with a migrant woman, who had just managed to escape from her kidnappers.
She was holding a toddler, her face was totally swollen, she could hardly open one eye and was covered in blood. She was in a terrible state. But what struck me the most was that she was still wearing the plastic shackles used to restrain her by the kidnappers.
Somehow, the two pieces of black plastic attached to her ankle, forced me to face the harsh reality of the suffering people and what they endure when travelling illegally to the States and what those shackles really represent.
Shackles attached to poor people that risk the unimaginable in search of a better life. The shackles that the so-called “first world” put on the people of poorer countries. Shackles of colonisation that is still so visible today, because they are still colonising in many different ways. Shackles of bureaucracy and negligence from the authorities dealing with cases like her. Shackles that stop us from looking at the reality, because we don’t want to see it. Because these shackles represent yet another horror story on the Mexican northern border, but really it could be one of many borders.
ON HER WAY TO CALIFORNIA
I was on my way to the “Reggae on the River” festival in California, when I met Olisea, a migrant girl from Honduras. She asked if I could help her to change buses in Los Angeles, as she didn’t know how to do it and she couldn’t speak any English. I told her I was going on the same direction and that we could travel together.
On the way she told me her story. She had been traveling for nearly a month. She had paid $6000 to a “Coyote” to take her to the States. She had traveled in different vans all the way from Honduras to the Mexican border, where after waiting for few days, she was smuggled with 60 other people in the back of a track.
“It was so hot, and dark, we traveled for almost a day without stopping, all the way to Mexico City. There, we where moved from van to van until we made it into northern Mexico, it took almost two weeks. Then there was another long wait to find another “Coyote” in Altar, Sonora. Finally we spent 10 days crossing the desert. We walked for two days without stopping, the coyotes where nice, always taking care of the ladies. We were so lucky, other coyotes hate women, we where told, but they where nice and they keep on joking with us. Once we got to Phoenix the Coyotes took us to a security house, waiting for our families to pay the rest of the money and come to pick us up, the border patrol came into the house and detained all of us. I couldn’t believe it. After 10 days crossing the desert they found us once we were safe. I wanted to cry. Then in the detention centre they asked for $7000 bail and my sister paid for it. Only god knows why. But now I am here and I am going to work so hard to pay all that money back. I am so happy”.
I was glad to hear her story, it was hard but it worked out in the end for her. Wish her the best.
BUY ME A MARUCHAN
Could you buy me a Maruchan please? I’m hungry. The smily woman told me as soon as I got close to her.
So I went to Oxxo store and looked at the instant soup’s section, to my surprised there were so many brands and flavours, prawn, beef,chicken, vegetable…. an infinite sea of bright boxes of cheap noodles, with flavoured dust.
I found the boiling water and before I had the chance to open it up, I heard a penetrating screaming voice, almost in panic – You have to pay for the soup before you pour the water!
I never had to pay for a coffee before having it served at an Oxxo, but rules are rules and I didn’t dare questioning the woman with the dirty look.
Once I paid, I realised that I was being charged extra for boiling water and the plastic spoon. So this time I decided to breath deeply and said, -why the extras? I never have to pay for them when I buy coffee? Of course, I got not answer. They are workers following Oxxo rules.
Only then, I realised that this is the favourite Oxxo for migrants as its close to the rail tracks and is a good place to gather and kill few hours, waiting for the next train to pass on its way north.
-You think better on a full stomach, you know? Camila said, and we started chatting.
A BLACK BOTTLE OF WATER
I have never seen before a black bottle of water, in fact I can’t think of any company that would produce them, as we normally associate black bottles with bleach or another non drinkable liquid.
However, these can be found all over the migrant trails in the Arizona desert. When I looked closely I found they were produced in Altar, Mexico. A dusty sleepy town were nothing seems to be happening, near the US border.
If you go to Altar, be careful, It’s a dangerous area, I was told by everyone I asked. The general explanation was that everything comes illegally in and out of the border, drugs, arms and of course humans…and everything is controlled by different traffickers.
Altar is also the place where migrants come to get a “Coyote” to guide them through the desert, into the US.
Most businesses in town are one way or another related to the crossing of the desert. Camouflage bags, blankets, trainers, garlic to keep the snakes away, energy drinks, even blessed contraception pills.
Its well documented that women are often raped on the journey so the local priest has taken a different approach to the general view of the Catholic church, that is against contraception, and decided to bless the pills. This way catholic women can take them before they start their journey.
And of course, I also found black bottles of water.
TRACKS FROM THE TRAIL
The U.S border patrol agents use different methods to apprehend the so called “illegal immigrants,” from Seismic sensors buried into the sand, computerized fingerprinting and photography to keep track of individuals, to more traditional methods such us, looking for footprints and tracks.
Border patrol also drag heavy wheels attached to their cars, to clear the dusty roads, so if someone walks on the road, they can get fresh tracks. This method is use along the separation wall among other paths, forcing migrants to walk on their knees, or sometimes barefoot, to avoid leaving any tracks.
The increased militarisation of the border, the methods they use and the higher number of agents being sent to the U.S/Mexico border, means that migrants are going into more isolated areas in the desert, looking for new places to enter and therefore, take much higher risks in order to cross.
However, not mass deportations and criminalisation of poverty, not the militarisation of the border will ever reduce effectively the number of migrants crossing illegally, it will only increase the number of or deaths in the desert.
GREYHOUND BUS STATION
From Monday to Friday, migrants are released from ICE detention center and left in the car park of Greyhound Bus Company in Tucson, Arizona. Most of them are fighting asylum cases, or other migration processes. These people are left in the middle of the night, with their belongings on the floor, without any money or support from the government, at the bus station.
Some have money to go back to their friends and families, or they have arranged to have money sent over to them, through Western Union, so they can buy a bus ticket to go home. However, others don’t have any resources or families to help them, and they have not idea what are they going to do, or where are they going to spent the night. Sometimes, there is not ticket at the bus station, or there has been a problem sending the money over and complications began.
Some of these men and women have fled their countries running from wars, or are victims of violence, torture, political persecution, or have spent days walking trough the desert to get to the US and are in a very vulnerable stage.
There are a couple of non-government organisations, like The Restoration Project at Casa Mariposa, that send volunteers to the bus station every night to help people getting a bus ticket or finding a place to sleep for few days if necessary, until they find a mow permanent place to stay.
However, this is only a small gleams of the journey they have gone trough to get to the USA.