By Tony Macias International Team – Mexico Witness for Peace
While in the Mexican state of Veracruz this week, Witness for Peace’ s Mexico-based
International Team visited a small shelter where we met Central American migrants with firsthand accounts of how perilous the migrant journey has become for those traveling north through Mexico.
“We ran from the Zetas, and now we don’t have the courage to try the train again.”
This is how Honduran migrant Emilio (not his real name) began talking with me, referring to the criminal organization that has long trafficked in drugs but in recent years has developed a specialty of kidnapping migrants to extort huge sums of money from their families. This organization operates from Central America all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, focusing on mass kidnappings along the route of la Bestia, the cargo train that many impoverished migrants ride once they arrive in Mexico.
In a 2009 report, Mexico’s National Human Rights Center (CNDH) estimated that criminal
organizations kidnapped nearly 10,000 migrants in a 6 month span, making over $25 million dollars in extortions. The state where nearly a third of these kidnappings took place is Veracruz. This February, the CNDH reported at least 11,333 migrants were kidnapped during a similar period in 2010.
Emilio was one of 6 migrants who narrowly avoided kidnapping in the nearby town of Medias Aguas. Located at the nexus of several train lines, Medias Aguas was also the site of a mass-kidnapping of at least 80 migrants just three weeks ago on June 24th. According to eyewitnesses, a dozen heavily-armed men in luxury SUVs drove right up to the train and yelled to the migrants clinging to the freight cars:
“Get off you sons of whores, get off fast and get in the trucks.”
Several women and children were among those taken. It took over a week for an armed convoy of officials to arrive on the scene, and no suspects have been brought in. And in a country where only 28% of federal criminal cases were brought to trial in 2010 and less than 2% result in convictions, there is little hope that the perpetrators will ever be caught.
The following day we made our way to Matias Romero, Oaxaca, which is located just a few hours south from the town we visited in Veracruz. Matias Romero sits on the train tracks where the Bestia rides, carrying an estimated 140,000 undocumented migrants each year. It’s also the home of Casa Ruchagalu, a migrant shelter that has provided safe haven for thousands of migrants since its founding just two years ago this month. One pair of migrants caught our attention: a young woman and her 2-year-old daughter had arrived in town just that day after riding the train from Chiapas. (How this small woman held on to the train and her daughter at the same time remains a mystery to me).
Almost as soon the young woman and her daughter arrived, we were told, another woman claiming to be from a government agency knocked on the shelter door and asked to interview the young mother. Because she could provide no identification or much of a plausible story as to why she should be allowed to meet the young migrants, the woman was turned away. Before she left, she told the attendant:
“Wow, they told me you were strict at this shelter.”
Modesta Noriega, the shelter guardian that sent the supposed psychologist away, said that they
have to be strict if they are to keep themselves and the migrants safe. She continued by saying that the woman hoping for an interview had all the hallmarks of someone involved in human smuggling or trafficking- she’d likely followed them from the nearby train tracks in hope of ensnaring them in a trap. We’d heard similar reports in Veracruz of women and men posing as migrant shelter workers and even as nuns to lure migrants in, later beating and robbing migrants once they have them locked away. Women are particularly vulnerable to attacks: Amnesty International reported in 2010 that an estimated 6 out of every 10 female migrants kidnapped suffer some form of sexual assault.
The 2010 CNDH Report makes the issue plain: “ poverty, unemployment, economic asymmetry between neighboring countries… the lack of expectations or access to basic services, and the purpose of family reunification” are the true causes of the vast humanitarian crisis we face in the form of migration. Hundreds of people work in 52 migrant shelters scattered across Mexico just like the two we visited this week. This work will continue as long as there is a need to house the most vulnerable men, women, and children in our hemisphere: migrants like Emilio and the young mother and her child. As I write this, I wonder where they are now, if they are still momentarily safe.
As U.S. citizens, we can help these people right now. Let’s start by demanding U.S.-led reforms in trade and immigration policy that create economic opportunities in countries of origin and guarantee safe legal passage for those heading north. This October, Witness for Peace is coordinating a national campaign linking the issues of trade and migration- stay tuned for more stories from the front lines of the migrant trail and for ways to take action this October!