Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees

MIGRATION-MEXICO: A Cemetery without Tombstones or Epitaphs

Danilo Valladares*

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 6 2010 (IPS) - With a backpack full of dreams, Gelder Lizardo Boche, a 17-year-old from Guatemala, set out for the United States on Aug. 9 from his hometown of San Antonio La Paz, with two brothers-in-law.

The bodies of Boche, 22-year-old Gilmar Morales, and 24-year-old Hermelindo Maquin were identified among the 72 victims of the massacre committed on Aug. 23 far from Guatemala, in the municipality of San Fernando in northeast Mexico. The killings have been blamed on the Los Zetas drug cartel.

But the families of the three young Guatemalan men at least found out what happened to their sons, were able to identify them and are waiting for their bodies to be sent home.

Thousands of Latin American migrants, mainly from Central America, die of thirst and exposure in the desert or at the hands of youth gangs or drug traffickers every year, without anyone ever finding out what happened to them.

Authorities in Mexico estimate that more than 10,000 migrants were kidnapped between September 2009 and February 2010.

Maximina Barrientos, a 48-year-old Honduran woman, lives with the anxiety of having a missing daughter. Seven years ago, her daughter Irene left her home town of Texiguat, in the southeastern Guatemalan province of El Paraíso, in search of the American dream.

Barrientos warned her daughter not to go “because she left behind a son, who is now 12 and needs her. But she left because here she had no options,” she tells IPS.

“Three years ago she called and told me she was ok, that she was in Ciudad Juárez (in Mexico), but I never heard from her again,” Barrientos adds, tears welling up in her eyes.

Barrientos forms part of the Network of Committees of Migrants and Relatives of Honduras (Red COMIFAH), which estimates that 800 Hondurans have gone missing over the past decade along the route from that Central American country through Mexico.

Edith Zavala, executive secretary of the National Forum on Honduran Immigration (FONAMIH), told IPS that the number of missing migrants has risen since 2008, along with kidnappings and cases of extortion. “Since then, Los Zetas and other groups have stepped up their activities,” she said.

Disappearances and deaths on the route that runs through the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Tamaulipas, from southeastern to northeastern Mexico, have prompted victims’ families to organise and make a concerted effort to find their missing loved ones.

“Now we’re going to compare the DNA from the remains of 500 people in Pima county, Arizona (in the U.S. southwest) with samples from relatives who are looking for their loved ones,” Lucy de Acevedo, with the Committee of Relatives of Dead and Missing Migrants (COFAMIDE) of El Salvador, told IPS.

This group of mothers, wives and other family members of victims emerged in 2006, and is now investigating 304 cases, “although we know there are many more,” de Acevedo said.

She joined COFAMIDE because she lost her brother, José Contreras, who was killed at the age of 19 on Jun. 1, 2000 in Tapachula, a town in southern Mexico, on his way to the United States.

COFAMIDE organises activities like marches to the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca in February 2009 to protest the assaults, kidnappings and murders to which thousands of undocumented migrants fall prey every year.

Mauro Verzeletti, a Catholic priest who is assistant secretary of the Pastoral de Movilidad Humana (pastoral care for migrants and refugees) in Guatemala, told IPS that if governments fail to address the issue of immigration, the flows of migrants will continue to grow, because “since 1998 we have not recovered from the effects of huge natural disasters like hurricanes Mitch and Stan and tropical storm Agatha,” which drove poverty.

Central American migrants continue risking their lives by attempting to reach the United States through Mexico. Flora Reynosa, in charge of migrants’ rights in the Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos, Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman office, told IPS that they have received eight reports of missing people this year.

But many people do not report cases for fear of reprisals. “Not long ago, they kidnapped the brother of a deportee, and the family asked us to please keep the case under wraps,” Reynosa said.

The route followed by migrants through Mexico has become a long narrow cemetery where only tombstones and epitaphs are missing. Mexican priest Luis Nieto, the founder of the Catholic group Nuestros Lazos de Sangre, knows about this all too well, because for over a decade he has been keeping track of people who die or go missing on their way to the United States.

“We have been denouncing the disappearance of Central Americans for years, and we give the authorities information, but we haven’t received a response,” he told IPS.

Nieto carefully guards his list of 682 Salvadorans and 518 Hondurans who have gone missing somewhere in Mexico.

The defenders of undocumented migrants suspect that there are clandestine cemeteries in Tabasco and Veracruz, areas that are ideal for hiding bodies because of the dense jungles. They and Tamaulipas in the northeast are the states where the largest number of migrants are kidnapped.

According to estimates based on official statistics and figures from non-governmental organisations, some 500,000 undocumented migrants from Central and South America cross Mexico from south to north every year in their attempt to reach the United States.

Public awareness of the dangers facing migrants is growing.

The Tribunal Internacional de Conciencia de los Pueblos en Movimiento, which will hold a symbolic trial in November of several states in Mexico for violating the rights of immigrants, is planning a project to search for missing migrants, in alliance with associations of relatives from Central America.

The sessions will be held in Mexico City at the Foro Mundial Alternativo de los Pueblos en Movimiento, the alternative gathering to be held by civil society groups parallel to the fourth meeting of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, organised by the Mexican government.

* With additional reporting by Emilio Godoy in Mexico City and Thelma Mejía in Tegucigalpa.

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