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

MEXICO: The Long March to Justice for Migrants

Emilio Godoy

COATZACOALCOS, Mexico, Jul 29 2011 (IPS) - For the second time in a little over a month, Wilfredo, a 26-year-old Salvadoran construction worker, is trying to make it into the United States without papers to join his sister in Arlington, Texas.

Catholic priests and activists Tomás González, left, and Alejandro Solalinde lead the march.  Credit:  Emilio Godoy/IPS

Catholic priests and activists Tomás González, left, and Alejandro Solalinde lead the march. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

“God willing, I’ll make it this time,” Wilfredo, who left his hometown in the western Salvadoran province of La Libertad on Jul. 20, told IPS. “I want to reach Nuevo Laredo and pay a coyote (people smuggler) to cross the (Mexican-U.S. border) there.”

Wilfredo, a married father of three, is one of 500 people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are taking part in the “Step by Step Towards Peace Caravan”, which set out Sunday Jul. 24 through south and southeast Mexico to draw attention to the many dangers faced by Central American migrants in Mexico and demand respect for their rights.

The participants are human rights defenders, family members of migrants who have gone missing in Mexico, and undocumented migrants like Wilfredo.

One group of participants in the Caravan rode atop the freight train that heads northward from Tenosique in southeastern Mexico, near the Guatemalan border, while the other portion of the march set out from Guatemala City and rode the bus and train through the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.

The two groups met up Thursday night in Coatzacoalcos, in the southern state of Veracruz.

The walls of the San Judas Tadeo Catholic church in Coatzacoalcos and a nearby hall have provided temporary shelter for the travellers.

Travelling light, with just a small backpack carrying a change of clothes, bottles of water and a cell-phone, the Central Americans, who are mostly from Honduras, took advantage of the opportunity to bathe, get some sleep and wash their clothes.

Coatzacoalcos, a city of 305,000, is an obligatory stop for the undocumented migrants who cross Mexico from southeast to northeast in their attempt to reach the United States.

Every year, some 500,000 undocumented migrants from Central and South America traverse Mexico on their journey to the U.S. border, according to estimates from academics and human rights groups.

They generally ride the freight train – known as “the train of death” or “the beast” – from the Guatemalan border through the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Tamaulipas, and many end up being extorted, assaulted, robbed, raped, kidnapped, deported or killed at the hands of criminal organisations or corrupt police and border agents.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) estimates that 20,000 migrants were kidnapped in 2010. Ransom demands were between 1,500 and 5,000 dollars per person, according to the Commission.

In other cases, entire groups of migrants are seized and murdered.

Forming part of the caravan gives them a sense of security. “We give each other support. You hear so many stories about assaults…I want to reach Mexico City and see if I can find work there,” Julio, a 20-year-old from the eastern Guatemalan city of Esquipulas, told IPS.

Dinner in Coatzacoalcos was a ham and cheese sandwich, fruit and mineral water, while breakfast consisted of eggs, beans and coffee. After so many hours on the road, the rest and food revived the participants in the Caravan.

In his evening mass, Father Tomás González, director of the “La 72” migrants’ shelter in Tenosique, asked for forgiveness for “the kidnappings, murders and assaults, for a government that does not protect you.”

The migrants also have to put up with daytime temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius and swarms of mosquitoes in this city surrounded by tropical rainforest, rivers and swamps.

The activists – who include prominent Mexican figures like Rubén Figueroa and Elvira Arellano – show up at the camp, which is brimming with camaraderie, solidarity and hope.

Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde, director of the “Hermanos en el camino” shelter run by the Pastoral of Human Mobility in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, headed the branch of the Caravan that rode the train from southern Mexico.

Figueroa lived as an undocumented immigrant in the United States from 1999 to 2005. Arellano, a representative of Familia Latina Unida Sin Fronteras, a Chicago, Illinois-based immigrant rights organisation, became a symbol for the migrant rights struggle after she took refuge in the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago for a year before she was deported to Mexico in 2007.

“Crossing the border is really hard, we were scared to come. We want to see if we can find work in Mexico,” 18-year-old Kenia from Honduras told IPS. She is travelling with her husband Wilman and their two-year-old son. The couple, peasant farmers from the northern province of Yoro, were deported in 2008 from El Paso, Texas in the southwest United States and have now decided to emigrate once again.

Under the gaze of the local population, the Caravan participants chanted and held up signs along a three kilometre route through the city, demanding respect for migrant rights and a halt to the attacks.

“Migrants are not criminals, we are international workers,” was one of the chants shouted over and over.

“People have a right to migrate to support their families,” read one of the signs, while others bore names of missing loved ones, with the dates and locations where the “migrants trail” swallowed them up.

The last time Pedro Lacán, from Guatemala, heard the voice of his son Rafael was May 23, when his son told him he was in Nuevo Laredo, about to cross the border. His destination was New York. But he never made it.

“He told me he was going to cross with a coyote. I haven’t heard from him, and the coyote doesn’t know anything,” Lacán, from the western Guatemalan province of Totonicapán, told IPS.

The movement is calling for official investigations into the fate of the missing migrants, and for the creation of a database on people who have disappeared and on unidentified bodies found in Mexico.

This is the third march in Mexico by migrants, relatives, and human rights defenders. The first was held in November 2010, on the occasion of the Alternative Global Forum of Peoples in Movement, organised in the Mexican capital. The second took place in January.

The next stop on the Caravan’s route is Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, where the participants will meet with Felipe González, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, to tell him about cases that could fill shelves of volumes about the horrors along one of the world’s most dangerous migrant routes.

González and his team are on a fact-finding mission in Mexico from Jul. 25 to Aug. 2.

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