Alice Driver | Longreads | January 2018 | 21 minutes (5,284 words)
“It is very easy to disappear people.” — Aracy Matus Sánchez, director of Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante, the only shelter in Mexico for migrants who have been mutilated along the migrant trail
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Through the fist-sized security opening, a mouth appeared, then an eye, surveying. The migrant, his body shaking, stood there, eyes wide, holding his arm, whimpering. “What do you want?” asked the voice behind the metal door. “I … I … Somebody beat me up,” said the migrant, who was maybe 25 and all folded into himself as if being compact could protect him.
The door closed with a click, and the migrant swayed from side to side, then crumpled neatly toward the ground. He kept his body just rigid enough at the last second to sit down, teetering on the cement steps. He held his left arm, which had a visible protrusion below the elbow, and although he took jerky breaths, his eyes remained dry. After several minutes, he got up again and went over to a second door on the side of the building and knocked timidly. Again, he waited, holding his arm, his eyes glassed over, and leaned against the door. He began to hyperventilate, his breath seemingly caught in his birdlike chest and desperately needing to escape. Still the door remained closed. He looked down at his muddy feet, toes spilling over thin flip-flops.
When the door opened a crack, the voice once again dispassionately asked him why he was there. As the door eventually opened wider, the migrant stumbled into an office and fell onto the nearest couch. The man who had been guarding the door disappeared and was replaced by a woman who looked at the migrant and said, “Are you hungry? You can go join the others at breakfast.” She didn’t seem to notice that he was in a state of shock. After a few seconds, a stuttered “Ye— yee— sss” escaped his mouth, and she pointed him in the direction of the dining room at the migrant shelter Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante, the only shelter in Mexico for migrants who have been mutilated along the migrant trail.
I had started my journey reporting on migrants by living at a migrant shelter in Juárez, Mexico, where migrants shared stories about the forced disappearance, mutilation, and human trafficking they had witnessed or survived. Women and girls who shared their stories provided a new perspective on migration, which is often discussed solely in terms of people fleeing physical violence. Many of their stories were about seeking access to education for themselves and their children, especially for girls who are forced out of school early in many parts of Latin America.
For the year ending in September 2016, approximately 409,000 migrants were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border for crossing illegally, but more still never made it that far. Many of those migrants, I was told, ended up in Tapachula. They crossed the Guatemala-Mexico border illegally on inner tubes by the hundreds and arrived hungry, tired, maimed, and often searching for family members who had disappeared. I traveled 1,827 miles from Juárez to Tapachula to visit both the shelter where all the mutilated migrants in the country were sent and Fray Matías de Córdova Center for Human Rights, which has programs to support female migrants. What does it mean when the cost of migration for girls fleeing violence and seeking an education is the loss of one leg or both?
Inside, the Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante shelter opened into a courtyard where a 15-year-old girl sat surrounded by young men in wheelchairs, her breast out of her shirt, her son’s head resting nearby on her lap. “I don’t like to talk about myself,” she said. A few feet away, Darlin Pérez, 28, from Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, talked about his attempts to migrate to the U.S., explaining, “I have taken the train twice. Yes, it’s horrible. I don’t like it. Last time they killed two Honduran girls—raped them, cut them up with machetes, and threw them off the train. For women, yes, it is a little more difficult.”
The shelter began in the home of Olga Sánchez, in 1990. At the time, Sánchez was in the hospital recovering from illness, and there she met a mutilated couple—migrants who had nowhere to go to recuperate. They had fallen off the train; one had lost an arm and the other a leg. Sánchez offered them a room in her house, and soon after she found herself going to the hospital to search for mutilated migrants with nowhere to go. Eventually there was no room in her house for more migrants, so she rented rooms. Then, around 2004, using roughly $77,000 USD provided by the Canadian Embassy and the labor of migrants, she built the current shelter. It has beds for 200 migrants, but has housed up to 400 people at a time. The shelter serves an average of 1,400 migrants per year, of which between 400 and 600 have been mutilated or are sick and require extensive stays.
In the shelter’s courtyard, six young men in wheelchairs popped wheelies and chased each other around while a few children lunged at chickens. On the side of one of the buildings was a mural of two migrants, one of them with wings. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the migrant labeled walk had no legs from the hip down and was balanced on crutches, and the one labeled fly was missing one leg from the knee down and had wings. I wanted to understand the lives of young migrants, especially girls and women, who, in seeking safety, an education, or access to health care, had been threatened with disappearance or maimed. If the price of migration is disappearance or mutilation, clearly the systems established for dealing with migration are failing us.
Aracy Matus Sánchez, the director of the shelter and the daughter of its founder, wore jeans and a striped cardigan and had her hair in a low ponytail. Her facial expressions were limited to various degrees of seriousness. She explained, “Here is a paradise. From Tapachula onward, migrants suffer slavery, even by the authorities, because their mentality isn’t to treat people as what they are—human beings who deserve the same respect.” Matus Sánchez spoke to me with a fierce intensity about the plight of migrants for two hours. She also gave me some pointed advice: “Don’t trust anyone. Just because someone doesn’t have legs doesn’t make them a good person.”
In one of the dorm rooms that opened to the courtyard, a young man lay about talking to a migrant on an adjacent bed. Noel Antonio Torres Lorenzo 32, from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, lost one of his legs from the hip down in a train accident on La Bestia—”the Beast”—in 2004. It was his third attempt at migrating to the U.S. He recuperated in Mexico where a family in Hidalgo took care of him, helped him recover, and eventually encouraged him get an education. “They are my family now,” Torres Lorenzo explained. He was back at the shelter for the second time to get his prosthesis replaced since the original had worn out. He also needed a second operation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross paid for his therapy to recover from the operation and get fitted for a new leg. The Red Cross provides aid to migrants in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in the form of support for patient rehabilitation and donations of prosthetics and wheelchairs. Torres Lorenzo’s brother was also in shelter after losing his hand in the same accident.
Miguel Ángel Rápalo Piñeda, 20, from Santa Bárbara, listened to Torres Lorenzo, then shared his own story. He migrated on foot from Honduras to Mexico with four others, including two of his brothers. Rápalo Piñeda and the other migrants had been walking day and night, and they were fatigued. Just after they crossed the border, in Benemérito, near Palenque, Mexico, some guys in a van stopped to offer them a ride, and after the migrants got in, the men in the van demanded $3,000.
“We have no family, and there they had weapons and everything,” explained Rápalo Piñeda. “We were scared.” The kidnappers eventually transferred the migrants from one vehicle to another, and at that point the migrants tried to escape. The kidnappers shot everyone in the back. Rápalo Piñeda, who was the last one out of the vehicle, was shot three times, but because the kidnappers chased after the other migrants, he had time to hide. “I asked God for strength, and he gave it to me. They were going to cut me up,” he said, using the Spanish verb machetear which translates literally as “to machete.” He pointed to his neck, showing the scar where a bullet had exited, then he raised his shirt to show the two bullet entry scars on his back. The two bullets were still inside him. As he talked to Noel, he mused, “You have to do your best. That’s all you can do. God doesn’t gift life to you.”
Matus Sánchez, discussing kidnapping based on the thousands of stories migrants had told her, pointed out that it wasn’t limited to the streets. She argued that gangs paid bribes to Mexican migration officials to gain entry into government migration centers. Of migration officials, she said, “They have already become kidnappers. There is already organized crime within the migratory station.”
Behind the courtyard and beyond the mural, outside a small cement dormitory, Amarilis Mendoza, 13, sat in hot pink pants with the left pant leg cut off at the knee where her leg ended. A few months prior, she had traveled with her father and a smuggler en route from Guatemala to the U.S. They were traveling through Mexico via the Beast when one day she lost her father’s grip as he was hoisting her onto the train. She fell onto the train tracks, and the train cut off her leg at the knee. Her sister Rosalinda Mendoza Vásquez, 17, had traveled from Guatemala to stay with her while she got fitted for a prosthesis, and whenever Amarilis was silent, which was often, Rosalinda would respond to my questions. Meanwhile the younger Mendoza played games on a cell phone. There was no school for her to attend, and when I asked if there was anything to do at the shelter while she waited to receive her prosthesis, she said, “Nothing. But I am ok.” She would spend a minimum of three months at the shelter to get fitted for the prosthesis and have time to practice with it and strengthen her leg muscles.
Each prosthesis, which can cost between $300 and $1,000, is paid for by the Red Cross, but the migrants are required to go to doctors provided by the government migration office. Matus Sánchez described how this had presented some problems, because she had heard stories that some of the doctors had refused to give migrants their prosthesis. She explained, “One woman was here for a year, and they did not provide her with her prosthesis. She had children, and her children do not eat if she does not work.” Migrants were afraid to tell Matus Sánchez about the problem for fear of retaliation on the part of the doctor. “It sounds absurd,” she said, describing how she had to argue with the doctor to get him to turn over several prostheses. “My favorite words are ‘I am going to take care of this personally,’” she said, mentioning that she was often subject to sexist treatment on the part of government and institutional officials.
“If I have to smile at the authorities, I will,” she said. “If we have to make them laugh in order to release a victim, we are going to do it. Subtly, we are going to do it. Because a hunger strike is not going to work—they will disappear the migrants. Many have gone missing with the authorities, there are many reports. This shelter knows how the authorities work, knows perfectly well, and we have spent too many years learning what kind of human beings the authorities are. We play the game. We are diplomatic, cordial and helpful, but when there are opportunities like this to talk to foreign reporters, senators, or deputies, we release a bomb, a documented and well-founded bomb, because we have the papers and video testimony to prove it.”
Matus Sánchez also talked about the impact of Mexico’s Southern Border Program which was launched by President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2014 to increase security in Mexico by apprehending northbound migrants. The program made it more dangerous for migrants to ride the train. In practice, Matus Sánchez said that it had given the military, police, and border agents the implicit authority to push migrants off trains, thus increasing cases of mutilation. “At the initiation of the Southern Border Program, I learned of two incidents, one in June and one in July, with more than 800 and 400 dead,” she said. “A priest told me about it, because he went to the place where it occurred and there were only military around. Because that priest got along with the policemen, they told him, ‘Father, there was an arm over here, an arm over there, a leg over there.’ Did they make it public? No. And all the Mexican authorities are colluding. The [migrants] who survive, those who are alive and are in the hospital, they are seized and deported back to their country. The Southern Border Program was created to hide the cruelty being carried out.” Matus Sánchez had dealt directly with the increase in mutilated migrants since the implementation of the Southern Border Program.
Ana Lucía Lagunes Gasca, 31, who oversees educational initiatives at the Fray Matías de Córdova Center for Human Rights in Tapachula and runs the Women’s House on the main plaza, had also seen an increase in violence directed at migrants since the implementation of the Southern Border Strategy. The Women’s House is open every Sunday to provide support and a safe space for migrant women and girls to gather. Lagunes Gasca, who grew up in Mexico City, has a big, easy laugh and an infectious positive energy. She has spent three years working with everyone from the trafficked girls who sell sweets and drugs on the plaza to the women who do sex work, domestic work, and open small businesses. Lagunes Gasca, discussing how women are motivated to migrate to access education and health care, explained, “Part of the violence is that there is no other option for women, no other potential path that is not being a wife who takes care of the house. These young women are trying to create other paths, but it is difficult because they think, I am studying, I am outside of my town, but I would like to return to my town and share life with someone. How am I going to do it? Where will I go to work? Who am I going to share my life with? With what kind of man? Or are there men who can imagine another way of living, who would accept a woman who has studied or wants to work?”
Mavi Cruz Reyes is the director of communications at Fray Matías Cordóva Center for Human Rights. She told me the center focuses on recognizing different types of violence that affect women migrants. Indigenous Guatemalan women migrants, for example, shared stories of not being able to discuss menstrual pain in their communities. Although people always think that women migrate for economic reasons or to flee physical violence, in reality many of them migrate for medical attention. Cruz Reyes pointed out that a lack of medical care was a form of gender violence, just one “which is less named and less recognized as one of the causes that people to flee.” She explained that part of the goal of the Center was “to make the many reasons that cause women to flee and the multiple faces of violence more visible. They live a violence that sometimes is not named.”
Unnamed violence—being denied an education and forced to do unpaid domestic work—is what led Aracely Orozco, 46, from Las Pilas de San Marcos, Guatemala, to migrate to Tapachula. When she was 16, she fled her physically and emotionally abusive household. Her right arm is a map of overlapping scars that zigzag from wrist to shoulder, a reminder of an accident at a tortilla factory where she worked and of the dozens of operations she has had since to try to regain a full range of motion. She has held several different jobs related to childcare and domestic work since migrating, all while raising two daughters and navigating her way out of an abusive relationship. The father of her children was an alcoholic who she spent years with simply because she made too little money as a domestic worker to leave him. Talking about why she left home, she explained, “I didn’t finish school because, as I said, a woman has to stay in the house. I only studied up to 4th grade, and then I had to leave because there wasn’t enough money for a woman to study, but my brothers did study. I sacrificed myself so that they could study.” Orozco was required to take care of the family home, clean, and prepare food for her three brothers and parents. She cried as she talked about physical abuse at the hands of both her parents and her brothers. “In my country, parents are very machista,” she told me. “I have been working since I was 8 years old.”
At 16, Orozco arrived in Tecún Umán and crossed the Suchiate River on an inner tube raft, landing in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, before heading to Tapachula some 30 miles away. For decades, migrants have crossed the river at the same point, in direct view of the official international bridge where theoretically all individuals must present their passport and pay a fee.
Víctor Manuel Torreón, 58, lives in Tecún Umán, Guatemala, where he works repairing a fleet of 50 20-foot rafts made from tractor-tire inner tubes and used wooden crates. All day he patches leaks and carries the rafts down to the river’s edge, his shirtless torso sinewy with muscle but showing signs of his age. He explained, “I have been working here about 45 years. Yes, we are here every day, 24 hours a day.” He talked about having witnessed changes in migration over the years, including a spike in migration from Africa in 2016. Of his own family, he said, “I have one son in Tijuana and one in Chicago. You can only earn a living elsewhere—there is no work here.” When at rest, he took a nap splayed out on a stack of inner tubes, surrounded by young guys drinking coffee and reading newspapers. Describing his interaction with migrants, he said, “When you come from a distance, sometimes you arrive without eating. What we do here is help them, feed them so that they can make it to the migrant shelter.”
His partner in the raft repair business, Carlos Humberto Martínez Rodríguez, 56, had been working with him for 14 years. “Each raft holds up to a ton of merchandise,” he said, as he pointed to men unloading bags of cement from a truck onto rafts on the Mexico side of the river. At any given time, some 20 rafts were making the 4-minute journey across the river, and they were stacked with cases of beer, boxes of toilet paper, and vegetables. Speaking of changes in migration, he explained, “In the past, we saw Cubans and Africans, but not anymore. Yes, women migrants pass through, but not as many as in past years.”
Aura Cardona, 53, from Tecún Umán, sat in a truck near the rafts next to a 30-foot white cross that had been erected on the edge of the river. She was awaiting a shipment of cooking oil that she would later resell. Certain items were cheaper in Mexico and could be sold at a profit in Guatemala. Cardona was sitting in the passenger seat of her truck, her granddaughter asleep in her lap. She had migrated to the United States when her daughter was young and had spent 13 years working at a restaurant in San Pedro, California, for $9 an hour. With the money she sent home to Guatemala, she was able to pay for her daughter’s education. “When I left, she was very small like this one,” she told me, gesturing to the child in her arms. “I couldn’t give her an education. It was very important to me. It is very difficult, because here you can’t do it. Here there is only money for food.”
As you walk away from the river’s edge, you pass currency exchanges and a fleet of bike taxis manned by muscular young men. On one of the streets leading to the main plaza in Tecún Umán, Eduardo Escoto, 54, sat on a chair outside a machine shop. He had migrated to Tecún Umán from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, a year prior. He said his migration experience hadn’t been that difficult. Of crossing the river, he said, “It is best to do it alone if you are a man, not if you are a woman.”
María Baldivia Palacio, 40, who stood in the yard of her nearby house, had migrated from Estelí, Nicaragua. Of leaving her home country, she said, quietly with tears in her eyes, “There was no money to study. I have not studied, only up to second grade.” Speaking of the United States, she said, “With the president now, I make myself watch the news. Yes, it is hard. I watch the news as I watch my daughters and eat tortillas with salt. There’s no money. It’s hard, it’s hard. I continue to work honestly with my head raised high.”
After crossing the river back to Ciudad Hidalgo, near the train tracks, I met Wendy Carolina, 35, who had migrated from Guatemala to Mexico when she was 16. She stood in the street with her 16-year-old daughter who held her own 6-month-old daughter in her arms.“A person without money is nothing,” Carolina told me. “We weren’t able to study because we didn’t have any money.”
Migrants on their way to the U.S. usually stop in Tapachula, where they can rest at a migrant shelter and request asylum in Mexico, a process that usually takes three to five months. The crossing is dangerous on both sides of the river due to the fact that the area is controlled by both the Zetas, a Mexican cartel that traffics drugs, humans, and arms, and MS-13, a gang with strongholds in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The week that I was there, a local told me that eight men in Ciudad Hidalgo were beheaded by the Zetas.
Cinthia, 23, crossed the Suchiate River with her husband Dilmer, 23, and their children Eduardo, 5, and Eunice, 3. They took shelter at the Belén Migrant Shelter in Tapachula, which is run by the often-barefoot Father Flor María Rigoni whose long white beard precedes him wherever he goes. Cinthia asked that she and her family be identified only by their first names out of fear of being targeted by traffickers. “It is difficult, but you have to move forward for your children,” she said of leaving her home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. “I had only a second grade or a third grade education, no more. I would like to give my children a good education. In Honduras, there is more crime than opportunities, and anyone who doesn’t recognize that is blind.”
The main plaza in Tapachula is a major hub of activity, where women looking to make money, mostly as domestic and sex workers, gather and indigenous girls and women sell gum and candy out of wooden boxes hanging from their necks. Sitting on the plaza, I asked a young girl if she was hungry, but she turned and silently walked away from me as men lurking around moved closer in.
When I sat down on a bench near some palm trees, an old man sitting nearby introduced himself as Gilberto Castañeda Figueroa, 70. He shared stories from his youth as a student activist at UNAM, the national university in Mexico City, where he joined protests against violent government repression at Tlatelolco in 1968. The government blocked off all exits to the square and massacred some 400 unarmed students, then denied firing first for more than a decade. He pulled a photo of himself as a young man out of his wallet and handed it to me. “I lived in Mexico City for a long time, but as we say here, an old elephant always comes home to die,” he told me.
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Castañeda Figueroa explained the dynamics of the plaza and pointed out which areas were occupied by sex workers from different countries. Matus Sánchez had also told me about trafficking on the main plaza in Tapachula. “Here human trafficking and organ trafficking are a big business with more than 50 years of history,” she said. “All the kids selling sweets are victims of trafficking. They are trafficked and forced to sell drugs. What do they do? They buy them and bring them from their place of origin in Guatemala, and they buy brothers and sisters—if there are three kids, they buy all three. They take them. There is a big place, and they sleep there. They never let the three brothers work together—the youngest is sent to work in another group. The children work 24 hours in the street and they appear to be free.” Matus Sánchez also told the story of a migrant mother whose 3-year-old girl went missing, only later to be found dead on the banks of the river, sewn up and missing organs. She explained, “There is a surgeon in Tapachula who had been involved in organ sales for 50 years, and he performs operations in his basement. People from Guatemala come to find work in the central park in Tapachula every Sunday. That’s where people disappear, and it is never reported.”
For Matus Sánchez, part of the difficulty of helping victims of child trafficking is that none of the migrant shelters in Mexico specifically focus on taking care of the needs of children. In part, this can be attributed to the fact that the majority of migrants are adults, but still more than 113,000 migrant children were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014—not an insignificant number. To address that, Jesús el Buen Pastor had launched a project called Orchestrating Lives that would offer music classes to child migrants with the goal of forming an orchestra. “There is a phenomenon that is not taken care of—that of the traumatized child,” Matus Sánchez explained.
Ludin Gómez, 31, a single mother traveling with three children, was staying at the Belén Migrant Shelter, and she had personally experienced the dearth of activities and support for children at migrant shelters. Gómez sat on one of the benches in the shelter surrounded by men lying on benches, playing cards at tables, and sleeping on the floor. Single men were everywhere inside the shelter, and they milled about outside, lazing on several large rocks, some shouting and others pacing back and forth.
Among them was Alair Guillén, 24, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, who had bright eyes and a buzz cut. In English, he introduced himself as an “Obama Dreamer” saying his parents had migrated to the U.S. with him when he was six. He explained that he didn’t pay some legal fees related to maintaining his Dreamer status and was deported to Honduras. “It’s been a real life change because.,” he said. “As you know, there is a lot of poverty and violence in our countries. I got sent back to San Pedro, and I had no experience there.” He took to the migrant trail to escape threats of violence, and along the way he got a ride from a trucker who he soon feared might kidnap and traffic him. In Guatemala, the police stopped him and demanded a bribe, so he gave them more than half of the money he had. Guillén said he was prohibited from entering the U.S. for 10 years. He planned to work in Mexico for a decade before trying to enter the U.S. and reunite with his parents there. “I’m trying to show that not all immigrants are going to do bad things,” he said. “Actually some of us are trying to go back to work and return to our lives.”
Gómez had left Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, with Daniela, 8, Isaac, 9, and María José, 12, because she couldn’t afford to feed them and send them to school. She had made the trip to Mexico once before alone. “I was alone, and it was really hard,” she said. “I suffered a lot to move forward, because some people wanted me to traffic drugs on the road. I fell into the hands of people like that and, yes, I really suffered and they wanted me to traffic, but I didn’t do it even though they would have helped me, if only because they never give anything without asking for something in return.” Gómez had only finished elementary school before going to work to support her family. While watching her kids climb a playhouse in the migrant shelter patio, she sighed and said, “They have gotten behind in their studies, which hurts me because I am their mother.”
Migrants experience the unnamed violence of not being able to feed their children, of not being able to give them an education; the unnamed violence of a daughter’s hand slipping out of her father’s; the unnamed violence of not being able to make choices about their bodies, their health, or their future; the unnamed and unrecorded violence of being disappeared. Despite the challenges, Matus Sánchez, Lagunes Gasca, and others continue to support migrants and find meaning in their work.
Lagunes Gasca finds hope in seeing small changes like migrants at the Women’s House deciding to each contribute money to a savings fund to provide loans to other migrant women to start their own businesses. Several trans sex workers who fled persecution in El Salvador decided they wanted to start a business selling homemade sweets on the plaza. El Salvador is one of the most conservative countries in Latin America and one of the most dangerous for the LGBTQ community, which has caused an exodus of its trans community. Lagunes Gasca said that was the first time locals had seen trans women doing something aside from sex work. For her, having locals see trans women as more than sex workers was a small but important change.
Of the migrant women she works with, Lagunes Gasca said, “I learn a lot from them. I learn so much from them. But I’m very frustrated by everything else, everything that you think can’t be possible. Why is there so much violence, so much evil and cruelty, so little support, so little compassion? That is very painful. But it is good to be here together. It is good to listen to them, to get to know them, to learn about what we can do together.” The only question that matters, she said, is “How can we work together to fight for their dreams? How can we make sure they have access to education if that is what they want? Let’s fight for that.”
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Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She is the author of More or Less Dead, and a 2017 Foreign Policy Interrupted Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Outside Magazine, The Atlantic, Oxford American, Lenny Letter, The Guardian, and Pacific Standard.