President Obama once said this about his administration’s deportation priorities: “We’ll keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. That means felons, not families. That means criminals, not children. It means gang members, not moms who are trying to put food on the table for their kids.”
Encouraging words, a year ago. But a new year has dawned upon an appalling campaign of home raids by the Department of Homeland Security to find and deport hundreds of would-be refugees back to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The targets are those who arrived in a recent surge of people fleeing shockingly high levels of gang and drug violence, hunger and poverty and who offered themselves at the border to the mercy of the United States, but ultimately lost their cases in immigration court.
Since New Year’s, the administration has been sending agents into homes to make an example of the offenders and to defend the principle of a secure border. A president who spoke so movingly about the violent gun deaths of children here has taken on the job of sending mothers and children on one-way trips to the deadliest countries in our hemisphere. Mothers and children who pose no threat, actual or imaginable, to our security.
The Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, said in a statement: “Our borders are not open to illegal migration. If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values.” He added: “This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”
It’s no wonder that Donald Trump is applauding the policy, and taking credit for it.
But Mr. Johnson is wrong to suggest that frightened Central Americans are a border-security threat. It’s not illegal to go to the border and seek asylum, as these families have. And his defense of our “values” jarringly sidesteps vital questions — Why are people fleeing? And if they are desperate to escape their murderous homelands, what is the best response of the United States?
It’s certainly not home raids that send powerless individuals unjustly back to mortal danger and, as collateral damage, spread fear and panic in immigrant neighborhoods across the country. The homicidal brutality in Central America has spawned a humanitarian disaster, but the administration has been treating it as a Texas border-security emergency, and a political headache. Perhaps this is why its efforts at deterring the migrant flow have not succeeded. Families have taken the journey anyway, not because they are determined to flout our immigration laws — but because they want not to be murdered.
The administration needs to recognize that this problem cannot be solved in backward fashion. The answer lies not in sitting idly until refugees arrive and greeting them with family prisons and prosecution. It requires addressing the root causes of the bloody violence in the region, and fixing the chaotic, underfunded legal system at the border, where migrants with no money or lawyers — or with bad lawyers — confront the infernal complexities of immigration and asylum law, and lose. The administration should have long ago begun building routes of escape for families in danger, with safe havens and in-country screening for those seeking resettlement, in the United States or elsewhere in the region.
While federal agents have been knocking on doors and spreading fear, advocacy groups have been scrambling to help the Central Americans. Humanitarian projects like CARA, a cooperative effort of legal services organizations, and Raices, which has worked for years with refugees in Central and South Texas, have placed urgent calls for funds and volunteers. Protection, due process and outstretched arms for terrorized families: That’s an approach consistent with America’s laws and values, not agents at the door, on the hunt for mothers and children.
La migración terrestre de cubanos hacía Estados Unidos y la negativa de Nicaragua de dejarlos pasar ha creado una crisis humanitaria. Se necesita un acuerdo entre todos los pases “de paso” y de Estados Unidos para resolverla. El gobierno de El Salvador no se ha pronunciado ni hecho propuestas constructivas, por lo menos no publicamente. Tampoco hemos escuchado un compromiso del presidente de El Salvador de dejar pasar y atender a los migrantes cubanos, en caso que Nicaragua los deje pasar.
El exilio cubano en Miami exige a Nicaragua que permita el paso a cerca de 2,000 cubanos que intentan llegar a territorio estadounidense. | Foto por Agencia EFE
Una cadena de presiones, de acuerdos que no terminan de explicarse para evitar retratarse y en los que están involucrados Estados Unidos, Cuba y diversos países americanos, ha hecho estallar una bomba humanitaria en una de las fronteras de ese largo y tortuoso camino que emprenden por tierra miles de cubanos desde Ecuador a Estados Unidos: Nicaragua ha colocado a su ejército en la frontera con Costa Rica y ha repelido a casi 2,000 cubanos que se hacinan ahora, en malas condiciones humanitarias, en la parte costarricense.
Los balseros a pie, como los denominó el periódico español El Mundo hace un mes y medio, son en este momento el gran reto migratorio del continente americano.
“El gobierno de Estados Unidos presiona a Cuba y a México para parar la avalancha de cubanos que entran en su país y los cubanos han recurrido a sus socios de Nicaragua para que les hagan el trabajo.
El conflicto territorial entre Costa Rica y Nicaragua por Isla Portillos, que parece próximo a resolverse, también tiene su peso”, explica a El Mundo Eduardo Matías, abogado cubano que se dedica a ayudar a los migrantes de su país que atraviesan México.
“Es de suprema importancia entender que este es un problema de personas que tienen ilusiones, necesidades, que buscan llegar a un destino donde quieren vivir mejor. Son personas que necesitan ser atendidas en su ansiedad y protegidas en su necesidad”, ha denunciado el presidente de Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solís.
“Más que cualquier consideración de orden geopolítico, hay una situación que se ha presentado con una decisión del gobierno de Nicaragua, que de manera absolutamente injustificada e irresponsable, ha acusado a Costa Rica de utilizar de alguna manera a estos inmigrantes para generar una violación”, ha remarcado Solís.
Con las fuerzas de seguridad
Nicaragua, por su parte, anunció que “con la finalidad de restablecer el orden y la tranquilidad ciudadana, fuerzas especiales de la policía nacional ejecutaron acciones operativas, teniendo como resultado que los inmigrantes cubanos fueron regresados a territorio costarricense de donde fueron lanzados”.
El Ejecutivo de Daniel Ortega denuncia también que los cubanos han causado “destrozos en sus instalaciones fronterizas”.
Cuba, mientras, se ha limitado a sacar un comunicado del régimen en el que mete el dedo en el ojo a su viejo enemigo norteamericano y le recuerda que la presión migratoria es culpa de Washington: “El Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores desea enfatizar que estos ciudadanos son víctimas de la politización del tema migratorio por parte del gobierno de los Estados Unidos, de la Ley de Ajuste Cubano y, en particular, de la aplicación de la llamada política de ‘pies secos-pies mojados’, la cual confiere a los cubanos un tratamiento diferenciado y único en todo el mundo, al admitirlos de forma inmediata y automática, sin importar las vías y medios que utilizan, incluso si llegan de manera ilegal a su territorio”.
Por último, el régimen cubano asegura que “el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores ratifica que los ciudadanos cubanos que hayan salido legalmente del país y cumplan con la legislación migratoria vigente tienen derecho a retornar a Cuba, sí así lo desean”.
Solís ha reiterado que la crisis de emigrantes cubanos varados en suelo costarricense no debe ser mezclada con la geopolítica y, en ese sentido, espera que exista la voluntad internacional para solucionar el problema.
“Tengo la viva esperanza de que los cancilleres harán su mayor esfuerzo para garantizar que encontremos una solución humanitaria para estos migrantes”, declaró Solís
El mandatario se refirió así a la reunión extraordinaria que se llevará a cabo en El Salvador el próximo martes, entre los cancilleres de Centroamérica, ampliada a México, Cuba, Ecuador y Colombia.
“Hay que construir un espacio de tránsito para que el flujo de emigrantes cubanos puedan viajar con seguridad, documentados, en condiciones adecuadas, sin recurrir al crimen organizado”, manifestó.
“Para lograr esto se necesita la colaboración de todos los países desde Cuba hasta Estados Unidos (…) Si hubiera voluntad política habría posibilidad de éxito”, expresó.
Costa Rica ha habilitado siete albergues cerca de la frontera con Nicaragua, donde atiende a 1,300 cubanos, mientras otros 400 prefirieron quedarse en el puesto fronterizo de Peñas Blancas.
Pero la realidad es que todos los países involucrados parecen decir verdades a medias de un muy complicado tema migratorio que se está inflamando gravemente, sostiene El Mundo.
Y a continuación señala los puntos claves de este conflicto que pone en aprietos a miles de emigrantes cubanos.
El diario español menciona que Estados Unidos se ha encontrado con una avalancha de cubanos que llegan a su país ante el posible fin del conflicto diplomático entre ambos países.
Los cubanos, en caso de que se normalicen las relaciones, perderán los muy ventajosos privilegios que les otorga la Ley de Ajuste y sus cuantiosas ayudas económicas.
Los norteamericanos presionan a países como México para que les hagan el trabajo de detención de esta migración que ha provocado que cubanos de todo el continente emprendan la marcha a EE.UU. Pero también, asegura, cuestiona que otros no están interesados en parar la migración, por los beneficios que perciben de ese movimiento migratorio masivo.
Cuba podría parar esta migración presionando a Ecuador, su socio, para anular el tratado de libre visado para los naturales de la isla (único país con el que lo tiene). Sin embargo, el régimen castrista alivia presión demográfica y obtiene con la salida de miles de inmigrantes la llegada de divisas que mandan éstos a sus familias y que es esencial para la débil economía de la isla.
Un recorrido lleno de penurias
Miles de cubanos que hacen el viaje entre Ecuador y Estados Unidos sufren una serie de abusos por parte de mafias (los llamados coyotes) y de la corrupción policial. Se calcula que más de 100,000 cubanos han viajado hasta Ecuador para emprender ruta a Estados Unidos.
Y en ese camino se encuentran con que en los países por los que pasan se hacen de la gorda, miran a otro lado y les van concediendo salvoconductos de paso a cambio de mordidas y detenciones arbitrarias que casi nunca acaban con deportaciones, bien por falta de convenio con Cuba o bien porque el régimen cubano no solicita su extradición.
Países como México han visto cómo en Tapachula, en el estado de Chiapas, su frontera se ha saturado con la llegada de 60 cubanos cada día y han tenido que abrir sus centros de inmigración por estar saturados.
En este momento, la presión migratoria cubana es muy fuerte. Recientemente Cuba y México han firmado un acuerdo migratorio que no se ha hecho público y que parece que podría referirse a este grave problema. El gobierno de Estados Unidos hace una labor soterrada: Ejecutivo (Demócrata) y Legislativo (Republicano) ven de forma distinta el conflicto cubano aunque nadie lo habla abiertamente.
Panorama incierto para los cubanos
El apoyo de EE.UU. y Cuba es clave para la solución a crisis en frontera de Costa Rica y Nicaragua.
Miembros de la policía impiden el paso de inmigrantes cubanos hacia Nicaragua. | Foto por Agencia EFE
Estados Unidos y Cuba deben trabajar de conjunto para aliviar la crisis migratoria cubana que enfrenta a Costa Rica y Nicaragua, considera el presidente costarricense Luis Guillermo Solís.
Para el mandatario costarricense, tanto las autoridades del país de origen como las de la nación de destino deben ayudar a buscar una solución definitiva a los migrantes, según reportó el diario costarricense La Nación.
El mandatario espera que la reunión de cancilleres del Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA), que tendrá lugar este martes 24 de noviembre en El Salvador, ayude a paliar el problema, con el compromiso de todas las naciones incluidas en la llamada “ruta cubana”.
La llegada de más de 2.500 cubanos a Centroamérica, en camino hacia territorio estadounidense, se ha convertido en un dilema regional debido a que el flujo de los caribeños no cesa.
Solís ha insistido en que las autoridades estadounidenses y cubanas se deben sentar con Ecuador, Colombia, Panamá, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala y México, en la próxima cita.
El Gobierno costarricense llevará a la reunión la propuesta de crear un corredor humanitario libre de violaciones, robos y otras vejaciones que caracterizan al actual trayecto, plagado de peligros naturales y traficantes de personas.
“Hay que construir un espacio de tránsito para que el flujo de emigrantes cubanos puedan viajar con seguridad, documentados, en condiciones adecuadas, sin recurrir al crimen organizado”, enfatizó Solís. recalcó que “Si hubiera voluntad política habría posibilidad de éxito”.
Estados Unidos estará atenta a los resultados de la reunión extraordinaria de cancilleres del SICA sobre la emigración cubana, declaró la embajadora estadounidense en Nicaragua, Laura F. Dogu.
“Vamos a esperar para ver qué es lo que estará ocurriendo en esa reunión en San Salvador la semana que viene”, señaló la diplomática.
Pero Nicaragua tiene una lectura diferente. Según Daniel Ortega, Costa Rica se victimiza y se autoproclama como defensor de los derechos humanos.
Ante esto, Solís respondió que su país no se victimiza y tampoco “cambiará de política sobre la entrega de visas”.
“Este es un conflicto de orden humanitario, no geopolítico. Nuestros temas bilaterales (con Nicaragua) se están resolviendo donde se debe, en los tribunales internacionales de justicia. La población migrante no debe sufrir por los problemas entre ambos países”, añadió Solís.
A la reunión de los cancilleres asistiría la esposa de Ortega, Rosario Murillo. El Gobierno de Costa Rica espera que ella adopte una “posición solidaria” con la población migrante y que su país les permita el paso hacia el norte.
La crisis por el flujo de cubanos, con pasaporte pero sin visas, que cruzan del sur al norte de América se complicó el domingo, cuando tropas nicaragüenses atacaron con gases lacrimógenos en Peñas Blancas, puesto limítrofe entre Costa Rica y Nicaragua, a casi un millar de personas nacidas en la isla para impedirles ingresar a la nación vecina.
Costa Rica recibió a 12,166 cubanos de enero a septiembre del 2015, un promedio de casi 44 por día, y casi 2,000 la semana pasada, frente a 5,114 en el 2014, según cifras oficiales.
Se ha abierto una puerta en el enorme muro oxidado que separa México de Estados Unidos. La artista Ana Teresa Fernández, de 34 años, ha marcado de azul cielo una pequeña parte de la frontera para borrarla en la mente de los mexicanos, aunque el efecto visual dure apenas unos segundos. La vista hacia el vecino del norte se extiende, por primera vez, hasta el horizonte. Es el único punto donde no la interrumpen unos barrotes.
La pintora mexicana llamó a este proyecto Borrando la frontera, pero reconoce que tiene un efecto contrario. “De una manera u otra, al momento de esconder algo o quitarlo empiezas a darte cuenta de su presencia”, comentó Fernández, natural de Tampico (Tamaulipas). Porque aunque en ese tramo sea más agradable, es todavía más evidente que los barrotes siguen ahí, partiendo el océano en dos.
“Este muro se ha convertido en un pañuelo de lágrimas, un símbolo en donde lamentar las vidas que no lo han podido cruzar”, señala la artista. Fernández expuso esta idea en una muestra celebrada el año pasado en Berlín, bajo el nombre de Border-Bridges, con motivo del 25 aniversario de la caída del Muro de Berlín. Comenzó pintando la frontera de Tijuana y este mes lo ha hecho en el tramo que cruza la localidad de Nogales, Sonora, donde han participado por primera vez organizaciones estadounidenses y mexicanas, así como los vecinos del municipio.
Los vecinos de Nogales ayudan a la artista a pintar la frontera. / Nick Oza (The Republic)
La artista, que reside en San Francisco, vivió durante varios años en Tijuana, donde podía observar a diario cómo muchos compatriotas intentaban llegar a San Diego. “El muro en California existe más que nada para los mexicanos”, apunta. Quiere utilizar su creación como una plataforma visual para exigir mayor respeto a los derechos humanos de los migrantes no solo en Latinoamérica, sino a nivel mundial.
En el norte recuerdan la frontera con cada comentario polémico que lanza Donald Trump, el candidato republicano a las elecciones presidenciales de Estados Unidos. Al otro lado de los barrotes están, no sólo los miles de mexicanos que desean penetrarlos, sino los más de 100.000 centroamericanos que expulsa México para que de ninguna manera alcancen un punto en los casi 3.000 kilómetros de línea fronteriza.
En el muro que hoy pinta Ana Teresa Fernández han muerto desde 1998 hasta 2014 más de 6.000 personas. El 6% de las muertes de migrantes en todo el mundo. La artista ha querido borrar ese recuerdo en 10 metros de ancho y seis de alto. Aunque matiza: “No lo hacemos desaparecer. Estamos jalando el telón del cielo hacia abajo”.
“Unaccompanied” is an audio-visual story of young immigrants in the Washington, D.C. area who were among the thousands of children seeking refuge from the violence of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala created by photographer Oliver Contreras and CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center. Following President Obama’s statement about a humanitarian crisis on the border in the summer of 2014, these youths captured the national spotlight. Countless articles related stories of tragic and violent journeys.
Noticeably absent from some of the discourse were the voices of the youths themselves. What circumstances drove the children to seek refuge on U.S. soil? What challenges do they face adapting to a new life?
“Unaccompanied” provides these youths a platform to directly share their personal stories with the public. Unaccompanied child immigrants represent an entanglement of issues in both their native and new countries. This project seeks to demonstrate the realities that youth immigrants face: the doubts, aspirations, complexity and humanity of their experience.
Captions were contributed by Elliot Blumberg. Some names in this series have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
Erminia migrated to the U.S. two years ago from El Salvador when she was 15 years old. She dreams of being a family lawyer. (Oliver Contreras)
On her first night walking through the Texas desert, Erminia’s shoes fell apart. She spent the subsequent three days and two nights crossing the desert wearing only her socks. “There were so many thorns,” she recalls, “and I had to walk without shoes. The entire desert.” (Oliver Contreras)
Karina was raised by her grandmother in El Salvador and didn’t meet her biological mother until she was 10. As a result, Karina (now 18) doesn’t have as strong a maternal connection with her mother as with the family she left behind. (Oliver Contreras)
“Building up strong family relationships after being separated for a long time is complicated,” says Karina. “I left my grandmother, and I did all this sacrifice for something better so I have to make it worthwhile,” she says. (Oliver Contreras)
During his first attempt at immigrating to the United States, Marvin was arrested and slept on the floor of a Mexican prison for four weeks. He was 14. “They gave us disgusting food. There were a lot of people in just one room,” he remembers. (Oliver Contreras)
On his second attempt, Marvin was held in a house with other immigrants by the Mexican military, who found their coyote nearby with drugs. “I’ve had someone point a gun at my head and threaten to kill me,” he says, describing the experience.
These traumatic experiences imprint themselves on many of the unaccompanied, but Marvin’s story turned around upon his entrance into the U.S. He graduated from high school as salutatorian and received a full scholarship to a university.
At age 13, Mauricio’s mother paid to bring him across the Mexican border. He was passed between several coyotes, and nearly fell victim to a scam. “(A coyote) told me that if I didn’t want to walk, I had to pay seven thousand dollars,” he says. (Oliver Contreras)
Mauricio was able to call his mother for help and safely reunite with her. Now he wants to value her sacrifice and succeed in his new home. “For me, the American dream consists of overcoming, of happiness, and of reunification with your family.”
Antonio is in the process of applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, an option for children who were victims of abuse or neglect in their home countries. He is doing well in high school, learning English, and still wants to be a pilot. (Oliver Contreras)
From a young age, Antonio loved aviation. At age 9, his grandparents forced him to quit school and work as a fisherman. He protested, but they beat him repeatedly until he complied. Antonio was able to leave Guatemala five years later with the help of his mother. “I ran to hug her and didn’t let go and started to cry and cry … I didn’t remember her, only from photos and talking on the phone.”
Daisy grew up in a farming town in the Guerrero state of Mexico. When she was 10, she was the victim of an assault. “That night … changed everything about my life and my childhood. My mother told me that it was a nightmare, but what happened to me wasn’t a nightmare.” The assailant was never identified.
Daisy received little to no support following the trauma, and as a result, began cutting herself. This continued after her border crossing until she started receiving counseling through the public school system.
“And finally they believed me,” she says.
At age 13, Gissell wants the chance to prove her worth in society. “I think it’s really important to tell our story,” she says. (Oliver Contreras)
Gissell’s father left for the United States from her native El Salvador when she was 3 years old. She spoke to him every day, but dreamed of the day when they would meet again. When she was 12, she came to the U.S. to reunite with her father. “I believe the hardest thing was separating from my sister and my mother,” she says. (Oliver Contreras)
“My older brother always dreamed of coming here.” As one of nine siblings, it wasn’t Adelso’s dream to make the journey from his native El Salvador to the United States – it was his responsibility. (Oliver Contreras)
Two weeks after he arrived on U.S. soil, Adelso, 24, got a job in a restaurant. He now works in construction and lives with relatives, but his siblings and parents remain in El Salvador and receive his economic assistance. His dream of pursuing architecture is on hold for the moment.
“We’re here to do the best we can,” he says.
Fleeing the alcoholic and drug-addicted father of her child, Nadia failed twice to enter the United States. Finally, on her third attempt, Nadia crossed the border with her one-year-old daughter to live with her mother. “I had a lot of problems buying milk for (my daughter) during the trip,” she says. (Oliver Contreras)
Nadia, 20, and her infant daughter are in a pending immigration case. While the court decides her and her daughter’s fates, Nadia wears an ankle monitor, which she was forced to don as a condition of her release from a Texas detention center. (Oliver Contreras)
Like many immigrants, for security reasons Sara couldn’t tell any of her friends in El Salvador that she was leaving. One day, her and her brother simply picked up and left. They now live together with her sister.
At 19, Sara is in her final year of high school. Upon graduation, she will continue her job waiting tables and sending money to her parents, who remain in El Salvador.
Despite her humble position, Sara dreams of studying to become a doctor. “There aren’t excuses for not dreaming,” Sara says.
Last year’s wave of unaccompanied children migrating to the US helped spark a crackdown in Mexico, forcing people to take alternative routes north as they face armed robbers, corrupt officials and sexual violence.
Migrants use a makeshift raft to cross the Suchiate river, natural border between Mexico and Guatemala, in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas state, Mexico. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
Jo Tuckman, 13 octubre 2015 / THE GUARDIAN Jennifer Ramírez knows it would be suicide to remain in El Salvador.
A former member of the Barrio 18 street gang, she spent two years as a protected witness, testifying against her former associates. When the trials came to an end, she was released from protective custody to the mercy of the streets.
Ramírez, now 24, was adopted into the gang as an eight-year-old orphan, but said that she decided to testify against her former associates when she became pregnant.
“Now I just want to find a safe place where I can work and send money home for my daughter so she can have a different life than me,” she said.
Last year, Ramírez made it to the United States twice, only to be caught and deported each time. When she set out again this year, she discovered that it has now become as hard to enter Mexico as it is to cross the heavily policed US border.
On her previous attempts, she said, it took three days to reach the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, about 150 miles into Mexico. This time she had spent nearly a month, walking most of the way, sleeping rough most nights – and one occasion only just escaping Mexican immigration officials who shot her with a Taser.
“It has got really difficult to move even a few kilometers,” Ramirez said.
Women and children eat lunch at a shelter providing temporary refuge for Central American migrants traveling north, in Arriaga, Chiapas State, Mexico, last year. Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Across southern Mexico, Central American migrants fleeing violence, poverty and institutional collapse have over recent months found that well-trodden – if risky – routes north have been blocked by a government crackdown.
This has forced travelers to divert their journey through more remote and more perilous regions, where they face a heightened risk of robbery, rape, abduction and death.
Migrants interviewed in three separate church-run shelters on Mexico’s sweltering Pacific coastal plain, described taking lengthy detours – by land or even by sea – to avoid checkpoints and police raids.
They spoke of violent encounters with armed robbers and corrupt police – and the constant threat of sexual violence against female migrants. Female migrants described how they were forced to sleep with people smugglers or coyotes in exchange for their “protection”.
At a shelter in the town of Chahuites, several migrants told the story of a Honduran migrant called Beverly who had disappeared a few days earlier: a people smuggler had kidnapped and raped her younger sister, Fatima, whom he was holding prisoner in a nearby town. Beverly had set out to find her sister, but neither woman had been heard from since.
The roots of the current crackdown lie in the political furore unleashed last year by the arrival in the US of a wave of unaccompanied Central American children and undocumented families.
The Mexican crackdown has clearly been devised in tandem with the US government. Thomas Shannon, counselor to US secretary of state John Kerry, told the Senate appropriations committee in July what the US government planned to do to prevent a repeat of the surge. One of the main planks of the strategy was “improving the ability of Mexico to interdict migrants before they cross into Mexico”.
Migrants can still cross Mexico’s southern border itself relatively easily, but inside the country, they find that traditional routes are all but shut down.
Many more checkpoints have been set up along roads in the southern states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Chiapas and Oaxaca, making travel by bus much harder, too.
Police raids mean few now dare ride the infamous freight train, known as La Bestia, that had long been the main mode of transport for the poorest migrants.
The train now trundles through silent stations, its wagons free of the crowds of men, women and children who once clung to roofs and ladders.
President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the crackdown in July 2014, within a broader policy package called the Southern Frontier Programme. Hundreds of migration agents were redeployed to the country’s southern states.
Mexican officials said the programme was designed to protect migrants and promised to go after people-smugglers and the criminal gangs that regularly preyed on travellers. They also promised justice for any migrants abused by officials.
“The government believes that all these actions have had important, though insufficient, results,” the office of the president said in a written statement to the Guardian.
Immigration officials remove Central American migrants from a northbound freight train during an after-midnight raid by federal police in San Ramon, Mexico, last year. Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
“The government will continue to evaluate the strategies and redouble its efforts in these areas, with the objective of guaranteeing the human rights and security of migrants moving through our country.”
But the most obvious impact of the programme has been a vast increase in deportations from Mexico, significantly reducing the pressure on the US border.
Mexico deported 92,889 Central Americans between October 2014 and April 2015, almost double the 49,893 in the same period the year before.
The US authorities, meanwhile, detained 70,226 people “other than Mexicans” – mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – between October 2014 and April 2015. The year before, it apprehended 159,103.
Such efforts may have driven down the number of migrants reaching the US border, but, human rights activists charge, it has done nothing to address the desperate poverty and rampant violence in countries like Honduras and El Salvador, and risks creating a new humanitarian crisis in Mexico as well.
“The Obama administration has found a way to hide the so-called crisis of Central American migrants at the border,” said Maureen Meyer, of the Washington Office on Latin America. “But at what cost?”
In the Guatemalan border post of El Carmen, just over the Suchiate river, migration officials said that up to 15 buses filled with deportees pass through every night on their way to Honduras and El Salvador.
Once migrants get back to those countries, however, few are likely to remain there for long. Most cities in the two countries are currently controlled by gangs or maras, such as the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha, and many migrants leave to escape imminent physical danger.
Hitching a lift northward from the border, one Salvadoran teenager described his journey as a sequence of near-death encounters.
Men who operate makeshift rafts to cross the Suchiate river, a natural border between Mexico and Guatemala, wait for customers at the place known as ‘Paso del Coyote’ in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, last year. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
Stefhans, 19, fled his home after his father refused to pay a protection fee to a local gang. In retaliation, the gang ordered his death.
He was caught in Mexico and sent back home, where his mother and siblings met him as he got off the bus. The reunion was sweet, he said, but short: after lunch, the family put him on another bus heading north.
Back in Mexico, Stefhans managed to avoid the battery of checkpoints by trudging along train tracks.
But while he eluded migration officials, he walked straight into an ambush by armed robbers. “They had guns and machetes and there was nowhere to run to because they had us surrounded,” he said. “They took everything we had.”
Robbers come in all guises on the road north, and some wear uniforms.
A 34-year-old Salvadoran taxi driver called Walter Acosta described how federal police had demanded 500 pesos (about $30 or £20). He gave them considerably less, which was all he had, and they let him go.
Encouraged by activists at the shelters, Stefhans and Acosta decided to file legal suits, and hoped to obtain a special visa, given to migrants in Mexico who have been victims of crimes, that would allow them to remain in the country until their cases are resolved.
But many migrants distrust the authorities too much, or are under too much pressure to start earning money, to follow this path. Instead, they seek to slip ever deeper into the shadows.
At one stage in his journey, Walter took a boat through mangroves to avoid a checkpoint. Activists have reported that migrants are increasingly using new sea routes between northern Guatemala and Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Several migrants in the shelters said that when planning the journey, they had already factored in the $4,000 fee for a smuggler to get them across the US frontier.
Now, however, they were facing the realisation that they would have to pay about the same amount again to get them through Mexico.
“It looks like it is the only way,” said 17-year-old Margarita, in the town of Chahuites. Just a day before, she had been robbed and sexually molested as she headed north, but was saved from rape by her older brother, who had appealed to the assailants’ consciences.
Soon after, he was detained and deported by Mexican officials. Margarita was left alone with her younger brother. “I don’t know what we are going to do,” she said. “I never thought it was going to be this bad.”
IN the past 15 months, at the request of President Obama, Mexico has carried out a ferocious crackdown on refugees fleeing violence in Central America. The United States has given Mexico tens of millions of dollars for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 to stop these migrants from reaching the United States border to claim asylum.
Essentially the United States has outsourced a refugee problem to Mexico that is similar to the refugee crisis now roiling Europe.
“The U.S. government is sponsoring the hunting of migrants in Mexico to prevent them from reaching the U.S.,” says Christopher Galeano, who spent last summer researching what’s happening in Mexico for human rights groups there. “It is forcing them to go back to El Salvador, Honduras, to their deaths.”
I went to Mexico last month to see the effects of the crackdown against migrants, who are being hunted down on a scale never seen before and sent back to countries where gangs and drug traffickers have taken control of whole sections of territory. More than a decade ago, I rode on top of seven freight trains up the length of Mexico with child migrants to chronicle hellish experiences at the hands of gangs, bandits and corrupt cops who preyed on youngsters as they journeyed north. Compared with today, that trip was child’s play.
In a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Mexico, I met July Elizabeth Pérez, 32, who was clutching her 3-year-old daughter, Kimberly Julieth Medina, tight in her arms, and keeping a careful eye on her two other children, 6-year-old-Luis Danny Pérez and 12-year-old Naamá Pérez. She arrived at this shelter after fleeing San Pedro Sula, a city where she grew up and worked as a waitress but that is now the deadliest town in Honduras, a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
She was aiming to reach the United States, where her mother and grandmother live legally in Florida — 3,000 miles away.
She got less than 300 miles inside Mexico’s southern border to the migrant shelter, and that took 20 terrifying days. Four times, Mexican state and federal police stopped buses she and her children were on. She cried. She bribed them. Other times, she and her three children got out of taxis or buses to walk around checkpoints.
After walking 12 hours around a mountain, they waited, exhausted, for seven days until a freight train left. July hid in a cubbyhole at the end of a freight car with her children, but 15 minutes later some men stopped it and shot toward those aboard. “Sons of bitches, we are going to kill you!” they yelled at the migrants.
Some migrants on the train threw rocks at them; in the chaos, July and her children were able to escape. By the time they arrived at the shelter, she had spent $3,000 sent by her grandparents and mother in the United States on bribes and wildly inflated prices charged by buses and taxis to reach the shelter on July 23. Two days later, she applied for a humanitarian visa to get through Mexico to reach her mother in Miami. She has been waiting two months.
“I think Mexico is putting up as many obstacles as possible so you despair, give up, and leave,” she says.
The crackdown has changed the shelter, Hermanos en el Camino, like many church-run immigrant shelters in southern Mexico, from a place migrants stopped for a quick bite and respite to a refugee camp where migrants wait for months, desperately hoping to get a visa or asylum from Mexico that would allow them to stay or safely continue north.
By day, some 150 migrants erect buildings to expand the shelter, chop firewood, clean, take care of one another’s children. At night, the dozens who cannot cram into overcrowded dormitories throw thin mattresses under the canopy of the huanacaxtle tree, in the dirt, in hammocks slung between branches. There’s a cacophany of snoring in the courtyard. A woman kidnapped by bandits in Mexico and raped in front of her husband sobs.
For eight years, July’s family has been struggling with the gang and narco-cartel violence that has overtaken many areas of her country. On Oct. 29, 2007, her brother, Carlos Luis Pérez, a skinny 22-year-old, was kidnapped and then found dead two days later in a sewage ditch, his hands and feet cut off. He had been on his way to deliver the family’s $91 in rent money when he was robbed.
In 2010, July’s mother left legally for the United States with a visa that her mother had obtained for her. When July’s mother arrived in the United States, she quickly applied for a visa for July, vowing, despite long backlogs for such visas, to get July out soon, too. “Hurry!” July begged, “I don’t want anything to happen to my children.” Matters grew worse in her city; there were three mass murders in the two blocks near her house as neighbors and friends were killed by the 18th Street gangsters who ruled her area.
Not long after her oldest son, Anthony Yalibath Pacheco, turned 14, he told July that 18th Street gangsters ordered him to be their lookout. “No,” he told them, “my mom will be mad at me.” Terrified that her son was in danger, she tried in 2014 to get any kind of visa from the United States Embassy; both her October and November applications were denied. She was told to wait for her mother’s visa to be processed, something that can take years.
On Dec. 4, 2014, at 7 p.m., she sent the 14-year-old and his friend on an errand just steps from home. When he didn’t return immediately, July called, then texted. Her son did not respond.
Desperate, she went to the police station, pleading for help even though she knew they were in collusion with the gang. They found her son’s bike at a house that reeked of marijuana, although no trace of the gangsters — tipped off, July believes, by the police. They found the boys’ bodies nearby moments later. Her son had ligature welts on his wrists, his face was beaten, ribs kicked, and burn marks singed his lips. His body had been stuffed into a garbage bag. Another bag over his head had suffocated him. Her son loved to help others, study math, and take care of his younger siblings, she says, and he longed to be a lawyer. “Why didn’t they leave him alive? Why? Why?” She sobs, tears streaming down her cheeks.
July quickly buried her son in a spot on top of the grave of her brother who had died, abandoned her house, and went to live three hours away. Seven months later, a neighbor tipped her off that the gang had found her. She left in less than 24 hours, carrying little. Speed was crucial; many migrants have fled Honduras only to be traced and killed in Guatemala by the same gang there. In her haste to leave her home she left behind her passport and photos of herself.
She decided her only safe alternative was to go to the United States illegally, but she made it only a few miles inside Mexico before she and her children were caught and detained in the 21st-Century Migration Station, Mexico’s largest immigration detention facility, in Tapachula, Chiapas. Despite Mexican laws that require all detained migrants to be notified of their right to apply for asylum, no one informed her of her rights. She begged to be considered a refugee. “I cannot go back to my country!”
The detention center was packed. Her children slept on filthy mattresses. Her 6-year-old son’s arms were covered in a rash and bleeding. July’s asthma left her barely able to breathe. She begged for medicine. Twelve days after being caught, she was deported to San Pedro Sula, where both her son and brother had been murdered. She immediately headed north again, fearing that if she didn’t leave, the 18th Street gang would find her.
Beginning in July 2014, Mexico redirected 300 to 600 immigration agents to its southernmost states, and conducted over 20,000 raids in 2014 on the freight trains migrants ride on top of, and the bus stations, hotels and highways where migrants travel. In a sharp departure from the past few years, in the first seven months of fiscal 2015, Mexico apprehended more Central Americans — 92,889 — than the 70,448 apprehended by the United States. This year, Mexico is expected to apprehend 70 percent more Central Americans than in 2014, while United States apprehensions are projected to be cut by about half, according to a Migration Policy Institute study last month.
Of course, barriers will not ultimately stop children who are increasingly desperate and can find new ways around obstacles. In a worrisome development for the White House that another surge could be brewing, last month more than twice as many unaccompanied children were caught coming into the United States illegally and put in federal custody than a year ago.
Mexico has been particularly zealous in beating back children traveling alone. In the first seven months of this year, Mexico had already apprehended 18,310 minors, up nearly a third over the same period a year ago.
But unaccompanied minors feel they have no choice but to flee. At the Ixtepec shelter, Brian Enoc Pérez Molina, 16, says there is nothing left for him to go back to — the local narco cartel, which trafficks cocaine and marijuana, killed his brother and father. He tried to go home once, to an island off Bluefields, Nicaragua, and the narcos nearly bludgeoned him to death, too.
No one systematically tracks how many deportees end up dead when they are returned to their homes, but the social scientist Elizabeth G. Kennedy in a forthcoming report documents, from news reports, that at least 90 migrants deported by the United States and Mexico in the past 21 months were murdered. The true number, she notes, is most likely much higher.
Although President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico said when he announced the so-called Southern Border Plan that it was to “protect the human rights of migrants as they pass through Mexico,” the opposite has happened. By the Mexican government’s own accounting, 72,000 migrants have been rescued from kidnappers in recent years. They are often tortured and held for ransom. The survivors tell of being enslaved working in marijuana fields or forced into prostitution. Many are killed — sometimes they have organs harvested — in what’s become an invisible, silent slaughter. The government push has been interpreted as open season on migrants who have become prey to an exploding number of criminals and the police who rob, rape, beat and kill them.
The crackdown has forced migrants to travel in ways that are harder, take longer, are more isolated and have fewer support mechanisms. New measures have made riding on top of freight trains north, a preferred method for anyone who cannot afford a $10,000 smuggler fee, incredibly difficult. In Tierra Blanca, Veracruz and elsewhere, tall concrete walls topped with concertina wire have been constructed to thwart migrants. In Apizaco, the Lechería train station outside Mexico City and elsewhere, chest-high concrete pillars, or rocks, have been installed on both sides of the tracks so migrants cannot run alongside moving trains and board them.
In Veracruz, low-hanging structures have been built that the trains pass through, so unsuspecting migrants atop freight cars are swept off moving trains. Mexican immigration officials are using tasers to zap people off moving freight trains, says Alberto Donis, operating coordinator of the Hermanos en el Camino shelter in Ixtepec.
Four in five of the migrants I spoke to at the Ixtepec shelter have walked most of the way, often with babies or toddlers in their arms.
“There are children walking the length of Mexico,” often at night so as not to be seen, says David Muñoz Ambriz, the Latin America communications manager for World Vision International, a Christian humanitarian aid group.
Migrants are also taking more clandestine, dangerous routes to go undetected, far from the dozens of mostly Catholic-run shelters that have sprung up next to the tracks to aid them. The Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, the priest who runs the Ixtepec shelter, has worked arduously to reduce abuses. He has been jailed by the police, threatened by narco traffickers, and lives with multiple bodyguards in daily fear for his life for denouncing barbaric crimes against migrants and complicity by Mexican law enforcers.
As Mexico has blocked refugees from moving forward, it places enormous obstacles in the way of being able to apply for asylum in Mexico. Those who are detained by migrant officials and are allowed to apply remain locked up during a process that can take months or a year, sometimes in jails where rats roam by day and worms infest the food migrants get. Of those who are able to hold out for a decision, only about 20 percent win — less than half of the roughly 50 percent asylum approval rate of the United States. Mexico granted asylum to 18 children last year.
“You can lock people inside a burning house, you can close the front door, but they will find a way out,” says Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “The U.S. doesn’t want to recognize this as a refugee situation. They want Mexico to be the buffer, to stop arrivals before they get to our border.”
OTHER surrounding Latin American countries outside the so-called three conflicted Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have seen an almost 1,200 percent spike in asylum claims between 2008 and 2014, according to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees study.
While a legitimate debate can continue about the pluses and minuses of economic migrants to the United States, the solution with these refugees from our neighbors to the south is clear. It seems ridiculous to have to say it: If a child is fleeing danger in his or her home country, and that child knocks on our door pleading for help, we should open the door. Instead of funding only the current policies toward migrants in Mexico, we should fund fair efforts by Mexico to evaluate which Central Americans are refugees.
While migrants’ claims are evaluated, we should help Mexico pay for places for migrants to be held that are humane.
The United States should develop a system for these refugees, much like Europe is now doing for Syrians, to equitably allocate people who are fleeing harm throughout this continent — including sending them to safer countries in Latin America, to Canada and to the United States. In the 1980s, many United States churches stepped up to help Central Americans fleeing civil war violence, and many would gladly sponsor a migrant today if encouraged by our government.
Will the United States step up and be a moral leader for these refugees?