The day after the U.S. election, I embarked on a long-planned trip with other international and Mexican organizations to northern Guatemala and southern Mexico. The trip was to look at migration flows, and why people are still coming north.
Being in southern Mexico and visiting the migrant shelters is a stunning, heartbreaking, and inspiring experience.
This is a selection of stories from a couple of days of my passing through southern Mexico.
The most inspiring place has been a migrant shelter call La 72—taking its name from the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in San Fernando, in the northern border state of Tamaulipas. Fray Tomas Gonzalez, who founded the shelter, has created an amazing space where people find safety and food for a day or two, or stay there while the Mexican Commission to Support Refugees (Comisión Mexicana de Apoyo a Refugiados, COMAR) processes their asylum claims, which usually takes a few months.
More people are applying for asylum in Mexico. The number of asylum requests for the first nine months of 2016 is 70 percent higher than the total number of requests received in all of 2015. Of the migrants I have spoken with in the last few days, many were looking for work, many had fled violence, and pretty much everyone had been extorted by police or migration officials on the journey.
Here are a few of the stories I heard.
A Honduran woman complained to authorities about gangs who were after her daughters, only to have the police come to her house and tell her that she had 24 hours to leave. She took her 11 children and fled that night. She is at the 72 shelter waiting for her asylum application to be processed. She said that she would not go back and that she would fight for her children “hasta las ultimas consequencias (until the finish). Think about that for a minute. Within hours she hit the road with her 11 kids. How terrified would you have to be to do that?
I spoke to a young man in another shelter. He sat quietly in the back of a room working on a carving of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I expressed admiration for his work and we started talking in Spanish. Soon, again very quietly, he started speaking English. He said, “you never know who might be listening.” Even in the shelter he was scared.
He was born in Guatemala and went to the United States at 11. At 23 he was deported—for driving without a license, which he was not allowed to get because he was undocumented. His family is in the United States, many of them now U.S. citizens. He tried to get back to the U.S., and while crossing Mexico he got into a taxi arranged by a coyote (human smuggler). The taxi was stolen and he ended up in jail in Mexico for five and a half years. He was beaten, and his face bore the scars. He was tortured with water being forced up his nose, the Mexican version of waterboarding. He is terrified of criminal groups and is staying at a migrant shelter while he tries to get permission to stay in Mexico.
Another young man told us a story of vengeance and violence that affected his family in Honduras. He said that another family in his community is out to annihilate his entire family through revenge killings. Many have been killed. He tried going to another part of Honduras to work, but he was afraid that he would be found. Others close to him were killed.
We met a father traveling with a young son, maybe 8 years old, and a nephew in his teens. They were headed to another part of Mexico to join a family member there. The father talked about the need for work. The nephew told us that he had denounced a crime and then received a threat telling him to leave.
The threats these people receive are not idle. While we were at the 72 Shelter, one guest received information that her 17 year-old daughter had been murdered in Honduras.
The migrants told story after story of being extorted, mostly by Mexican authorities.
Also this week, the 72 Shelter got a call from a woman in Guatemala. Her nephew had left Guatemala with a coyote. He had been kidnapped, along with eight other kids in Villahermosa, in the Mexican state of Tabasco. He told her that three of the kids had been handed over to the Zetas—a criminal organization. The aunt called the 72 Shelter. They reported the crime to the authorities who responded and 39 kidnapped migrants were rescued.
When I told one of the workers at the shelter that I so admired what they had been able to do in this kidnapping case she said, “es el pan del día.” The Spanish way of saying, “it’s what we do every day.”
We make heroes out of so many people, sports figures, the rich, the powerful, the beautiful—but these people, the mother doing whatever she has to do to protect her 11 children and the shelter workers who protect them—these are my heroes.
We heard these stories because we stopped and asked. Think for a minute about people you know in the United States who might have made a journey like this. Ask them their story.