the migrant diaries: Mexico 2017-1

Refugees at the beginning of the Via Crucis

‘Don’t Hate Migrants’

by Lynne Jones

Chiapas, Mexico: Ciudad Hidalgo on the border of Guatemala and Mexico*

Sunday April 9, 2017

When I asked the tall woman with the tiny baby why she left El Salvador, she answered in five words:

Because they killed my husband.

The tiny baby is 27 days old. She holds him close against her chest with a cloth pulled over to protect him from the sun as she walks. Her two daughters, aged four and sixteen, are walking in front, following the banner held up by two other Salvadoreans. It says ‘Don’t Hate Migrants’ in Spanish. This is the start of the Via Crucis de Refugiados (literally ‘The Way of the Cross of Refugees,’ translated as Refugee Caravan 2017 by Pueblo Sin Fronteras). They are heading for Tijuana and the US border.

My husband Asmamaw and I got up at 5 am to join in. Jeff and Heather, two doctor friends who work in Tapachula, picked us up and took us to Cristobal’s house. Cristobal is a Mexican anthropologist who has been involved in organising the Via Crucis marches for a number of years. The idea is simple: Central American migrants marching the length of Mexico will draw attention to their right:

to safely escape persecution in their countries, exercise their right to seek refuge through asylum, and raise awareness of the violence, human rights violations, and legal challenges they face, at home in Central America, in transit through Mexico, and upon arrival to the United States of America.
          – from the announcement of Via Crucis on Facebook

Cristobal gave us a small lecture about our roles as international observers. Article 33 of the Mexican constitution forbids the participation of foreigners in political actions, but we could come as observers to help ensure the safety of the marchers.

Marta, a Colombian researcher on migration, and three Salvadoreans joined us. We took two taxis down to Ciudad Hidalgo and jumped on one of the innumerable rafts made from rubber tyres and planks of wood, and travelled across to Tecun Uman, as the town is called in Guatemala. As simple as that, no signs that this was an international border, no police, no wire, no walls, just a very busy, shallow river with rafts punting back and forth laden with families and traders carrying goods in both directions—crates of beer, toilet rolls, boxes of groceries, wood, fruit. There is a formal border crossing on the bridge, but I did not see many going that way.

Our group wasn’t carrying much: a cross, a banner, and a bunch of palms and flowers that were being sold in the market to mark Palm Sunday. The point of crossing was to make a symbolic start on the Guatemalan side. And that’s what we did. At this point journalists and observers outnumbered marchers, but there was something very moving about watching Raul, one of the marchers, plant the wooden cross at the river’s edge and then walk back along the Guatemalan bank, barefoot.

Refugees at the beginning of the Via Crucis

Crossing back to Mexico, we all walked through sandy shallows, and then Jose read the announcement of the Via Crucis while Global TV from Brazil and Reuters (and a few journalists I did not know) filmed and recorded. Here is the next paragraph of the announcement:

Central America is bleeding. Massive numbers of its people are fleeing for their lives on a daily basis. Our region’s governments – the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States of America – are failing us. They are denying the existence of a refugee crisis in Central America and they are violently repressing the people caught in its vicious cycle.It’s time take action to call attention to this emergency situation. On April 9th, refugees, migrants, and allies will set foot from the edge of Central America and head north.
          – from the announcement of Via Crucis on Facebook

Elise is one of those caught up in this misery. Her 16-year old-daughter tells me the whole story as we walk along. She was happy in El Salvador, studying hard and hoping to be a doctor. Her father drove a bus. A criminal gang got on and demanded the takings. He refused, so they shot him. That was seven months ago. Then they started harrasing his wife who ran a small business, saying give us 1000 dollars or we will take your children. So the family packed their bags and fled. When they got to the Mexican border, they had no idea of how to plead for asylum or demand their rights, so they were deported, as are many. They went back to El Salvador, but tried again a short while later. This time, Elise was better informed and asked for asylum on the basis of the violence and terror she had experienced and the direct threat to their lives. It was refused. The Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR) has a lengthy, impenetrable, and seemingly arbitrary decision making system. Cristobal knows many who have been accepted with far less justification. That is why, this year, the Via Crucis march is focussing particularly on the needs of families like Elise. Lawyers from the US are joining them to plead their case at the US border.

… I just want a place to bring my son up safely. I will tell him the story of our country and how the violence forced us to leave.

Read the rest of this diary.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of series of diaries about working with refugees and migrants that Lynne Jones has shared with FXB. We are honored to publish them. All opinions are those of Lynne Jones.

Lynne Jones, FXB Visiting Scientist, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, writer, researcher, and relief worker. Her most recent book is Outside the Asylum: A Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry.

*All migrant names are pseudonyms, personal details have been altered, and all have given permission for their stories to be told. All have known their photos were being taken.

© 2017 text and photos Lynne Jones

Read research on US-Mexico border policies from the FXB report, Children on the Move.

Go to the FXB Children on the Move page for more information about children and families migrating.

With Luke Pye, Lynne Jones has created a website where migrant children can tell their stories themselves through drawing, video, and words. Go to the website for Migrant Child Storytelling. 

For another perspective on organized crime and gangs in Central America, watch FXB fellow Sergio Aguayo speaking in April 2017 at FXB on Escaping from Criminal Violence in Central America, México, and the US: Migrants or Refugees? 

Also read his analysis in the Wilson Quarterly of the need for the United States and Mexico to join together to fight organized crime, and why it has not happened yet.