A Long Series of Uncertainties

A Long Series of Uncertainties

Trials and tribulations along the migrant trail from Central America to the United States.


There were seventy-two people in all. They were migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil and possibly elsewhere, and their final destination turned out to be the same place: a patch of overgrown grass along the cinder-block walls of an abandoned building on a ranch in San Fernando, in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, ninety miles south of Brownsville, Texas.

It was August 2010, and they had been traveling on three trucks headed to the United States that had been stopped by members of the Zetas, a Mexican cartel known for its ruthless violence. The Zetas gave the men the option of working for them as sicarios (hit men), and the women as domestic help. All but one refused. Some were blindfolded, their hands bound behind their backs. Then, with single gunshots to the head, the Zetas executed them, fifty-eight men and fourteen women (at least one of whom was reported to be pregnant). Had Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla, an 18-year-old Ecuadorean shot in the neck, not played dead and then walked through the night before arriving at a military checkpoint, it is possible that the migrants’ bodies—like so many others—never would have been discovered.

The killings became known as the San Fernando Massacre. They gained immediate national and international attention and represented “a new level of violence” by the drug cartels, according to the US government. Central American authorities called for an investigation of the Mexican government and the lack of security it provided migrants. In Mexico, the commissioner of the National Migration Institute resigned in the wake of the massacre, and the government announced a banal, toothless five-point plan. The United States, for its part, developed a “bilateral strategic plan” with Mexico’s Department of the Interior that aimed to increase information sharing, establish visa requirements for Central Americans in Mexico, provide training for Mexican migration officials, and increase detentions and deportations from Mexico—with financial assistance from the United States, if necessary.

The massacre may have forced governments to talk tough, but their responses have done nothing to improve migrants’ well-being or eliminate the many dangers they confront. Since 2010, the kidnappings, extortion, exploitation, sexual assaults, rapes and killings have continued, and migrants remain as vulnerable as ever. Still, an estimated 400,000 migrants—almost all of them Central American—pass through Mexico each year en route to the United States. As the Mexican writer and editor Eduardo Rabasa asks in an essay from 72 Migrantes, a website and “virtual altar” commemorating the victims of San Fernando, if people are well aware of the risks and realities of migrating yet continue to do so, “How brutal must that which they leave behind be?”

Central Americans started migrating to the United States in large numbers in the 1970s and ’80s, as social unrest, revolution and civil wars spread throughout the region. The United States, however, was more than the end of the journey for migrants: it was also partially responsible for creating the conditions that forced them to trek north. Believing that systematic human-rights violations were an acceptable price to pay for containing communism in its own backyard, the US government sent billions of dollars and provided military training to repressive right-wing regimes in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Time and again, Congress renewed its fiscal support, despite knowledge that government-backed death squads carried out mass killings of innocent civilians, disappeared thousands more and assassinated prominent public figures.

Between 1974 and 1996, the Central American civil wars left at least 250,000 Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans dead. Around 75,000 people were killed in El Salvador—more than 1 percent of the entire population—during the country’s twelve-year civil war. In Guatemala, 100,000 were killed and another 40,000 “disappeared” between 1978 and 1984 alone. Widespread violence, economic instability and political insecurity forced many others to flee their homes. According to historian María Cristina García, 1 million people were internally displaced and 2 million more sought refuge in Mexico, the United States and Canada. By the time the Salvadoran civil war ended in 1992, a quarter of the country’s population had left, leading one social scientist to dub El Salvador a “nation of emigrants.” Some 500,000 Salvadorans and 200,000 Guatemalans settled in Mexico, but Mexico’s neglect of Central American migrants (justified by the claim that they were merely passing through its borders), combined with the promise of higher wages, led many to push farther north. By 1990, there were more than 465,000 Salvadorans and 225,000 Guatemalans living in the United States, most of whom had arrived in the previous fifteen years. The number of Honduran immigrants also increased, although their most dramatic growth occurred after 1990.

Twenty years later, not much has changed. Central America remains the poorest region in Latin America (largely dependent on migrant remittances), and the so-called Northern Triangle, which comprises El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is the most violent region in the world. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, more than 180,000 people have been murdered in the Northern Triangle since 2000, including nearly 49,000 in the last three years alone. Less than 5 percent of these murders, many connected to gang violence, have resulted in convictions; impunity reigns throughout the region. The homicide rate exceeds 50 per 100,000 inhabitants, and in Honduras it was over 90 in both 2011 and 2012. (To put this in perspective, in 2012 the global homicide rate was 6.2, the United States’s 4.7 and Mexico’s 21.5.) An investigative article titled The Countries That Don’t Mourn Their Dead, published in the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica, noted that violent deaths have become so common that victims are no longer named, just counted and accumulated. In Guatemala, people now refer to the newspaper Nuestro Diario (Our Daily) as Muerto Diario (Daily Death) instead.

Over the last two decades, the unrelenting violence, extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunities, and expanding social networks and family connections have spurred further migration. But the experience of migrating from Central America to the United States has not been static over time. It is difficult to compare the experiences of people who migrated during the 1970s and ’80s with others who migrated in the last decade. Shifting US and Mexican migration policies, the militarization of the US-Mexico border and, more recently, the Mexican cartels’ increasing control over migration routes have raised the physical and economic costs to migrants. Today, migration is more difficult, dangerous and deadly than ever, and yet the number of migrants has only increased. As of 2011, there were 1.3 million Salvadorans, 850,900 Guatemalans and 490,600 Hondurans living in the United States, representing 85 percent of all Central Americans in the country. Some, however, never make it that far.

* * *

Rather than focusing on the geopolitics of migration, a number of recent books and films have turned their attention to the migrants themselves and the grim realities they face in search of a better life. These works explore the grueling process and psychological demands of migration, the many threats that migrants face along the way, and the multiple borders—geographic, physical, political, cultural and linguistic—that migrants cross when traveling from Central America through Mexico and to the United States.

Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez’s The Beast offers the best overview to date of contemporary Central American migration. Beautifully written and expertly translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington, The Beast is a collection of essays based on Martínez’s eight trips atop the freight trains that migrants ride north through Mexico. While the publisher’s marketing department most likely chose the English-language title (a reference to la Bestia, the name by which migrants know the trains), the book’s original title, Los migrantes que no importan (The Migrants Who Don’t Matter), more accurately reflects the book’s principal contribution: laying out a political economy of migrant exploitation, and showing its devastating impact on migrants.

Mexican government policies have long criminalized migrants, whose undocumented status has made them susceptible to abuse and extortion by police, government officials and bandits, among others. But in recent years, the cartels’ increasing control over migration routes has changed the calculus and costs of migration. Along with narcotics and arms trafficking, migrants have become the cartels’ third main source of income—a way to diversify business through human trafficking (Central Americans now pay as much as $7,000 to reach the United States), kidnapping, extortion and, in some cases, forced prostitution or enlistment into cartel ranks. Thanks to a combination of brutal violence and fear, the Zetas, whom Martínez compares to “a metastasizing cancer,” now control almost all of the territory along the Gulf that migrants traverse to get to South Texas (the most direct route), and the Sinaloa cartel controls most of the western US-Mexico border.

The cartels’ control over migration has reshaped local and regional economies, licit and illicit, around the exploitation of migrants. In many towns on the migrant trail and along the border, coyotes—migrant guides—and others who profit off migrants are simply seen as “necessary laborer[s] in a widely accepted commercial framework.” In such places, according to Martínez, talking “about the narco’s fees is as common as talking about the rise in the price of tortillas.” Although cartel control has cut into the earnings of all who profit off migrants, in the end it’s always the migrants themselves who pay: sometimes in money, sometimes with their lives.

Along with The Beast, Diego Quemada-Díez’s film La jaula de oro (The Golden Cage) elucidates what the political economy of migrant exploitation means for migrants in real terms. La jaula de oro tells the story of Juan, Sara and Samuel, three teenage Guatemalans, and Chauk, a Tzotzil teenager, who migrate north in search of the American dream. La jaula de oro humanizes migrants, showing that there is no such person as the prototypical Central American migrant. Men and women, young and old, children and entire families migrate. Of particular note is the dramatic increase in the number of child and teen migrants: this year alone, the US Border Patrol has apprehended more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors, up from just over 4,000 in 2011. And that only includes those who are detained in the United States. Migrants are bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, farmers and laborers. Some, like Chauk, are from indigenous communities and do not speak Spanish, let alone English. Others are deportees hoping to return to the United States. And as Martínez notes, “there are those…who don’t migrate. They flee.”

Making it to the United States is anything but a given. Unlike Mexican migrants, who cross one country and one river to reach the United States, Central American migrants must traverse multiple countries and two or three rivers. The trip to Mexico’s northern border typically takes at least a month, according to Martínez. Hondurans and Salvadorans must travel hundreds of miles just to reach the Chiapas-Guatemala border, where they are ferried across the Suchiate River on large black inner tubes. Others cross over land into the Mexican state of Tabasco farther north. From Mexico’s southern border, it’s another 1,200 miles to the Tamaulipas-Texas border, the closest crossing point, and as far as 2,300 miles to the Tijuana–San Diego border. The few migrants with a bit of cash might choose to travel part or all of this distance by bus. But like Juan, Sara, Samuel and Chauk, and most of the migrants Martínez met, the majority rely on “the Beast.”

According to Martínez, the Beast can best be understood as “a long series of uncertainties”: how to know which freight cars are leaving, where they’re going, whether it’s safer in the middle or toward the rear of the train, what to do if confronted by robbers or kidnappers, and when to get on and when to jump off. Whether on the Beast or elsewhere on the migrant trail, the difference between knowing and not knowing can have serious consequences. Missing a train can mean having to wait as many as three days—oftentimes without food or shelter—until the next one passes by. Riding the rails, migrants are confronted with threats environmental (sun, wind, cold, rain), physical (branches, tunnels, derailments, train cars slamming together, falling onto the tracks) and human (robbers, kidnappers, corrupt migration officials and train operators). Some migrants describe the Beast as “the devil’s invention.” Martínez heard one man refer to it as “the Rio Grande’s first cousin…. They both flow with the same Central American blood.” Martínez points out that sometimes “it’s simply the exhaustion that kills you. Sometimes it’s just one slow moment of slipping into sleep, and your head is gone from your body.” If you fall and manage to survive, you’re likely to “bleed out.” Moreover, chances are that “nobody is going to know about it. You probably won’t even end up as a statistic if you die there. Not unless your family goes to the consulate.”

* * *

In addition to falling from the train, robbery and kidnapping are a constant risk along the migrant trail. Corrupt train operators are known to slow down and even stop in designated areas to allow migration officials to conduct raids or criminals to board the train. Officials in the state of Veracruz recently filed a complaint against Ferrosur and Kansas City Southern de México for this. Since then, the company has prohibited migrants from riding its trains, which has only resulted in overcrowded migrant shelters and stranded migrants having to travel north by foot or risk encountering migration officials aboard a bus. Despite the many risks and dangers associated with riding the Beast, as long as the Mexican government denies migrants the right to move freely through the country, it remains the best transportation option.

In January 2011, Raúl Plascencia, the president of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, estimated that nearly 20,000 migrants were kidnapped in 2010 and held, on average, for $2,500 ransom—netting up to $50 million for the cartels. Sometimes the migrants are taken by force; in other instances, they are lured to a cartel safe house, where armed kidnappers rob and beat them and demand that they turn over the phone numbers of relatives who will be able to pay a ransom. In La jaula de oro, a young boy decked out in Yankees gear leads Juan and Chauk, along with eleven others, into such a trap. Although the two manage to escape, viewers are conscious of the fact that the others—like the vast majority of kidnapped migrants—do not. Some may have been able to come up with the ransom, but people who are kidnapped and cannot pay are often tortured and killed, as may have been the case with the more than 200 people whose remains Mexican officials discovered in mass graves in San Fernando less than a year after the massacre of the seventy-two migrants. In the words of Father Alejandro Solalinde, Mexico has become “a cemetery for the nameless.” And while some are never identified, others are never found. An annual caravan of Central American mothers searching for disappeared loved ones has drawn considerable attention to the migrants’ plight over the last decade. In December 2013, the mothers, mostly middle-aged or elderly women, embarked on the ninth caravan, during which they traveled more than 2,450 miles, through fourteen Mexican states. They carried photos of their missing sons, daughters and husbands, held press conferences, and demanded that the government search for them, investigate and prosecute those responsible, and guarantee free, safe passage through Mexico for current and future migrants. To date, the Mexican government has done little to nothing to meet these demands.

Sexual violence against women—committed by narcos, small-time criminals, police, government officials or other migrants—is but another of the horrors that migrants confront. Six to eight out of every ten women are raped or sexually assaulted during the trip north. According to Luis Flores, head of the International Organization for Migration in Tapachula, Chiapas, “The biggest problem isn’t in what we can see, it’s beyond that. The problem lies in a particular understanding of things, in an entire system of logic…. ‘I know it’s going to happen to me, but I can’t help but hope that it doesn’t.’” It is so common that migrant women’s bodies are referred to as cuerpomátics (a slang term roughly meaning “credit cards made of flesh”), used to pay “necessary” taxes along the way. Knowing that they are more likely than not to be raped, women pre-emptively take contraceptives before departing, as Sara does after cutting her hair short, wrapping gauze around her chest to hide her breasts, and putting on boys’ clothes and a baseball cap in La jaula de oro’s powerful opening scene. Rape and sexual assault are often not reported, but even when they are, the Mexican government does not take them seriously. With only three Special Offices for Crimes Against Women and the Trafficking of Persons in the entire country, how could it?

Mexican writer Antonio Ortuño’s La fila india shows that negligence is but one of the many ways in which the Mexican government and its officials are complicit in creating the prevailing political economy of migrant exploitation. The novel offers a damning indictment of corrupt Mexican bureaucrats and the state’s utter failure to protect migrants. In it, as in Mexico today, migration officials are more interested in image control than justice. Massacre after massacre, migration bureaucrats fall into a single-file line, a fila india, denouncing the latest horrific crime against migrants, but doing nothing to prevent the next one from occurring. Their inaction and the generic, nearly identical press statements released after each attack belie their faux outrage.

It is with good reason that migrants do not trust Mexican police or government officials and do not turn to them for help. Martínez likens a migrant going to the police to “a soldier asking for a sip of water at enemy headquarters.” Mexican officials rob an estimated six out of ten migrants, and some corrupt officials have been known to sell migrants back, or turn them over, to cartels. In 2013, the National Migration Institute fired a thousand officials found to be corrupt. Local, state and federal officials’ abuse of migrants is so endemic that Fray Tomás González Castillo, director of the migrant shelter La 72 (named after the victims of the San Fernando Massacre), has referred to them as “the foremost human-rights violators” in Mexico.

Fray Tomás and Father Alejandro Solalinde live under constant threat. As the most prominent defenders of migrants in Mexico, they represent one of the few challenges to the political economy of migrant exploitation, which depends on migrants feeling and being as vulnerable as possible. There are more than fifty shelters throughout Mexico that offer migrants a place to eat and sleep as they make their way north. But they are not always safe havens. Cartels send infiltrators into them, sometimes with the intention of tricking migrants into thinking they can help them make it to the United States. Attacks against shelters, as described in La fila india, are common as well and have forced some to close. The shelters that remain open, along with a handful of NGOs and a small number of others, like Las Patronas (a group of women in Veracruz who prepare food for migrants and throw it to them as the train passes by), are migrants’ only real allies. In a searching essay in 72 Migrantes, Mariclaire Acosta chides Mexicans for their indifference. “How can it be?” she demands. “How have we allowed this? How did we get to this point?” Could it be, as Eduardo Rabasa suggests in his essay from the same volume, that atrocities against migrants have come to be seen as little more than quotidian occurrences in twenty-first-century Mexico? It’s a frightening and disturbing possibility to consider.

* * *

There are “seven circles of Mexican hell” that migrants pass through, according to a character in La fila india. But that’s just in Mexico. The US-Mexico border and the conditions in which migrants find themselves in the United States are two more. Adapting Dante’s metaphor is appropriate, but as Francisco Goldman writes in his introduction to The Beast, even calling the journey north hell seems “like an understatement.”

Migrants who survive the first seven circles often arrive at the border having endured a combination of physical and psychological trauma. The final two circles are no easier to endure. The militarization of the border over the last two decades and the cartels’ increasing control over migration routes have created a “funnel effect,” which means, in Martínez’s words, that “those carrying a change of clothes and the hope to find work now have to walk the same paths as those smuggling guns and drugs.” Sometimes migrants, like Juan and Chauk in La jaula de oro, might be forced to haul drugs across the border for cartels. Others might have to wait a few extra days if a cartel is trying to move drugs or guns and doesn’t want to “heat up” the route. The routes change constantly, based on the cartels’ never-ending game of cat and mouse with the US Border Patrol, but most of them are in desolate stretches of the border—far from urban areas, and far from help. The funnel effect’s impact on migrants has been devastating: from 1999 to 2012, the number of migrants whose remains were recovered along the border spiked from 249 to 477.

Migrants who evade death and Border Patrol officers in the desert move on to the final circle of hell, life as an undocumented migrant in the United States. Most, like Juan, who gets a job discarding unusable cow parts in a meat-packing plant, will work long hours for scant pay at backbreaking, monotonous factory or service jobs—if they find employment at all. As undocumented migrants from Central America, they are easily exploited, unlikely to report abuses and unlikely to receive asylum. And yet, these are the people who made it: the ones who escaped violence and poverty in their home countries; survived the Beast, narcos and corrupt Mexican officials; and managed to cross into the United States, find a job and avoid deportation. These are the “lucky” ones, the people living the American dream.

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