For the past year, the immigration issue has been buried under supposedly more urgent news including the presidential election, the economic crisis, and Sarah Palin’s wardrobe.
In Mexico, meanwhile, the immigration issue has turned into an all out crisis, according to dozens of US-bound Central American immigrants I interviewed here. Central Americas are being hurt, psychologically traumatized, robbed, raped and murdered.
According to Central Americans who have crossed this country numerous times, the journey is now far more dangerous:
Powerful drug gangs have teamed up with corrupt state and federal police officers, members of the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha gang and private railroad security guards to create a seamless immigrant extortion ring that controls perhaps thousands of miles of railroad line used by Central Americans to get to the US border.
Crime against Central American immigrants crossing Mexico is nothing new. Hondurans, Guatemalans and others have long been victim to extortion and robbery at the hands of authorities here. However, acts of violence, while not unheard of, were few and far between.
Today, according to dozens of Central Americans I’ve spoken to at shelters in this country, gunplay is the norm.
A young man from Honduras told me he was attacked by club-wielding railroad guards in the Central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. He spent weeks recuperating at a shelter in Northern Mexico.
A 60-year-old man from Guatemala told me he was clubbed and sexually assaulted by three men near Piedras Negras, on the Texas border near Eagle Pass.
But the vast majority of crimes against immigrants happen in the Southeastern states of Tabasco and Veracruz. There, migrants are confronted by armed men in plain black uniforms who request fees to allow them to jump trains. Those who are caught on board without paying, according to witness accounts, are thrown from the moving trains. Some are thrown directly under the iron wheels, witnesses said.
In repeated and identical accounts by Central Americans who did not know one another, I was told of a railroad tunnel in an isolated area outside Coatzalcoalcos, Veracruz.
Inside, according to a number of immigrants, the conductor stops the train and men armed with fully automatic weapons climb onboard and begin interrogations. Their goal is to extract phone numbers of friends and family members living in Central America or in the United States in order to demand money in exchange for their safe release. Witnesses described women being raped and men shot. Many of the immigrants I interviewed carried terrible wounds.
The 60-year-old Guatemalan man was nearly hunchbacked after being beaten badly around the shoulders and neck. The young man from Honduras had a black eye so swollen it was completely closed.
The most dangerous places for Central Americans in Mexico, according to those I interviewed, are Tenocique, Veracruz, and La Lecheria, in the state of Mexico. There, according to those interviewed, the law of the jungle prevails. Immigrants travel unarmed with little money and face professional assassins who steal every lempira, quetzal, peso, or dollar they can get their hands on.
Roman Catholic Church-run shelters in Monterrey, Saltillo, San Luis Potosi, Tapachula and other cities, meanwhile, are struggling to deal with the injured and sick. While such organizations are well-funded by Mexican standards, they are in constant need of antibiotics, bandages and other medical supplies. There is never enough penicillin. There are never enough bandages, alcohol or cotton balls.
How many have died? I’m told, over and over again, that inside the tunnel near Coatzalcoalcos, there are 32 crosses stuck in the ground, each marking a place where a coroner found and retrieved the body of a Central American man or woman. Many die in the northern deserts. Others die in the southern jungles. But Mexico is an enormous country and the number of victims may never be known.
In the United States, immigration is a hot-button word, an “issue,” and a talking point, but recently, it hasn’t been any of those things, but rather, a controversial subject that neither party has shown interest in addressing.
Here, as corrupt officials and criminals tighten the screws on Central American immigrants who are merely crossing Mexico to get to the United States, a humanitarian emergency is unfolding.
Salvadoran man at a shelter in Monterrey, Mexico
John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. His has a blog called Gone City.