Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 300 | Julio 2006


Central America

An Exodus, a Train, An Unreachable Horizon

In Arriaga, a hot and dangerous Mexican town, one can witness the exodus of masses of Central Americans. Emigrants from all parts await the train that will take them north. On every face, there’s a distant dream: land and freedom.

José Luis González sj.

Arriaga is a town in Chiapas known for its astounding procession. In Arriaga you can watch the pilgrimage of the Central American people, live and direct. Here are some snapshots of the pilgrims that tell their tale; a chronicle of indignation.

The first assault

In a daily procession, hundreds of Central American migrants walk to Arriaga from Tapachula, a town on the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Before Hurricane Stan, the famous “migrant train” left from Tapachula. Now it starts at Arriaga, 270 kilometers further north, because the storm wiped out several bridges. The migrants walk along the abandoned tracks to Arriaga, where they jump the cargo train, grabbing on as best they can to both the train and the American dream.

To achieve this dream, they cross an iron bridge into Arriaga. By the time they arrive, they have already been assaulted so many times that it’s hard to remember the first attack. Was it when the youth gangs stopped them in Arrocera? Or when the Federal Police demanded money from them? Or when some soldiers obliged them to swallow that bottle of shampoo just for fun? Or when that man gave them work but then didn’t pay them? Or was it even before that? Perhaps the first was when the maquila closed and they weren’t paid what they were owed. Or when they couldn’t go to high school because the government didn’t invest enough in education. Or even earlier, when an unknown father left them without a certain future, a surname or any self-confidence. It’s not easy to recall the first assault. Each step that these Central American people have taken, each stop on their Stations of the Cross expresses a silent fury, a repressed anger that makes them walk firmly toward the horizon where the roads always seem to meet just a little further on.

Not all of those who arrive know that Arriaga, this hot town near the sea on the Pacific Coast, has a Migrant Center. It was built by the local priest, Father Heyman, who took charge of the Migrant Pastoral for the diocese. The Jesuit Service for Migrants put me in touch with him.

Nicaraguans, Salvadorans,
indigenous Guatemalans...

At this Migrant Center, I witnessed the procession of the Central American people. Since I’ve lived and worked in the four countries where the overwhelming majority of the migrants come from, a certain intimacy flashed in their eyes when it turned out that I knew the places they came from.

During my days at the Center, this quiet procession included a group of Nicaraguans from Acahualinca, who left their footprints here just as their ancestors thousands of years ago left footprints that were petrified on the shores of Lake Managua and can still be seen in their neighborhood. They continue to flee a vulnerability that dates back to prehistoric times. They came in a group of married couples. Others came from Somotillo, Matagalpa and Chinandega. There was even a landowner whose bean farm, which provided jobs for many day laborers in eastern Chinandega, is no longer productive.

From El Salvador came a diversity of people including fishermen from the Costa del Sol and La Libertad, and a driver from the 101B route, whose buses used to take us to “Teclita’s” house. There was also a group of young people from El Paraíso in Chalatenango who had just finished their stint in the army, and a gang member from Soyapango who was fleeing his own gang. José Mauricio cried when he talked about how the soldiers killed his father during the war. He was raised by his grandmother, and didn’t hear from his mother until he had grown up. He went to live with her, but she didn’t pay any attention to him, so he joined the army for two years, then got involved with the Mara 18 gang. Now he has a wife and two little girls, whom he loves very much. He’s pretty messed up emotionally. He has a machete hidden in his pants and a good-sized tire wrench in his hand, ready to “beat the crap out of the first bastard robber on the train.”

The Guatemalans don’t call attention to themselves: an indigenous Quiché who barely speaks because he’s ashamed he doesn’t speak better Spanish, a young Mam from San Marcos who wants to go back because some thieves cleaned him out, and some ladinos from the eastern towns of Jalapa and Chiquimula.

Hondurans: The majority

The majority of those passing through are from Honduras. There are Garífunas from La Ceiba and Santa Rosa de Aguán. One of them told me he’d met the teacher who made the news during Hurricane Mitch by surviving several days floating out at sea clutching a few boards. The Garífunas’ deep voices stand out among the conversations that continue late into the night along the tracks.

Other Hondurans come from Santa Bárbara and Lempira; there are people from Cortés who were left without work when the maquilas closed, and peasants from Olancho who laugh when I mention in the food line that no one should mess with them or they’ll be trouble for all of us. And there are several from my beloved Yoro: one from Toyós who’s amazed that I know the Asturias hospital; others from Victoria, surprised to hear me talk about my friend Wil from Las Vegas; and still others from El Progreso who couldn’t believe that someone receiving them in Mexico knows the streets of La Perla del Ulúa.

I was impressed by the determination of doña Albertina, a Honduran women of over 50, who’s traveling with her 24-year-old son whom she describes as “not all there,” and for whose benefit she’s fought so hard. She’s very worried about the train, because she’s afraid she won’t be able to hang onto the bars for such a long time and that her son might get confused at any moment. She asked us to find her work in a tortilla shop so she could stay in Arriaga. She worked one day, but the train passed the next and she disappeared with her son.

Not everyone emigrates as a direct result of their economic situation. Some are fleeing violence or specific threats. A Guatemalan bank worker traveling with his wife and two children has received death threats “because of my work,” he said, without wanting to explain any more. A young man from Villanueva in Cortés lost a relative in a drunken brawl. He tells me he planned revenge and got hold of three AK rifles, but before he could do anything his car was strafed when a friend he had lent it to was driving. His friend was killed and he had no alternative but to flee north.

Profile of the migrants

I obtained the following information from a sampling of 200 migrants who passed through the center March 16-19, 2006:

Country of origin: 45% from Honduras, 29% from El Salvador, 14% from Guatemala, 11.5% from Nicaragua and 0.5% from Panama. According to the priest in charge of the Center, they have occasionally had people from Bolivia, Ecuador and other South American countries.

Sex: 89.5% men and 10.5% women.

Religion: 58% Catholic, 26% Evangelical and 16% not religious. We have to bear in mind that most of them knew the Center is run by the Catholic Church, and may have replied “Catholic” to remain in our good graces. In some cases, people didn’t seem to know the difference, asking “Isn’t it the same thing?” Talking with those who said that they are not religious, I found that they include both baptized Catholics who are no longer practicing and Evangelicals who “accepted” Christ but then stopped going to church.

More than a few knew something about the Society of Jesus. The subject arose indirectly, or when they found out I was a Jesuit. These included beneficiaries of projects carried out by organizations such as the Juan XIII Institute in Nicaragua and people who belonged to a parish run by the Jesuits, or admirers of some “famous” Jesuit like Fernando Cardenal or Chema Tojeira. A former general secretary of SITRATERCO, in La Lima, recalled training workshops with the Jesuits in the 1980s. And someone from Boaco gratefully said to me, “I’m on my way north thanks to the Jesuits.” He went on to explain, “I didn’t have the money for this trip, but thanks to the Local Development Fund (FDL) in Nicaragua my brother-in-law got a loan to buy cattle. We tricked the FDL, because my brother-in-law already had the cattle.”

Marital status: 24% married, 35% living with a partner, 36% single—a third of these with children.

Education: Most had no more than a primary school education, if that, although some had gone to college. It caught my attention that the Nicaraguans tended to have a higher education level, while the Hondurans had the lowest.
Assault, extortion, robbery, rape

Over half of these people had been assaulted at least once along the railroad tracks that run from Tapachula. Others talked of assaults to come, since it’s the second or third time they’ve tried to get through. In addition to facing gangs and criminals, there’s the danger of extortion from any of Mexico’s many security forces: the Federal Preventative Police, Federal Highway Police, Judicial Police, local police, army and immigration officers. Rape is also common. One migrant told how his girlfriend was stopped at an army checkpoint and he was told to go on, after he paid them $50. Now he feels guilty about leaving her there, especially because he suspected they might rape her. A week earlier a young woman who came through Arriaga asked us to take her to the doctor because she had been raped and wanted to know if she was pregnant. That same day a group of Nicaraguans reported that one of their number had been raped by some criminals because he didn’t have any money.

The migrants are also the object of mockery and insults. Someone from Olancho tearfully told me of his failed attempts to get his five children out of abject poverty. He came alone, was assaulted, left in his underpants and as if that weren’t enough, he was dragged across stones, which left cuts all over his face and body. Fortunately he was treated for three days in the hospital at Escuintla, Mexico. Then there was the case where some soldiers made one young man swallow the contents of a bottle of shampoo.

An entire industry to cheat them

In most assaults people lose not only their money but also their shoes, belts, shirts and pants, if they appear to be new. Some talked about struggling to find pieces of cardboard or bags to put on their feet after the assault so they could walk over the hot ground.

They are also cheated by some unscrupulous Mexicans. A group of Nicaraguan women worked all day ironing clothes for a woman who paid them just ten pesos, less than a dollar. Others complained that they were offered work on a farm for a few days and weren’t paid anything. “Remember this isn’t your country!” they were told as they left. Others are cheated by drivers, especially on the buses that run between these towns along the coast. The drivers threaten to turn them in at a police station or immigration office unless they pay them a large sum of money, or charge them an exorbitant amount for the trip.

At the bus terminal in Arriaga, some of the clerks at the ticket window of the “Cristóbal Colon” bus company make a hidden mark on the migrants’ tickets. When the judicial police stop the bus as it leaves Arriaga, they make those with marked tickets get off. Then they steal their money and threaten them if they make any complaints.

An entire industry has been built along the migrants’ route, with the participation of government authorities, security forces, employers, transport workers, gangs and even regular people who exploit the oft-repeated threat, “Be quiet, this isn’t your country.”

T-shirts, tennis shoes,
food, a telephone, maps...

One of the tasks at the Migrant Center is to receive the migrants and note down their information in a registration book: their first and last names, age, country and address, marital status and number of children, education level, profession, religion and problems encountered, including robberies, assaults, illnesses or other problems along the way. This limited information offers a great deal of data for an illuminating investigation. The most interesting part, however, is when people start to talk about other things: how they feel, what expectations they have, what happened to them on the way… As they gain confidence, some emotionally show photos of their children.

The Center gives everyone a T-shirt, so they can change clothes and wash what they’ve been wearing. It also gives them useful medicines: anti-inflammatories, antiseptic and anti-fungal creams, pain killers. They receive three meals a day and sometimes donated clothes in good condition. There’s an enormous need for shoes. People also need jackets to keep out the cold, because at night the train passes through the high altitudes of Orizaba and Córdoba. The Center has its own bathrooms, although there are a lot of problems with the water supply, especially in the toilets. There’s a river a block away from the Center where people can bathe, which they tend to prefer to the showers.

There’s also a telephone, which is essential in a Migrant Center, because many people have to call their families to get money sent through Western Union. Elías, who’s in charge of the Center and works with great dedication, commitment and Christian conviction, picks up and distributes the money. Maps of Mexico are also very important. People consult them over and over again, and swap advice on the easiest routes.

The Center also provides help to those who want to return but don’t have the money to do so. The Center doesn’t give anyone money, but it does put them in contact with the Beta Group, which helps them return or finds other means. A nearby truck stop helps the Center by asking drivers to give people rides back to Guatemala. And we sometimes call on doña Olga, a Catholic woman from Tapachula who has established her own Migrant Center there, and she comes and picks them up.

The people who stay at the Center are sometimes asked to collaborate by helping to prepare the food or wash dishes after dinner. Sometimes it’s hard to find volunteers and Elías gets annoyed, with good reason. The Center’s greatest need is for a legal adviser who can tell people how to denounce police corruption and assaults. The migrants have rights, but they don’t know this, and the threat of deportation weighs heavily and effectively over them.

The “pastoral of the tracks”:
Waiting for the train

What I enjoyed most was the “pastoral of the tracks”: accompanying people down to the tracks to wait for the train. Since these are cargo trains, no one knows exactly what day or time they’ll pass by. Trains typically leave every two or three days, and you have to keep an eye on them near the station. People form groups as they wait, which are small at first but grow. Some days we’ve seen 400 or 500 migrants near the tracks. And many more are hiding and waiting further along, by the cemetery. They stay through the night, because the train often leaves at unexpected hours. Those who have been at the Center tend to form what could be called the “hegemonic” group. They can be identified by the white T-shirts they got at the Center. There by the tracks, waiting with them, I recognize the familiar ways of talking and being in our Central American countries. These are common people, with their own culture and sense of humor: jokes, politics, soccer, superstitions… And since I’m there and am a priest, they ask a lot questions about religion. I feel bad as the center of attention, having to answer so many questions, but I try respond to their concerns about religion, in an audience of both Evangelicals and Catholics. “Is the Da Vinci Code true?” “Do you know how to perform exorcisms?” “Have you ever seen someone’s head twist around in circles like in The Exorcist?” “I’m an Evangelical but this cross I have on my bracelet is more powerful than the cross you wear around your neck.” “Why don’t priests ever get tired?” “Is it true that John Paul II was like a god?” “Do you believe that holy water has power?” They have question after question like this.

Sharing bread, talk and friendship

I try to bring them around to what I believe is central: Christ and the Kingdom, the need for unity and solidarity, the importance of following Christ while remembering that he was a migrant from birth, and that we should take advantage of migration to change not only our country but also our hearts, to make them burn like those of the disciples of Emmaus so we too can join up with Christ. An Evangelical from Guatemala comments that “a famous priest from the capital is getting rich and doesn’t like to talk with people because they smell bad, but you’re here sitting and listening to us.” Another Evangelical says it’s the first time that he’s seen “a father” up close and, visibly moved, he thanks me.

On the one hand I’m embarrassed to think that they’re saying these things when all I’ve done is sit and talk with them, but on the other I recognize that this is a service and a help. Some of the migrants promise to send a donation to the Center when they get to the United States. The truth is that it does them a great service. And the most important part is not the food, the place to sleep, the bath or the medicine, but rather discovering that they can share bread, conversation and friendship. Almost every afternoon there’s a time for prayer or a Mass at the Center. The various pastorals in the parish take turns preparing them.

Dangers: falling from the train,
immigration officers, gangs...

Once they manage to jump the train, they face another long list of dangers. The first is losing concentration and falling from the train when they get on or fall asleep. Julio Palencia, from Tegucigalpa, has been living in the Center for a month. He slipped trying to jump the train and the wheel ran over the tip of his foot. It happened so fast he didn’t feel anything at first, just saw the blood flowing out of the shoe. When he took it off they had to take him to the hospital, where they amputated his big toe. Now he’s waiting for it to heal before trying again. A few nights ago, he himself pulled out the last piece of bone that was protruding and bothering him. He asked me to take some photos of his foot to email to his family, who think the damage was worse than it is.

Another danger is extortion by the guards who watch the train or the railroad company’s private security personnel. Then come the police and immigration checkpoints. Some Hondurans who left the Center returned three days later telling how some officers in blue uniforms—the Sectoral, Municipal and Auxiliary police all wear blue—stopped the train, made everyone get off and then robbed them all.

The gangs are the greatest danger. Sometimes large numbers of Mara Salvatrucha members get on and take control of the whole train. Their violence has no limits. The Salvadoran who worked as a bus driver on the 101B route tells us, with a gesture that suggests he’d rather not remember, that in a previous attempt several people were clinging onto a couple of cars and the gangs threw someone off the top. “When the wheels ran over him they tore him apart and we were all splashed with blood.”

Some call this train “the beast.” The cars are covered with painted graffiti, and on one of them someone painted 666, the “number of the devil,” in large numbers.

Solidarity along the route

There are also many signs of hope that light this massive pilgrimage. First and foremost is the solidarity among the Central Americans. In some cases the migrants arrive alone, but most often they come in groups. Sometimes these are groups formed along the way, but they are also sometimes established in the Migrant Center. They include a mixture of Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans. The Nicaraguans tend to come in groups, although those who come alone easily join in any other group. They lend each other money to make a call, promise to stand as a group against the gangs or make joint plans together as they pour over the map of Mexico.

Many Mexicans also show great solidarity. The Migrant Center receives donations from people in Arriaga and the parish campaigns among its members. I was touched to see how people in the houses near the tracks always give water when asked, and at times even food. Sometimes a car will stop along the tracks, pull out a jug of coffee and pass it around among the groups. Further on, in Córdoba, the women of La Patrona are famous for making sandwiches and handing them up to the migrants as the train passes.

There is also the accompaniment provided by the Catholic Church, which tends to run many of the migrant centers along the route: one in Tecún Umán, two in Tapachula, this one in Arriaga and others in Oaxaca, Acayucan, Orizaba—which is closed now—and San Luis Potosí… In addition, some parishes open the church’s doors so the migrants can sleep inside. Some people also criticized the churches in some towns, whose priests unfortunately want nothing to do with them or have made disparaging comments.

There are more migrant centers further along, on the northern border, in Mexicali, Monterrey, Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana... Some are run by the Scalabrini Order, which is devoted exclusively to serving immigrants and migrants, and others by the diocese or parish, like the one in Arriaga. Yet others are run by individuals, such as doña Olga’s center, also in Tapachula.

There have been complaints about the strict rules in some centers, especially the one in Tecún Umán, where people aren’t allowed to go out once they’re inside. People tend to be very happy with the center in Arriaga, since they can go out into the street and even walk through town and feel quite free. In addition, Father Heyman has spoken with the Immigration Police, demanding that they not bother the migrants in the street where the Center is located, and also asked the mayor to make sure the municipal police respect them. In other municipalities, the municipal police ask the migrants for money and threaten to denounce them to “la migra.”

Fifteen houses in one life

During my time in the region, I also met with a different group of migrants. Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom) is the name of a neighborhood formed on the beach in Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche. José Juárez came there with his family. He is a Q’anjob’al Mayan catechist from the town of Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango, who once worked with Father Stanley Rotter in Santiago Atitlán. In 1975, after Father Rotter was assassinated, he moved to Ixcán where he worked with Father Guillermo Woods, whose plane was shot down by the army in 1976. He took refuge in Chiapas and Campeche in 1982 because of the war, and returned to Ixcán after the Peace Accords were signed. In 1997, he defended me and two other Jesuits from the violent crowds during disturbances in Pueblo Nuevo following the demobilization of the guerrillas. But the land there is no longer productive and various family, health and economic problems made him join the growing numbers in recent years who have come to regret their return to Guatemala and are going back to Mexico. One of his daughters is the protagonist of Ricardo Falla’s most recent book, Historia de Alicia (“Alicia’s Story”).

We stayed at his house on the night of April 16, Easter Sunday, and stayed up talking late into the night. I asked José how many houses he had built in his life for his family. He counted fifteen.

His latest house, house 15, is made of sheet metal and scrap wood, some 40 meters from the sea on a coast at risk from hurricanes, with no fresh water except what they buy from a cistern truck that comes by a few days a week. This house is a symbol of how life just kept pushing José up against the wall, until he ended up in Tierra y Libertad. But that’s just a name, since there’s no solid land under this house, merely sand over which the crabs sometimes scurry under the walls. And there’s no freedom here, since to get work he has to use a fake birth certificate that says he’s Mexican. After spending his whole life fighting for his family, he’s still waiting for the day he’ll be able to rest on some land of his own, step outside his door and raise his gaze in freedom towards the horizon, where in the evenings he watches seagulls flying over the sea.

Some do well, others don’t

After my time with the migrants in Arriaga, I spent three weeks visiting the former Guatemalan refugees of Campeche and Quintana Roo. A surprising number of people from Ixcán have returned to Mexico in recent years. Some are doing well, others very badly. In Cancún I visited a girl of 15 at the Women’s Center who had to work as a prostitute. A client took her to live with him but when she became pregnant after two months he literally put her out on the street. She’ll have her child in a few months now, and was lucky enough to find this center, which is run by some nuns.

We heard about other teenage girls from Ixcán who work in the bars. We visited a young man from Pueblo Nuevo in prison. Until a few days ago, five of them were unjustly imprisoned there, accused of looting stores after November’s hurricane. We also visited a family from Ixcán living in one small room in the suburbs of Cancún.

Other people are doing quite well. In the camps of Quintana Roo—Maya Balam, Kuchumatán and La Laguna—they’re cultivating irrigated fields. In the camps of Campeche—Quetzal Edná, Laureles and Maya Tecún—the fields are highly productive and people are producing honey and growing nontraditional crops that have a very good market, such as peanuts and squash seeds. A day’s work in the fields is worth 100 pesos, or nearly $10, which is a reasonably good wage here.

Another good source of income is temporary construction work in the nearby tourist areas of Cancún and the Mayan Riviera: Majahual, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Xcaret. And some people have taken advantage of the lower cost of getting from here to the north. In several camps, people have built churches with their own resources. Newly arrived Guatemalans continue to flow into the camps; Laureles is adding 700 new lots.

The unreachable horizon

They keep on coming, in search of land and freedom. For the poor, this horizon seems unreachable, like that of the sea. But for now, the migrants’ immediate horizon is the railroad tracks on which they travel, those two rails that seem to join in the distance.

Until the time comes for land and freedom, dreamers like José Juárez make the best of these tracks as they struggle on. Before leaving, I asked if we could say a prayer to bless his house number 15. In the words of our Lord, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Affliction or anguish or persecution or hunger or nakedness or danger or the sword?” It was Monday morning, the day after Easter. Gathered like the Israelites before the Red Sea, waiting for God to do his part and open a new path towards the promised land and freedom, we listened to the murmur of the sea’s waves and the wind skimming over the water.

José Luis González, sj, is a collaborator with envío.

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