~ This article was originally published by SinEmbargo on January 23, 2016 ~
Even though in the neighborhood of Las Américas, located in Ecatepec, Mexico State, it is common to see migrants, for the past several weeks they are nowhere to be found. They are not even in the places where they commonly camped. Residents note that their recent absence is related to roundups, constant patrols, and the “cleaning” of the streets (that includes everything from dogs to beggars) in preparation for the coming visit of Pope Francis. What is known is that in the same area, for the past several days, the officers from the National Gendarmerie who will guard the Pope have been staying at a Fiesta Inn hotel.
Ecatepec de Morelos, January 23 (SinEmbargo) – A man searches for clues that will lead him to the migrants. He walks along the train tracks that serve as a bridge over a canal, and feels that something brushes the sole of his shoe. Stunned, he stops for a few seconds, then continues. But then he stops again, hearing the sound of a rock hitting the metal rail. The sound comes from below.
–Is there someone there? He throws the question to the wind, and it goes unanswered.
Fifteen seconds pass; the rock hits the rail two more times.
–Who is it? He says, curious.
The rock hits the rail like a bell: one, two.
–Do you want food?
But then, nothing. The only sound was the highway and the flow of a fetid stream.
Confused, he peers over and looks in the wedge between the tracks and the earth. But he cannot determine who or what made the sounds, he can only see a pair of black boots, placed like two soldiers standing at alert.
What had it been? He does not know. This is Ecatepec, and here the possibilities are infinite. It could have been a person, hiding. What were they fleeing? Perhaps the ongoing hounding by local, state, and federal authorities, who have been hunting drug addicts, migrants, and homeless, a campaign that activists in the area have denounced. Or perhaps the noise had been an animal without an owner, a street dog seeking refuge from the “cleaning” of the streets in anticipation of Pope Francis’s arrival in the municipality.
There is a line that divides two worlds. It is not an imaginary line, but what it represents seems unreal. On one side are people lodged in a hotel, whose rooms cost—on average—2,000 pesos per night (About $110 USD); on the other there is no one, but a few weeks ago, sleeping there—under bridges—were children, women, and men.
The first group are agents from the National Gendarmerie, the latter are Central American or Southeastern Mexican migrants. Both groups—divided by the tracks of a train—are here, or not, because of the visit of Pope Francis to Ecatepec de Morelos, Mexico State.
The gendarmes arrived in police trucks and autobuses, many of which are still parked outside the Fiesta Inn. The migrants, in turn, had arrived on top of high speed trains.
For days and nights they braved the dangers and clung to the service cars of Ferrosur or Ferromex, which pulled hoppers and cars full of merchandise that is hard to quantify in terms of tons or meters, and can only be measured by the time the train takes in crossing the Avenida Central, just at the place where the tracks cross an open-air canal leading to lake Zumpango.
It is at that corner, on the western edge of Ecatepec—next to the Plaza Las Américas Fiesta Inn—where Central American migrants gathered. But no longer. And nobody knows where they are.
Only one trace remains of those people, whose compass pointed to the north: piles of clothes, mattresses, trash, Styrofoam plates, the ashes of fires, and the silence that marks their absence, marks it in every piece of rubble.
“They hid because of the roundups,” says one man selling tamales outside of the Mexibus station at Las Américas on Avenida Central. He is surprised, because before being asked, he had not even noticed that the migrants were not there.
“It’s that there are a lot of police now, that is why they’re not here,” he adds.
And it may be that this group is not one that is missed, and not just in Ecatepec. Asking about the Central Americans is perhaps like asking about ghosts.
A little more than six kilometers away, the preparations for the arrival of Pope Francis continue as normal. One of the workers there, Roberto, assures me that “the zone has already been cleaned up.”
–And the migrants? And the homeless? I ask.
–All of it. All of it has been removed—responds the young man, who is working to remove the speed bumps on Avenida Insurgentes, on the route that the “Pope Mobile” will travel on February 14.
–Did they also “remove” the street dogs and cats?
–All of it. Even those trees—he points to a pile of brush abandoned in the pavilion.
There, inside and out of the campus of the Unidad de Estudios Superiores Ecatepec, which is part of the Universidad Mexiquense Bicentenario (UMB), the progress is obvious: light fixtures, painted sidewalks, fences hiding the rubble, and dozens of employees and machines working nonstop, all to finish the projects and complete the altar where the Pope will celebrate a religious mass attended by at least 300,000 souls.
Don Efrén—whose name was changed at his request—affirms that this part of Ecatepec is known for being home to migrants and addicts, above all in Jardines de Morelos and the Avenida Central, the latter because it is where the trains pass.
He is a long-time merchant in the area, and he notes that the “cleanup” preceding the Pope’s visit also includes taxi and vanshare drivers, street vendors, and even those with stalls, because on February 14, when the Pope arrives on Mexican soil, they will not be allowed to work.
“They’ve already started. For example, Jardines de Morelos is a wolf’s den, but now it’s not so hot because there are a lot of police. I don’t know where they got so many. Yesterday there was a drill and they had one every ten meters. Regarding the migrants, there was just a roundup but they didn’t take Central Americans but rather people who were from here, from other municipalities, and were begging for money,” Efrén remarks while a gaggle of workers block off the empty lots that surround the Pope’s route with plastic barriers.
–They arrested the migrants?
–That I don’t know. But that’s where they usually are. They are peaceful, respectful. Sometimes they are families, with young children.
–But have you seen them recently?
–No, now that you mention it. But they’re in the streets. There are a lot of them. Have you been to the Avenida Central? That’s where they gather.
Trying to find migrants in Ecatepec was never like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but over 12 kilometers of traveling, at least a dozen interviews, and hours and hours of searching, there was not a single migrant. None of their complaints. Not even their voice. Nothing.
In recent days Rosalba Olivares, a neighborhood leader in Jardines de Morelos, Ecatepec, said that two Central Americans who were known in the area could no longer be found.
“In Jardines de Morelos there was a poor woman, a Central American, who we have not seen in five days. We know that people who are on the street are being picked up,” she says.
“There’s another boy, also a Central American, he is dark-skinned, very tall, very peaceful, and he was always outside the Vips restaurant [at Plaza de las Américas]. We knew him. The residents would bring him food or a blanket, but it has been several days since we last saw him. This is close to the Avenida Central, that’s where they walk or search for food. But they’re not there. It would not surprise me if they are being disappeared,” Olivares adds.
SinEmbargo requested information from the municipal authorities regarding the whereabouts of these people, but received no response.
Next Sunday, February 14, Pope Francis I will travel 8.8 kilometers in Ecatepec. From the Ballísco heliport, located on the Texcoco highway, toward the Circuito Exterior Mexiquense and then down Avenida Insurgentes, to reach the campus of the Unidad de Estudios Superiores Ecatepec, in the area known as El Caracol.
This route will be guarded by 10,000 members of various police forces, among them the State Police, the Federal Police, and the National Gendarmerie.
Community leaders and activists remark that the authorities from all three levels of government want to present to the world a vision of Ecatepec that is not real, because what is real is that the decay, violence, insecurity, poverty, and even disappearances are an everyday thing there.
Ecatepec is the most populous municipality in Latin America, with 1,656,000 residents, and it is also considered one of the most dangerous in the country: 99% of its inhabitants live in urban areas and in those places there are more robberies than in other cities with high crime rates including Culiacán, Acapulco, or Ciudad Juárez. Between January and September of 2015, the number of robberies rose to 8,403.
Of all the robberies in Ecatepec, 85% are car theft; from January to September of last year 7,181 cases were reported; 74% were violent. And that is on top of the generalized violence against women.
From 2013 to 2014, at least 110 women were murdered in this municipality, according to the official statistics of the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi)
While the national average for murders is 12 per 100,000, in Ecatepec it is around 20. Between January and September of 2015, the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System (SNSP) reported that there were 331.
It is not something isolated either, since in December, 2015 alone, Mexico State reported 15,492 probable crimes, according to the SNSP.
Sergio Rincón reports for SinEmbargo from Mexico State. This article was originally published under the title “Ni migrantes verá el Papa en el “hermoso” Ecatepec” and is available at: http://www.sinembargo.mx/23-01-2016/1602697
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute