Women Marked by the Plan Frontera Sur – by Marcela Turati (En el camino)

 ~ This article was originally published by En el Camino ~


This work forms part of the project En el camino, undertaken by the Red de Periodistas de a Pie with the support of the Open Society Foundations. For more on the project, visit: enelcamino.periodistasdeapie.org.mx

Mónica González and Colectivo SacBé

Mónica González and Colectivo SacBé

The effects of the program that shifted the U.S. border to Mexico’s southern regions, from the Rio Grande to the Suchiate River that divides Chiapas from Guatemala, are marked every day on the bodies of migrant women.

ARRIAGA, CHIAPAS.- The smuggler paid 50 pesos for 15 minutes of sexual services, but he needed more time to unburden himself. In the bed, Raquel listened to a story that also needed release: “In his group, he had a woman with a year-old baby who cried so much, surely from the exhaustion of traveling constantly through the mountains. Then one day he told the mother that he could no longer take her. And they left her there. A while later, she caught back up to the group. Alone. He asked her, ‘and the baby?’ ‘He died.’ Nothing more. They did not know if she abandoned him and he was eaten by animals or if she killed him because she had to keep going. Imagine the pain.”

The Nicaraguan has a sense of youthfulness and her beauty is exuberant (a blond-tinged afro, big eyes ringed with makeup, curves covered by a black bikini underneath a red wrap). From her bed, she takes the pulse of the new migratory difficulties. She says, saddened: “Now that they took away the train, the migrants face more danger.”

Mónica González and Colectivo SacBé

Mónica González and Colectivo SacBé

The neighborhood where Raquel works in the pleasure industry is a few meters from the tracks where the train formerly passed and, in seconds, would fill up with migrants who waited for it in hostels, houses, and nearby hotels. Today, the street resembles an abandoned movie set: hotels and hostels in ruins, rusting train cars, few souls in the street.

The crisis produced by the Plan Frontera Sur (Southern Border Plan, announced in July, 2014 to “protect” migrants by preventing them from boarding the trains) has hit everyone hard, including Raquel and her colleagues.

“Before, there was more money, more movement, and just like that I would make some 1,500 pesos a day; now it’s 500 if I do well, 300 if not,” she says, and points to the plastic Christmas tree that she bought for her children and set up without presents because she could not afford them. “This is where the train stopped and they would go right to the border. Now they aren’t allowed to get on. What might happen to them when they have to go on foot through the woods?”

Without pausing, she answers with another story: “A boy came last week, shaking so much that I even offered him water. He said that some assailants had stripped them naked, put them on their knees, and searched each one to see if they had money hidden in their anus. They made them do squats naked and checked to see if money came out. Thank god they weren’t raped.”

On the other side of the tracks from the neighborhood are the Guatemalan and El Salvadoran consulates. Rafael Carrillo, the man in charge of the Salvadoran office, confirms Raquel’s diagnosis: after Plan Frontera Sur was put into action, the number of people seeking humanitarian assistance at his office decreased from fifteen daily visits to five.

In the register where the reasons for the visits are recorded, his countrymen have written assaults, beatings, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, sexual assaults. The statistics show that migration has not diminished, but it now has another obstacle: the migrants no longer reach the cities where there are institutions that could help them: the few that do arrive are weak from fatigue. Moreover, Carrillo explains, “migrants do not want to file complaints, they’re in a hurry.”

“The problem,” he says, “is that they are forced to find a path through the hills and there they are set upon by criminals, they are assaulted, robbed, the women are raped.” He does not know how many women have been victims of sexual violence, his numbers are the same as in previous years. That fact reassures no one, especially taking into consideration that now all abuses are more rarely reported.

According to calculations by the Mexican government, each year at least 300,000 foreigners cross the country to reach the United States. Of these, approximately 45,000 are women.

Rape appears to be an unavoidable destiny for the majority of the women who cross Mexico. It is not for nothing that Central American pharmacies sell what they call the “Anti-Mexico” shot, a long-term contraceptive injection that, while it cannot save them from the aggression that they are fated to suffer nor the diseases that accompany it, can at least prevent a pregnancy.

With good reason: NGOs calculate that between six and seven of every ten female migrants are raped on the journey.

“Above all, Honduran women come prepared to not be impregnated. They say it is because they get an injection that lasts a month,” admits the consular official who knows the route.

The effects of the program that shifted the U.S. border to Mexico’s southern regions, from the Rio Grande to the Suchiate River that divides Chiapas from Guatemala, are marked every day on the bodies of migrant women.

“Do you know if you were raped?”

CHAHUITES, OAXACA.- In the cement colored wall of this precarious shelter, inaugurated in October, 2014, there is a poster that leaves one cold: “Traveler Friend: Do you know that if you suffered a sexual assault you have up to three days to prevent an HIV infection and an unwanted pregnancy?” An attempt has been made to soften the brutality of the message with a drawing of a bird.

The prohibition on boarding the trains forced migrants to improvise new paths far from the existing migrant shelters located near the tracks. One of the new routes goes through Chahuites, a town where the network of shelters and the migrant movement improvised this shelter to address the emergency.

There are more than 300 kilometers between the Suchiate River, the border with Guatemala, and the Oaxacan isthmus, more if you travel along dirt tracks that seem alleyways where abuses are guaranteed. Not without reason is it known as the Route of the Machetes: when there are no guns, the assaults are with machete blades. The shelters receive the survivors; they are recognized by the tears in their skin and the cracks in their bones.

Beginning in 2014, with the plan put into effect by Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, the horrors for migrants are no longer restricted to the country’s north. Rather, they now extend through Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, states that, according to the priest Alejandro Solalinde, were turned into the migratory “security perimeter,” the new border.

According to his calculations, in 2014 seven of every ten people who passed through this corridor were traumatized, their skin, bones, or souls broken. Few arrived intact.

Solalinde runs the shelter Hermanos en el Camino, in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, which now resembles a refugee camp rather than a temporary refuge for travelers. There are 270 migrants stranded there. This is another effect of the Plan Frontera Sur, which Solalinde describes as “disastrous,” and “criminal.” It has created victims on a massive scale. Victims who do not want to continue and spend months in the shelters.

He complains that the government has not destroyed the criminal group that most affects migrants, a group that is composed of public officials (“mafias like the National Migration Institute,” he specifies) that not only pursue migrants, but kidnaps them, deports them without investigating their cases, and has launched violent armed military operations around the shelters in an effort to discourage migrants from seeking help. But the migrants have found other routes.

Alberto Donis, Solalinde’s assistant, notes that with the changes, migrants have their paths blocked. If they board the train, they are caught, and when they are forced off they are beaten by Migration Institute officers, and also by the private police force Cusaem. The Migration Institute, along with federal and state police, Marines, and the Army, now undertakes roundups and installs checkpoints that serve to funnel the migrants. The pincer is closed by local ranchers who see the migrants as a goldmine, and assault or attack them in hidden places where nobody can help.

The migrants have even opened routes over the sea. It is unknown how many have been victims of shipwrecks.

“I was raped as they looked for money.”

CHIAPAS (Shelter unidentified for privacy).- Two indigenous Guatemalan sisters from Totonicapán who speak both Quiché and Spanish, and have changed their traditional dress for jeans and t-shirts, are stranded at this shelter. Like the others, it appears a refugee camp. It is inhabited by traumatized migrants waiting for humanitarian visas that will permit them to continue their journey without further abuses.

Mónica González and Colectivo SacBé

Mónica González and Colectivo SacBé

“Unfortunately, the journey was a bit bad,” offers Claudia, the elder of the sisters. She says she is 30, though she appears a decade younger. She is the mother of two boys, 11 and 3 years old, who are absorbed by the television in the center of this shelter filled with men. Her name is not real, it was changed for this report.

“The walking was difficult, it was something like three entire days. We asked for water and food at the ranches, because we had been assaulted somewhere, but I can’t remember its name.”

This is the first hint of the suffering she has endured. As the interview continues, like the layers of an onion, she begins to open her soul.

“They took 4,000,” she says.

“They took all my clothes,” she adds.

“They raped me,” she says, closing her eyes, as if to avoid seeing what she is saying.

The attack occurred on October 11, in Chiapas, at the very entry point to Mexico, when she had already been walking three days.

She explains: “It was almost night, nearly dark. There were two, they came out of the woods, then there were three, but only two attacked me. They ripped my clothes, they searched me for money, they took my things, they hit me. I told my sister to take the children and run. I was beaten, bruised all over, even on my face because I yelled at them not to do anything to my sister, and they did more to me.”

Her sister Irma intervenes: “I went running with the children. We hid in the woods.”

An hour and a half after the brutalization, the sisters found each other. The children were mute from shock, the younger sister unnerved, and although Claudia was battered, she did not say anything. But as soon as they reached the shelter, their desire to leave evaporated.

Claudia: “Now we cannot continue because we are afraid something will happen on the way, and we have been here a month and three days.”

The first few days were silent, as they processed the shock and their shattered nerves. A Salvadoran migrant approached them, asked what had happened, and if they too had been raped. That was the key to open the floodgates of pain and talk about the assault.

Claudia: “The 19th, the doctors examined me in Tapachula to see that it was true what I said. I had not said anything because the men had threatened to find me and kill me if I said anything.”

Another silence.

Claudia: “I am ok, just that I am always nervous, afraid, I cannot sleep, always thinking. I am hit with a lot of things, everything that has happened.”

The second day of our interview, with her sister and children watching the television, in the women’s dormitory, she describes the rape more slowly, and cries like a child.

In Guatemala, she had been raped in front of her children by two neighbors, and had been infected with HIV. She left because she needed medicine and income to sustain her offspring, since when she called her husband, who was in the United States to tell him, he abandoned her.

She tried to commit suicide with poison, but was revived in the hospital.

She no longer dreams of reaching the United States, her horizons have shortened. She only hopes for a humanitarian visa in order to settle in Oaxaca or in Mexico City, where she has heard there is a lot of work. Her imagination does not allow her to conceive of a future. She just cries. She cries a lot.

Deportations at the door of the house

 TAPACHULA, CHIAPAS.- Like an unforeseen crossroads, luck changed in 2013 for Santa María Rosales, a Honduran mother of three who had lived in Tapachula for 15 years. That year, the state prosecutors office raided the bar where she worked as a waitress and accused her (but not her patrons) of human smuggling. She spent two years behind bars as the lives of her three children went down the drain. She could not care for them.

Her release last May 26 was a media scandal because it had been shown that some twenty-odd low-income women, the majority migrants, had also been falsely accused of the same crime and locked up in Chiapas jails.

Although she returned home, it was no longer the same. Plan Frontera Sur had changed things. The joy of freedom was fleeting.

Three months ago her daughter Paola left with her baby, still suckling, to work as a cashier at a shoe store in Tonalá. And, for the first time in the 15 years she had lived in Mexico, the adolescent was detained by the Migration Institute. She spent two days in a holding cell in Pijijiapan. Santa was not allowed to see her, only to pick up her granddaughter.

Mónica González and Colectivo SacBé

Mónica González and Colectivo SacBé

“I only saw her from a distance, crying,” the young grandmother remembers, as she sits on a chair in the small, sparsely furnished house she shares with a sister and both their children. There are woven bags and clothes that she learned to make in jail.

Paola went from receiving support from the Institute for Family Development, to being deported to Honduras the next day. Santa was left with her granddaughter, now ten months old, and in order to support her she spends all her time weaving. Paola has tried three times to leave Honduras. Every time she has been intercepted before reaching Mexico.

The Plan Frontera Sur forms part of a military and police strategy that begins in Honduras and ends at the Rio Grande. In Honduras it is called “Operation Rescue of Angels,” and police who have been armed by the United States prevent children from leaving. All at Washington’s request.

Owing to agreements with the Peña Nieto administration, this year Mexico surpassed the United States in deportations, with more than 118,000 migrants expelled—a record number. The first year of the Plan Frontera Sur the number of Central American migrants detained by the Mexican government increased by 71 percent over the previous year.

Sonia Nazario, a journalist who specializes in migration, published an article in the New York Times that affirmed that the United States had “subcontracted” the problem of refugees to the Mexican government, which is now responsible for impeding migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

Human rights centers such as the Fray Matías de Cordova center are now overwhelmed with work. Since the beginning of the Plan Frontera Sur and Migration Institute raids on places where Central Americans gathered, there are many people who are detained in migration offices. These include even Guatemalan businessmen who were on their usual purchasing trips. Or girls, like Santa’s daughter, who was deported in clear violation of her right to have her case reviewed.

“Migration is worse now,” Santa says, always smiling as she plays with her granddaughter. “And all that suffering we had in jail…” Each time Paola is able to call the house, she asks, despondently, “Mommy, how is my nugget? I can’t bear it, I don’t want to be here anymore.” Her baby no longer receives her mother’s milk. She takes formula. Border policies separate them.

“I offer my life for that of my brother”

CIUDAD HIDALGO, CHIAPAS.- Thick tears stream down Manuela Elvira Mendoza Ríos’ face, opening paths down her cheeks and neck until they disappear into her white shirt. Hers is the same shirt worn by all the women who are traveling in the bus that is transporting the Caravan of Mothers of Migrants who are searching for their missing children in Mexico.

The twenty-something from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, fills the place of her mother, who could not come. She carries the photo of Manuel Mendoza, her 27 year-old brother, who seemingly disappeared in Reynosa, Tamaulipas on April 7, 2015, when Mexico was just launching its anti-migration strategy.

“He said that he was going to cross that night. He was going to McAllen, Texas. The smuggler, Ricardo Zacarías Antonio, from Huehuetenango, delivered him to Mr. José Julio and his wife Yesenia. They were chased by Migration, I don’t know whether Mexican or U.S., and their boat sank,” she explains, her tears not washing away her red lipstick.

The word she most often repeats in our talk is guilt. The guilt for not stopping him from migrating. The guilt of seeing the agony of his children. The guilt of seeing her father and mother devastated. The guilt of not being able to do more to save him. The guilt of wanting to die. The guilt fills an entire seat on this bus. It is a reaction to that which does not make sense.

During the three-week long journey with the 32 Central American mothers on the caravan, we traveled through Tabasco, Puebla, the Federal District, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. During this time Manuela Elvira made mental plans to leave, on her own account, for Tamaulipas and the border with Texas, to rescue her brother, “wherever he is.”

On the trip she saw all the hurdles he had overcome, the paths of machetes, raids, assaults, rapes, and persecutions. The oversaturated shelters and the new ones that lack supplies. Manuel survived that first stage. But he stumbled in the second, where the paths are controlled by drug cartels—colluding with officials—where migrants are allowed to be massacred, kidnapped en masse, and captured as slaves.

This last barrier, this one operated directly by the United States, consists of walls, a rushing river, and another armed police force—the Border Patrol.

Manuel’s face was lost in this fog. Now Manuela Elvira, the unmarried daughter, the young sister, wants to offer her life. To sacrifice herself so that her family can cease to suffer. The tears continue their journey. They do not stop.

This article was originally published by En el camino and is available at: http://enelcamino.periodistasdeapie.org.mx/historia/mujeres-marcadas-por-el-plan-frontera-sur/

Marcela Turati is an independent journalist specializing in human rights, social conflicts, and victims of violence. She has published in various magazines both in Mexico and around the world. She is a founder of the Red de Periodistas de a Pie. She is the author of the book Fuego Cruzado and the coauthor of Entre las Cenizas, La Guerra por Juárez, Infancias vemos migraciones no sabemos. She has been recognized with the prize for excellence from the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano in 2014, and the WOLA prize for Human Rights.

Photographer Mónica Gonzalez has worked with various Mexican and international news outlets. She received a Fonca grant in 2009-2010 and 2013-2014. She has received the 2011 National Journalism prize for photography for the project Geografía de Dolor. She received the 2006 national journalism prize awarded by the Mexican Journalists Club and the IPN in the category of photo reporting for her work on migrants on the border between Sonora and Arizona.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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