By Emiliano Ruiz Parra
Translated by Emma Friedland
This article was originally published in Gatopardo in September 2011.
Translator’s Note: The word “migrant” is used here, in direct translation from the Spanish, even though “immigrant” is the term of use in the United States. In this context, “migrant” is better suited for its meaning of someone only passing through in search of work, as Central Americans are intending to do in their odyssey through Mexico.
The Path Jesus Took
Alejandro Solalinde drinks 30-peso cappuccinos and leaves 50 pesos tip. In his closet hang five white shirts with Mao-style collars and two guayaberas, which he himself washes and irons. He doesn’t have any suits, but the whiteness of his clothes is enough to convey cleanliness and order. His watch (a Casio Illuminator) is worth 150 pesos [less than $12 USD], and he hasn’t entered into the era of Smart Phone priests. Though he does spend a small fortune on prepaid cards for his cellular phones, on which he receives calls from the domestic and foreign press.
He sleeps in a hammock in a little room stuffed with the clothes, backpacks and books belonging to his collaborators, but he often gives up that space and throws a mattress on the ground on the patio, where he spends the night surrounded by his bodyguards. If a migrant arrives at the shelter with his feet all ripped up, Solalinde himself will go to the shoe store to buy the traveler a new pair of shoes identical to his own.
He doesn’t have a desk, or a secretary, or even an office. He receives company in a small living room under a thatched roof, and it ends up being impossible to sustain a conversation with him without the interruption every two minutes of someone asking him for soap, toilet paper, money, or a glass of water. He bathes in a tiny bathroom he shares with the shelter’s volunteers, by pouring over himself buckets full of water, in much the same way as toilets are flushed at the shelter. If a watermelon arrives among the donations from the Juchitán market, he’ll eat it, smiling, even though it’s rotten.
He’s looked after by four state policemen from the government of the state of Oaxaca, something to which he only agreed after [then-president] Felipe Calderón’s wife, Margarita Zavala, personally asked him. Yet there’s no per diem budget for the guards to follow him on his many travels. Such that, any further than the bus station in Ciudad Ixtepec – a small village of 25,000 inhabitants embedded in the middle of the state of Oaxaca, in the southeast of Mexico – he again becomes like a sheep for the wolves. He carries his clothes in a red and very low quality suitcase, that has lost its handle and wheels, and which keeps within reach his yellow towel.
Solalinde is one of those rare people who reinvent themselves and give their best after turning 60. For decades he wasn’t more than just a village priest, with all of the sacrifice and conviction that requires, but without much influence socially, politically or religiously. He earned two college degrees (in History and Psychology) in addition to his studies to become a priest and a Master’s in Family Therapy. He is a distracted administrator who would rather give money away than look after it, and he risks his life by opposing an industry within which the highest level politicians and organized crime conspire together, in the kidnapping of migrants.
He’ll never be made a bishop because he says what he thinks of his mother Church, namely that it is not faithful to Jesus but rather to power and money; that it is misogynistic and steps all over women and laypeople, and that it isn’t the exclusive representation of Christ on Earth.
At 61 years old he decided to open a shelter for migrants in Ixtepec, not just to intervene in human rights violations of Central and South Americans, but also to prepare for his own retirement. He had grown tired of the disputes among priests in the diocese of Tehuantepec, a region located on the peninsula of the same name, along Oaxaca’s Pacific coastline. He took two years sabbatical to study Psychology, against the advice of his bishop, who had told him it was useless since at his age he would not be able to retain the information, and he resigned indefinitely from the administration of a parish.
“Before getting into this whole migrant thing, I was a simple, run of the mill person, and an unknown. I chose [service to] the migrants because it [Ixtepec] would be a beautiful place to die in, for me to spend the last years of my life dedicated to anonymous, peaceful, and private service, and to retire in such a way,” related Alejandro Solalinde last June 29th in the Casa Lamm in Mexico City, where he inaugurated a work of art.
After visiting him in Ixtepec, Oaxaca at the beginning of June, I followed him on his continuous visits to Mexico City. On that occasion he attended the presentation of “Faces of Discrimination,” a show featuring fifty artists who, encouraged by Gabriel Macotela, donated their paintings to support the network of shelters that lodge Central American migrants in Mexico and defend their human rights.
After only four years of coordinating the shelter Brothers Along the Path (Hermanos en el Camino), Solalinde became one of the most notorious figures not only within the Catholic Church, but also among defenders of Human Rights. Thin, with a soft voice and courteous mannerisms, he is a magnet for controversy. He’s been accused of being a pollero [slang for trafficker of people] by the National Immigration Institute (INM); municipal authorities tried to burn him with gasoline along with the shelter; he has repeatedly received death threats; and he has asked for forgiveness for the Zetas Cartel, whose members he considers to be victims of a violent society. Risking his life, he has shed light on the holocaust suffered by undocumented Central Americans in Mexico, about whom nobody cares. In Central America he became a legend, to the point of being referred to as “the Mexican Romero,” alluding to Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador who was murdered by the dictatorship.
In every migrant that arrives at his shelter, Solalinde sees the face of Jesus. “They have taught me that the church itself is pilgrim and that I myself am a migrant. They have taught me such enormous faith: the hope, the confidence, the ability to pick oneself up, make oneself anew and stay the path. It would be fantastic if we as Catholics had the ability of the migrants to pick ourselves up after so many falls and keep walking down Christ’s path.”
The Accomplices (The Migration Holocaust)
In a Mexico that has returned to barbarism due to a dispute for drugs, there is no greater humanitarian tragedy than the exploitation of the Central American migrants. They are the easiest money: the kidnapping of each one of them brings in between $1,000 and $6,000 dollars profit and thousands or tens of thousands are kidnapped each year. The Central Americans can’t vote in Mexico, so no politician is concerned with them. They don’t send home remittances to Mexico, so the government doesn’t invest a cent in protecting them. They are not a pressure group, so the press only publishes their stories sporadically and anecdotally. They don’t leave even one peso of alms in the churches in the country, so only a marginal part of the Catholic Church looks after them, inhibited by the indifference of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Oscar Martinez, a young Salvadoran reporter, spent three years along the migrant routes and wrote a memorable book called The Migrants Who Don’t Matter: On the Journey with Undocumented Central Americans in Mexico (Icaria Press). Martinez documents how Mexico transitioned from attacks perpetrated by small local gangs in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco and Veracruz to a full-blown industry of mass kidnapping; from thieves and rapists with machetes and pistols to Zeta commands with machine guns and accomplices in the authorities. This kidnapping boom coincided with the six-year presidential term of Felipe Calderón and the militarization of the fight against drug trafficking.
The National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) is the only example in Mexico of the State making an effort to document the abuses committed against migrants. Between September 2008 and February 2009 the agency recorded 9,758 kidnappings; between April and September 2010, 11,333. But it is very likely that those statistics fall short considering the reality of the situation; because the biggest appeal of the business is that nobody will be called upon to give an explanation. Nobody looks for the disappeared migrants, and those who survived a kidnapping have a hard time reporting it due to the lack of trust in the Mexican authorities and the urgency to continue the journey northward.
The war against drug trafficking has spurred the official narrative of a confrontation between the forces of Order against the forces of Crime. On the government’s side are soldiers and good cops who protect society from the malignant lawbreakers fighting for control of the streets. Said hypothesis loses validity when it comes to the kidnappings and abuse of migrants. In the violations of the human rights of the undocumented, the authorities are often involved, whether the municipal, state, or ministerial police or also the federal police, immigration agents and, sometimes, members of the Army.
In 2010 Amnesty International published the report Invisible Victims in which the most often recurring adjective is “widespread,” used to describe the kidnappings, the rapes, the extortion, the murders, the disappearances and the complicity of the authorities. All are widespread, as is the indifference shown by various levels of government. Mexico is experiencing a “hidden epidemic” of kidnappings, especially along its borders and transit routes, in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Veracruz and Tamaulipas.
The report states that the kidnappers capture “more than a hundred migrants” in each hit. Of 238 victims and witnesses who had testified to the CNDH, “91 of them declared that their kidnapping had been the direct responsibility of public officials, and another 99 of them observed that the police acted in cahoots with the kidnappers during their captivity.” The Amnesty International report also states how, “according to some experts, the danger of rape is of such a magnitude that the human traffickers often force the women to inject birth control before the trip, as a precaution against pregnancy arising from rape.”
The Amnesty International report tells not only of the abuses by the Federal Police, the [now-extinct] Federal Investigation Agency and the Army, but also of the Kafkian processes to which the victims are submitted if they dare try to press charges. Months go by before they are called in to give their statement – by which time many of the witnesses and victims have left either for the United States or their countries of origin, since during that time most live only off of the charity of the shelters. And if they are called in to identify the abusive policemen, they are given distorted photos in which the assailants have been made unrecognizable.
Whether in the testimonials collected by Oscar Martinez, or in the Amnesty International report, or in the stories I heard while at the Brothers Along the Path shelter in Ixtepec when I visited with the photographer Alex Dorfsman to write this article, the tales of the kidnappings are all equally cruel. Such as what I was told by Alberto, a Honduran who stayed to work as a handyman at the shelter with the hope of putting together the 3,000 dollars his family had paid for his ransom.
Alberto told of how the migrants are kidnapped in groups and brought to ranches and safe houses, where the telephone numbers of their relatives in Central America or the U.S. are demanded of them. Whoever does not give one up or does not have one is murdered on the spot. Alberto was captive for a week with nine other of his countrymen, who were all beaten with wooden planks [tablas] on the lower back (thus the slang verb “tablear” or “to plank” that is associated with the Zetas Cartel). He heard when two of them were executed because their families did not pay the ransom. Two others never reappeared. In total six survived the kidnapping and were freed, but their families were left with a catastrophic debt.
The Zetas, tells Oscar Martinez, don’t necessarily carry out the kidnappings, but rather absorb the local crime gangs and put them to work for them. They do the same with the authorities at all levels. The criminal organizations co-opt every link on the chain: Central Americans who pass for the undocumented along the way gaining the trust of the real migrants to get information out of them about their families; the local police, the federal authorities, the maras or Central American gangs, the small-time drug dealers, the taxi drivers, even the refreshment vendors who they employ as lookouts. And from there on up to the very top of the pyramid.
Alejandro Solalinde – whose name is the most cited in the Amnesty International report, with ten mentions – compares the abuse of the migrants to the oil industry. The Brothers Along the Path shelter, he says, is like a garden sitting atop a rich oil deposit that the political-criminal mafia wants to drill and exploit. And he points to Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, the former governor of the state of Oaxaca (2004-2010), as one of the heads of this mafia.
“With [the government of] Ulises Ruiz it is clear to me that they wanted to make a huge business out of the migrants, to gain from the sheer numbers by extorting, kidnapping, trafficking, everything. The mafia, from the governor on down to mayor and judicial police, saw how there was a bounty, that they [the migrants] could be their captive clients,” he told me.
Ruiz Ortiz targeted Solalinde’s shelter. Gabino Guzmán, the mayor of Ixtepec (2008-2010) who accompanied the mob that intended to burn it down, was one of the politicians on the take. When Ruiz Ortiz was governor, Solalinde was pressured by the delegate to the National Immigration Institute, Mercedes Gómez Mont, and his own bishop to close the shelter. In exchange they would give him another shelter a few kilometers away, on a piece of land far from the train tracks, where the migrants would never go, “and where we wouldn’t get in the way of the business of this official [the mayor] who was backed by his governor.”
“I told the bishop that I would accept because I would be thrilled to have two shelters and he clarified, ‘No, it will just be one.’” The ecclesiastical superior and Gómez Mont insisted. Solalinde pushed back. The federal official left furious and Solalinde questioned her to his bishop, who in turn responded, “Be careful that the powerful don’t use you against me.” The priest made this complaint to the magazine Esquila Misional (April, 2011), a publication of the Comboni missionaries, which is widely distributed among members of the Catholic Church.
The Brothers Along the Path shelter is part of a network of some 50 shelters, refuges, homes and parishes of members of the Catholic Church (priests, laypeople and volunteers without any religious affiliation) who offer some type of assistance to the Central Americans, or as Amnesty International put it, “the dorsal fin of support for the migrants.” The report continues,
“Thanks to their efforts there are many less migrants who succumb to the exhaustion, the exposure to the elements and hunger during the journey. They play a crucial role in the documentation of abuses committed by agents of the state and by particular individuals and groups and in encouraging the migrants to pursue justice. They also help to combat the xenophobia, which is sometimes rampant in the local communities.
Those who defend the migrants are themselves victims of frequent attacks.”
Solalinde claims that this is not just a question of a high-volume lucrative business, but also of a political strategy to do the dirty work for the United States, by containing undocumented immigration to the country through spreading fear. As Solalinde explains,
“The federal government – that of Felipe Calderón – has a policy with the United States. The U.S. is its ally and its friend, therefore he [Calderón] has to take responsibility and come through for his friend. Coming through means doing the dirty work, taking care of their backyard, and if it is a question of State policy, there also has to be a State strategy, which is the immigration policy being implemented with the migrants. Mexico can’t, because it would be embarrassing and because it doesn’t have the valor, build a wall once and for all and seal off the border [with Guatemala] because it knows that if that were to happen then it would have no basis for demanding that the wall be taken down in the North. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be able to demand the vindication of Mexican migrants in the North either. So what the country does instead is develop a State policy by way of collusion or omission, with the kidnappings,” Solalinde told Carlos Martínez – brother of Oscar – and reporter for the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro.”
Behind the question of immigration lies a legal discussion. Is immigration a crime or a right? Until 2008, Mexican law punished undocumented immigration with up to ten years in prison. Mexico opted for a closed-door policy in regards to immigration but an open door one for emigration. Eleven percent of the Mexican population left for the United States, where irregular immigration is criminalized. In the defense of its own citizens, Mexico became a “leader in the protection of migrants,” as the ambassador Patricia Espinosa declared in October (2010). Yet the abuses against Central Americans are evidence of Mexican hypocrisy.
For Solalinde, migration is a right. In support of this principle, and in alliance with other human rights defenders, he put pressure on the Mexican Congress, which finally passed the Migration Law put into effect by Calderón on June 25th (of 2011). The law decriminalizes irregular immigration and establishes a “transmigrant visa” lasting 180 days, which will permit migrants on their way to the US to legally and safely cross through Mexico.
Even though even immigration experts are calling it the Solalinde Law, some of the priest’s key demands were not met, such as the call to abolish the National Immigration Institute (INM), a government body which Solalinde identifies as irrevocably corrupted by the kidnapping mafias. And even though the Transmigrant Visa is a fundamental victory, it still could just become void if the amendments being considered currently by the Executive Power put so much red tape into effect to essentially make it inapplicable.