A Pleasant Waystation on this Road Through Hell

The ‘invisible diaspora,’ Simone Dalmasso calls this human chain that stretches from the ruined lands of Central America, through the mountains of Guatemala and Mexico and across the Rio Grande to the uncertain promised land of the North. Hard, dangerous lives she finds at temporary respite in a Franciscan hostel in southern Mexico, named for 72 fellow migrants savagely murdered, men women and children, by Mexican narcotraffickers six years ago.

The real struggle to reach the North begins at the frontier between Guatemala and Mexico. Before that point, people who are migrating from Central America – the majority of them from the so-called Northern Triangle of El Salvador Honduras and Guatemala—theoretically benefit from the Central American Freedom of Movement Convention which permits people to circulate freely from Nicaragua to Mexico. The convention does not, however, protect migrants from being blackmailed and extorted by police, corrupt customs officers, or unscrupulous individuals who are involved in the vast migrant business.

But it is when they touch Mexican soil that things change radically: there, all of the undocumented–as those who lack travel papers are called–become cannon fodder, easy prey for coyotes, stick-up men, thieves, narcotraffickers and killers.

Less than 50 kilometers from the El Ceibo border crossing in Guatemala’s Peten state is the Mexican town of Tenosique in Tabasco state, and a crucial station for many migrants: it is here that they will begin their journey on “The Beast,” the legendary freight train that crosses all of Mexico.

Here they all know that this train is the most dangerous way of all to reach the American Dream, that an endless number of people lose their lives along its path. But few want to know anything about the causes of this phenomenon of migration, which has sent so many to their deaths along this train’s route.

In the most current analyses of the phenomenon of migration, like the recently published “Central America In the Crosshairs: Migration and Its Relationship With Development and Opportunities For Change,” it is clear that present-day migration has ceased to be motivated by economic motives, and depends instead on mainly transnational factors. Uncontrollable violence in migrants’ places of origin is the most important cause for their forced movement.

According to a July 28 report of the International Crisis Group, displacement from El Salvador and Honduras is becoming more generalized as the violence in the two countries reaches levels ordinarily only seen in a civil war. This analysis confirms that the wave of migration over the past decade is starting to resemble the one that came with the diaspora of the 1970s and 80s, which resulted from the repression of the armed conflicts in the area.

According to the independent research group, 150,000 people have been murdered in the Northern Triangle countries in the past decade, making the region one of the most violent in the world. In 2015, El Salvador had the highest rate of homicides anywhere: 103 killed out of every hundred thousand inhabitants. After the beginning of the collapse of the treaty between the principle mara gangs in 2013, the numbers had started to explode, doubling in two years, although the violence has begun to diminish in 2016. Honduras faces a combination of street gangs in urban areas and narcotraffickers along the Atalntic coast and the northern border, transporting cocaine from South America on its way toward the United States. Although the homicide rate has declined over the past two years, it continues to be one of the highest in the world. With 57 for every hundred thousand inhabitants. Young men are the most vulnerable to violence. El Salvador and Guatemala, according to a 2014 study, have the highest rates of murder for children and adolescents in the world.

The indifference of the governments of the Northern Triangle to the present dynamics of migration reflect all of the impotence and weakness of the three central American countries, historically condemned to misunderstand and frustrate the needs of their populations, blind in the face of an enormous humanitarian crisis that is slowly sucking the life out of an entire generation.

By contrast, those who are perfectly aware of the impact of this new migratory wave are the people who manage the ‘La72’ Hostel in Tenosique. Opened in April of 2011 by a group of Franciscan Friars, and named in honor of the 72 migrants who were massacred by narcotraffickers in Tamaulipas in 2010, the hostel is a gathering place for migrants, mostly those from Honduras. Tenosique is the natural end point for the migrant route that runs from El Salvador, through Guatemala and into Mexico.

The hundreds of migrants who fill the place every day repeat the same life stories, the same overwhelming desire to escape what seemed a certain death if they stayed in their homes.

There are those who say they left their communities for economic reasons, looking for better pay to rescue their families form the unremitting poverty that engulfed them. But it is the volume of stories of violence, extortion and death that strikes you, with the impact of the bullets that adorn so many of these tales. They come again and again with a cold and detached frequency, like the gaze of these people who are recounting their hardships. They might be a common person escaping the gangs, a onetime gangster who has become an evangelical Christian on the run from the police, or a transsexual fleeing homophobia; they have all survived the looming terror of being one increment more in the cold statistics that catalog the homicide wave in their country.

Rita, a 27 year old who fled from San Pedro Cortez with her 5 year old daughter, recounts that she escaped on the same day that gunmen shot her sister. No time even to hold a funeral, because she was sure she would be the next one in the family to be gunned down. It is tragic to see how the gang wars have overcome even the normal conventions that once governed these cases: the funeral, with the public participation of the victim’s family, had always been a permitted ritual, a place in which a kind of armed truce existed, displaying in a way the control and power of vengeance of criminal groups before the whole neighborhood.

But in Honduras now, not even the last goodbye can be given to a family member who has fallen under the bullets of organized crime.

Benjamim Barahona fled from Choluteca, Honduras with a pair of bullets that had only injured him lightly, the only survivor of the massacre that annihilated his family. He carries with him the newspaper clipping from the following day, relating the arrest of the gunmen, and carries within him the awareness that others would have put an end to him if he had not fled.

Jose Angel Martinez, a shoemaker from the San Francisco neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, carries on him the product of the violence that he barely escaped: his smashed tibia demonstrating the ferocity of the gunmen in his neighborhood.

The retelling of these truncated histories of barbarity and violence is interminable; the people who are migrating do not see the United States as the goal of their journey; they would not even mind remaining in Mexico, here at least not drowning in the mire of threats that washed over their own houses and places of work. Many will prolong their stays in the hostel in hopes that the Mexican migration authorities will give them refugee status, hard though it is to obtain; with that they might cross this country without having to flee the authorities like mice at every turn.

La72, with its feminine [in Spanish]name, represents a social experiment something like a commune: few fixed rules for living together, a lot of self-administration under the discrete gaze of a few friars, and many plates of food that are filled and emptied day by day.
The human diaspora continues, to the indifference of the world.

Simone Dalmasso Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard