The hardest part is turning back: Migrating under Covid-19 rules
By RODRIGO SOBERANES Photo and video Javier garcía
October 7, 2020
One of the busiest and most bustling border crossings in southern Mexico has fallen quiet. The conversations between the military and police forces in El Carmen, Guatemala, have been heard in Ciudad Talismán, Mexico, since the beginning of March, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the region.
Before the pandemic erupted, the atmosphere in this border region resembled a market, with thousands of people crossing from one country to another every day. Now, with the border closed, the staff working there only have to whisper a little to be heard across the stalls.
At the Talismán border crossing, customs and security officials working for Mexico's National Institute of Migration (INM) normally use walkie-talkies to communicate from one side of the road to the other, but since the Covid-19 outbreak, they have stopped needing them.
There were no longer queues of cars returning to Guatemala full of goods, nor caravans towing old cars from the United States to be resold, nor the people who normally cross for work or personal reasons.
Guatemalan soldiers guard the border crossing, only allowing their citizens to enter after going through an interrogation and disinfecting their cars.
The people at the border who exchange quetzales and pesos were not even present.
The mood was different under the bridge, along the Suchiate River where Guatemalans were swimming across, pulling their clothes in plastic bags and struggling against the strong current.
The entrance for buses, full of migrants who are deported to the Guatemala-Honduras border by the National Institute of Migration, was also closed. But that did not stop Mexico from emptying the migrant centers it has across the country, expelling and leaving migrants on the streets, exposed to the virus in Mexico.
Those are the conditions that we saw in Chiapas at the beginning of August of this year, when Mexico's traffic light monitoring system was red. There was the evidence that buses full of migrants had been abandoned at the border.
A video from April makes it clear: a phalanx of 14 soldiers from Mexico's National Guard who were blocking the Talismán border moved forward three steps towards a group of migrants who wanted to accept their deportation from Mexico to Guatemala. On one hand, the migrants had the buses that took them from the immigration detention center in Tapachula to the border; on the other hand, the armed soldiers did not let them pass.
Behind the soldiers was the Talismán border crossing in Chiapas. On the Guatemalan side, there were members of the Armed Forces and the National Police. And kilometers away in Guatemala, every municipality had put up checkpoints. On the Mexican side, the migrant shelters were closed.
The scene had been repeated a number of times, usually starting at four in the morning and ongoing since the beginning of April 2020, according to someone who was at the border.
With the northern and southern borders closed, those who had been taken to Talismán only had one option: to look for new routes amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Belén migrant shelter, a project of the Catholic Church which is the closest shelter to the border, saw a steady flow of migrants, arriving hungry and in poor health, due to exhaustion and uncertainty.
They came from the Talismán border crossing, and when they arrived it was already past dark. They had walked more than 12 kilometers, enduring the extreme heat and humidity of the region, as well as hostility from locals. They received food, alcohol gel, and masks at the shelter, and they left immediately, confronting the new reality of coronavirus once again.
"Closing the border to migrants was very tragic because it meant that they couldn't continue their journey or turn back. Migration was out of reach. The virus made them more vulnerable," said Father César Cañaveral, the director of the Belén shelter, in an interview on August 1.
The priest explained that the coming and going of people between Tapachula and the border was going unchecked. "The migration flow is not protected. No one knows where they are going or where they have been," he emphasized, sat in his office, while he took a break from decorating the shelter, which was practically empty at the time. There were only around twenty people, in a center with a capacity for up to 500 people.
The Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Centre in Tapachula reported that scenes like those in the video were routine: as the pandemic hit the region, the National Institute of Migration decided to empty its facilities, and often left people stranded at different points along the border.
"The state released people but we don't know what happened to them. We know that buses left early in the morning to go to various border crossings," said Salva Lacruz, who up until September was the representative of the organization, based in Tapachula, Chiapas.
The scene of the people taken to the border was captured with a phone. The videos and photos that we could check show the moment when the group is left with immigration officials, police and soldiers from Mexico and Guatemala.
There are testimonies that describe xenophobic attacks on the migrants moments after they tried to walk across to Talismán, once again returning to Tapachula. In one of the videos, you can hear someone celebrating that they have captured "this kind of person."
The National Institute of Migration released a statement on April 26 confirming that the presence of migrants in Talismán stoked anger among the locals.
Not far from there, about 35 kilometers away, in the community of Frontera Hidalgo, there is a stretch of road where the iconic images of the migrant caravan were captured in October 2018, showing for the first time the magnitude of the march: kilometers of roads filled with thousands of people walking in intense heat towards Tapachula. A human chain across the bridge.
Boys and girls in arms, strollers with babies, mothers and fathers looking for water and food in each village, amongst a sea of young men. The huge group of people thrown out of the Northern Triangle of Central America joined the chorus demanding to be heard.
After almost two years — and with the pandemic raging — there were barricades at the entrance to the town and absolute peace. If someone had wanted to take a photo with people, they would have had to wait hours for someone walking around the empty and dusty streets.
The community of Frontera Hidalgo is empty and with barricades at the entrance to the streets.
The Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Centre has been able to find out that, as well as nighttime and daytime transfers to the border, the National Institute of Migration has been deporting in a different way. For example, migrants who were detained in the Siglo XXI immigration detention center in Tapachula, appeared 560 kilometers away, in Villahermosa, Tabasco; in Tenosique, 780 kilometers away; or in Acayucan, Veracruz, 630 kilometers away.
"They have been turning the flow of migration and the National Institute of Migration does not explain why they choose these far-away places," Salva Lacruz told us.
On February 27, 76 Salvadorans who found themselves in the Acayucan immigration detention center had been thrown out and taken to the street by the National Institute of Migration. The International Organization for Migration (OIM) and consular authorities in El Salvador worked to arrange accommodation for them.
They agreed to take them to the Casa del Migrante Monseñor Guillermo Ranzáhuer, in Oluta, a neighboring municipality that, unlike Acayucan, is not known for its commercial activity in the streets but, rather, is described by locals as the place where farmers and sellers choose to live. "Thinking that if we left them outside, they would be more likely to catch the virus, we said, 'Stay there, we can keep them isolated.' That's what we did," said Priest Raimiro Baxin, the director of the migrant shelter.
Arturo was subject to a xenophobic attack in Oluta, Veracruz, in February.
Arturo is a 24-year-old Salvadoran who experienced the events and agreed to speak with us on condition of anonymity. He and his family have been trapped by the border closures since they were deported from McAllen, Texas. As the borders of their country were closed, they weren't deported to Central America, but rather to Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
There they were in the hands of Mexican authorities, who transported them more than 1,400 kilometers south and locked them up again.
"From Reynosa they moved us to the Villahermosa immigration detention center. But due to Covid there was no way for us, Salvadorans, to return to our country," said Arturo from the shelter on July 31, protected with a mask and under strict heath measures.
Then, they took them to Acayucan, 227 kilometers north. "Everything was taking too long and the only thing that they could think to do was to gather lots of migrants and send them to the detention center, but then afterwards they weren't able to put us in the center," he explained.
That's how, in February, the National Institute of Migration decided to put the migration population that it had detained outside its facilities. If before they pursued them in order to lock them up and deport them, now they were letting them free. They gave a certificate to everyone indicating that they didn't have Covid-19 symptoms as well as a 60-day permit to be in the country.
"We stayed on the streets legally. If here, they [in the shelter] didn't receive us, we worked out how we would do it. As an immigrant, one feels sad because we are in a country that we don't know, so we don't know how the people are. To get a job we need to have papers, so when they told us that they were going to deport us, we were very sad," said Arturo.
The news of the transfer travelled faster than the buses that took them. Once in the shelter in Oluta, rumors had already begun to circulate on social media, where the local population threatened to lynch people because they thought migrants were infected with Covid-19.
"The fear penetrated across the community; it was really sad. They were seen as spreading the virus when in reality they were more vulnerable than the other people," explained Alberto Cabezas, spokesperson of the International Organization for Migration in Mexico.
The growing tensions culminated in the arrival of the mayor, María Luisa Prieto Duncan, to the shelter, along with the police to avoid possible attacks on the part of the locals against the shelter or the migrant population.
She confirmed the feeling of rejection when she arrived at the shelter to ask for explanations about the presence of foreigners. "We are all scared, people have psychosis, human rights are also for people from Oluta. Last night, many of them saw the live broadcast and went to the first person in authority which is me," said the counselor to the local press.
It obviously stoked xenophobia and discrimination against all of our foreign brothers. They didn't want us to receive them here," remembers María del Rocío Hernandez, the director of the Oluta shelter, five months after our interview. It is an inconspicuous two-story building in a residential neighborhood, without any signs or security.
The Oluta shelter is one of the few shelters which had the capacity to put recently arrived migrants who were presenting symptoms into quarantine. It continued operating as a long-term shelter for people who had fled their countries due to violence. They offered them a space to rest and washing facilities with masks and alcohol gel. They also took their temperature and instructed them on measures to take care of themselves.
At first, María del Rosario Hernández explained that the plan was for them to be there for 15 days and then they would return to El Salvador with all the necessary measures.
But the borders did not open. Days started to pass, weeks, months, and the people slowly began to leave in March going to different places. At the end of July, few people were left in the shelter. From a small room used for visits (where it was compulsory to wash your hands, clean your shoes, clean clothes and wear a mask) one could hear girls and boys with their mothers and the coming and going of volunteers with masks.
Following the death threats, Arturo had returned to the northern border, this time with papers granting him permission to stay in hand. He and his two family members arrived in Reynosa, but this time they couldn't cross over to McAllen.
"Migration [National Institute of Migration] caught us as we were arriving in Reynosa again. Then, why am I going to lie, they treated us badly because they tore up the papers that they had given us. That permit was valid and it was issued by migration officials and we could move wherever we wanted," Arturo told us.
According to his testimony, they asked for 20,000 pesos from each of them, in exchange for leaving them in Monterrey. We told them that we couldn't," he said.
They took Arturo and his two family members to the Acayucan immigration detention center, and then to the Oluta shelter, where we met up with them on the last day of July, while they planned to head north again.
We contacted the National Institute of Migration to ask for their version of events at the Talismán border [the transfers from the Siglo XXI immigration detention center) and in Oluta, but we never heard back. The staff referred us to the statements that had been published, which do not give explanations.
The National Institute of Migration emptied the Siglo XXI immigration detention center and sent migrants to the border.
Coyotes in the South
One of the unexpected consequences of the pandemic is the trafficking of migrants back home. In July, the Belén shelter in Tapachula received a call from another shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, on the border with Texas. A Honduran migrant family that couldn't cross over to the United States was about to start their trip back to their country, in a rush because of a family emergency.
The call was about asking that they receive the family, who were about to travel across Mexico, from Chihuahua to Chiapas, a journey of almost 3000 kilometers.
"Father, receive them, the coyote is already waiting. Their family are ill and they were desperate," they told Cesar Cañaveral, director of the Belén shelter, from the other side of the line. They didn't give him any more details about the emergency. The shelter made the necessary arrangements to offer them temporary shelter.
The family had to pay for the services of a coyote in order to get out of Mexico, cross Guatemala, and return to Honduras.
After their brief stay in Belén, Tapachula, the coyote would be waiting for them in Ciudad Hidalgo, the other border crossing near Tapachula, 35 kilometers from Talismán, on the border with Tecun Umán.
At the beginning of August, the exchange of goods in that zone continued with the crossing of rafts. People were coming and going along the river in small boats but, unlike what happened until a few months ago, they were not migrants heading north.
By then, the business of coyotes had changed. They already had their routes ready to go south and the methods to cross the migrants while remaining in the shadows. "The smuggling of migrants going back home has increased a lot, and coyotes are charging more," said Cañaveral, the priest.
In Tapachula, there has been less Central American migration since the Covid-19 outbreak. In the Consulate of Honduras there was a printed notice on a piece of paper warning that Consulate services were suspended 'Until further notice.'
"The migration flow has been upended," father Cañaveral concluded. "It is in limbo."
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