Friday, July 15, 2011

On the Migrant Trail in Veracruz and Oaxaca

By Tony Macias
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

While in the Mexican state of Veracruz this week, Witness for Peace’ s Mexico-based International Team visited a small shelter where we met Central American migrants with firsthand accounts of how perilous the migrant journey has become for those traveling north through Mexico.

“We ran from the Zetas, and now we don't have the courage to try the train again.”

This is how Honduran migrant Emilio (not his real name) began talking with me, referring to the criminal organization that has long trafficked in drugs but in recent years has developed a specialty of kidnapping migrants to extort huge sums of money from their families. This organization operates from Central America all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, focusing on mass kidnappings along the route of la Bestia, the cargo train that many impoverished migrants ride once they arrive in Mexico.

In a 2009 report, Mexico's National Human Rights Center (CNDH) estimated that criminal organizations kidnapped nearly 10,000 migrants in a 6 month span, making over $25 million dollars in extortions. The state where nearly a third of these kidnappings took place is Veracruz. This February, the CNDH reported at least 11,333 migrants were kidnapped during a similar period in 2010.

Emilio was one of 6 migrants who narrowly avoided kidnapping in the nearby town of Medias Aguas. Located at the nexus of several train lines, Medias Aguas was also the site of a mass-kidnapping of at least 80 migrants just three weeks ago on June 24th. According to eyewitnesses, a dozen heavily-armed men in luxury SUVs drove right up to the train and yelled to the migrants clinging to the freight cars:

"Get off you sons of whores, get off fast and get in the trucks."

Several women and children were among those taken. It took over a week for an armed convoy of officials to arrive on the scene, and no suspects have been brought in. And in a country where only 28% of federal criminal cases were brought to trial in 2010 and less than 2% result in convictions, there is little hope that the perpetrators will ever be caught.

The following day we made our way to Matias Romero, Oaxaca, which is located just a few hours south from the town we visited in Veracruz. Matias Romero sits on the train tracks where the Bestia rides, carrying an estimated 140,000 undocumented migrants each year. It's also the home of Casa Ruchagalu, a migrant shelter that has provided safe haven for thousands of migrants since its founding just two years ago this month. One pair of migrants caught our attention: a young woman and her 2-year-old daughter had arrived in town just that day after
riding the train from Chiapas. (How this small woman held on to the train and her daughter at the same time remains a mystery to me).

Almost as soon the young woman and her daughter arrived, we were told, another woman claiming to be from a government agency knocked on the shelter door and asked to interview the young mother. Because she could provide no identification or much of a plausible story as to why she should be allowed to meet the young migrants, the woman was turned away. Before she left, she told the attendant:

“Wow, they told me you were strict at this shelter.”

Modesta Noriega, the shelter guardian that sent the supposed psychologist away, said that they have to be strict if they are to keep themselves and the migrants safe. She continued by saying that the woman hoping for an interview had all the hallmarks of someone involved in human smuggling or trafficking- she'd likely followed them from the nearby train tracks in hope of ensnaring them in a trap. We'd heard similar reports in Veracruz of women and men posing as migrant shelter workers and even as nuns to lure migrants in, later beating and robbing migrants once they have them locked away. Women are particularly vulnerable to attacks: Amnesty International reported in 2010 that an estimated 6 out of every 10 female migrants
kidnapped suffer some form of sexual assault.

The 2010 CNDH Report makes the issue plain: “ poverty, unemployment, economic asymmetry between neighboring countries... the lack of expectations or access to basic services, and the purpose of family reunification” are the true causes of the vast humanitarian crisis we face in the form of migration. Hundreds of people work in 52 migrant shelters scattered across Mexico just like the two we visited this week. This work will continue as long as there is a need to house the most vulnerable men, women, and children in our hemisphere: migrants like Emilio and the young mother and her child. As I write this, I wonder where they are now, if they are still momentarily safe.

As U.S. citizens, we can help these people right now. Let's start by demanding U.S.-led reforms in trade and immigration policy that create economic opportunities in countries of origin and guarantee safe legal passage for those heading north. This October, Witness for Peace is coordinating a national campaign linking the issues of trade and migration- stay tuned for more stories from the front lines of the migrant trail and for ways to take action this October!

Those Left Behind: Supporting Migrant Families in Acayucan, Veracruz

By Carlin J. Christy
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

Friday nights are always busy at the bus stations in Mexico. Overnight travel is often preferred to day travel, as passengers can save on lodging expenses and arrive bright and early in their next destination. It was with this plan in mind that fellow International Team member Tony Macias, photographer Kate Fenner and I boarded a packed bus leaving Oaxaca at 10:00pm. Our goal was to arrive in Acayucan, Veracruz at 7:00 am the next day.

Getting a good night’s rest on the bus wasn’t easy, as we were unprepared for the cool AC blasts that the driver kept running during the nine hour journey. Nevertheless, arriving into Acayucan’s strong tropical heat and humidity gave us a warm welcome to this state that none of us had ever visited before.

Veracruz, like Oaxaca, is not only a migrant-sending state, but also part of the migrant trail for Central Americans making the journey northwards to the U.S. While Veracruz has a network of migrant shelters and comedores (eateries) to support these migrants, during our trip we first sought to find out how the families left behind by are being supported by civil society organizations.

We connected with Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes-Mexico (Jesuit Service for Migrants- Mexico) to see how their five member Acayucan-based team works with migrant-sending communities across this southern part of Veracruz.

Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes, or SJM, describes the vision of their work as generating self-managed, self-sustaining, and networked projects in communities of origin, transit and destination. They also strive to protect the human rights of migrants and their families through the creation of networks and services.

Perhaps some of their most innovative work is supporting the women and families left behind in migrant-sending communities of Veracruz. Through their Migrant Women and Family Project, SJM accompanies eight different communities in the Acayucan region. The goal of this project is to address the social, emotional, and economic impacts created by out-migration. Jacqui Garcia Salamanca, Coordinator of the SJM Acayucan office, explained to us that oftentimes, women are unprepared for the new burden of responsibilities they receive once a loved one, such as a husband, migrates. The difficulty of not knowing when, or if, these loved ones will return home takes an emotional toll on the entire family.

During a workshop lead by SJM, I spoke with a young woman, Edith. Many of her family members have migrated to the U.S. When I asked if they ever come back to Veracruz she stated, “dicen que van a regresar en un año, pero pasa otro año y otro año y no regresan.” - “They say they are going to return in one year, but another year goes by and another year and they don’t come back.”

To strengthen individuals and communities affected by migration, SJM helps initiate Grupos de Auto-Apoyo or self-support groups in each of the eight towns where they work. Every week, a group of ten to twenty women, and sometimes a few men, gather to discuss important themes that relate to their well-being. With the guidance of SJM staff, the women and men address issues of interpersonal violence, self-esteem, and communication, all with the goal of creating stronger individuals and communities. As group members listen to each other, offer support, and rebuild trust, community ties damaged by high rates of out-migration are slowly rebuilt.

On Sunday July 10th, Tony, Kate and I were able to see one of these groups in action in the town of Minzapan, Veracruz, which is home to approximately 1,700 residents. SJM volunteer Maribel, along with Jacqui, lead a group discussion on various forms of violence—emotional, physical, familial, economic, among others. Initially, participants shifted uncomfortably in their seats and glanced downwards- clearly the theme of the day was all too relevant for the women and men present. After receiving information about the various types of violence, and learning how to distinguish between violence and conflict, a sense of
empowerment and knowledge could be felt amongst the group.

Further demonstration of this community empowerment could be observed by seeing another project of SJM in action. Bancos comunitarios, or community banks, are started in each community as a way to promote savings, offer low interest loans amongst savings contributors, develop small-scale investment, and provide an economic safety net. The staff of SJM provides community members with the initial training for setting up and running the community bank. As deposits are made and loans are given out, community members become completely autonomous in the running of the banks, no longer relying on assistance from SJM staff. In several places where SJM has initiated community bank projects, the communities have started new banks with other residents, all while operating independently of SJM.

The success of this project is evident in Minzapan, where residents saved over $100,000 pesos (about $8500 USD) over the course of one year.

In addition to starting community banks, SJM supports the creation of self-sustaining projects that provide for greater economic independence. By creating productive projects, such as making and selling specialty tortillas, women and men in the communities are able to generate an additional source of income. While each project is different, the end goal is always preventing further out-migration.

Observing the work of SJM, with its emphasis on developing individual and community leadership, showed a unique model being carried out in southern Veracruz to support and sustain migrant families and communities. It seems these types of programs are essential in places like Acayucan, where casual conversations with neighbors, taxi drivers and residents revealed how much migration has become a part of life in this area. Many people we spoke with had been to the U.S. or had family members in the U.S. Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, North and South Carolina are frequent destinations for people from this region.

With the state of Veracruz now considered 6th in the country in terms of out-migration, the work of civil society organizations like SJM is a small-scale but effective way not only to rebuild individuals and communities suffering the negative impacts of migration, but also to create economic alternatives that allow Mexicans to not just stay, but thrive in their homeland.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

51 Coffins in Front of the White House: Protesting the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia

By Courtney Johnson
Witness for Peace Intern - Washington, D.C.

I had been working for Witness for Peace for less than a week when I arrived in Lafayette Park for the July 11th protest against the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. Although I have participated in local activists movements, this was my very first time in front of the White House itself.

After a couple hours of preparation, I found myself in the middle of a vivacious protest. Reverend J. Herbert Nelson opened the rally with a commanding voice pronouncing that we are all brothers and sisters in this fight for basic humanity. This message of solidarity was sustained as one speaker after another expressed their concern for Colombia and the importance of uniting to protect the unprotected. For example, a member from the Colombian Trade Union took the stage and timidly recounted his story of abuse. While he was eating dinner with his wife, his phone rang. The message was clear: “If you do not quiet yourself, we will cut out your tongue and quiet you ourselves.” But like the enthusiastic participants of the rally, he believed in the right to unionize and the right to freedom.

As the speakers energized the crowd from a lofty platform, 51 black coffins stood behind them. At about six feet tall and built from cardboard, these coffins represented the 51 union members who were killed in Colombia last year. In a country where basic human rights cannot be guaranteed, the protesters recognized that the passage of the FTA would only escalate the abuse. Lead in a chant, the crowd responds to a long list of groups who oppose the FTA. “Human Rights, Unionists, what do we say? Down, down, down with the FTA!”

Replicating a mourning ceremony, the precession to the White House was lead by two trumpeters playing taps while the names of the 51 union members were read. The sight of 51 coffins being carried across Pennsylvania Avenue was both eerie and powerful. Once stationed in front of the White House, the group began chanting again, only with more passion and vigor- “Down, down, down, with the FTA!” Those among the most resolute took center stage behind the coffins which had been lined up on the street, a message to the White House. These five participants were prepared to risk arrest in order to increase awareness of the injustice of the FTA.

The police were notified and prepared for this resistance so the next few minutes were disconcerting but functioned smoothly. The 150-strong protest was gated in on all sides with steal fences and caution tape while the police gave orders to evacuate the area. As the protesters flocked into the safety of park, their voices rose in solidarity against the repression of free speech. But the five protesters were well aware of the consequences of breaking any fraction of the protesting rules. By resisting the demands of the police, these protesters, activists, or martyrs exercised an act civil disobedience. The rest of the protesters chanted support and sang traditional Colombian songs over a megaphone while the five people committing civil disobedience were handcuffed and driven away to incarceration.

I witnessed a great deal that day. Not only did I appreciate the strength of individuals like the brave Colombian trade unionists, I also witnessed the power of solidarity when organizations and people from all over the world come together to fight for basic human rights. Now a witness to civil disobedience, I am certain that justice would never be realized if not for those who give time, dedication, or their judicial record to spreading the message for justice and peace.