From Frontera.NMSU.edu, New Mexico State University, Kent Paterson, 5 Apr 2011.
Shrouded in burka-like attire, the anonymous woman was suddenly transformed into “nobody.” Her eyes concealed by a pair of huge shades, the Mexican woman told the large crowd assembled at central El Paso’s Catholic Daughter’s Hall how she came to live in the United States without papers.
Once a professional with a bright future ahead of her, the woman claimed she left Mexico because extortion, kidnapping, murder and threats cascaded on her family in a land of impunity.
Part of a growing population of Mexican refugees from the so-called drug war, the mystery presenter spoke of a “constant pain in the stomach and pressure in the chest” that well up from living with a constant fear of deportation and possible separation from her refugee children.
“You can’t imagine what its like to live in the darkness and in the shadows,” the woman said.
At the beginning of the talk, she offered somewhat of an apology: “I’d like to tell you my name, but I don’t think it really matters. In the eyes of God, I am a citizen of the world. In the eyes of mankind, I am just another immigrant, a number and at times not even a number.”
The refugee’s captivating speech was heard at an April 2 immigration forum organized by Annunciation House, a Catholic-sponsored migrant shelter in El Paso.
Elizabeth Flores, director of the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Obrera labor rights and social action organization in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, set the stage for the refugee’s personal drama by describing how “an absurd war against drug trafficking” had resulted in the slaughter of more 7,000 people and the expulsion of 230,000 others from the border city during the last three years.
Unlike previous periods of economically-driven migration to the Paso del Norte borderland, the latest movement of people in the region has other causes, Flores said.
“The new migrant flees to preserve life,” Flores added. “The new migrant never thought about leaving the city, work and friendships.” Flores underscored how the violence was fanned by high-powered weapons mainly from North America.
In sardonically poetic fashion, Mexican Bishop Raul Vera wrapped a thematic tone around the El Paso gathering. An internationally-recognized migrant and labor defender, Bishop Vera tailored his talk to a reading of the poem by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano titled “The Nobodies.”
Based in the northern Mexican city of Saltillo, Coahuila, Bishop Vera’s diocese is very active in providing shelter and aid to Central American migrants traveling the long and treacherous road through Mexico to the US.
“We’re doing for the migrants what we have to do…we are trying to return to the world the equilibrium of justice that’s gone,” Bishop Vera said, couching social action in Catholic and Christian precepts.
The church leader was in El Paso to accept an Annunciation House “Voice of the Voiceless” award for the work of the Saltillo migrant shelter.
Bishop Vera told how members of his ministry have documented cases of kidnapping, extortion, torture and even kidney and eye extraction by organized gangs that act in collusion with law enforcement authorities and some local residents.
According to Bishop Vera, missing migrants have likely vanished into the “modern slavery” of the underworld, forcibly employed to pack illegal drugs and perform other menial chores.
Activists’ suspicions were reinforced by a handful of survivors of last year’s massacre of 72 Central and South American migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, who were executed after allegedly rejecting work offered by a criminal gang, he said.
In the broadest sense, migrants have become “the nobodies who cost less than the bullet that kills them,” Bishop Vera declared, again quoting the Galeano poem.
Like Bishop Vera, other speakers weaved accounts of how millions of human beings across the globe are consigned to the cold statistics of “nobodies.”
Kat Rodriguez, program director for Arizona’s Human Rights Coalition, graphically showed the audience how many migrants remain “nobodies” even beyond death.
Armed with a power-point presentation, Rodriguez compared the increase in border fencing since 2002 to the surge in migrant deaths recorded in the harsh landscape of southern Arizona, where today’s migrants are funneled by organized smuggling rings.
For example, Rodriguez said 721 human remains were recovered in the area from 2003 to 2006, with 331 of the victims initially unidentified. Of the unknown dead, 254 were male, 59 female and 18 of unknown gender. In 2005, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner ran out of space to store all the remains, Rodriguez said.
“They find pure bones, very little of the person,” she said. “This is a human rights crisis.”
In one of Rodriguez’s slides, the state’s southern counties were suddenly lit up with red dots pinpointing the spots where migrant remains have been found.
More than 5,000 migrants have perished along the entire southern US border since the mid-1990s, when Washington began tightening border security, Rodriguez said, but the real toll could be much higher as current numbers only reflect bodies or remains which have been recovered.
She added: “But the truth is that (migrant deaths) could be double or triple this, and if we include those in Mexico, who knows?”
The Arizona migrant advocate attributed migrant deaths to dehydration, exposure to the elements, drowning, vehicle accidents and Border Patrol shootings.
Inevitably, the discussion at the El Paso forum turned to the proverbial: “What is to be Done?”
Father Pedro Pantoja, director of the Catholic Church-sponsored migrant shelter in Saltillo, told Frontera NorteSur that immigrant advocates are demanding the Mexican government face an international tribunal for the Tamaulipas massacre and other atrocities.
Pantoja said two relevant petitions have been filed with the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the first one dealing with the kidnapping of migrants and the second one having to do with protective measures for Pantoja’s shelter and its workers.
Additionally, the shelter and its supporters are in contact with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Pantoja said.
On Monday, April 4, high-ranking officials from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) and the federal attorney general’s office met with United Nations officials in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the migrant crisis, according to Mexican media and government reports.
The Mexican representatives reportedly said eight suspects were under arrest for the 2010 Tamaulipas massacre, and that the Calderon administration was working with the governments of El Salvador and Brazil to dismantle the human trafficking networks responsible for sending migrants to a summary firing squad near the US border.
INM Commissioner Salvador Beltran del Rio added that Mexico was complying with international human rights standards, and working with civil society to decriminalize irregular migration, protect migrants and assure their return home. The Mexican official blamed organized crime for attacks on migrants.
In response to a question from a Salvadoran United Nations investigator, Beltran del Rio replied that approximately 140,000-150,000 migrants from the south travel through Mexico every year in transit to the US. Slightly more than 63,000 migrants were deported by Mexican authorities last year, he said.
In contrast, he added, the US deported more than 469,000 Mexican nationals in 2010, including 20,000 children; more than half the deported minors, or 13,000, were traveling alone, according to Beltran del Rio.
But in El Paso, Father Pantoja criticized an immigration law reform that is languishing in the Mexican Senate, calling it top-heavy on “national security” and having more to do with carrying out “the dirty work of the United States” rather than addressing humanitarian needs.
He also reiterated complaints that threats against the Saltillo migrant shelter continue, despite earlier widespread national and international publicity. “Police aren’t responding adequately,” Pantoja charged.
In remarks to the forum, Texas state Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), said anti-immigrant sentiment was sweeping Mexico, Europe, the US and his own home state, where more than 100 pieces of “anti-immigrant legislation” were recently introduced in the state capital of Austin.
Simultaneously, a state budget deficit of $23-$27 billion was encouraging a state political leadership wielding “wrong priorities” to put education and social services on the chopping block, Rodriguez contended.
A long-serving El Paso county attorney before he won the seat formerly held by retiring state Senator Eliot Shapleigh last year, Rodriguez endorsed comprehensive immigration reform, grassroots mobilization and cross-border labor organizing initiatives like the one pursued by the United Electrical Workers and Mexico’s Authentic Workers Front.
Rodriguez said anti-immigrant and anti-labor measures have galvanized numerous public protests in Austin during the current legislative session, with a big, statewide day of action set for Wednesday, April 6. “Pressure has results,” he insisted.
The Texas Democrat urged action at the ballot box, arguing that while Latinos now comprise a huge segment of the US population, community voter participation is still low. According to 2010 US Census numbers recently compiled and released by the National Council of La Raza, Latinos make up 37.62 percent of the population in Texas alone.
For Rodriguez, involvement in the immigration fight is a personal issue. Born in south Texas, Rodriguez told how his family of migrant farmworkers labored alongside Mexican braceros in cotton fields, in peach orchards and on blueberry farms. As a young man, Rodriguez recalled witnessing the struggle of the old Texas Farm Workers Union.
“I stand before you today as a Texas state senator because of the lessons I learned in those fields,” he added.
Pastoral Obrera’s Elizabeth Flores also stressed the importance of grassroots mobilization and “resistance.” She sketched a contemporary portrait of Ciudad Juarez as a place hammered by the type of riveting, violent crisis that favors imposed austerity regimes, jolting economic restructurings and mass displacement, along the lines of the “Shock Doctrine” theory of economic and political change propounded by Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein.
In Ciudad Juarez’s version of the “Shock Doctrine,” half the population of the adjacent Juarez Valley has been displaced by violence, Flores told Frontera NorteSur.
She said many people in the town of Guadalupe, which serves as the transportation hub of the rural area, have abandoned their homes after receiving threats to leave or face a torching party-hardly an idle threat in lieu of the dozens of arson attacks and hundreds of murders and forced disappearances carried out in the Juarez Valley during the past two years. According to Flores, Guadalupe is also an important link on the highway leading to a new international bridge with Texas.
Although the rampant violence in Ciudad Juarez’s urban core often comes across in the US media as a cataclysm of chaotic blood-spilling, Flores said some forces have actually benefited from the carnage, including US arms dealers and human traffickers. Also, the deployment of thousands of soldiers and federal police has favored the prostitution business, while factory workers endure low wages and put up with tougher working condition than in the past.
“It is now cheaper for the investors and businessmen to employ people, because fear forces people to accept worse working conditions, and because workers don’t want to struggle for their rights,” Flores insisted.
In Flores’ view, international solidarity with the Mexican people is crucial, though she cautioned that supporters should not fall into an apolitical trap of acting out of charitable impulses but instead carefully examine who is benefiting and who is not from the “supposed drug violence in Mexico.”
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico