Q & A with Sally Meisenhelder of La 72

Sally Meisenhelder is a nurse who regularly volunteers at the La 72 shelter.
Boarding La Bestia

Boarding La Bestia

Can you give us a little background about the shelter?

The shelter began in 1995 as a parochial mission, staffed and funded by the Franciscan order. It moved to its new location in 2011 and was renamed La 72 Hogar – Refugio para personas migrantes in honor of the 72 migrants found in a common grave in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. It is intended to be a home and a refuge where people can receive information and legal services. As the number of people fleeing violence and poverty in Central America increased, the shelter has expanded.

It is probably the most comprehensive shelter in Mexico and the only one I know of where people can stay an unlimited amount of time.

Can you describe how the shelter functions on a regular basis? Who is involved?
Two Franciscan friars are the driving force behind the hogar. A few long term residents are also instrumental in its operation. Recently a couple joined and became volunteer coordinators and operations manager, taking some of the burden off Fray Tomas and Fray Aurelio. The migrants themselves do much of the work of cooking, cleaning and security operations. Doctors without Borders offers the services of a psychologist and a social worker, a worker from the UN provides entertainment and education for the children, Volunteers fill the gaps by staffing a First Aid clinic, an area where migrants can speak with their families and use the internet, receive money sent to migrants from their family, an intake area, a kitchen and the operation of two dormitories, one for men and one for women and children. A lawyer provides representation for those who wish to stay in Mexico and those who qualify for refugee status in Mexico.
It’s located in Tenosique, one of the first stops of La Bestia. How does this affect the shelter?
People arrive there because it is the beginning of the train line north from that part of Mexico.  Trains run on an irregular schedule and are several days apart.  The shelter fills up and empties when a train arrives.  Plan Frontera Sur has changed this dynamic.

What is Plan Fronera Sure and has it been effective? Why or why not?
Plan Frontera Sur was announced in July, 2014 by the President of Mexico about a month after Obama declared an “urgent humanitarian situation” due to the apprehension of 38,833 children “on the run” and alone. At that time Peña Nieto claimed it was a program to protect the human rights of migrants.

To those on the ground the plan is obvious, it closely mirrors U.S. immigration enforcement. The goal appears to be to force migrants into more remote areas and to make passage as difficult as possible. The train now moves rapidly through Tenosique.  If it stops so that people can get on, it probably will stop in an isolated area or a train yard for immigration officials to try to arrest as many migrants as they can.
Plan Frontera Sur seems to be part of the “21st century border” funded by the U.S. government through Plan Merida.  The marines now patrol the rivers between Mexico and Guatemala. I have seen new equipment, identical to that used by U.S. Border Patrol at immigration checkpoints near Tenosique, Palenque and San Cristobal. Changes in Mexican immigration law have made it more difficult for people to receive permission to stay in Mexico if they have been victims of a crime in Mexico. This will make it even more difficult to prosecute corrupt officials and criminal who prey on migrants.

From a human rights standpoint, Plan Frontera Sur has been a disaster. This week there has been much discussion on Frontera list about an article by Valerie Espinosa and Donald Rubin  that documents increased homicide rates in areas where military-style interventions took place. Plan Frontera Sur uses the Army, two branches of federal police, and immigration authorities to enforce immigration law. If this article is predictive, murder rates of migrants will increase.

Each of these agencies has separate checkpoints and everyone, including local people are subjected to scrutiny and extortion along the routes.  There are 3 rings of enforcement, reaching to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. People are now walking into more remote areas to avoid these checkpoints. Forcing migration routes into more remote areas will increase the potential that organized crime will be involved and the cost in human lives and the transit cost to migrants will increase.  This happened in the U.S. as enforcement increased, people were forced into more dangerous routes, cost to the migrants increased and people became merchandise to be moved north.

What Plan Frontera Sur does is move the abuse of migrants away from the view of U.S. citizens. It is an attempt to avoid another public relations disaster like the one that occurred last summer.

You say 90% of those coming to La 72 are Honduran and this is in the wake of more than 70,000 minors crossing the border. What has it been like since then? Has the situation improved at all?

My impression is that the number of children on the run has decreased but this is only one point of entry and if children are coming with a coyote, they may stay in a hotel or safe house instead of in a shelter.  La 72 tries to keep out anyone involved in trafficking of human beings. The U.S. Border Patrol website has confusing information about the numbers of minors.  Always on the lookout for more money, they appear to be saying that they will face another “crisis” this summer.  However, the numbers on the charts show overall the numbers are down compared to last year.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, stated “The federal government has engaged in an aggressive, coordinated response to provide humanitarian care,” and that they have “heightening deterrence, enhancing enforcement, strengthening foreign cooperation and increasing border security.

As a result of these efforts, the number of unaccompanied children attempting to cross the Southwest border has declined precipitously, and the federal government continues to focus its resources prevent a similar situation from developing in the future,” he said.

The large percentage of Hondurans is influenced by the location of Tenosique. Migrants from El Salvador would more likely cross into Tapachula as would most Guatemalans seeking to come north.
Other factors seem to be pushing people out of Honduras.  A fungus, el royo, has decimated the coffee crop, or so many migrants told me.  They had previously been employed on coffee plantations but now there is no work.  I also expect migration out of  the highlands of Chiapas to increase. Lack of rain has ruined the corn crop and there will be no coffee harvest for many due to el royo.  See Christine Eber’s report of a recent trip to Chiapas.

What is the shelter most in need of? Are a majority of the residents families? youths?
It seems to me that donations of money are the most useful and can be used where most needed at the moment. Currently, La 72 is constructing a separate shelter for unaccompanied minors. They now live with the adults in a dormitory setting.  I think money to complete and furnish this is needed.  Also the diet is very unvaried, mostly beans and rice with tortillas.  Some vegetables and fruit are donated by local businesses but not enough.
The majority are men traveling without their families. There are some families and some unaccompanied minors.
What changes need to be made?

As a nurse and a fan of Paul Farmer, I join him in advocating pragmatic solidarity. In other words put your money and your body where your mouth is. Join with La 72 and demand an end to Plan Frontera Sur and by extension, Plan Merida.  Demand a right to migrate. Volunteer with local agencies serving migrants.

Donations can be sent to La 72 through this link

Keith Dannemiller on La Bestia

Guest Post: Keith Dannemiller

The Mexico City-based photographer recounts his experience covering the dangers faced by migrants particularly those who face “La Bestia.”  To learn more about Keith and his work visit his website.

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Baby Pictures

One month ago I photographed babes in the arms of mothers who were climbing atop a hulking brute of a locomotive. They were courageously trying to protect their infants by making a get away northward, through a land full of monsters.

Before beginning this odyssey in southern Mexico, most had left untenable situations in Honduras: San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba and the Cayos Cochinos were places they said they once lived. According to their stories, they had traded a living hell at home for a temporary one in a land where they knew the devil stole their money, trafficked their sex and maybe took their lives, in exchange for letting them ride the railroad he now controlled.

They had just a flimsy, illusory notion of a new life in the US for themselves and the kids accompanying them. If they make it. Si Diós quiere. Their belief in a different lot, sown from fear and fed by rumor, would, nonetheless, help to get them through the sweltering day sand terrifying nights to come.

The river is low at this time of year before the rains begin.You can roll up your pant legs, remove your shoes and tie the laces together, sling them over your shoulder and wade across the Rio Suchiate from Tecún Umán, Guatemala to Ciudad Hidalgo in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Or for 20 Mexican pesos, you can hire a boatman to pole you through the shallow waters while you sit on a jerry-built platform made of under -inflated monster truck tire inner tubes and discarded, flat commercial pallets. Many migrants heading north choose this entry point into Mexico, because immigration controls on the river are lax and more than likely non-­existent.

If a rare INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración, Mexican immigration control) agent happens to be waiting on the other side, a short financial discussion between him and your guide will let you continue on your way.

Before 2005, after crossing the Suchiate, the journey on La Bestia, this infamous freight train ridden by the intrepid and desperate, began in Ciudad Hidalgo. Hurricane Stan changed all that. Some 240 kilometers of track were damaged and the migrants and refugees who had entered Mexico without papers had to now make their way northwest to the town of Arriaga, Chiapas. Back then, as now, this part of the journey was done either on foot, or in a series of buses, trucks and local public transportation.

Although the company that operates the train line here, Ferrocarriles del Istmo de Tehauntepec, promises to reopen the Ciudad Hidalgo ­Arriaga leg, Arriaga continues to be one of the necessary assembly points in the south for those boarding La Bestia.

I was photographing for the IOM, the International Organization for Migration, and wanted the work to show the current conditions of migrants in southern Mexico, as they head north to the U.S. border. This movement of truly epic proportions, is now fueled not so much by economic necessity, but increasingly by drug ­related violence in Central America.

The migrant of yesterday has become the refugee of today. The photos had to show, on an intimate, human scale, this demographic change that is taking place.

After spending a day at various points along the Rio Suchiate, we headed to Huixtla and the San Francisco de Asis migrant shelter. I was accompanied by two fearless and dedicated women, Rosa García Ita of UNHCR and Jacqueline Villafaña of the IOM. While monitoring the situation along the migrant route by phone, they received word that the cars of La Bestia, after sitting idle for 8 days, were being assembled in Arriaga for the trip north. We made the two hour trip by car and arrived at eleven o’clock to an ant-­like progression of people advancing up the sides of the railway cars under an unforgiving sun. The Beast was preparing to be ridden.

“The pictures are there. You just take them.”

I photograph a lot on the streets of Mexico City and in that work have come to believe that these words of the influential photojournalist Robert Capa express perfectly what I attempt to do. Patience,vision, experience all have their role in forming an expressive image, but most important is ‘being there’. To paraphrase Capa, that day in Arriaga, ‘the pictures were everywhere.’And I think that because I had never encountered such a scene anywhere before, the images were abundant.They were easy to make, photographically speaking, but it was difficult  to look at women, babies, young kids,whole families making their ways up the ends of the cars with a backpack, a bottle of water and a piece of cardboard. The babies and kids who couldn’t make it to the top on their own had to be  hoisted, pushed or carried. Teens and pre­teens in groups of four or five, lent a hand to each other on the ladders. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe just last week they were doing much the same, but while hanging around a jungle  gym at school.

Looking through a camera gives a photographer one level of separation from reality and many say, permits the objectivity necessary to present the ‘truth’.  I don’t think so. The making of a photographic image is a finite collection of subjective decisions, beginning with, more likely than not,the ‘what’ that you choose to photograph.  Observing this ominous starting scenario to a dangerous journey, I was forced to ask myself, for visual and technical reasons,but for personal ones too, ‘What is going on?’

The photographs that are present here are meant to answer that question, and generate others about the pasts and the futures that they embody. What exactly is going on in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that so many unaccompanied young kids have no choice but to leave? What will happen further on up this rail way line to the mother with a babe in arms when the monsters appear and impose their brutal revisions?

A Facebook comment on the shared essays aid getting on board that train with your baby was insanity.   I disagree. Resigning oneself to staying behind in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, that’s what is without hope and downright insane. Given the choice, leaving home and boarding ‘La Bestia’ is truly an act of courage.

Keith Dannemiller

México, DF