In the summer of 2014, public plazas in Chahuites, Mexico, began overflowing with Central Americans who bore open wounds, foot blisters, and decrepit knapsacks. As they slept in the squares, the migrants—babies, elders, mothers, teens and men from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—were often robbed or raped as they paused on their journey to seek asylum in the United States.
Immigrants have long traversed the towns of southern Mexico on their way to the US border, but by July 2014, more migrants than ever were seen passing through the towns, traveling on foot and atop the notorious network of freight trains known as La Bestia, or The Beast. In the second episode of the third season of VICE on HBO, VICE founder Suroosh Alvi visited El Salvador to explore the conditions motivating this mass migration from Central America, and traveled north on The Beast to see firsthand the perilous journey migrants must take in order to get to the US.
Since the episode aired last year, Central Americans have continued to migrate in record numbers, fleeing pervasive gang violence fueled by the drug trade in their home countries. Last year, more than 12,000 Central American families crossed the border in October and November alone—nearly triple the number from the previous year, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.
In response, Mexican authorities have stepped up raids on La Bestia, in a massive crackdown aided by tens of millions of dollars from the US government. As a result, a growing number of Central American migrants are resorting to what may be an even more dangerous means of transport: walking.
In the US, the Obama administration has sought other ways to curb the flow of migrants from Central America, imposing a set of harsh policies including long-term detention, deportation, and even raids on the houses of undocumented families. But many individuals have been removed to their home countries only to attempt the dangerous journey north once again.
Struck by the migrants' plight, human rights activist and photojournalist Irineo Mujica created the Center for Humanitarian Aid, a shelter in Chahuites , a 10,000-person town in the southwestern state of Oaxaca in August 2014. Since then, the center has become a beacon for thousands of desperate pilgrims seeking asylum in the US. Mujica, a Mexican native who has lived in the US since age 13, now splits his time between his home in Arizona and Chahuites, where he employs a full-time staff to keep the shelter running 24/7.
In a recent phone interview, Mujica detailed how migrants are adjusting to the recent crackdown, and the heightened dangers they now face as they travel north to the US border.
VICE: What did you see that compelled you to open a shelter in the summer of 2014?
Irineo Mujica: The Mexican government started doing a lot of raids on La Bestia, so many more people had to walk to cross the country. They had to walk for hours through deserts and through areas with no houses. Robbers have always gone after migrants, but on the train it's harder to rob a person—it's easier to rob people who are walking, so the walkers are more vulnerable. I saw people with horrible blisters, and many sick and hurt from the journey.
Migrants have been crossing all across Mexico. Why did you pick Chahuites?
La Bestia starts in Arriaga, about three hours south by the train from Chahuites, but the government was taking people off the train in Arriaga and everyone would run away. There would be 200, 300, even 500 people getting off the freight trainand they'd walk north looking for shelter. It takes about 16 hours walking from Arriaga to Chahuites. There was a need for something in Chahuites, because the next shelter was about 4 or 5 days walking north. We put the shelter in the middle of the hardest hit area.
Are people still taking La Bestia?
Yes, people always take the train, but in the south, [we estimate that] the number has dropped about 90 percent. In the north there are fewer checkpoints so more people continue to take the train up there.
Can you tell me about the people who stay in your shelter?
The majority are migrants from Central America that go to the north fleeing violence. There are women, children, all ages of people, but in recent months I've seen more teens, which is the gangs' biggest targets.
How long do people stay? Do you ever have to turn people away
People stay about three days, or if they're really sick maybe longer. The shelter is a house with 3 rooms—it's not very big, but we always find a way to make space for everyone. We don't have beds. We fill up the inside and the outside with people sleeping. What we try to provide is security so people won't be robbed and can have a moment of peace, and can have food and be restored to be able to continue their journey.
You mentioned security—does the shelter have problems with security?
Thieves have threatened the people who run the shelter, also because we help migrants with legal problems. We've helped make about 100 complaints to the police about robberies since we opened. When we've been walking in the town, thieves have told us they'll kill us, but they haven't done it. There always is danger.
The US government has tried to use detention and deportation as a deterrent to Central American migrants, to discourage more people from coming. Does it seem to you that people are migrating in hope of getting an easy entry into the US?
No, not at all, no. The majority are fleeing the gangs and they are only looking for a place with more security. They're not coming for economic reasons—they're pushed out of their homes by the violence. They can't return to their home countries, or they'll be killed.
How often do people actually make it to the US?
We estimate that about 15 percent of people [who stay] at our shelter make it to the US. Many people get deported from Mexico and then return and return again. There was one family who arrived 3 times at our shelter, a father and children.
What's one of the most difficult things you've encountered at the shelter?
There was a 9-year-old child who had been walking with his uncle from Chiapas, and they were in the middle of the 14-hour walk from Arriaga when they were robbed. The thief put a pistol to the uncle and captured the child. The uncle came to us and we searched and searched. We found the boy's hat and someone said they'd seen him, but he had totally disappeared. We still don't know what happened to him. It's a little Hell here.
This interview has been translated from Spanish, and lightly edited for clarity.
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