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Protesting Migrants Recreate the 'Way of the Cross' Through Mexico

Central American migrants drew attention to the violence they face in Mexico with a Holy Week Christian tradition.

by VICE News
Apr 25 2014, 4:55pm

Photo by Iván Castaneira

By Iván Castaneira and Rafael Castillo.

Jordan — who is half-Mexican and half-Honduran — is heading towards the train to Honduras. He hopes to pick up his undocumented fiancé, Edis, and return to Mexico with her.

Edis was deported by the Mexican National Institute of Migration a few months ago as she attempted to meet up with Jordan. She is currently unable to legally enter Mexico, yet they hope to be able to get married in Guadalajara, which would grant her the documents she needs to stay the country.

The pair want to join the via crucis, a Christian tradition during Holy Week which attempts to recreate “the way of the cross,” or the path that Jesus walked carrying the cross upon which he was to be crucified. Mexican migrant organizations are typically run by representatives of the Catholic church, who use the via crucis to draw media attention to the violence that Central American migrants face.

The symbolic event attempts to draw a comparison between the suffering that Jesus endured en route to his death and the ordeal that migrants experience, often on the freight train known as “The Beast.”

For Jordan and Edis, this via crucis is also an opportunity to limit the risks associated with moving across Mexico. On previous occasions gangs of delinquents have requested sexual favors of Edis in exchange for allowing her to cross.

Undocumented Central American migrants do not have the right to travel freely through Mexico so they choose to do it publicly.

For the past three years the recreation has visited “La 72” — a migrant shelter operated by Franciscan Friars in Tenosique. The home is named in honor of the victims of the August 2010 massacre in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, where the bodies of 72 Central American migrants were found in a mass grave. The victims were killed by Zeta cartel gunmen, after their families failed to pay the ransom that was demanded in exchange for their safe release.

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For the shelter’s director, Friar Tomás González Castillo, the via crucis is an opportunity to expose the problems — such as violence and kidnappings committed by both criminal cartels and the Mexican authorities — that immigrants face while travelling illegally through Mexico.

This year the caravan left El Naranjo in Guatemala on April 14 and headed for the Mexican towns of Tenosique, Villahermosa, Catazajá, Coatzacoalcos, La Patrona, Puebla, and Mexico City.

This year, Friar Castillo decided to accompany the migrants on The Beast as far as he could. Onboard, there are veterans of the journey as well as first-timers. Prepared to face the worst possible scenarios, which include abduction, rape or murder, everyone shares advice on how to successfully reach their destinations in one piece.

This ride began on Holy Thursday, at around 3.30 AM, after a whole night of waiting, singing, worrying, and doubting. Around 400 migrants left the shelter to board the train headed for Palenque, Chiapas. After getting settled and waiting six hours for the train to depart, in the end it left without the migrants, without the via crucis, and without Friar Castillo.

The train operators removed the wagons that the migrants were in, claiming it was for their own safety, and that they were following orders from high up in the company. Disappointed and confused, the hundreds of migrants got out of the cars and returned to the shelter.

After a few hours of discussion, breakfast, and many questions they made the decision to walk to Palenque as an act of protest. This meant travelling along the highway for two days, on foot.

Along the way, before reaching Mexico City, this group was joined by migrants from several different routes. After more than a week of traveling by different modes of transport, nearly a thousand people arrived in the capital on April 23.

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Maritza García, 29, left El Salvador to travel north, leaving her children to the care of their grandparents. “I still don’t know how far north,” she told VICE News, “it depends on the opportunities or barriers that appear along the way.”

Conditions on this year’s via crucis were better than expected. “They have given us food and clothes; they have been nice to us,” García said. “Good things have happened to us, because we are protected by the federal police, and they have treated us well.”

The trip is not always this easy. Migrants on The Beast usually risk assault or murder, but thanks to the presence of the media and human rights workers this journey was much safer.

The via crucis is also an act of civil disobedience — as undocumented Central American migrants do not have the right to travel freely through Mexico they choose to do it publicly. It also demonstrates how tired people are with the government’s negative answers when faced with questions on the situations faced by migrants: abuse, violence, abduction, and death.

Father Alejandro Solalinde — who is the director of the migrant home “Hermanos en el Camino” in Ixtepec, Oaxaca — told VICE News: “We are in a religious environment.

"This via crucis, which has become a caravan, attempts to shed a definitive light on what is going on, and to let the Mexican government know about the many times that we have been stepped on or become the victims of extortion, thanks to delinquents, public servants, police and immigration institutions — which are a den of corruption.”

Father Solalinde has been threatened on several occasions, due to his public service work in defense of the migrants. On this issue he told said: “The threats against human rights defenders are not important when we are dealing with the huge issue of threats against the Central American people.”

Friar Castillo has a number of primary demands to help people at this early point of the Central American exodus. He wants to establish the right for people to travel freely through Mexico, the abolishment of the National Institute of Migration — which he considers to be the number one perpetrator of human rights violations against migrants — and the guaranteed safety of all migratory routes.

Photos by Iván Castaneira