Migration and Coffee in Mexico and Central America

Reyno Bartolo Hernández died of heatstroke in the Arizona desert near Yuma on May 22, 2001. He wasn’t the only Mexican farmer who lost his life that day trying to cross the border. Thirteen of his countrymen and -women perished along with him in one more of the migratory tragedies of modern history.

Reyno and his companions were small coffee growers from the township of Atzalan, Veracruz. Atzalan is a formerly rich region but in recent years it has been impoverished by senseless policies. Until just a few years ago, few of its residents migrated to the United States. Then the price of coffee fell, and so did the price of citrus fruits and cattle. To make matters worse, bananas were attacked by fruit flies and the coffee crop was overcome by a devastating plant disease.

So little by little, the inhabitants of Atzalan set out along the route blazoned by small farmers from the states of Michoacan, Zacatecas, and Jalisco decades earlier. The coffee farmers began to look for a way to cross the 3,107-kilometer border that separated them from the United States, hoping to get to “the other side.” In desperation, they hooked up with the infamous polleros, the smugglers who led them to their deaths.

Thomas Navarrete, long-time adviser to the cooperative that many Atzalan growers belong to, notes that the crisis in the region is dramatic and tragic. In many communities, around 70% of the residents have left, most to the United States. Navarrete points out that before people didn’t need to leave their communities, at least not like now. “Even Celso Rodríguez, the president of the cooperative, left to work in Arizona,” he says.

The border has become a magnet for these coffee growers. If they get over–and many do–they earn $4-5 an hour, compared to the less than $4 a day they earn at home, if they’re lucky. In the coffee communities, the success stories from the other side are impressive. Migrants come back and remodel their houses; they pour a new roof, replace wooden planks with concrete blocks. Everyone can see and envy the changes.

In regions where out-migration was practically unheard of, the flow is now massive. The risks, the bad treatment, the isolation that migrants suffer don’t seem to matter much. There’s a reward for those who make it.

According to University of Veracruz researcher Mario Pérez Monterosas, Veracruz and Chiapas (Mexico’s largest coffee-growing state) form part of the latest migratory region. Between 1995 and 2000, some 800,000 people left Veracruz. Pérez Monterosas reports that Veracruz has been steadily climbing the ladder in the list of the states that contribute to the migrant population in the United States. In 1992 Veracruz was in 30th place, by 1997 it had risen to 27th, in 2000 it held 14th, and by 2002 it had become the fourth-largest sending state in the nation.1

Before this wave started, emigration from Veracruz’s coffee zones to the United States was so scarce that a 1994 survey registered only one township–Misantla–with cases of migration to the north, and there were only twelve.2

The small farmers found dead in Yuma are another figure in the macabre statistics of migration and an indicator of the hardships born of the coffee crisis. Like the 17 bodies that appeared on May 14, 2003 inside and surrounding a trailer truck in Victoria, Texas, and the six drowned trying to swim across the Rio Bravo. Since 1994, when Operation Gatekeeper began, more than 3,000 migrants have died or disappeared, most of them Mexican farmers. That’s an average of one a day. Sometimes, relatives of the dead never even find out what happened.

A declaration issued jointly by the Mexican and U.S. governments confirmed the tragedy of Reyno Bartolo and his companions, saying: “ Mexico and the United States express their profound sadness and consternation for the death of 14 migrants in the Arizona desert.”

A report from the International Coffee Organization on the coffee crisis is a little more explicit about the disaster: “Coffee producers from Mexico have died trying to get into the United States illegally after abandoning their farms… In general, the situation stimulates emigration to the cities and to industrialized countries.”3 A motion on the coffee crisis presented in the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 13, 2002 mentioned the death of the 14 coffee growers from Veracruz.

But beyond the laments, these declarations say nothing about the reasons that led to their journey, and they avoid pointing the finger at the real culprit: the coffee crisis was caused by the decision of industrialized countries and large companies to end the system of quotas that maintained a balance between supply and demand and kept producer income at a decent level.

The indigenous Chatinos of Oaxaca believe that to migrate is to die a little. The experience of Reyno Bartolo and scores of others shows that frequently they die more than a little. Their deaths bespeak the tragedy of small coffee growers in Mexico and Central America. Their stories form part of the story of coffee production in the region, and that is a story of government policies that turn farmers into surplus humanity.


Hell and Paradise

Migration and coffee have been associated throughout much of the history of Mexico and Central America. Historically, the coffee harvest has required hiring day laborers from different regions and countries, sometimes far from the coffee plantations themselves.

Between October and March, depending on the altitude and the region of the plants, the crop ripens. Thousands of workers are mobilized for harvest. Large plantations hire pickers. So do small growers. Usually, every member of the farm family works during the coffee harvest to ensure that the crop won’t rot on the ground.

Pickers must be experienced. The beans must be selected one by one, to distinguish the ripe ones from the green, without damaging the branches or hurting the new shoots. Coffee plants often grow on steep hillsides where it is difficult to work. [The harvested beans, collected in large baskets, must then be carried off on their backs for sorting and drying.] Coffee picking is an ability acquired with years of hard work and tradition.

According to Jan Rus, in the mid-1920s some 20,000 indigenous workers from the Chiapas highlands migrated annually to the lower Soconusco region and other coffee-growing lands to work the harvest.4 Between 1953 and 1960, some 12 to 18 thousand people seasonally migrated each year. According to Henry Favre, communities in the highlands exported annually about a fifth of the economically active male indigenous population to work in the coffee harvest.5 To get to the plantations, they had to organize long expeditions, buy food, pay to stay in crowded rooms, and pay tolls to use the roads along the way.

Years later, the Chiapan work force was replaced with Guatemalans. Officially some 90,000 day laborers made the trip from their villages in Guatemala to the Soconusco to work on the plantations.

But the relationship between coffee and migration has undergone a fundamental change since the crisis in international coffee prices in 1989. Today there is a new coffee migration. This time it isn’t related to the productive cycle of the plant. The new migration is fleeing the coffee fields and the enforced poverty of low prices. This migration heads north, to the United States, and stays there.

In 1989 the economic clause setting country export quotas of the International Coffee Organization was abandoned with the strong support of the Mexican government. Immediately, the price fell through the floor. Prices have gone up and down since the quota system ended, but since 1997 they have mostly gone down.

The only ones who win in this situation are the large companies and speculators on the commodities markets of New York and London. Coffee-growing communities, already poor, have grown poorer. As a response, thousands of farmers and laborers who cultivate and harvest the crop have decided to leave their homes permanently.

The old migration of laborers to harvest was marked by hardship. They went to the large plantations because they had to, not by choice. There they suffered abuse, hunger, and sickness. The journey was hell.

Indigenous peoples of the highlands remember the suffering: “We’d get an advance from the plantation so when we got there we already had a debt to pay off. Then the debt just gets bigger because the plantation doesn’t give you anything, you have to pay for everything, even food… In addition to the hard work, we suffered from other things on the plantation. The boss doesn’t care about the workers–if they’re sick, it’s not his concern. So they don’t give us good food and we’re always hungry… Before, the foremen mistreated workers a lot, they whipped them, beat them with branches, with belts, with the flat blade of the machete, kicked them. You got punished for anything … we were afraid of the plantation but we put up with it because we were poor.”6

The new immigration, although subject to many adversities, is a trip to a new world, full of hope. In their dreams, the migrants believe that the hardships and dangers they face as travelers will be compensated by the benefits of a new life in a new country. They leave behind a precarious existence that in recent years has become unendurable. They know the risks of the road, but they still set out. The color of the promised land is dollar-green.

Hugo Cantarero, a small coffee grower from Honduras, was detained and assaulted by Mexican police in Celaya , Guanajuato on his last trip. He is trying again. He explains his dream, as he waits for his chance to cross into Mexico in the Migrant House in Tecun Uman on the Guatemala-Mexico border:

“I have to make an effort to get there. I have a family. You take the risks of what awaits you. It’s not safe, you can make it or you can die. Only God knows. In Honduras, you can’t make it on a week’s wages. A sack of fertilizer that used to cost 150 lempiras costs 380 now. You have to start cutting back on everything. For us, there’s no medicine, no clothes, no education, no nothing. In Honduras, nobody has their own house, nobody has their own car. If you’re poor you’re used to living by God’s mercy. But when you get to the United States it’s such a beautiful world, so different. With a hundred dollars you can eat 15 days, you can buy a car for a hundred dollars.

“We have a fifty percent chance of making it to the United States and a fifty percent chance of dying along the way. ” We leave home and maybe never come back. So many Hondurans have died. But in the United States, you have benefits you can’t even dream of in Honduras.7

The two exoduses differ in many ways but especially in one fundamental aspect: while the migration to harvest forms part of agricultural labor, the march to the United States is not tied to any work identity. When you cross the border, it doesn’t matter if you are a coffee-grower or not. You are simply another undocumented laborer in search of a new world.

Small farmers–and coffee growers as part of this group–have been condemned to extinction, declared superfluous and unnecessary. Their communities have been converted into huge warehouses of available work force.

For those who work in coffee, the temporary migration at harvest time can be a hell, but it’s reversible. In contrast, those who flee coffee farming seek a modern paradise. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger affirms “nobody emigrates without the hope of promise to be fulfilled.”8 And the United States is still, for them, the land of dreams.


The Emergency

For the past seven years, coffee plants throughout Mexico and Central America are full of beans with no hands to pick them.9 Red carpets of ripe coffee beans rot on the hillsides.

The small coffee grower has to make an enormous effort to pay hired hands. Many receive payment for the crop only when the harvest is over. They have to obtain credit from their organization, if they are organized, or fall into the hands of usurers. It is very difficult to receive financing. Although there are some laborers who work in exchange for food for the day, others receive almost as much for their work as what the raw coffee receives on the market.

In coffee communities there is widespread hunger, malnutrition, sickness, and death; there is also grief and worry. The price on the international market has fallen below $50 for 100 pounds. For many years, the average price oscillated between $120 and $140. Except for record levels between 1995 and 1996, the coffee price has been low since 1989 when the economic clauses designed to stabilize prices were abandoned by the International Coffee Organization (ICO).

The coffee-producing countries of the region have been hard hit by the price crisis, especially the families who live off coffee production and harvest. Traditionally a source of income and wealth for the nations that cultivate it, in the past several years coffee has lost the dynamism and importance it once had.

Behind each cup of coffee consumed lies an explosive situation. During the past seven years, thousands of hungry small coffee growers and agricultural workers have blocked the highways and public offices of several Central American countries. In regions that rely on coffee production, out-migration, robbery, violence, and drug cultivation have all increased exponentially. Many growers have succumbed to the temptation to take the machete to the coffee plants and be done with it.

If the trend continues, the economic and social disasters will soon be followed by an environmental disaster. Coffee grows on hillsides and takes four years to begin to produce. Planting corn or converting coffee groves to pasture land to feed cattle results in severe soil erosion and deforested wooded zones.

The situation is urgent and dramatic. Coffee growers have sent out an anguished SOS to their governments, agribusiness companies, and consumers in developed countries. Most seem not to hear.


Coffee in the Region

Coffee came to the shores of the American continent at the end of the eighteenth century. A hundred yeas later it had become a key crop in Mexico and the countries that now constitute Central America . Fundamental aspects of the economic, social, environmental, and cultural life of these nations turn around the coffee bean.

Contrary to products like bananas, whose production is in the hands of foreigners, coffee cultivation is carried out mostly by national citizens. Not so with large-scale marketing. These links in the productive chain, by far the most lucrative, are controlled mostly and increasingly by transnational companies–either directly or through subsidiaries–that dominate the world market. In Honduras , five exporters control 52% of the market and two are owned by multinationals Newman and Volcafe. Five large foreign companies with subsidiaries in Mexico (AMSA, Jacobs, Expogranos, Becafisa-Volcafe, and Nestle) dominate the marketing chain there.10

Coffee cultivation is vital to the economy of the region. Between 1990 and 2000 the region obtained annual income from coffee of around $1.7 billion–11% of the resources obtained from all exports. During the past two decades, coffee cultivation was the most important economic activity in Honduras, above bananas and lumber. It contributed 5-8% of the GDP. In El Salvador, sales of coffee abroad reached 7.7% of GDP in 1985 and had fallen to 1.9% by 2001. In Nicaragua, coffee represented 25% of all exports between 1995and 2000.

In Mexico, coffee was one of the main agricultural exports and brought in some $600 million a year on average over the past decade. Nearly 6% of the economically active population of that country depended on coffee for their livelihoods.

In exporting nations, the coffee business provides critical income to the rural workforce. Approximately 1.6 million people derive at least part of their income from coffee in Central America –about 28% of the economically active population. In some nations it’s much higher–in Nicaragua it rises to 42% and in Guatemala to 31%.

It is estimated that for each producer there are eight farm workers dedicated to coffee. During the past decade in El Salvador, this economic activity generated 155,000 permanent jobs as agricultural workers. These workers earned an average of $7.60 a day in Costa Rica , $3.60 in El Salvador, $3.20 in Guatemala, $3.00 in Honduras, and $2.30 in Nicaragua.11

Although in some countries a significant part of the production is concentrated by large growers that form part of the authoritarian oligarchies, there are also many small producers that participate in this economic sector. Agrarian reforms in countries like Mexico, Nicaragua, and El Salvador substantially affected large landholders, in some cases radically changing the social composition of the producers of the sector.

In this region, there are 300,000 direct producers, of which 200,000 are small producers. In Guatemala there are 62,649 producers but they employ 2.25 million workers through the productive chain. In Honduras there are 112,000 producers. In Mexico, the last census showed the figure at 480,000 producers and more than 3 million laborers.


The Disaster

Berta Cáceres is a well-off coffee grower in El Salvador. Or was. “Beginning about five years ago," she recounted to a reporter of El Diario de Hoy, "we stopped earning enough to pay costs. I’ve had to sell thirty head of cattle each year. We’ve sold our irrigation equipment and suspended the electricity… everything nice we had on the property. One of the last head of cattle we had left, this year we had to sell off fifty more. Coffee just doesn’t pay.”

Although there was a slight increase in price in the last harvest, the international price has fallen to an historic low and there are no expectations that it will improve significantly in the short term. The crisis of overproduction and speculation on the commodities trading floor seems to be permanent.

In Central America, moreover, the economic crisis coincided with an array of natural disasters. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch devastated infrastructure and crops, especially in Honduras. Two earthquakes shook San Salvador in January and February of 2001.At the end of 2001, tropical storm Michelle damaged Honduras and Nicaragua. Since the spring of 2002 the region has suffered a severe and prolonged drought that led to farm losses of more than 80% in several regions of Guatemala and El Salvador. InterAction, a U.S. nongovernmental organization, calculated in April of 2002 that close to a million people in the region suffered problems of food security.

This situation has worsened in the region due to the implementation of structural adjustment and stabilization programs that have severely affected the agricultural sector. In Guatemala, for example, the office that provided extension services to farmers was closed down. The functions of regulation and redistribution that in some countries were carried out by governmental institutions and state-owned enterprises have been cut.

In Nicaragua a succession of administrations used coffee revenues as a discretionary fund. Resources obtained thanks to the export of the coffee bean have been used as petty cash box to meet the financial needs resulting from earthquakes, eruptions, wars, droughts, and floods. Despite the fact that a price stabilization fund was created in the 1980s through growers’ contributions, Nicaraguan coffee farmers did not receive price support in key times.

The crisis in coffee activity has caused severe economic, social, and environmental problems. In economic terms, there has been a clear drop in profits, mainly for small and medium growers and their cooperatives. This has led to a reduction in investment, which in turn leads to a greater drop in employment and income. Agricultural export earnings have plummeted. The increase in unemployment has deepened poverty for rural families and forced emigration. Many growers have destroyed their coffee to plant basic grains and corn, reducing the environmental benefits that coffee production provides.

Export income in Central America fell from $938 million in 2000/2001 to $700 million in 2001/2002. The drop in exports hurt the balance of payments and affected economic activity as a whole, causing financial disaster for some governments.

In addition to the drastic fall in income, the growers of the region suffered from the absence of credit and high interest rates, as well as the high cost of inputs, transportation, and labor. Bankruptcy has led to the loss of plantations and farms, the capacity to obtain new credit, and also the collapse of financial institutions. More and more, this function of providing credit is being taken over by loan sharks.

A survey carried out by the World Bank in Nicaragua and El Salvador in 2001 indicates that small growers have deepening problems keeping their farms. In many cases they have quit caring for the plants. This has meant that plagues have seriously affected productivity. Many growers do not fertilize and do not weed. Yields have dropped by 50%.

Compared to the previous three years, labor demand fell in 2001 by 30% in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua; 20% in El Salvador; and 12% in Costa Rica. In total, 42 million work days have been lost, or 170,000 fulltime jobs. Income has fallen by $140 million. Day laborers are out of work and out of luck–they don’t even benefit from the scarce governmental support that growers previously received in some countries.

Simultaneously, the international coffee market generates hefty profits for the large intermediaries, especially the roasters and branders. Transnational corporations have significantly increased their presence in national markets, as buyers, processors, or retailers.

Gilberto Recinos, a small grower from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, describes the situation: “The small producers depend directly on coffee. If it doesn’t pay well, their standard of living goes down; they don’t have resources for food, housing, or plant cultivation. They lack everything; they have no way to live. The majority is suffering or barely holding on.

“Before many people benefited directly or indirectly from coffee: the workers, the truckers, all had a source of income. Today anyone can see the consequences. Jobs vanished, wages went down, business dried up, and income is no longer generated. It affects education, health, and migration to Mexico or the United States or the capital–for those who have money. And those who don’t? We’re fried!”


Small Coffins

February 2003. In a hospital located in western El Salvador, Adán Domínguez struggles to stay alive. He suffers from severe malnutrition.12

Adán shares a room with another 32 babies who, like him, are on the edge of death. Infants, all of them, sons and daughters of small coffee growers or laborers who work the coffee harvests. Hungry, sick from poverty and want. All are victims of the crisis that brought down the coffee price.

According to reports from El Salvador’s Ministry of Health, during 2002 there were 52 children of coffee producers under five who died of malnutrition and 4,000 more became seriously ill.

The doctors in charge of the tending to the tragedy explained: “Many people who depend on coffee are now unemployed. It gets harder and harder for the families to provide for their children.”

Divina Belmonte, spokesperson for UNICEF, agrees with this diagnosis. “An increase in infant malnutrition has been reported in various coffee-producing zones of El Salvador,” she stated. “Food is scarcer and scarcer, particularly in the provinces of Achuapan, Sonsonete, Santa Ana, and La Libertad, where nearly 30,000 families suffer hunger as a result of the near 50% decline in coffee prices during the last three years.13

Figures from the Basic System of Integral health (SIBASE) show that during 2003 12 children died of malnutrition and related causes. One year later, in the township of Tacuba, Ahuachapán a total of 40 minors died for the same reason.14 The severity of the situation led the World Food Program to distribute corn, rice, and fortified foodstuffs to over 10, 0000 families in 2003 in the Salvadoran provinces where 30% of coffee production occurs.

Hunger also plagues Guatemala. In 2002, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) stated that the country was experiencing “an acute crisis in generalized infant malnutrition, caused by the accumulated effects of drought and much reduced employment in the coffee sector. The most recent census information indicates that more than 30,000 children in 91 townships suffer acute malnutrition. Of these, more than 7,000 are in a state of moderate to grave consumption.”15

The situation was so serious this year that a Guatemalan doctor stated, “What is happening is a catastrophe. There has always been poverty and temporary unemployment, but I have never seen hunger as real as now. People literally have nothing to eat except tortillas.”16

In Nicaragua conditions are no better. José Manuel Rodríguez, five years old and a resident of Rancho Grande, lost his life to hunger. The same happened to Daniela Díaz and Alexander Díaz, both just two years old. Between June of 2002 and February 2003 21 children died of malnutrition and related sicknesses. The following months were as bad or worse. One after another, their deaths became the cold statistics of the coffee crisis.

“I had four children but one that was 15 months old died on Thursday of malnutrition, lack of food and medicine. I have another three sick but I need help because my house is made of plastic and I don’t have anywhere to go when it rains.” said Yessenia Martínez, one of the thousands of hungry farm workers in northern Nicaragua, in September of 2002.17

In August 2003 coffee workers marched from their mountain homes to the provincial capital of Matagalpa to protest the conditions that caused 14 community members to die of hunger, including two children. Marlyn, a 22-year-old mother and her 16-month-old son both participated in the march. She sobbed: “We haven’t had anything to eat and we can’t stand it any more. This is terrible. There is no work and the children are dying of hunger because now there is nothing in the countryside.”18

Coffee regions infested with mosquitos, malaria, and dengue are spreading. “The women and children are the most affected,” affirmed doctor Juan Carlos Sánchez, director of SILAIS in Matagalpa.

The $66 million donated by the WFP as emergency aid to the region and the $60 million sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture fell far short of providing what was needed to combat the malnutrition related to the coffee crisis.

The situation is so terrifying that the report of the mayor of Matagalpa points out that between January and August 2002, there were 120 coffins donated to the rural sector, all of them distributed to families and many of them child-sized. The year before only 50 coffins had been given out.19


The Other Border

Guatemalan workers have been migrating to harvest coffee in the Soconusco region of Chiapas for years. Daniela Spencer noted that for many Guatemalan Indians work on the coffee plantations became a form of refuge from mistreatment in their own country.20 For many years there was a tradition between Mexico and Guatemala of free transit and trade, so much so that it wasn’t until 1917 that an immigration office was established in Chiapas. Migratory flows from Central America to Mexico have a long history, although the heaviest traffic began in 1965.

The Soconusco is a natural corridor that connects the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico with Central America. The region grew wealthy from coffee cultivation during the period when Porfirio Díaz governed pre-revolutionary Mexico. Díaz established a new pattern of settlement based on the agro-export economy. Coffee was exported to Europe through what is now Puerto Madero. In 1908 the first train route was built and in 1965 the Pan-American Highway. Today not only merchandise but also labor moves along these routes on its way to the northern border.

Every year 200,000 Guatemalans come to Mexico to work on the coffee plantations. But they are not the only ones to cross the border. Soconusco has become a transit region–so much so that in the south an undocumented worker is arrested every two minutes. In 2003, 187,000 people without papers were detained. Nearly 40% of those were in Chiapas . This year, according to data from the Mexico ’s National Institute of Migration, the figure will likely double. Ninety percent come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

The southern border has become a no-man’s land for Central American immigrants. In crossing, they are run over by trains, stabbed by bands of delinquents, robbed by police and Army personnel. Many women are raped and killed. Families are split up.21 Some 100 bands of smugglers operate in the Mexico-Guatemala border zone, charging migrants for getting them a little closer to their destination of the United States.


The Migrant’s Story

Even before arriving at the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman on their way to Tapachula, Central American migrants are oftentimes victims of extortion. The road from El Salvador already seems long, and you’ve really just started. You left your family, your property your coffee farm. You’re in debt up to your eyeballs. You know you shouldn’t go out on the streets after six. It’s too dangerous. This city is a free-for-all of drug-runners and black-market arms dealers. Territory of human smugglers. City of hortelanos, tricicleteros, loan sharks, and restaurant owners who live off people like you, people just passing through.

It was already risky getting this far. It’s not like it used to be. The U.S. Border Patrol trains the Guatamalan special army forces called kaibiles. It provides them with technology. Now you don’t have to wait to get to the Unitedf States to suffer. The hard line begins in your own country. Then it gets harder in Mexico. Mexico has become Washington’s southern gatekeeper, guarding the backyard entrance. The government’s Southern Plan sealed the border. Santiago Creel, Mexico’s Minister of the Interior said as much: “The Mexican government is prepared to cut off the growing flow of foreigners that use the country as a transit point in their efforts to reach the United States.”

The house where you wait to cross is not big enough for everyone who’s waiting. You’re piled on top of each other. In the night they lock you up with chains and armed guards. They tell you that you’ll be part of a crew going to work in the fields of the Soconusco using false papers. You should carry a machete and a gunny sack. You won’t cross the Sucihiate River in a tire boat, or swim like others do. But you have to learn to talk like a Mexican, know about that country even if you’re just passing through. They sold you a booklet for ten bucks. There you read about Mexico’s “Child Heroes,” what the president’s wife’s name is, the colors of the flag. Others even obtain a voter card to given them a new identity.

You wish you could travel in a banana trailer. It has air conditioning so you wouldn’t be asphyxiated. But you don’t have enough money. Not even for a chicken truck. You have to go by train. You’re young and strong. You can stand the days. You won’t go by boat. You know what happens to those who take a shark boat to Salina Cruz and then a smaller boat to Acapulco . How they suffer on the rogue seas. What happened on August 16th when two boats sank, one with 20 people on board, the other with 30. Not one person made it to shore. No, this business of “kill or be killed” isn’t for you.

You don’t know the numbers but it’s a lot. Travelers like you who die at sea, in the rivers, on the bridges, on the train tracks, in the trailers. The Center for Central American Resources in El Salvador says that between 1997 and 2000 almost 25,000 Central Americans disappeared seeking the American dream. Ten thousand were Salvadoran. Many of the families still don’t know what has happened and may never know.

You’re on the Mexican side. You wait for the train, the beast, as it’s called here. The train stations stink. You wait hours. There are others like you. Biding their time in graveyards, vacant lots, underneath bridges. As you go on your way, the vigilance will get worse. Soldiers guard the rails. Your itinerary is not made up by a travel agency. The routes, the operatives of the Migra, your own fatigue, and pure luck will determine your course.

The beast arrives. When the wheels of the convoy begin to move you run as fast as you can, grab hold and hang on. If you get run over, it’s the end. How many like you have lost arms and legs? Every month seven or eight train amputees arrive at the regional hospital in Tapachula.

Bad luck. This train doesn’t carry grain or sand. But at least it’s not raining. Better not to go inside the wagons–if they close you can get asphyxiated. Better to hang on like a monkey, taking care to duck the high tension wires. In the tunnels you move onto the side and tie your arms on with wire. You cannot sleep. If you doze off you fall. You protect yourself from the cold with a windbreaker. You wrap up your hands. In tunnels and on cold days the steel of the train freezes.

This time there aren’t any gangs. Often they jump on to steal. To them, 50 pesos can cost your life. The Maras. They chase you, catch you, and beat you up. Hit you in the face and body. Throw you off the train. Abuse the women.

When the immigration agents get on you run to the back and jump. It doesn’t matter if the train is moving. They can’t catch you. You wait until another train comes by, start to run, then get off in Huamantla. It’s near Apizaco, at the end of the longest tunnel, there’s a checkpoint. When you see a red antenna that announces the arrival in Lechería and you do it again. That’s where most of the cargo trains heading north end up. It’s the halfway border, and they’ll get you for sure there. If it’s not the thieves, it’s the police. So you go around the station and wait for the next train. From there the freight trains head out for the north.

You already have a different gaze. Same with everyone else traveling with you. You’ve become tougher–from the hardships, the fear, the waiting, and the horrors. You smell different. Not just for the sweat and dirt. Little by little, the smell of death gets under your skin. That’s what the refuges that help migrants along the route smell like.

You head out to Coahuila, another stop for the freight trains. You cross at Piedras Negras or Ciudad Acuña. You think the vigilance will be less there. But private guards watch the trains. They’re even more violent. In less than a year three migrants were assassinated in Coahuila. Elmer Alexander Batrahona was shot. Ismael Jesus Martinez was stoned to death in November 2002. All by the employees of a company called Canine Protection Systems, hired to guard the trains. Its president is Miguel Nassar Daw, son of one of the main men responsible for Mexico’s dirty war.

In Saltillo the police stop you. They hit you and take your money. It’s like Gabriela Rodriguez Pizarro, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants for the UN says: "In Mexico there is a generalized climate of hostility and many take advantage of the migrant’s vulnerability.” It doesn’t matter that in El Salvador in September of 2000 Vicente Fox offered major efforts to respect the human rights of migrants. Pure rhetoric. Nothing personal.

You arrive in Laredo . Finally the border. Salvadorans like you work outside the municipal building. They wash the pick-ups of the law enforcement officers. From here you can’t get to the other side. Operation Hold the Line, or Rio Grande on the Mexican side, leaves no holes. So you go to Las Antenas, 14 kilometers away. On the edge of the river there are some small beaches. You pay the patero–that’s what they call polleros or smugglers here–to use the rafts and hide in the bushes. They, in turn have to pay a quota for “use rights” to the “Z,” the thugs of Osiel Cárdenas, head of the Gulf Cartel.

You shove off into the river and the current takes you. When you reach the other side you start to look for a safe house. There you wait until they put you in a truck with 60 other people. That’s how your compatriots died in Victoria, Texas. But it’s not your time yet. You’re off to Georgia. Your cousin is working the harvest there. It all starts again.


The Exodus

Coffee growers and laborers are the latest link in the historic migration to the United States. They arrive when the border is closed, the cost of the journey, and support networks hardly exist. These new migrants have little or no knowledge of the geography, physical and social, they will face.

To emigrate, coffee growers have to go into debt. They mortgage their land and houses and are charged interest rates of at least 20% a month. Every day that passes is more money they owe. It’s urgent that they arrive at their destination quickly. That’s why so many die in desperation in the desert.

Often they fall into the hands of abusive smugglers. When the "guides" are from the same region they have a certain responsibility to the family to take care of their “charge.” But when they are strangers, they have no commitment to anybody. Ignorance of the journey means that the new migrants frequently fall in with smugglers who sell them or abandon them. They are easy victims of assaults and extortion. All along the way people lie in wait seeking to exploit them.

The coffee farmer sets out for the north ill-prepared. He or she arrives without boots, or water, carrying money. Instead of making a deal in the village or through someone they know in some city in the United States , arrangements are made in bus depots and train stations. It’s no wonder that events happen like that of August 2002, when two Chiapan youths were found floating dead in the All-American canal in California –just yards from U.S. soil.22

Alan Bersin, one of the strategists of Operation Gatekeeper, explains the complexity of crossing for new migrants: “Now the ones who cross illegally have to cross extremely difficult terrain, deep rocky canyons, full of thorny bushes, practically without water and with peaks of over 6,000 feet, or over peaks nearly 6,000 feet high, or through desolate and dangerous deserts. Before they crossed in areas with almost immediate access to highways, but today it’s a hard walk of two to three days out to the highway. The guides are more necessary than ever and charge accordingly.”23

Many new migrants do not speak Spanish or it isn’t their first language. It’s common that in the United States there are no translators in their language. The fact is basic to receive medical attention or legal defense. In the 80s the Trique Adolfo Ruiz Álvarez and Mixtec Santiago Ventura Morales were jailed in Oregon for a misunderstanding that derived from not knowing English or Spanish. Álvarez was locked up in a mental institution and sedated for over two years, while Ventura was unjustly held prisoner for four years.

The new migratory flows are directed toward places where migrants didn’t go before. The destinations are states located in the east coast such as Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, or the Carolinas. The conditions there are more difficult. On arrival they must live in bridges, caves, and open fields, where they suffer discrimination–often from their own compatriots established there. “Superfluous people are cheap,” wrote Enzesberger. “Clandestine immigration lowers the price of the labor force.”24

The conditions of the journey, the crossing, and the changes in diet weaken defenses and expose migrants to many illnesses. Several cases of tuberculosis have been reported in cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Ana. It is easy to catch something when travelers are locked up together in the trunk of a car for hours. In 2004, 30 cases of Central Americans with malaria were reported in Orizaba, Veracruz and one died. And it’s hard to get well. “There are people who come back sick from the north,” they say in the Chinantec community of Santiago Yaitepec. “There they don’t have curanderos, because only young people go, and the old don’t leave the village and the young don’t know how to cure. Just kids of 25 or less are the ones who leave for the north, the old people don’t want to go.”25

The United States isn’t the only destination. There is heavy migration of Nicaraguan workers to Costa Rica since there they can earn double what they make at home. This situation has become so critical for Nicaraguan plantation owners owing to the lack of labor that president Enrique Bolaños declared in late December of 2003 that the nation could lose up to 200,000 quintals of coffee.

Researcher Edith Kauffer Michel described migratory routes of Central Americans on Mexico’s southern border.26 According to her study, migrants now cross Mexico through the states of Tabasco and Campeche and not only through Chiapas. The routes are: the coast, by train from Tapachula to Arriaga; the Sierra Madre, through Motozintla, La Angostura, and Comitán in Chiapas; the border, which is the second most important; the jungle, through Veracruz; the ocean route from Puerto Cahmperico (Guatemala) to Huatulco, Oaxaca; the air route for those with papers and money; and the plains route from Tabasco through the Tenosique corridor.

Migration in Chiapas has been explosive. The signal for the exodus came with the rains of 1998 when 400,000 hectares were damaged and 400 people killed. The coffee crisis added to it. And the passage of Hondurans stimulated it by showing the way. At least 30 municipalities in Chiapas have formed part of the migration. Some 30,000 Chiapans leave each year for the United States. By late 2004 some 300,000, over 65% farmers and indigenous peoples.27 In 1997 Chiapas occupied 27th place among states receiving remittances from abroad; in 2001 it rose to 15th; in 2003, 12th; and this year 11th. In 2003, the state received $260 million. This year it received $227 million in the first half and by the end of the year the figure is expect to rise to $500 million.

According to researcher Jorge Cruz Burguete, there are 136 travel agencies in Frontera Comalapa, with buses that leave for Tijuana once a week. Posters, radio commercials, and trucks with loud speakers announce departures throughout the state. The business began, reports Alberto Najar, with entrepreneurs like Rosalinda Quiroa of Carrillo Puerto, half an hour from Tapachula. Doña Rosalinda used to organize pilgrimages to the Villa in Mexico City. When she realized that many youths were continuing on up to Tijuana or Ciudad Juárez, she hired buses and began to offer service to the border. A year later, she bought her own bus, and then another.

Migration is not limited to the poorest. Even the sons of plantation owners have had to follow the road north to the United States. They are charged with maintaining the family pride; for years they lived a privileged life, wore leather boots, drove big trucks, and looked down on the Indians. Now, those who haven’t migrated north wear rubber boots and mended clothes. The men use the dollars from the remittances to hire seasonal workers. And, irony of life, the smugglers treat plantation owners and day laborers the same.


To Die a Little

How does immigration affect the indigenous coffee communities that have conserved their ethnic community identity?

Over 10 years ago, writes researcher Daniel Oliveras de Ita, emigration from San Juan Quiahije in the Chatina region of Oaxaca began when the first tour migrants arrived in the United States.28 Their main economic activity was coffee growing, working as seasonal laborers or dependent producers for the coffee plantations of the region.

Before going north, the travelers went to the curanderos, or healers, of the village. The shamans told them to place candles for the saints, for example to Santiago Yaitepec, or the Virgin of Juquila, or Saint John Quiahije, depending on which saints the curanderos said. They instruct them to purify themselves and they have to abstain from having sex for 7 – 13 days. They also must not swear or fight during this time, they should behave well, and walk straight and narrow so that favors will be granted them.

Those who go north without consulting the curanderos have problems, so they communicate with their parents or elders and tell them about the situation. The family represents them and consults with the curanderos who tell them what to do to change the luck of their relative on the other side. They are instructed to carry candles to the saints and the dead in the cemetery.

Before going north the youth go with the curanderos who eat the sacred mushroom (hui ya jo), narrates Narciso García Urbano of Santa María Yolotepec. When they eat the mushroom they see the destiny of the people who will migrate for work. They can see if they will be able to cross the border or if they will have problems along the sway, if they will find work and if it will go well. They see if one will fail in the north. They also go to the graveyard to ask permission and health from the dead, their grandparents. They ask for help from the tomb to care for them along the way, so nothing happens to them and they find work and return well.

In Santiago Yaitepec the people say that to migrate north is to die a little. When a family member is absent, either dead or far way, the rest of the family still performs healing and rituals for them, using photographs and clothing. In the hills the people strike the clothing of the dead and migrants with a staff, and light candles and ask that wherever they are they do not suffer and repent for their sins.

The young people expect to leave. Adolescents begin to migrate at 13. Most work for about three years in the United States and return at 17 to take on their first cargo as topil (a community post that forms part of the traditional cargo system).

Catholic people with strong family ties do not change so drastically in the United States . They continue to carry out community service and perform cargos. These are the ones trained in the Chatina customs.

For others, however, without the preparation and belief in the traditions and customs, they return with new ideas that they often seek to impose. They no longer accept traditional authority and want to be bosses themselves. They refuse to serve in low-level cargos because they come back with money and they feel powerful. They do not obey the political or religious hierarchies. When they return they want to be municipal presidents.

Are the Chatinos of De Ita’s study typical of indigenous coffee migrants? We don’t know. Migration has transformed the logic of the community, its dreams and its demons. It has had to reinvent itself.

In a recent book, Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado note that in spite of the adverse conditions that indigenous migrants face in the United States, many have found ways to build a broad range of political, social, and civic organizations to fight for strategic objectives.29 In these cases, the migratory mobility of the peoples instead of weakening them has done the opposite. There they have created and recreated identities. Oaxacalifornia, that imaginary community that brings together the many Oaxacan villages where migrants are born and the U.S. cities where they live now is the new space of a transnational society.

The lack of papers and the increased risks in crossing the borders after September 11 th make it harder for migrants to return to their home countries. With no real perspective of better coffee prices (the increase in the last harvest is temporary and is still below the costs of production), without possibilities of employment in their places of origin, establishing oneself in the north is becoming progressively more attractive for those who once produced coffee.


Responses to the Crisis

In September 2002, 3,000 Nicaraguan coffee day laborers and their families camped on the Pan-American highway near Las Tunas, about 97 kilometers from the capital. Their presence interrupted traffic. On Wednesday the 11 th, they blocked Central America ’s largest Pacific highway for ten hours.

The majority of the participants have been out of work for months. “We want real jobs, they can’t hire us to ‘work for food’. We want work with a wage, we want stable jobs.” One hundred hours after the protest started, negotiations ended with some important agreements.

But Las Tunas is more the exception than the rule in the coffee-producing world. Instead of leading to open protests, the discontent and despair in the sector have lead to emigration as an escape valve. Protests have broken out in many places, but they do note even begin to reflect the dimensions of the tragedy.

The crisis has struck cooperatives of small producers and their struggles for self-administration. Although the crisis has stimulated conversion to organic coffee, fair trade and gourmet markets, it has also reduced membership in grassroots organizations.

Certainly those market niches have grown with the crisis, to the point where Guatemala has become second-only to Colombia as a global exporter of specialty coffee. The conversion toward these markets has been financed by the World Bank. USAID has funded a $20 million support program for marketing and technical assistance in the area for 2002-2006–just as it did to increase coffee production in Costa Rica to rein in “sandino-communism” in Nicaragua.30 But niche marketing benefits a very small percentage of coffee producers and fails to resolve the central issues.

Civil society in Mexico and Latin America has shown a notable lack of interest in the migrants’ situation. Migrant services are provided by voluntary organizations with scarce resources, mostly of a religious nature. While in Europe, the global justice movement has made the fight against xenophobia and struggle for universal citizenship central demands and areas of work, for the left in the Americas , support for migrants is nonexistent. The exception has been, as in so many other cases, the Zapatistas. The autonomous governments punish smugglers and assist Central American undocumented migrants, offering them water, housing, and food for free.

Migration in the area has grown so rapidly that no one can deal with it. Governments laud the millions of dollars of remittances that keep their countries afloat and keep quiet about the human rights violations suffered by their countrymen and -women in the United States .

Ironically, coffee is one of the products where Mexican and Central American farmers should be profitable according to the theory of comparative advantages. But instead of a bonanza, coffee cultivation under current conditions has condemned the growers to poverty, exile, death, or charity. Meanwhile, transnational traders and international investment funds accumulate huge fortunes.



  1. Mario Pérez Monterosas, “Las redes sociales de la migración emergente de Veracruz a los Estados Unidos,” Migraciones internacionales, Vol.2, Núm 1, Enero-Junio 2003.
  2. Odile Hoffman, “El andar investigando… historial de un proyecto de investigación sobre cambio sociocultural y crisis cafetalera,” Ciesas-Orstom, 1994 .
  3. ICO, Coffee crisis, p.2.
  4. Jan Rus, La Comunidad Revolucionaria Institucional .
  5. Henry Favre, Cambio y continuidad entre los mayas de México, Siglo XXI Editores, primera edición, 1973.
  6. Angelino Calvo Sánchez, et al. Voces de la Historia, Desarrollo Económico Social de los Mexicanos Indígenas, A.C. y Centro de Estudios Indígenas, Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas, 1989.
  7. Entrevista con Laura Carlsen, Casa del Migrante, Tecún Umán, Guatemala, March 13, 2004.
  8. Han Magnus Enzesberger, “La gran migración,” Anagrama, Barcelona, 1992.
  9. See, Luis Hernández Navarro, “Centroamérica y el Caribe,” in Victor Pérez Grovas, Edith Cervantes, John Burstein, Laura Carlsen and Luis Hernández Navarro, “El café en México, Centroamérica y el Caribe: Una salida sustentable a la crisis,” Coordinadora de Pequeños Productores de Café de Chiapas, AC-Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Cafetaleras de Café, México, November 2002.
  10. Perez Grovas, et al., op. cit.
  11. CEPAL, El impacto de la caída de los precios de café, 2002 p.1.
  12. Noticias del Café, February 26, 2003.
  13. EFE, October 22, 2002.
  14. Consejo Salvadoreño de Café. Efectos de la crisis del café en el desarrollo socioeconómico de El Salvador.
  15. U.S. Embassy Guatemala City, February 29, 2002.
  16. Sodepaz, “Café: una crisis que dura quince años,” January 2004.
  17. La Hora, September 9, 2002.
  18. Valeria Imhof, “El nuevo diario, Hambre y Muerte,” August 2, 2003, Indymedia Colombia.
  19. Documento para el análisis “El café, su crisis y acciones para impulsar su sobrevivencia,” Intermon/Oxfam, September 2002.
  20. Daniela Spencer, “Los empresarios alemanes, el Tercer Reich y la oposición de derecha a Cárdenas,” Ciesas, 1988.
  21. La Jornada, October 10, 2004.
  22. Nieves, Evelyn, “Illegal Immigrant Death Rate Rises Sharply in Barren Areas,” New York Times, August 6, 2002 .
  23. Alberto Najar, “Chiapas: migrar a puños,” Masiosare, June 30, 2002.
  24. Enzesberger, ibid.
  25. De Ita, Daniel, ibid.
  26. Edith F. Kauffer Michel, “Entre peligros y polleros: la travesía de los indocumentados centroamericanos,” Colegio de la Frontera Sur.
  27. La Jornada, October 11, 2004.
  28. This was taken from the field work of Daniel Oliveras de Ita in the Chatina region of Oaxaca, October 2004.
  29. Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, “Indigenous Mexican migrants in the Unites States,” Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, San Diego, 2004.
  30. “The Cappuccino Effect,” in The Washington Post, October 17, 2004.



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