IMG_0614I met Paola Quiñones in March of this year, 2014, while she was staying at the Brothers in the Journey Migrant Shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca. She was waiting for her papers in Mexico, to continue north to the United States.

Seven months later, Ixtepec brought us together again. Paola has become an advocate for Central American migrants in Mexico, who suffer brutal conditions in their passage through the country. She is part of a group of migrants in Mexico who have taken the struggle for “Free Transit” and dignity for migrants into their own hands, based on lived experience.

Setting aside the personal needs that pushed her to migrate in the first place, Paola now works to meet the collective needs of women in migration. “I don’t just speak for Paola. I speak for all the women– those who are afraid, those who don’t have media access,” she says to The Americas Program.

Paola leaves Honduras to build a castle

Paola was 20 years old when she left Honduras in February 2014. Her reasons are the same given by most migrants forced to leave their countries: a lack of employment, security issues, economic demands of their families, hopelessness for their futures in their home countries.

Paola lived in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, in 2009, when a coup d’etat overthrew Mel Zelaya, the democratically-elected president. She noted positive changes in the country during his administration. Later, “Seeing those injustices that the politicians committed during the coup, I started to go to marches and meeting,” she relates. This was not her first time to take the streets; “I always liked to, like when they didn’t give us our student vouchers, we went outside the President’s house to protest.”

She witnessed the social and political decline that followed the coup. In November 2013, the Nationalist Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández won four years in the Presidency, in an election marked by fraud. She says that today to protest in Honduras has serious risks and observes, “Your voice isn’t heard there.”

Paola has a daughter, who turned four year old in October. Her parents care for her in Honduras. Paola couldn’t work in Tegucigalpa due to high crime problems and wanted to help her family. Her desperation about her future in Honduras led her to head north.

“I never imagined riding the train (The Beast or “La Bestia”). But I am somebody once I have an idea in my head. I have to do it.” She decided to go to the United States. “The hardest part was saying goodbye to my daughter. She has always said to me, ‘Mommy, I want my castle,’ and I would say to her, ‘I am going to build you your castle.’”

How to cross Mexico and live to tell the tale

Central American migrants in Mexico face extreme risks as they traverse the country, un-documented, to reach the United States. Traveling with a cousin, Paola entered Mexico at the border city of Tapachula, Chiapas. Soon after, Immigration detained them in a bus leaving Arriaga, Chiapas. They were deported, yet only stayed two days at the border before trying again. This time they crossed at La Ceiba, Guatemala, a more isolated route that has fewer Immigration agents. They had to walk two days through the rainforest before arriving at Tenosique, Tabasco in Mexico. Paola started to sense the vulnerability of female migrants when people would say to her cousin, “Watch out for the girl.” She was afraid of being a victim of rape, a common crime against female migrants in Mexico.

They stayed in “The 72,” the migrant shelter in Tenosique, where “The Beast” departs. From Tenosique the train goes to Palenque, Chiapas. Paola remembers that when she climbed up onto the train, “I started to cry. It was just so giant.” They arrived in Palenque and from there went to Tuxtla Gutiérrez. There, three municipal police took Paola, her cousin and two other migrants off the bus. They robbed them of their money and belongings and threatened to take them to Immigration. Without money to continue, they were able to reach Arriaga, Chiapas.

In Arriaga, Paola cousin left her after a misunderstanding and she had to continue on her own. With the help of other migrants, she was able to reach Ixtepec, Oaxaca–the migrant shelter where we met.

Where the journey makes another turn

Arriving in Ixtepec, the shelter’s managers explained that under the 2011 Migration Law, migrants who are victims or witnesses to crimes in Mexico can receive a humanitarian visa. The Ixtepec shelter provides legal assistance in this process. They also offered Paola work cooking in the cafeteria. She decided to stay and seek a visa, to assure a safer journey north.

Paola became part of daily life at the shelter and became friends with many fellow migrants and volunteers. “I turned 21 here in the shelter. It was really nice because they surprised me for my birthday,” Paola remembers.

The Ixtepec shelter organized the “Dialog Caravan” with other activists and human rights defenders. After the caravan, also known as the Viacrucis, that left from Tenosique in April and reached northern Mexico, they organized another, this time in Ixtepec. The caravans resulted from the increasing violence on the route, in particular the trajectory of “the Beast”. Many migrants were left stranded in the shelters and other points along the journey, stuck between the fear of returning to violence in their own countries and the terror of facing organized crime on the way north.

Paola decided to join the Dialog Caravan, leaving Ixtepec June 1 with about 60 migrants and several activists and journalists. “When I went in the caravan, that’s when I started to rebel. I spoke in public for the first time in Juchitan”. Paola became the spokesperson of the women on the Caravan as they headed toward Mexico City.

When the Caravan reached the capital, they met with human rights organizations, the Catholic church and the government. “I don’t know who made me spokesperson,” she confesses, but she took on the role with conviction, speaking in numerous events, including in the Mexican Senate.

While they were participating in these meetings, the migrants had to decide what they would do next. Paola still had her visa paperwork waiting in Ixtepec but she decided to continue to the border.

“You have to call someone who will get you out of here”: the business of kidnapping

I spent almost two weeks wondering whether Paola was alive. Óscar Martínez, the author of The Beast, the indispensable book about Central American migration in Mexico, says that the word “kidnapping” is so common that it has lost it’s meaning in Mexico. Yet in June of this year, the word recuperated all its meaning for me.

Leaving Mexico City, Paola traveled with Jorge, 23, another member of the Caravan from Honduras. They made it as far as Reynosa, Tamaulipas, on the northern border with Texas, where they were planning to cross. But on June 11, armed men detained them as they left the city in a bus. “They boarded the bus and, identifying Paola and Jorge as Central Americans, “yelled at us, ‘Get off!’ And they carried us off in a taxi to a house,” Paola recounts.

There they told Paola and Jorge to call someone to get them out. They demanded $2,000 each. The two were held in a “security house”–a place where organized crime holds migrants they’ve kidnapped. “There were women, children, families… so many people in there,” remembers Paola.

It was not until three days later when they could makes phone calls, and the first call went to Jorge’s mother, who had been on the Caravan and was still in Mexico City. Afterward they were able to talk to the Caravan’s organizers and the Ixtepec shelter, including the coordinator Alberto Donis Rodríguez, a Guatemalan who himself had once migrated to the United States. The team in Ixtepec had investigated various cases in the south of Mexico to locate migrants who had been kidnapped or find the members of organized crime responsible.

Paola and Jorge couldn’t provide much information because the kidnappers were probably listening to the calls. But Donis Rodríguez was able to pressure the Attorney General in Reynosa to investigate the case. June 23, a police raid released 114 migrants in two “security houses” in Reynosa, including Paola and Jorge. “The day they got us out of there, I couldn’t believe it.”

IMG_0459Thousands of migrants are kidnapped every year in their passage through Mexico. Political pressure by the various organizations succeeded in finding the migrants in this case, demonstrating the capacity of civil society organizations when the government fails. But their saga had not ended. The Mexican government treats undocumented Central Americans who have been kidnapped as criminals themselves. They use the euphemism of “rescuing” migrants, but later detain them a second time in the “Migration Centers”.

Paola describes that after they went to the Attorney General’s office in Reynosa they were transferred to Mexico City, where they had to sleep in the offices of the Attorney General there. Then they were transferred to the detention center of the National Immigration Institute (INM) in Iztapalapa, in southern Mexico City. “It was the same, it just changed they people who had us locked up… … it’s like being kidnapped twice, because Immigration is a prison,” says Paola. Even though Paola explained to the authorities that she was in the process of receiving her visa in Mexico, she couldn’t leave the cell she shared with several other women.

The Human Rights Committee of Mexico City (CDHDF) followed her case and after five days in Iztapalapa, she was released. “When it was time to leave I felt bad because the other women had to stay. We shared the experience, but I was the only one who left.” The rest of the women would be deported to their home countries and not given a chance to denounce the crime against them. During the two detainments, Paola prayed, “Lord, if you get me out of her, I promise I will fight for the rest of us.”

Human rights defenders respond to the new reality of immigration

When we spoke in the library of the Ixtepec shelter, Paola was calm and confident. She’s happy to be back in Ixtepec, “This shelter, it’s like my second home. Whenever I leave, I leave crying.”

Since she left detention and received her humanitarian visa, she has tirelessly advocated on the issue of migration. She takes part in protests, gives interviews and public talks. She has traveled wherever there is a need. The increasing militarization of southern Mexico makes this a critical moment, considering the.

The migration routes in southern Mexico are changing due to increased military and Immigration enforcement in the “Plan Frontera Sur” (Southern Border Plan), which will receive $86 million from the United States through the Merida Initiative.

Even though the Plan refers to “migrant security”, it puts migrants at further risk because it forces them to seek new routes that place them at the mercy of organized crime. The activists who work with Paola have been documenting the violations of Immigration agents in this new context have themselves been violently assaulted by Immigration agents.

When the First Lady of Honduras visited Mexico in August because of the child migrants issue, Paola was one of the Hondurans who accompanied the priest Alejandro Solalinde to receive her. She told her story, emphasizing how many other Hondurans were kidnapped along with her.

Paola took part in a fast and prayer session for the child migrants on the border. Several organizations in Mexico City collaborated in the action, which lasted one week. In front of the National Immigration Institute (INM) in Polanco, Mexico City, they called for a solution between the United States, Mexico and Central American countries to the crisis of child migrants.

Paola doubted whether she would be able to last a week in the fast, but decided to participate because they weren’t any women participating. She says, “A woman has to be there… It’s not the same if men speak for us as when a woman is there to speak for herself.”

Unfortunately the resolution from the United States and Mexico to the “crisis” was further militarization in the Southern Border Plan. Paola and other human rights defenders are responding to this new reality. They have opened a new shelter in Chahuites, Oaxaca, a town about two hours east of Ixtepec in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Arriaga, Chiapas, where migrants previously boarded the train, is now swarming with Immigration agents and military. It is no longer possible to get on the train in Arriaga, so migrants are walking or taking buses to Chahuites. Members of the “maras”–the gangs that target migrants–await them in the isolated paths that lead from Chiapas to Oaxaca.

Paola is helping in Chahuites at the new shelter. By the time they get to Chahuites, many of the migrants, if not the majority, have been victims of beatings, sexual abuse or robbery. The facilities are basic. But what they lack in resources they make up for in care.

Paola cares for the woman who arrive. She says, “I feel the crimes against them, as if they had done it to me.” She can offer more than empathy or charity because as she puts it, “their struggle is my struggle.”

And the castle?

Talking with Paola I sense a change in her goals and personal challenges. The economic need that pushed her to leave Honduras still exists, but she also sees an urgent need to confront the abuses that migrants suffer in Mexico, and particularly female migrants. She hasn’t been earning the money she could be in the United States but she has learned that the economic, emotional and physical price to make it to the United States is very high. She says she came out of the kidnapping traumatized, but that everything she has lived through “pushes me to keep fighting.”

Women migrants carry many traumas and stresses that have origins both in their home countries and the migration process. Working collectively poses many challenges, but Paola says women migrants have to organize and defend themselves. She tries to treat each woman she meets with respect and love. “I don’t want to feel better than any of the other women. If someone doesn’t know something… teach her!”

She still is going to build her daughter’s castle, but it won’t be built just with dollars from the United States. “Her castle is also to go to kindergarten and have a good education. That’s the castle.”

Her family in Honduras is proud of the work she’s doing in Mexico. Paola reflects, “What is the point of just sending them money, if there isn’t love? They need love too.” Paola’s infuses her work with warmth and love that reaches Honduras, the United States and all of the corners of the world where women suffer for the sole condition of being migrants.

When the moment arrives to see her daughter Paola knows what she is going to say. “’Daughter, you have all of this because your mother fought for it.’ I want to be able to give this to my daughter, to show her that her mother is a fighter.”