By Christine Kovic

From July 25 to August 2, 2011, hundreds of Central Americans retraced the steps of family members through southern Mexico. They were searching for relatives who have disappeared and demanding respect for immigrant rights.

The Caravan “Step by Step Toward Peace” (“Paso a Paso Hacia la Paz”) was organized by nongovernmental organizations and migrant shelters in Central America and Mexico to protest the kidnappings of thousands of migrants that take place each year. Departing from their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, migrants and their family members convened at two points on Mexico’s southern border. From there, they traveled to Mexico City to expose the violence faced by migrants and to demand improved security. With the one-year anniversary of the brutal massacre of 72 migrants at San Fernando, Tamaulipas coming up, the Caravan also denounced the deaths of migrants.

Under Mexican immigration law, it is all but impossible for low wage Central Americans to obtain a visa to enter Mexico. Without documents, these “irregular migrants” en route to the United States often fall prey to narcotraffickers, common criminals, and abusive and corrupt government authorities.

On the Road with the Caravan

I joined the Caravan on its journey from Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas to Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. Along the way, I listened to the stories of many families seeking their loved ones. At press conferences, during meals, on buses, and at meetings, they recounted incidents of human rights abuse in Mexico, the difficulties of living in the United States and the anguish of being deported. Men and women spoke of their hopes that some day they might find a decent wage and security in their own countries, so they could stay home with their families.

Rights defenders, migrants and their family members, nongovernmental organizations, church groups, and others participated in the Caravan, to mark the visit of Felipe Gonzalez Morales, Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), and to present testimony of the grave situation the migrants face. The Rapporteur visited at the invitation of the Mexican government, and officials were eager to describe new measures to protect migrants since the last visit from the IACHR in 2002. The Ministries of Foreign Relations and the Interior released a communiqué on July 24 stating, “The Mexican government will explain in detail to the rapporteur the actions it has taken to prevent organized crime threatening the personal integrity of migrants.”

To counter the official success story, a coalition of non-governmental organizations in Mexico wrote the 71-page “Report on the General Situation of the Rights of Migrants and their Families”. The report details patterns of extortion, rape and sexual assault, human trafficking, kidnapping, torture, and lack of access to medical care that migrants face and includes 54 recommendations for their protection. Also mentioned are the kidnappings and other abuses faced by Mexican migrants traveling toward the United States.

One recommendation calls for the establishment of a legal means for secure transit so migrants do not have to cross Mexico clandestinely, making them vulnerable to violence and abuse. The report calls attention to the need for the Mexican and U.S. governments to abandon migration policies based in “national security” that criminalize migrants, and to instead focus on the human needs of Central American and Mexican migrants.

A Journey of Tears and Hope

The Caravan traveled two main migrant routes in southern Mexico. One follows the Pacific Coast, crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border at Ciudad Hidalgo and passing through Tapachula, Arriaga, Ixtepec, and then across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz by bus. The second group followed a dangerous route along the Gulf coast.

In solidarity with the thousands of migrants who cross Mexico atop freight trains every year, human rights defenders and journalists rode the train for two full days. This group began its journey in Tenosique, Tabasco (near the border with Guatemala), went through the state of Tabasco, and eventually met up with the first group in Coatzacoalcos. From there, both groups traveled together by bus to Tierra Blanca– a site of many kidnappings and other abuses against migrants. There they met with Rapporteur Gonzalez, and then traveled on to Puebla and Mexico City.

Caravan members organized marches, rallies, meetings, and religious events in communities along the way to denounce the disappearance of their family members and the complicity of Mexican authorities. They called on Mexican authorities to protect migrant security, and sought support from sectors of civil society.

As government officials in Mexico and the United States continue to ignore human rights abuses against migrants, it falls to migrants, their families, and supporters to communicate their suffering. As Father Tomás Gonzalez, director of a migrant shelter in Tenosique, noted, “We are the ones that are going to make the difference.”

The Disappeared and the Kidnapped

As the one hundred and fifty women and men crossed the International Bridge over the Suchiate River separating Mexico from Guatemala on July 25, they carried posters bearing the images and names of the disappeared. The mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and other families members set out to make the journey through Mexico that their lost loved ones had made months, years or even decades before.

They harbored the desperate hope that by retracing the steps, they could find traces of their family members and at the same time bring attention to the extreme suffering faced by migrants and help protect future migrants. They carried posters with black and white photos, names, and the date and place where the migrant was last seen. They wore the posters strapped around their necks, or hung them on bus windows before placing them in public at Caravan stops.

The disappearances of thousands of people in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s came out of the upheaval of civil wars and brutal military dictatorships. The recent disappearances of migrants result instead from neoliberal economic policies that make it difficult for the working poor to survive, and immigration policies that restrict the movement of the same workers that the economic policies expel. Just as women and men in Latin America organized themselves in search of their missing family members in groups such as the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo in Argentina and the Co-Madres in El Salvador, migrant family members have formed organizations in Central America to locate their loved ones and promote migrant rights. Members of these organizations played a central role in organizing the Caravan.

The Committee of Relatives of Deceased and Disappeared Migrants, (Comité de Familiares de Migrantes Fallecidos y Desparecidos COFAMIDE) formed in 2006 in El Salvador to search for mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who began their journey toward the United States and were never heard from again. COFAMIDE works in El Salvador, the U.S and Mexico to try to locate missing migrants.

Many Hondurans in the Caravan belong to the Network of Committees of Migrants and Families (Red de Comités de Migrantes y Familias). The network is made up of over thirty committees throughout the country that help family members search for loved ones and also work to raise awareness about the difficulties migrants face, provide psychological assistance to migrants and their families, support migrants that return with disabilities or “mutilated” (missing an arm or leg) from getting run over by the train, among other tasks.

Participants had to make sacrifices to join the caravan. The Honduran government promised to pay for several buses to transport participants from their country to the border with Mexico. Just a day before they were scheduled to leave, the government cancelled its support and left the participants scrambling to find funds. Many paid from their own pockets, uncertain of how they would pay for the trip back home. Despite the hardship, the Honduran group with more than forty participants was the largest to arrive at Ciudad Hidalgo.

A Guatemalan woman searching for her missing husband broke into tears at a press conference in Arriaga, Chiapas in front of state government authorities. She said it was hard “to be both mother and father” to her young children and added that it was also hard to be far away from her children while traveling with the Caravan.

The Peace Caravan insisted on naming the victims of forced disappearance in Mexico. Among them:

  • Jesenia Marlene Gaitan Cartagena of Honduras reached San Antonio, Texas but was deported from the United States before she could reach her destination in Dallas, Texas. She was last heard from on December 19, 2007 in the border city of Nuevo Laredo.  Her mother informs her, via a website created to help locate the disappeared, that she “will be received with open arms when she comes back.” She wants Jesenia to know that her daughter is now ten years old and is awaiting her return.
  • Pedro Morales Gonzalez of Guatemala called his family on April 26, 2007 from Camargo, Tamaulipas. He was traveling to Houston, Texas en route to Los Angeles, California. His family has not heard from his since.
  • Luis Roberto Melgar Gomez of El Salvador was 17 years old when he disappeared in April 2007. His mother reports that his coyote (to whom they paid $2,300 and another 2,400 promised once he reached his destination) left him at the border of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and he never reached his destination of Los Angeles, California.

Although many had hopes of finding their lost ones, family members on the Caravan knew that large numbers of migrants die on their journey. Some fall from the train and are crushed on the tracks below. Others die in auto accidents, or suffocate in the backs of trailers or trucks. Some are killed in common crime, and others as the result of kidnappings.

At several points in the Caravan’s journey, members presented testimony of having been kidnapped or sexually assaulted. A young man and woman from Honduras presented their testimonies in the central plaza of Tapachula, dressed in dark glasses, scarves, and caps to protect their identity and security. They had escaped their kidnappers and agreed to describe the abuse they suffered used at the public event. They made an impassioned plea for the governments of Mexico and Central America to end the kidnappings and deaths faced by migrants.

Another woman from Honduras stated that she had been sexually abused by her “coyote”, or smuggler. Migrants are “nothing more than merchandise to them.”

One of the Caravan organizers, Irineo Mujica, spoke of the sexual assault including rape that is commonly experienced by female migrants. I had spoken to men at the immigrant shelters who told me in private that they too had been raped by their kidnappers.

Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH) gathers testimony from migrants and others. Based on its investigations, the Commission estimates that tens of thousands of migrants are kidnapped each year. In a special report released in February 2011, the CNDH estimated that over 11,000 kidnappings of migrants had taken place in just one six month period from April to September of 2010.

The NGO report to the Rapporteur noted that “criminal groups [who carry out kidnappings] often work in collusion with or with the acquiesce of government authorities.” Government authorities, especially in the state of Veracruz, fail to investigate, locate, and punish those responsible for the kidnappings, meaning that impunity persists as described in the Americas article “Migrants as Targets of Security Policies.”

Criminalization of Migrants

Behind the difficult and dangerous passage of Central Americans through Mexico is the fact that they cannot travel freely. They must hide during their journey because if government officials spot them they likely will be detained and deported. Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM) reports that more than 65,000 migrants were deported in 2010, most from Central America. Rather than being protected by police, immigration officials, soldiers, and others, Mexican security forces often target migrants for abuse and extortion. Because they travel in isolated areas to avoid detection, they fall prey to thieves, gangs and drug cartels that know where to wait for them.

In the journey through Chiapas, the caravan buses passed at least ten checkpoints staffed by migration officials, federal police, customs officials, or soldiers. Some of the checkpoints are permanent, while others are mobile and temporary, making it impossible to predict or avoid them. We knew that migrants (or those government officials determined “looked like” migrants) would have been asked to show their papers if they weren’t with the Caravan. Without a visa to cross Mexico, the Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans would most likely be deported.

One man who joined the caravan in Tapachula explained that he had entered Mexico to help his brother who had fallen ill. He had been promised a humanitarian visa, but it was denied at the border so he continued on without one. He had been stopped several times, beaten, and had his clothes stolen at “La Arrocera,” a site between Tapachula and Arriaga notorious among migrants for abuse.

The Caravan buses were not stopped and inspected at the checkpoints because the state and federal governments had promised to support the caravan and several federal police cars escorted it. Members of the caravan commented on the absurdity of the situation–their family members had to travel under dangerous circumstances as “criminals” because they could not obtain a visa to cross Mexico. Now that they were searching for their family members, they were able to travel with at least limited support from the government.

The migrants’ peace caravan demanded that they and all Central Americans be allowed to cross Mexico without a visa or with readily accessible visas. Unlike U.S. citizens who do not need to obtain a visa before traveling to Mexico, Central Americans must apply for a visa and prove “economic solvency.”

A Honduran woman I spoke to who had hoped to reach the United States to work and send money home to her two children only made it as far as Tuxtla Gutierrez (the state capital of Chiapas), where she was detained and deported. Back in Honduras, she went to the Mexican consulate to apply for a visa, but was turned away because she didn’t have a bank account, let alone the balance required.

In the United States, the working poor from Latin America have almost no option of entering the country legally or of legalizing their migration status, even if they have lived in the country for decades. At shelters along the caravan route, we met migrants who had lived in the United States for months, weeks, years or near-lifetimes. Some spoke perfect English. Others had homes and families in the U.S. One young man had spent almost his entire life in Houston, my own hometown, where he attended elementary through high school, married, and had children. He was deported and his family remained.

In the past year the United States deported almost 393,000 immigrants. About half of the deported were considered criminals. Some of the “criminal” migrants had committed minor violations of traffic laws that normally would warrant a ticket, but driving without a license is now defined as a crime even though many states do not issue licenses to undocumented migrants. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to deport more than 400,000 migrants in the current fiscal year.

The program “Secure Communities,” which requires local police to participate in immigration enforcement, is in the process of becoming mandatory for the entire nation. The program has been criticized by human rights groups for creating mistrust between immigrant communities and police and for deporting immigrants who have not committed any crime. Just at the time when state governments and police in different regions of the country have organized to resist the “Secure Communities” program, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would move forward with the program at a national level, apparently closing the possibility for states to opt out.

It is these migratory policies that result in kidnappings, extortion, assault, and even death for migrants. Maria Jimenez uses the term “death by policy” to describe the hundreds of migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of increased enforcement. Likewise, the thousands of Central American and Mexican migrants who go missing in Mexico are “disappeared by policy.”

Without a guarantee of safe transit, without the possibility of access to a visa in either Mexico or the United States, with increased possibility of being deported and having to make the journey all over again, their disappearances are foretold by the limits of policy.

Christine Kovic is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She has conducted research on human rights in Chiapas, Mexico for nearly two decades. Her current research addresses immigrant rights in Mexico and the United States. She writes on immigration and human rights for the Americas Program


For more information:

The Caravan Step by Step Toward Peace

Human rights abuses of migrants crossing Mexico

Mexico’s March for Justice with Peace and Dignity

“Mexico’s Anti-Drug War March Demands Far-Reaching Political Reforms”

Shelter Brothers in the Road, Ixtepec, Oaxaca.

The Disappeared Migrants

Deaths at the U.S. Mexico Border

Jimenez, Maria, “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” (American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights, October 2009)

Kidnapping of Migrants

Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, “Informe Especial sobre Secuestro de Migrantes en México 2010,” (Mexico City, Mexico, February 2011)


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