Mexican Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest and human rights activist, recently visited Helsinki as a speaker at the Latin American film festival, and granted an interview to Helsinki Times.
Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence, which may be disturbing to some readers.
“MEXICO is a country with 98 per cent of crime impunity – only two out of 100 cases are investigated and brought to justice,” states Father Solalinde, 68. “It is impossible to think mafias can act alone, and that part of the money doesn’t end up in the hands of politicians.” Then he clarifies that, by the previous statement, he doesn’t mean every single politician is corrupt (“there are honest people at every party”), but rather a number of them large enough for corruption to prevail.
Solalinde landed in the Finnish Capital on 7 October as a guest of Cinemaissí, the Latin American film festival, to present the documentary “El Albergue” (The Shelter). This modest-budget production reflects life at the emigrant’s refuge which Solalinde founded in 2007 in Ixptepec, Oaxaca, next to the railway line along which these people try to illegally find their way into the US. For the last six years this Mexican priest has been providing integral humanitarian aid to a collective who have become a priority target for organised crime cartels all across the country.
El Albergue (The Shelter)
What are the reasons behind the constant migratory flow from Central and South America to the US?
The emigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and other South American countries to the north has to be seen as a forced condition. They are not tourists travelling for pleasure: life in their countries of origin has become unbearable. Back in the day Central Americans used to own what they produced, but little by little, transnational companies took control of the land. Nowadays, work opportunities are scarce and salaries very low. To this economic factor we need to add the extended climate of social violence in these places. That is, even if you have a well-paid job you will be requested to pay a percentage of it to the Maras (Central American gangs). There comes a time when people refuse to pay and decide to leave their country, but they cannot go back because, if they do, the gangs will kill them.
What is “The Beast” and what kinds of dangers await those who travel on top of it?
Soon after Latin American emigrants begin their ascent to the north, they come across an obstacle that has become way more dangerous than crossing the US border itself. This obstacle is Mexico. From the moment they enter this country they tread a funerary path. Emigrants see themselves forced to travel on top of goods trains that run across the country: from Chiapas, in the southern border with Guatemala, to Veracruz, a city situated in the eastern Gulf of Mexico – from where a second route departs, stops at the capital, Ciudad de Mexico, and continues all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
These trains are popularly known as “The Beast”, due to the suffering that those who travel on it go through. However, I don’t agree with that nickname. It’s unfair. The train has facilitated a cross-cultural encounter. Things themselves are not a problem, but rather the way they are used. The train got “bestialised” as a mere reflexion of bestial human actions. Emigrants go aboard because they are not charged for it. For them, this is the only cheap way to travel, but these trains have not been conceived to transport people. Their design (gable roof and lack of surfaces to hold on to) makes it easier for emigrants to get mutilated as a consequence of a possible fall.
Apart from the risk of mutilation, what are some other threats the emigrants face on the rails?
In a world as material as the one we live in, in which money is the only god, we human beings are no longer appreciated. We are no longer treated like people, but like goods. In Mexico, concretely, everybody is susceptible to being kidnapped. Several NGOs and emigrants’ shelters currently have a count of 10,000 missing emigrants. In the case of Mexican citizens this figure is between 70,000 to 100,000 people. However, only 27,000 are officially recognised.
Emigrants have become a gold mine for organised crime. The latest extortion modality consists of mafia members intercepting trains and asking emigrants to pay a certain amount of money for each stretch of railroad. They tell them: “If you refuse to pay, we throw you off the train”. And they do throw them, no matter if they are kids, women, or the elderly.
How did you come up with the idea of opening the shelter ‘Hermanos en el camino’ (Brothers on the way)?
The shelter comes as a result of the acute need for providing safety to emigrants - before food, water, or any other kind of assistance. In 2005 and 2006 my team and I used to spend the night with them at the train station, because there was no place where I could take them, and I knew they could be kidnapped any time. The shelter opened its doors one evening of late February 2007, and it was meant as a bastion against all the abuses committed against emigrants. City of Ixtepec is a strategic point for the organised crime, because the train to Veracruz leaves from there, so it is an obligatory stop for thousands of people on their way north. If we stepped back, the cartels would immediately take over the city.
How has the shelter evolved over the years?
The first night of its operative life the shelter assisted some 400 people. There was enough warm food for everybody; however, all of us had to sleep on the ground. We didn’t even have a roof. In 2008, after suffering a lynching attempt aimed against the shelter and myself, I decided to ask for funding from the Vatican, so we could enclose a part of the perimeter as a protection measure. Soon after, Benedict XVI answered my petition with a donation of 325,000 Mexican pesos [around 18,500 euros]. With the help of economic prices, individual donations and other Catholic organisations (such as the Germans Adveniat and Misereor) today we can say that 80 per cent of the facilities are already built.
What does one day in the life of the shelter look like?
We are open 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. We try to provide people with an integral assistance – beyond merely covering physiological needs. I welcome the emigrants at the city entrance, any time they arrive, accompanied by my personal security agents. Once they see me I tell them there is food waiting for them at the shelter. After we have made sure they aren’t bringing drugs or weapons along with them, they are requested to go to the registration room, where our team works on the digital archive – which includes personal files with pictures. During the registration process, we encourage those who have been victims of a crime to present a complaint – and subsequently stand by them through the process. Then, after they have eaten and rested for a while, we gather everybody to inform them about the threats they may find on their way if they decide to continue their journey north. With regard to the US, we tell them that there is no famous migration reform, and that that’s not likely to change any time soon.
Going back to threats emigrants find on their way, which are the main organised crime networks operating in Mexico and how do they work?
The main cartel acting against emigrants is called Los Zetas, which is present in 20 out of the 31 states of the Republic. Among others, Los Zetas hold responsibility for massive kidnapping of emigrants. In cases when their relatives cannot afford the rescue fee, women are exploited for prostitution, and men are tortured and eventually killed – or condemned to forced labours. On the other hand, there is The Gulf Cartel, the second most influential organised crime network. These two cartels are constantly fighting to gain advantage over the drug trafficking route, but also now over human trafficking.
Since the moment emigrants leave Central America, some of them have already been marked as kidnapping targets. This is done, for instance, by making women a very thin braid in their hair if undercover mafia members find out that they have relatives in the US. Train drivers are also accomplices, they slow down or stop the trains at the points where the assaults are supposed to be carried out. Thus Los Zetas jump in and get people off (giving preference to children and women, because higher quantities of money are paid for them.) Emigrants are taken to the middle of a field, where nobody can hear them scream.
What happens with emigrants while they are held captive?
The cartels get in touch with their families – whether in the US or their countries of origin – and a rescue fee is demanded. In many cases this fee surpasses the payment capacity of the relatives. If the mafia doesn’t get the money, sometimes they choose to kill the person, and, other times, they force them to work. There is a great documentary on the issue called María in nobody’s land (by Marcela Zamora) in which one girl who was kidnapped and repeatedly raped tells that, inside the organised crime, there are two kinds of people: the butchers and the cooks. The first ones are the ones who kill the emigrants who cannot pay and cut them into pieces, and the second ones take care of dissolving the members in gasoline containers, until there are no remains left.
As a consequence of the sexual abuses she suffered, the girl who appears in the documentary became pregnant. I had the chance to meet her one year ago at a dinner and I couldn’t help but ask if she had thought of not having the baby. She answered she had thought about it, but considered that the child was not to blame for what happened.
Did you ask that question because you would have understood her decision to end the pregnancy?
That doesn’t seem to be the Church’s official position...
I don’t care what the Church’s official position is, I care about Jesus’ official position. Each person has a world. We don’t have the right to enter into that world through the window, trample it, judge it, condemn it and exclude it. The only thing we can do with those worlds is love them.
What kinds of threats have you received with the attempt to make you give up your work at the shelter?
There have been so many that I cannot even keep track any more. As I have mentioned before, in 2008 a group of people (encouraged by former Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz) attempted to burn down the shelter and me along with it. Fortunately there was nothing to burn at that time, because none of the infrastructure had been built. Threats have always been present, but I don’t get paranoid about them. If one day they succeed at killing me, that doesn’t scare me. My faith prevents me from being afraid. Besides, now I have the support of my fellow citizens, and I accept every new award I am presented with as a survey: people are saying what kind of Church they want.
And what kind of a Church is that?
Accessible, close to people, a Church that doesn’t judge, a Church that is able to defend human rights and fight injustice.