The Long Trail North Turns Deadly for Migrants Hungry for Work

Stephen Franklin

A relative of Gilmar Castillo Morales, one of the three Guatemalans identified among the victims of the slaughter of 72 illegal migrants in the Mexican state of Tanaulipas, shows his picture, on August 27, 2010.

Mex­i­can gangs, lack of U.S. jobs make jour­ney even more perilous

Many of the 72 migrants found dead recent­ly in a drug hide­out in Mex­i­co were prob­a­bly like the rest of those mov­ing at this moment some­where along one of the world’s longest job shape-ups.

If you are read­ing this in the morn­ing, they have been mov­ing all night since there’s less chance of get­ting caught in the dark. If it is the after­noon, they are rest­ing. But their eyes don’t.

They are look­ing northward.

The line-up begins at the south­ern U.S. bor­der and stretch­es across Mex­i­co and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and on down through Latin Amer­i­ca. Some­times it also picks up job­seek­ers from oth­er con­ti­nents, who are as des­per­ate to join the Amer­i­can dream.

Most of these peo­ple head­ed north are a cut slight­ly above those around them. That’s because it takes guts and ambi­tion to make such a dead­ly trip. It also has become extreme­ly expen­sive late­ly, espe­cial­ly for those com­ing from beyond Mex­i­co. To pay the smuggler’s fees, they will have to bor­row thou­sands of dol­lars and agree to pay it back with hefty inter­est soon after start­ing work in the U.S.

Men used to be the only ones on this long gru­elling line-up, but late­ly there are more and more women. They have joined it because poor women across Latin Amer­i­ca are increas­ing­ly tak­ing on the bur­den to sup­port their fam­i­lies when their hus­bands can’t. Indeed, 14 of the 72 mur­dered migrants were women.

Despite the deaths and abuse along the way, despite the mes­sage from count­less offi­cials in their home coun­tries that the Amer­i­can dream has become the Amer­i­can night­mare for migrants, they keep coming.

Peo­ple like the 17-year-old Ecuado­ran who was the only sur­vivor of the migrants’ slaugh­ter in a gang hide­out about 100 miles south of the U.S. bor­der. The migrants, appar­ent­ly nabbed by the gangs as they head­ed north, report­ed­ly couldn’t come up with their ran­soms and they didn’t agree to work for the nacro­traf­fcantes.

Back home, his 17-year-old girl­friend, who is four months preg­nant, told AFP that he had head­ed north from their moun­tain­top vil­lage, hop­ing to find work in Los Ange­les so they could get mar­ried and build a home. He paid $15,000 to the coy­otes (smug­glers) for this trip, she said.

Like every­one else, these job seek­ers are prey for the Mex­i­can gangs that con­trol the roads and rail­roads, the two ways migrants slow­ly snake their way north­ward. Mexico’s Nation­al Human Rights com­mis­sion esti­mat­ed last year that almost 20,000 migrants are kid­napped while try­ing to make their way north. And offi­cials with the agency told the Mex­i­can news­pa­per La Jor­na­da soon after the slaugh­ter that there’s been a rise in kidnapping.

In April Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al called the route one of the dan­ger­ous in the world,” and said num­bers of migrants van­ish with­out a word about their fate. (Here is a video from Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al that talks about the situation.)

But this is a lucra­tive busi­ness for the drug gangs who charge fees for cross­ing their turfs and lay down their own laws for the smug­glers. They even have the mox­ie to re-cap­ture migrants who had been freed from their clutch­es by Mex­i­can officials.

We are wit­ness­ing the stun­ning col­lapse of Mexico’s law and order at the hands of the worst of its own. At the same time, a human tragedy is tak­ing place across North and South Amer­i­ca. In many ways the cru­el­ty and abuse suf­fered by the work­ers, and the devel­op­ment of the traf­fick­ing and hir­ing par­al­lels the slave trade that once crossed the Atlantic.

But there’s a great difference.

Near­ly all of the time, these work­ers step for­ward, and pick up their place in this line that snaps them up and takes them to the backs of restau­rants in Man­hat­tan or crip­pling jobs at Iowa pack­ing­hous­es or the mor­tu­ary in Tuc­son, as did a record num­ber of migrants in July in the Ari­zona desert.

Not too many years ago, I spoke with a moth­er in north­ern Hon­duras, whose daugh­ter was tak­en by gangs and sold for food and clothes once they got to north­ern Mex­i­co. That is all her daugh­ter was worth to them.

I met a young woman near the Mex­i­co-Guatemala bor­der who lost her job in a fac­to­ry in El Sal­vador and who left her three chil­dren to find work in Amer­i­ca. She lost both her legs try­ing to climb aboard the trains the migrants cling to on their way north from the border.

I met a woman in a U.S. deten­tion facil­i­ty on the Ari­zona bor­der, who was caught swim­ming in the sew­er link­ing an Ari­zona town with its Mex­i­can neigh­bor. She told me she was going to get nailed into a wood­en box, and hauled across the bor­der on a truck loaded with freight. She was head­ed for a job in Phoenix and noth­ing could stop her.

On the Mex­i­can side of the bor­der, an offi­cial from Grupo Beta, the Mex­i­can agency that assists migrants, cried as she explained how smug­glers, eager to recruit large num­bers so they could earn more, reg­u­lar­ly encour­age men to rape the women trav­el­ing in their groups.

I nev­er met any­one along the many miles and bor­ders, who said they doubt­ed if they would find work in the Unit­ed States. That, after all, was the rea­son for their long trip, they said. And until recent­ly they were prob­a­bly right.

But what they didn’t know was whether they would sur­vive it.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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