Ian Philabaum, Impolitikal, migrant trail, Mexico

Ian Philabaum on Mexico’s migrant trail

I am volunteering at a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico, a location geographically important for several reasons. Tabasco is a small sliver of a state that twice serves as an international border with the Gulf of California, and more importantly in this regard for its remote and porous border with Guatemala’s northernmost and least densely populated state, El Petén.

One of the two train lines (vias) that lead from Mexico’s southern border exits north from Tenosique (the other beginning in Arriaga in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas). Another reason Tenosique has become quite important in the migrant route is the surge in out-migration from Honduras and its physical location as the most direct path up Mexico’s Gulf border to Texas. 80% of the migrants in this shelter are from Honduras, numbers demonstrating the urgent flee from a state destroyed from both within and from outside (here is a short piece demonstrating the cities of origin of migrant children and the murder rates in each location). The porous border makes for an easy crossing, but the lack of infrastructure between the border and the train line (Tenosique) make the first stretch in Mexico a vulnerable and physically exhausting walk. The status of the infrastructure, both formal and informal, is changing rapidly however.

The shelter is called La 72 Hogar-Refugio para Personas Migrantes, named for the 72 migrants found murdered in a mass grave in 2010 in the Mexican state of Taumalipas just south of the Texas border. It is managed by Fray Tomás, a man of faith of the Franciscan order, but driven equally by a passion for human rights and a contempt for a rule of law (and those that enforce it) that perpetuates hierarchical poverty, violence and inhumanity. His philosophy, briefly abbreviated, is to put compassion for fellow human beings above all, and he uses this strategy to disarm even those who potentially threaten the wellbeing of the shelter and all those inside. He refuses to treat even those he supposes to be of ill-intent as delinquents, and relies on compassion and communal surveillance and security to maintain peace and safety on the shelter grounds. The shelter has been successfully serving migrants for almost four years now, growing steadily in services offered and in reputation in the fight for migrants’ rights.

The shelter serves as not only a starting point for the train, but also for the extreme dangers facing migrants in the state of Veracruz, home territory of the most violent organized crime body, Los Zetas. The train and bus routes send migrants through a gauntlet of robbery, assault, rape and murder, an endeavor most chance out of desperation, and many out of fear of what awaits them in their home countries – a fear unfathomable to me given the little I know of the migrant trail itself. That said, I have been here 5 days and can count at least 20 people that have turned around and gone home, that I know of. Some have re-entered the shelter scared for their lives with horror stories of what they faced north of here, and some have simply tried to leave the shelter to go to the train tracks only to be harassed at every crossroads by suspected kidnappers.

As the US-Mexico border situation reaches a new chapter, Tenosique and many locations like it are already feeling the effects. Mexico, with pressure from its neighbor to the north, is implementing new security and militarization strategies on the southern border and corresponding traffic corridors. The child migrant crisis is real, but not isolated (historically or geographically), and is being manipulated for political and economic pursuits. The results will likely only make the migrant population more vulnerable as they flee ignored violence and inhumane conditions in Central America.

The next plan of the Mexican government is to make it illegal for migrants to ride on the trains. History suggests this will not only fail but will force migrants into more dangerous territory, just as US border militarization pushed migrants into the desert – a strategy now infamous for leading to hundreds of deaths each year (that we know of), and just as the Mexican government’s weak migration policy built meaningless checkpoints which have led to the train (La Bestia) to become the functionally infamous and zoomorphically nicknamed yet inanimate Coyote (migrant trafficker) through Mexico. Every day more politicians accuse migrant rights defenders such as Fray Tomás and Padre Solalinde of being ‘Coyotes‘, all the while supporting policies that are directly responsible for the structural violence that results in the deaths of an unknown number of migrants within Mexico each year. Criminalizing train-riding will not impede Central American migrants from trying to reach the US, but rather force them to take greater risks, and empower the fast-growing, opportunistic capitalist enterprise in Mexico that is migrant exploitation.

As the US debates how many billions of dollars to throw at a situation it is largely responsible for, it recalls memories of recent relations with Mexico that resulted in conditions of war within Mexico and a death toll estimated over 70,000. Currently, the trade in question has shifted from drugs to humans; conditions of violence and economic impotence have forced an increase in the number of Central Americans migrating, and corruption and impunity within Mexico allow for organized crime to take full advantage on the margins. As the sheer numbers of migrants and organized crime activity increase, injecting US dollars into a police force notorious for its poor treatment of migrants may only serve to worsen the security outcomes, beginning in locations like Tenosique.

Despite the pessimistic realities and unfortunate fortunetelling, La 72, like many other migrant shelters, and the migrants who make it work continue moving forward, caring for the unique qualities of each other and safe space. It is the uniqueness of these qualities that sustain the shelter, the monotony of days spent waiting for a train, and the vibrant moments that hold a grand responsibility in maintaining the quality of one’s life. We have had a movie night where we all watched La Bestia on the train tracks and invited the town, we had a dance party where healthy tensions are both eased and created in a space full of gender-based angst and (im)patience, and we laid concrete for the basketball court in what was one of the more impressive displays of physical and team effort I have ever seen (especially considering the conditions and materials). This is the Operación Hormiga (Operation Ant) that cares for itself and builds a community horizontally, albeit slowly, despite all that challenges its existence.

I usually refrain from taking pictures of people out of respect for their privacy, and if my writing had a larger readership it does have the potential to put people in danger, especially when it indicates ties to sources that may prove monetarily enticing (many are telling migrants not to carry the phone numbers of those they plan to call, especially within the US, but rather to memorize them so they appear less financially attractive to kidnappers). But I have begun to ask, because I want to share the faces of those who I find so beautiful, for the cigarettes shared, the improvised toys, the food we create from the generosity of strangers and the two liters of fresca we drink from 20 ounce bottles cut in half beneath the safe shade of the large tree out front. A moment less incarcerated.

There is uncertainty as to what lies ahead politically and economically in the public and formal sectors and how it will affect migrants and migration – this is certain because of and despite overt and covert ‘ops’. But this does not negate the human collective’s ability to facilitate its own parallel and collateral decision-making in pursuit of a humanity and happiness, built slowly upon its own operation.


Ian Philabaum is currently volunteering on the migrant trail in Mexico, and researching as part of his Master’s in Development Practice at the University of Arizona. Follow his journey here.