“The Conditions in Which We Are Living Are Inhumane”
Sandra fled with her four children from El Salvador to save her life. For a year, she has been waiting in a Tamaulipas camp for the resolution of her asylum case in the United States. However, the “refuge” that Mexico gave them is like a prison, in which she lives stories of terror. Her testimony defies the version of the dignified treatment of migrants in MPP
Text: Rodrigo Soberanes
Photos: Duilio Rodríguez
Translation: Will McCorkle
Original story in Spanish can be found at: https://piedepagina.mx/las-condiciones-en-las-que-hemos-estado-son-inhumanas/?fbclid=IwAR3OxUXHsR_KirqkFzS-hYeX-uf3s64kvaqXXGnGD7ywxOiFuqeglweeQ6M
MATAMOROS, TAMAULIPAS.- In a popular neighborhood in El Salvador, families began to disappear at night. They finished their activities for the day, entered their houses, turned off the lights, the noise faded and there was silence. The next morning, they were gone.
Sandra, a resident of that area, began to notice the collective disappearances. “Most people go to bed, but they don’t leave in the morning” she thought. At night she frequently heard the barking of dogs, a fatal signal that announced the entry into the neighborhood of young gang members ready to carry out some threats.
“The hard part was when it got dark and the dogs barked. Most of our community was threatened, ”said Sandra. She is in Matamoros, in a camp that looks like a concentration camp, a product of the implementation of the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), known as Remain in México, or Stay in Mexico.
Sandra, originally from El Salvador, is a woman of dexterous thinking, always attentive to the things that happen around her, skilled at making decisions and solving problems. How did she come to live with her two daughters in a tent less than a hundred steps from the Rio Grande? For her, it is a cruel and absurd situation that drives her out of her mind and at times makes her lose track of time. She is awaiting a hearing her before a judge to convince him to grant her asylum. She will tell you her story in detail.
One morning, before dawn, she heard noises in a nearby house, she looked out and she began to understand why her neighborhood had been becoming silent: “Once I had to see a lady near my house at two in the morning that she loaded her vehicle with her things to be able to leave. She was carrying two boys ”. For Sandra it was easy to connect the dots: “Some people were surely killed, some fled”.
They left at night so as not to be discovered, that is why the village was becoming silent. However, the dogs would not stop barking and she and her family had already been given many warnings.Sandra was an informal trader. She had two food stands. She also made mops by making strips of XL size American clothing that came in bales from the United States. All the enterprises required the collection of the “rent”, that is, extortion. She preferred to move to a different region with her small business rather than pay, but she fell into the same trap wherever she went.
“We had already been in various apartments, moving from one place to another because they demanded “rent” in the two small businesses we had. They demanded it from all the merchants, even those who sell sweet bread on the bicycle, who earn two dollars a day. By not paying it, they demanded your life. It was always like that.”
The persecution she faced was also experienced by her children in the schools that served as educational centers … and centers of gang recruitment. Sandra was tired of going from school to school with her children and went to the office of the Ministry of Education to file her complaint. What she found in the office, according to the account of the official who attended her, was a file with similar complaints to hers that almost reached the ceiling. Thousands of serious complaints turned into dead letters.
Her last stop within her country was the city of Cuscatlán because her sister lived there, and she thought she could be sheltered by her. However, she failed to calculate the geography of the gang’s territories and their invisible borders. She settled in an area under gang control, and her sister was in “enemy” territory. “One day she went to visit me and they surrounded us saying that my sister had nothing to do there because she belonged to another place.” She ended up going around the city to secretly see her sister who lived a few blocks away, while she paid for her visits by finding herself hiding at her market stall installed behind the back of a hospital. It took amazing effort to earn a living as a single mom and “rent” payments. Effort, extortion, flight, effort, extortion, flight.
That is why in the days when she noticed how her neighborhood was emptied, Sandra was no longer going to continue looking for safe corners in El Salvador. She accepted that her country was useless for her to live on.El Salvador registered a rate of 36 homicides per 1,000,000 inhabitants in 2019 (2,390 confirmed), according to data from the National Civil Police. This just includes the sum of all the reports filed, not the cases like Sandra’s, who instead of going to the authorities, decided to disappear with her offspring and head north. She sent her two children ahead in early October, and they managed to enter the United States. She and her two youngest daughters left on August 10, 2019.
“When I left there were few houses left in that area. It was not easy to make the decision because you know that the risk you take abroad is great too. But you say, if I die trying, it’s worth it ”. Fifteen months after her departure, she continues to think that the reasons for fleeing were so strong that it was well worth ending up in the harsh and unimaginable situation in which she and her two daughters live. They are in a camp on the northern border of Mexico, in terrible conditions, but they prefer to stay there rather than return.
A “Refuge” that Looks like a Prison
Sandra and her daughters arrived at the northern border of Mexico in the state of Tamaulipas, the birthplace of Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. A place where other criminal groups operate, such as the emerging Northeast Cartel. It is also the state where the municipality of San Fernando is located, where the massacre of 72 migrants who wanted to reach the United States in April 2011 occurred.
They crossed the border in early October (2019) at Reynosa and turned themselves in to the US authorities in McAllen. After eight days of detention, they were entered into the MPP protocol. “I told them not to send me to El Salvador, and I was panicking. The officer made fun of me and said: Congratulations, you are going to Mexico.” Sandra said.
They were taken to Brownsville and handed over to the National Migration Institute in Matamoros, where they had to get a tent to set up shop a few steps from the Rio Grande with a group of migrants that grew to about 3,000, according to calculations by organizations that give humanitarian aid in place.
MPP (Migration Protection Protocol) is a controversial program created by the administration of former President Donald Trump and backed by his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that forces migrant refugee petitioners to wait for their hearings in Mexico. According to The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a Syracuse University organization that publishes information on federal justice in the United States, more than 68,000 people have been trapped at different points along the northern border awaiting the dates of their hearings where they will face two possible scenarios: permission to enter the United States or deportation.
Sandra has been living with her two daughters in a tent for over a year with thousands of migrants who suffer the same fate. Some, at least, have obtained the permission to see a judge, but most have tired of living in a park amid the latent dangers that exist at that point on the northern border in Tamaulipas, one of the most violent states in Mexico. Mexico is one of the most violent countries in the world.
“There are many people who have returned and others have preferred to stay here in Mexico. Every story is different, more than enough to write a book. I don’t think anyone wants to live like this if they would be better at home,” said Mayra, a Cuban doctor who works for the Global Response Management (GRM) organization inside the camp.
Mayra is also an asylum seekers. She left her country due to political persecution. She is waiting for her next court date and in the meantime she got a job in the deli department in a Matamoros supermarket and now works at GRM.
Some of us are not going to get out of here mentally intact
The camp began at the beginning of 2019 with 11 family tents that were installed at the foot of the Matamoros International Bridge and grew until in January 2020 the National Migration Institute confined the asylum-seeking crowd in the plain of grass and surrounding land next to the Rio Grande.
With the arrival of COVID-19, it was enclosed with a metal fence with a spiral of barbed wire at the top. Around 2,000 people were confined there, and now there are about 700 citizens of different nationalities seeking refuge in the United States, according to calculations by Doctors without Borders, an organization that has a clinic installed inside.
“It is sad for children and pregnant women. There are people with chronic diseases, older adults who cannot buy the drugs. There is no choice. Either face these circumstances or go back to where you left because you were in danger. The ones who are already living here in these conditions are here because they cannot return, ”said Mayra, who knows the day-to-day life of the camp well.
Sandra was slow to get out of her tent for the interview date. She was feeling a little bad, and she was getting ready. During the wait, the people assigned to guard the entrance to the camp allowed several people representing United States organizations that were loading humanitarian aid to pass.There was food, water, clothes, blankets. Religious leaders who organize collective prayers. Toys for the dozens of children who pressed against the wire fence to receive them.
Sandra came out of her tent and walked about a hundred meters to leave the camp and tell us how she got there and why she has been continuing to fight for survival in a place with such characteristics for more than a year.
In her tent, she runs an “aid store” with basic products donated by organizations and universities in the United States. She has also become a type of advisor, as other migrants frequently seek her out to vent their problems to her. They call to her through the “window” where she is resting, and she goes out to hear stories like her own. And she — who has come to have more people in her tent than the psychologists of the organizations — tries to listen and listen. She supports her burdens and those of others.
“We all go through a very difficult situation here because of the way we arrived, because of how we were treated, left on the street without five pesos. On the street, on the sidewalk we slept! ”. Her religious beliefs help reinforce her optimism and that of others, but she knows it is not enough. “They have told me their stories and their pain. Pretty strong stuff. I can’t always help. Sometimes I freeze up. And what can I do?” She is “frozen” at one in the afternoon, at eight at night or at dawn. They go to her window at all hours, and she usually gives them this advice: “Whoever can, pay a good psychologist because some of us are not going to get out of here mentally sound. Sometimes you wake up, and you can’t believe you’re in a place like this.”
She knows how to solve the main problems that she faces to survive in her hard day to day. Her food, clothing, ensuring she has a safe environment, not exposing herself to dangers that she has identified. She can talk about it naturally.Sandra has seen for more than a year how thousands of people from countless regions and many countries have come together within the camp to help each other, to get medicine, to sing and pray together. To give them blankets, clothes, food, to give yourself some important information about the city. To pray for the dead, pray for the good outcome of the hearings before the judges, help pregnant women, to take care of sexual offenders or attempted kidnappings.
On August 19, a young Guatemalan man named Rodrigo Castro de la Parra was found dead in the river. They took the body 100 meters from the camp, where there is now a wreath of flowers. In the images of the incident disseminated on the internet, a very affected, disconcerted young woman stands out. She is the sister of the deceased, who suddenly entered the camp with a newborn baby in her arms.
In the camp there are horror stories floating around-things that happen at night. Sad events are said about how pregnancies occur. Nobody’s version of the boy’s “accidental drowning” is believed, and nobody is going to inquire. “When we get out of here, a lot of things will come out. Mistakes have been made at the MPP and this camp has been one of the worst. Human and civil rights have been violated in every way. We have not lacked food, water and firewood, but there is one thing that everyone knows: we are in the eye of the hurricane here, we have to live with people who do not belong to the camp, we have to live with so many things. What happens inside the camp is not known.”
During 2020, Doctors Without Borders identified 26 pregnancy cases among the asylum-seeking population awaiting their hearings in the Matamoros camp. Sandra knows how to overcome those barriers that have subdued thousands of people who have resigned themselves to returning to their homes. What is most difficult for him is understanding “why.” Why did they come to a concentration camp if there is no war?
“We learned to help each other, to accept each other regardless of religion, nationality, anything of the sort. I feel that what happened (what “happened” is the violence that pushed everyone to run away from their homes) is going to teach us to be better people. We have the ability to respect each other, and we do not do it in our countries. We are always attacking each other, so I learned to love my people regardless of nationality, religion, skin color. No matter what, I have a great affection for everyone. What happened to us was very hard ”.
While we talked, a young man passed by on the phone. With him were a boy carrying a military green life jacket and a girl. They walked in front of the entrance of the camp towards the river, without running but walking as fast as they could, without turning to see anyone. The boy on the phone and the children disappeared behind the camp, among the brush that borders the Rio Grande. No one can get into those jade-colored waters that run calmly towards the sea of the Gulf of Mexico, not without risking receiving a horrifying punishment from people like that who spoke on a cell phone and disappeared into the darkness with two migrant children.
The boy and the young woman were “neighbors” of the camp.
Once again the spectacle of survival passing before Sandra’s eyes.
“Soon this nightmare is going to end. I hope that what happened here will not be repeated ”, she reflects.