The Casa de Migrantes: A light in the dark

One Mexican safe house provides refuge for some of the most vulnerable victims of traffickers and desperate migrants.

'The beast' freight train passes by the Casa de Migrantes in northern Mexico [Nina Lakhani/Al Jazeera]

Saltillo, Mexico – Rey “Thalia” Súchite is preparing for his third and final attempt to cross the Mexico-United States border and get to New York. The 28-year-old from Mirabel in eastern Guatemala is remarkably sanguine considering his previous experiences were utter disasters.

In 2007 Súchite was persuaded to travel north by two men, a Honduran and El Salvadoran, promising a good job and safe passage across the border. They travelled through Mexico clinging onto the notorious freight train “The Beast”, along with dozens of other naïve hopefuls from Central America, Brazil and India, ending up in the dangerous border town Reynosa.

Súchite, speaking to Al Jazeera at the Casa de Migrantes (migrant safe house) in Saltillo, capital of the border state Coahuila, said: “I honestly never had a clue what was going on. I was totally ignorant and innocent. It was only when they took us into this big two-storey house, and I saw dozens and dozens of people sitting on the floor in rows, that I realised they were selling us.”

There were around 600 migrants in that house, each sold to the violent Los Zetas drug cartel, which makes a large portion of its revenue from kidnapping civilians and extorting ransoms from their petrified families.

“Everyone had to give a telephone number for a relative. My family paid a total of $6,000 using bank loans,” said Súchite. “One man refused, so a guard hit him hard in the mouth and made him lick the blood off his shoes. They treated us like dogs, throwing tortillas on the floor for us to eat.”

They lined us all up and went through everyone's bags and pockets. Federal and municipal police were there with them.

by - Floridalia Castillo Argueta, Honduran migrant

Against all odds the migrants escaped on September 28, 2007, and Súchite, physically and emotionally traumatised after a month in captivity, returned to Guatemala. He tried again in 2011, motivated by his family’s dire straits and a steely determination to overcome the panic he’d felt since the kidnap. He walked for five days across the unforgiving Sonora desert where more than 2,000 corpses have been found over the past decade, making it to Tucson, Arizona, only to be caught and deported to Guatemala.

Súchite arrived in Saltillo in October 2013, again motivated by financial woes. “I am the youngest child, the only one without a family, so it’s my responsibility to help my mum. But if this time I don’t make it, I will say goodbye to my dreams, my illusions and America and stay in Mexico instead.”

A safe house

This is the last safe house before the border and Súchite is among dozens of migrants anxiously waiting for “that call” from the US – a friend or relative to confirm they have enough money to pay a coyote, or guide, $1,000 to $2,500 to get across the border safely. Crossing alone has become incredibly dangerous as the Zetas or Gulf Cartel, depending on where you cross, demand a fee for each migrant. Getting caught without paying can cost you your life.

Last year 8,000 migrants were hosted at the Saltillo Casa – 90 percent of whom came from Honduras, where the exodus has intensified since the June 2009 coup d’état exacerbated existing violence and poverty. Between 8 to 10 percent are women. Children are uncommon as most parents leave them behind with relatives; however, Al Jazeera interviewed six within five days, aged between 10 and 15.

From here, most will attempt to cross at Reynosa or Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas. There is a mix of first-timers, veteran border crossers and deportees determined to get back to the US. Almost everyone has survived some horror at home or en route. But those who suffer the worst attacks usually turn back, according to Alberto Carrasco, director of the Casa.

The gated Casa is flanked by the stunning mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental and just one block away from the railway tracks, where The Beast chugs past four times a day. The rules are very strict to guard against cartels, marasa (street gangs), coyotes and the police, eager to prey on the vulnerable migrants.

Everyone is frisked on arrival for drugs, alcohol and weapons; cell phones are confiscated and no-one is allowed to leave or talk to anyone outside the gates apart from the local trusted shop where they can buy calling cards and snacks to supplement the three basic meals. Close Circuit TV cameras were installed and computer security beefed up after computers containing migrants’ personal details were stolen in a burglary in 2010. 

Inevitably people who would not normally get along end up sharing close quarters, so respect is high on the agenda during the daily induction held for new arrivals by one of the remarkable teenage volunteers, who come from all over Mexico to live and work here for six to 12 months.

The Casa is supported by funding from Canada, Holland, and the European Union among others, as well as the beloved Mother Lupita and Father Pedro. But it genuinely couldn’t function without the generosity of local people and businesses who donate food, clothes and their time.

Volunteer Christian Moreno, 18, heard about the Casa at his Jesuits high school in Leon, Guanajuato. “I came here wanting to be an architect but will leave a completely different person, going to study sociology and definitely working with people. At the start you get really immersed in every persons sad story and worry when they leave, but you cant because another person with another story always arrives.”

Perilous passage

The migrants try to distract themselves by volunteering to supervise the payphones or cook, or by playing football, basketball or checkers in the vast outdoor space. But despite moments of levity, the worries are never too far away – about those left behind and the road ahead.

Rey ‘Thalia’ Suchite [Nina Lakhani/Al Jazeera]

Floridalia Castillo Argueta, 23, has left her three-year-old daughter in La Paz, Honduras and arrived at the Casa bruised, dirty, hungry and exhausted. She and her cousin were assaulted by men claiming to be Zetas who mounted the train in Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, demanding $100 from each migrant – a charge for crossing their territory.

“They lined us all up and went through everyone’s bags and pockets. Federal and municipal police were there with them. We had no more money so we just ran, they got hold of us and started kicking our legs but we got away. I thought they were going to kidnap us or worse.”

Very unusually, the cousins are going only as far as Reynosa, where an aunt has lined up jobs for them in a Chinese restaurant. Castillo, who is distraught about leaving her daughter, added: “I couldn’t find a permanent job at home and I need to earn money so my daughter doesn’t suffer. I will only stay two years, but it’s already too hard. She keeps begging me to come home.”

Despite the risks, an estimated 300,000 Central Americans journey through Mexico every year in what has become one of the world’s most perilous migration passages. They keep coming in search of a better life, despite the billions spent by successive US governments on border security, because they say the violence, poverty and lack of opportunities at home are intolerable.

Osman Castro Regis, 29, fled San Pedro Sula, Honduras – the most murderous city in the world outside a war zone – last September after he couldn’t afford to pay the street gang Calle 18 the $50 they demanded every week from his $65 bus driver’s salary. Like almost every migrant interviewed by Al Jazeera, Regis said he was extorted by federal police officers en route; he also paid $35 to the maras whom he heard kicking migrants off the roof if they were unable to pay.

Regis is one of four long-term guests trusted with security at the gate, but he also has casual jobs gardening and in construction with trusted local employers. “I am saving every peso and waiting for my friend in Houston to call me about a coyote and a job. But if that doesn’t happen by mid-February, I will take the risks and go north alone.”

Follow Nina Lakhani on Twitter: @ninalakhani

Source: Al Jazeera