Tapachula, Mexico – Samuel Isai Mejia’s problems began last year with workplace sexual harassment, but things quickly snowballed from there. Facing intimidation from police and military forces as well as gangs, he fled Honduras this year.
Mejia is from a dangerous area of La Lima, a city 16km southwest of San Pedro Sula, in northwestern Honduras. But his neighbours did not know two key things about him that carried heavy risks: where he worked, and his sexual orientation.
“I’m part of the gay community,” the 25-year-old told Al Jazeera in Tapachula, in southern Mexico.
Discrimination and harassment aimed at Mejia and his LGBTIQ colleagues at the 911 call and dispatch centre in San Pedro Sula were fairly common but it goes unreported because people fear speaking up about harassment could get them fired or lead to further targeting outside the workplace, he said. More than 250 LGBTIQ Hondurans were killed between 2009 and 2017, according to local rights groups.
Working at the call and dispatch centre can also place workers living in gang-controlled neighbourhoods at risk. Civilian employees taking 911 calls work directly with national police and military police officers, and that can cause gang members to consider them snitches, Mejia said.
Eventually, this happened to Mejia, but his troubles first started when one of the civilian managers began harassing him.
“He was sexually harassing me. One time while out with colleagues, I felt suffocated. He was pressuring me to have sex with him,” said Mejia, adding that he clearly told the manager that he was not interested and that he already had a partner.
“That’s where it all started, and it got out of control. I then didn’t only experience sexual harassment but also labour harassment,” he said.
In February, after a year and a half at the call and dispatch centre, Mejia was fired. He initiated legal proceedings against his employer, a Honduran state institution, for termination without cause, but the future of the case is uncertain now that he is out of the country.
In retaliation for his pursuit of legal proceedings, Mejia believes the manager or someone else at his workplace began spreading the word that he worked there and that he is gay. Around that same time, Mejia and some of his relatives began to experience incidents of intimidation from military police and gang members in La Lima and San Pedro Sula.
That’s when Mejia decided to leave. He is now in Tapachula with more than 3,000 other Central Americans, mostly from Honduras, fleeing poverty, violence and persecution.
In mid-October, thousands of Hondurans set out together on a US-bound journey, travelling up through Guatemala and then Mexico on foot, in buses, and hitching rides on flatbed trailers and any other vehicle that would take them. There were several subsequent collective departures from Honduras and El Salvador, and other Latin Americans joined the groups along the way.
International attention has largely followed the advance of the front-most group. More than 6,000 migrants and refugees reached the US border in Tijuana last month, and have since dispersed significantly. Some remain committed to the weeks- or months-long wait to enter the US at an official port of entry to request asylum. Some have sought work in Mexico in the meantime, and others plan to stay for good. Hundreds have opted to return home. Others have made it across into the US outside of official ports of entry, both in the Tijuana-San Diego area and several border areas further east, and presented themselves to US border patrol agents to request asylum.
But long before Tijuana, thousands of others turned themselves over for processing by immigration officials upon entering southern Mexico. They were initially held for two weeks in Tapachula and then released upon processing, pending a decision on their cases.
Mexican officials were not immediately available for comment, but two representatives of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) in Tapachula confirmed to Al Jazeera that more than 3,000 Central Americans from the various waves of the collective exodus remain in the refugee status consideration process. The total is closer to 3,500, one official said.
Every week, individuals under consideration for refugee status and other forms of protection must report to two locations: the COMAR office in the city centre, and the immigration station just outside the city. Hundreds of people start forming lines outside hours before the offices open.
Junior Rivera is one of them. He and dozens of his neighbours from the Lopez Arellano Sector, along with others from the northwestern region of Honduras, are opposition activists who fled political persecution and harassment, threats and violence from state security forces.
Rivera and many others now receive a stipend of approximately $100 a month through the Mexican office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but when they were first released from detention, most did not even have the $0.34 needed for public transportation to their weekly appointments at the immigration office.
“We would start walking at four in the morning,” Rivera told Al Jazeera.
The shelters filled up quickly, and hundreds of people slept in the Tapachula central park for a while upon their release from detention. Several families from the Lopez Arellano Sector have since decided to continue north and recently made it into the US, crossing between official ports of entry and presenting themselves to US border agents in New Mexico to request asylum. But Rivera and others are sticking it out in southern Mexico.
By law, the refugee status application process can take up to 45 business days. Rivera and the majority of the exodus participants should find out whether they are accepted or not in January, but the process can be extended for another 45 business days.
The process has been frustrating for many who do not want to remain in Tapachula, or even Mexico. Many want humanitarian visas to legally travel north through Mexico since individuals who followed the first wave of the exodus have been arrested and/or deported en route. Some hope to get asylum in a third country, neither the US nor Mexico. Violent crime rates are lower in Mexico than in Honduras, but it is not necessarily a safe country for many people, including members of the LGBTIQ community like Mejia and political activists like Rivera.
In the meantime, Rivera and the rest of the refugee status applicants are restricted to Chiapas. If they leave the state or miss two consecutive weekly visits to the immigration offices, their temporary immigration status will be revoked and they will be subject to deportation.
The temporary immigration status given to refugee applicants grants them the right to work, but jobs are in short supply and the requirement to spend part of two days a week to visit the COMAR and immigration offices limits employment options. There is also widespread discrimination against Central Americans, Rivera and several other Hondurans told Al Jazeera.
Clean up brigades
To help combat the stigma and show Tapachula locals they want to make a positive contribution to the city, dozens of Central Americans have organised themselves into volunteer clean-up brigades.
“The idea many people had of us when we started was that we are all drunks or thieves,” Rivera said
Rivera and his crew from northwestern Honduras have been cleaning up public parks, church and school grounds, and streets several days a week for weeks, picking up rubbish, cutting weeds and grass with machetes, and sweeping walkways.
They still get their share of insults, but more and more people now stop to chat or to give small donations of food or money to their volunteer brigade, said Rivera. They have used the donations to buy machetes, brooms and rubbish bags, and are hoping someone will pitch in paint donations to spruce up some of the flaking and faded painted surfaces in public parks.
The crew had been sharing a two-room unused place in a public housing project between 16 adults and 5 children, but they are now in the process of moving into two smaller places in the same area and hope to find space as people continue to arrive. Mejia made it to Mexico just last week and moved in.
After the sun went down, some of the makeshift collective members sat outside in the warm evening breeze, gathering around the guitar player in their midst. A young boy pretending to be Spiderman ran around them, shooting imaginary webbing from his wrists.
Sitting on the floor inside the house, Mejia broke into a smile when he spoke of his partner. His partner headed north up through Mexico ahead of him with plans to make it into the US and work to support Mejia’s journey to safety. They will not be able to see each other anytime soon but hope to eventually meet back up in the US.
“Maybe we can even get married,” Mejia said with enthusiasm.