Siglo XXI: My 24 hours in Mexico’s 21st-century migrant prison

I got to experience first-hand the fallout of US border militarisation policies.

Siglo XXI migrant detention centre in Mexico
The Siglo XXI migrant detention centre is located in Tapachula, Chiapas state, near Mexico's border with Guatemala [File: Pedro Giron/AP Photo]

On July 11, I found myself imprisoned at Mexico’s infamous Siglo XXI “migration station” in Tapachula – a city in the state of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala – which specialises in detaining US-bound migrants from Central America and beyond.

Mine was a curious predicament, to say the least, for a citizen of the United States, exempt as we usually are from the fallout of border militarisation policies that make the world safe for US imperialism.

I had come to Tapachula for four days to write about migrants. When I attempted to board my return flight to Mexico City, I was apprehended for visa irregularities of my own and loaded into a van bound for Siglo XXI, which means “21st century” in Spanish.

According to the Associated Press, the detention centre is said to be the largest in Latin America, and is a “secretive place off-limits to public scrutiny where … journalists aren’t allowed”.


The initial semi-enthusiasm I felt at the prospect of my impending exclusive view of the mechanics of the US-dictated migrant detention regime quickly began to dissipate, however, when I was informed that I would likely be deported to the homeland – which I had abandoned 18 years earlier on account of its general creepiness and adverse effects on my mental health.

Upon arrival at the facility, I was systematically relieved of all possessions minus a change of underwear, a clean shirt, a bag of cranberries, and a smattering of toiletries and other items.

A female immigration officer barked menacing orders to turn off my mobile phone and remove my bracelets, earrings, and the laces from my tennis shoes. When I broke down in tears and begged her to pretend to be human for a second, she assured me that this was all for my own “security” – although her tone did soften when she inquired after the gigabyte capacity of my decrepit iPod.

Then my pen was forcibly taken away, as well, and I was admitted to the innards of the damp and teeming detention centre, where the sense of suffocating claustrophobia was hardly helped by a near-total lack of face masks among the detainees despite ubiquitous coughing and other indications of malaise.

For those who were not already sick, illness-inducing meals were provided three times a day, requiring all detainees to first line up to wait to sign their names on a list before lining up to wait to receive the meal – such being the nature of arbitrary and bureaucratic power, with its need to exert order over dehumanised bodies.

To be sure, waiting is the primary activity of the approximation of life that occurs within the walls of Siglo XXI. In addition to the often seemingly interminable wait for liberation – I met women who had already been interned one month in the facility – there is also the waiting-within-waiting: for food, phone calls, toilet paper, showers.

In the morning, there is the wait for the decision for the door to be unlocked to the flea-infested prison yard, the highlights of which include a mango tree, a sports court with a single deflated ball, and perennial police surveillance from beyond the towering fence.

Answers to mundane and existential questions alike – “When can I have a book to read?”, “When will I know if I am being deported or will be granted asylum in Mexico?” – are never forthcoming, as immigration officials tend to prefer either the noncommittal “más tarde” (later) or the even simpler shrug.

And for women who have just endured perilous journeys after escaping hazardous conditions in their own countries – all with the hope of eventually making it to perceived safety in the US – the psychological torture of being condemned to indefinite and criminalised limbo is not necessarily conducive to a desire for self-preservation.

In other words, I now understand why they confiscate shoelaces.

Inside Siglo XXI, I met a young woman who had fled Honduras after her two sisters were murdered; I met another Honduran whose father had been killed. I met Cubans who had crossed 14 countries to get to Mexico, and who reported having encountered rampant cadavers belonging to previous migrants while traversing the notorious Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia.

To be sure, each of these corpses served as a reminder of the very short distance between life and death for people marked as of inherently inferior value by an international capitalist hierarchy.

A Bangladeshi woman, who spoke no Spanish and had spent nine months journeying to Mexico with her husband – himself now imprisoned in the men’s section of Siglo XXI, which by all accounts was even more horrifically overcrowded and subject to more hands-on forms of torture – cried as she told me how her mental anguish was only compounded by the suffering she was causing her mother back home.

She was introduced to me by a group of Haitian women who had been unsuccessfully attempting to communicate with her, and who had summoned me over with the announcement that they had found me an English-speaking friend. When not slumped over on a cement bench staring into oblivion, my new friend could be seen lying in a corner of the dining area, her blanket over her head.

As for my sleeping arrangements, I was sharing the floormat of a defiantly upbeat Cuban girl who would not hear of me placing my own floormat directly in front of the toilet – the only remaining available space.

My bedmate remarked wryly: “If this is the 21st century, I’d hate to see the 22nd.”

While the sense of despair in Siglo XXI was at times overpowering, there was also a collective refusal to allow humanity to be purged so easily by the powers that be. Women would spontaneously break into song, collect mangoes, hold each other’s hands, comb each other’s hair. Two Cubans had undertaken to teach critical Spanish vocabulary like “shorts” to the lone Chinese detainee. A Honduran university graduate who had studied none other than human rights held her towel up for me in lieu of a shower curtain.

As someone prone to panic attacks and spectacularly inept at dealing with adversity in life, I found it immensely comforting to have two Cuban feet in my face all night. I was also well aware that my visible fragility was less than endearing in a detention situation created in large part by my own nation – a situation from which, thanks to my passport privilege, I would inevitably be extricated with relatively minimal suffering.

While my fellow inmates could not fathom why the neurotic gringa was resisting return to the country they were risking their lives to reach, they charitably restricted their reactions to hysterical laughter at the ironic prospect of being deported to the US.

I would later learn that when my mother phoned the US embassy in Mexico, she was told that I would likely be held at Siglo XXI for at least two weeks, and that the US government could not intervene: “We cannot tell Mexico what to do.”

And yet operations at the detention facility are pretty much an exact example of the US telling Mexico what to do. Current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who initially promised a humane migration policy, swiftly realised that doing imperial dirty work offered greater rewards.

It bears reiterating, too, that US intervention in other people’s affairs is largely to blame for migration patterns in the first place. In Central America, decades of US militarisation and backing of right-wing coups and slaughter have forced countless thousands of civilians to flee landscapes of extreme violence and impunity.

In Haiti, meanwhile, perennial news reports about the “Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation” consistently neglect to mention the US history of sponsoring coups and chaos in said nation in the interest of maintaining neoliberal misery. One need look no further than that time the US State Department conspired to block an increase in the minimum wage – to 62 cents per hour! – for Haitian assembly zone workers toiling on behalf of US clothing manufacturers.

And in Cuba, a six-decade-long crippling blockade – imposed by the US to deter other countries from infection with dangerous anti-capitalist notions like free healthcare and education – has produced predictable shortages and attendant migration away from the island.

As for me, my own Siglo XXI experience came to a close when I was miraculously liberated, sans deportation, after 24 hours – thanks not to the efforts of my homeland but rather to a Mexican journalist friend and others who intervened on my behalf.

My belongings were returned to me – minus my pen, earplugs, tweezers, and compact mirror – and I was escorted to the Guatemalan border in an immigration vehicle to receive a brand-new Mexican visa. On the way there, I told the female immigration official accompanying me that I would have plenty to write about; she nodded with an encouraging smile: “Don’t forget to put that you cried!”

In the end, Mexico’s Siglo XXI migrant prison is appropriately symbolic of a 21st century in which much of the earth’s population is effectively imprisoned in US-inflicted political and economic nightmares.

If business continues as usual, I would indeed hate to see the 22nd.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.