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Eduardo Barraza Headshot

The Other Border: Families Look for Missing Migrants in Mexico

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Phoenix, Arizona - More than two thousand miles away from this city where rowdy protests about the immigration and border debate have taken place for years, an incipient grassroots movement is shaping a different debate at another border.

Deemed "Step by Step Toward Peace Caravan," this emerging movement is not demanding immigration reform but simply to know the fate of thousands of migrants who left their impoverished countries in hopes of reaching the United States, only to vanish from the face of the earth.

Men and women from Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, who following a treacherous "migrant's route" through southern Mexico disappeared in a hostile country where they set foot on only as a stepping stone seeking better economic opportunities.

The caravan is composed by some 300 people, relatives of the missing migrants who using handmade posters with the name and picture of their loved ones entered Mexico last week, followed the same "migrant's route" and reached Mexico City, where they made their plea before the Mexican Senate.

They are the fathers and mothers of bold young men and women who said goodbye to them with promises of work, prosperity and wiring money. Parents who have been waiting for months, years or even decades to hear from their lost children. Humble folks who made up this caravan by walking on the same ill-fated route their daughters and sons followed before their disappearance.

From border to border, Central American migrants make their way to the United States facing risks that can go from extortions and muggings to kidnappings and rapes. Most recently some have been forcefully recruited by drug cartels. Some killed with cruelty and at close range, like the 72 migrants who were found shot to death in August 2010 in northeast Mexico.

Those who make it to the U.S. will struggle to find work. Often and more easily, they find a ride back home aboard an ICE-chartered plane, after being deported from an immigration detention facility. Those who never made it or went missing after being deported just across the U.S.-Mexico border are the ones these families in the caravan are trying to find.

Mexico's own immigration mess

The troubles of Central American migrants in Mexico begin as soon as they enter the country. Trying to avoid Mexican immigration checkpoints, they walk long distances to hop on top of freight trains just to fall prey to robbers or fall from the train.

Travelling across Mexico, Central American migrants face dangers that often they are not able to overcome. If they succeed in arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border, they still face Arizona's desert, the Rio Grande or other geographical barriers. Those who are fortunate make it to U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix or Houston where they try to find work.

Their perilous journey was captured by filmmaker Pedro Ultreras in his documentary La Bestia (or The Beast), which chronicles the trip Central Americans begin at the Suchiate River at the Mexico-Guatemala border. Ultreras himself hopped on the freight trains -known as "the beast"- along migrants to film their journey and capture their dramatic testimonies as the train moves in full motion.

Data from Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH) show that about 150,000 to 400,000 undocumented immigrants make their way to the United States through Mexico every year. The vast majority are migrants from Central American countries. Mexico's National Immigration Institute reported that more than 63,000 immigrants from Central America were deported in 2010.

Mexico's immigration problem is anything but new. The mistreatment of migrants there is also well known. However, the escalation of drug-trafficking violence has given the issue of immigration a different twist; a brutal change in the dynamics of the problem that has shifted from the usual crimes against migrants to mass kidnappings and awful murders. In this context, Mexico has come face to face with its own immigration mess.

Winds of change

This situation has exposed the double standards of a nation that, while demanding human rights for Mexican immigrants in the United States, has evidently failed to guarantee the same rights to Central American migrants in its own territory.

In the wake of the mass killings of the 72 migrants last summer in Mexico, the government was forced to pass its first ever, exclusively-related immigration law. Prior to this new legislation enacted in May of this year, Mexico dealt with immigration within the legal framework of a general population law.

This month, as a gesture of goodwill, Mexico allowed the caravan of families of missing Central American migrants to enter the country and get special visas so they can search for their relatives or at least find out what happened to them.

The grassroots movement Central Americans are raising along the dangerous "migrant's route" in southern Mexico has brought to the forefront an issue that has been longtime overlooked. The families of the missing migrants may or may not find them, but they have already found a way to make people pay attention to their cases.

Learn more about cases of missing Central American migrants.