Interview by Raphael Warolin & Jemma Crew
It is hard not to feel admiration when talking with Father Alejandro Solalinde. Quietly, he describes his fight for the rights of Central American migrants travelling across Mexico along highly dangerous routes, targeted by exploitative drug cartels. With the help of volunteers, Father Solalinde provides care and safety for these migrants in his shelter in Ciudad Ixtepec, Oaxaca State. For years, he has travelled across the United States, Latin America and Europe to raise awareness of the many problems Central American migrants face in Mexico.
What motivated you to start working with migrants?
I started helping migrants when I saw that they were without care, like sheep without a shepherd. My motivation is that I believe in human beings. I think people are the most important thing in this world - not money or material goods. Everything should be at the service of people. So my passion is this. The risks and threats I undergo are a small price to pay for the satisfaction of serving these people.
Could you summarise the current situation for migrants in Mexico for us?
Central American migrants continue to be the target of criminal gangs and drug cartels that see in them an opportunity to get huge amounts of money illegally. At the same time, networks of Human Rights Defenders have grown in their organisation and solidarity. These networks have not only made the problems of migrants visible but have also influenced the development of new laws.
Still, the Mexican government's response has been lukewarm: migration is not a priority for them. Their priority is the market economy, driven by neo-liberal capitalist interests for the good of transnational corporations. This isn’t good news for Mexico.
The international situation is very uncertain for migrants. The USA has not produced a comprehensive immigration reform which would be needed in order to protect migrants’ work, legal residence and temporary contracts. And it seems that this reform is not going to be completed. The Republicans have entrenched themselves against migrants. They think that if there is a regularisation of 11 million people, although there would be some very juicy gains, it would mean a threat to them - so they will not do anything. In any case, migrants will still cross over from Mexico into the USA.
What are the concrete threats that migrants face during their journey?
When migrants from Latin America, especially - Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala - pass through Mexico, there is no law or regulation that allows them to choose their routes. So they have to continue to use clandestine, riskier routes that make them more vulnerable to extortion and kidnapping. They also have to pay “rental fees” for being on the roof of freight trains - $ 100 to the cartels for each leg of the journey. If we add all the various legs of the journey together, these migrants are paying a total of $ 1,500 for nothing more than the right to jump on a freight train. And when they finally reach the US border, they have to pay another $2000 to $ 3500 to be smuggled across it.
Migrants are also widely used as drugs mules. Women are raped and sexually exploited. And organ trafficking has been present for years, though this is still a taboo and mysterious issue. Organised crime groups, in collusion with corrupt public servants and police forces, will do anything they can to make a profit from these vulnerable migrants.
How are Mexican authorities responding to this situation?
In the domestic policy of the current Mexican government, migration is not a priority. On the international scene, they say that they care for human rights, that they have signed numerous international treaties and conventions. But in practice, they do not care. For example, there is rarely an effective response to violent assault on migrants in Veracruz - a coastal state on the Gulf of Mexico. The Federal government has failed to prevent kidnappings and extortion of migrants there. With the exception of NGOs, civil society and migrants’ shelters which have consistently pushed for migrants’ rights to be recognised and protected, no progress has been made across Mexico.
You recently spent two days in Brussels meeting Members of the European Parliament, European Union member state representatives, the European External Action Service and European Commission officials. Do you feel satisfied with the visit’s outcome?
I think that the visit has been fruitful because the plight of migrants in Mexico was finally put on the table with the EU. Also, constructive proposals have been launched that do not compromise the respect for Mexico’s sovereignty, nor intrude into the internal affairs of Mexico or Central America. Instead, there is support for creative initiatives to prevent and resolve these situations in a comprehensive way. I had a wide range of meetings with different specialised sectors of the EU that will hopefully pay off in the coming months.
In early October, at least 364 migrants died after their boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa. Are there parallels that can be drawn between this tragic event and the situation you witness on a daily basis in Mexico?
Migration is a global issue. We are talking here about 216 million human beings in transit. Forced migration is caused by similarly inhumane situations across the globe. It can be said that this is a systemic failure of neoliberal capitalism.
Migrants risk death to find better ways of life. No matter if it's on a train in Mexico or in a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, they risk their safety while travelling and they risk rejection when they reach their destination. Europe does not want these people, and neither does the USA.
This is a crucial issue that calls for a humanitarian response, because ultimately migrants are human beings who must be helped. They are our brothers and sisters who come from exploited places and that should not be forgotten. The least we can do is to receive them with humanity, help them and fight to improve their living conditions in their places of origin.
Visibility is crucial when campaigning for migrants’ rights but it also means more exposure. You have received several death threats— how has this affected your work?
I have no personal enemies, but every day I stand in the way of the many people who are fighting to make money at the expense of human dignity by exploiting vulnerable migrants.
It is blind and foolish to see migrants as loot. This view clashes with the perseverance of human rights defenders who insist that migrants are human beings and not goods. By taking the latter position, we are hampering those with other economic, geopolitical and strategic objectives. In that sense, we have many people against us.
I have received death threats but I have no fear. I found out that when you are not afraid, people respect you.