Caravan of hope challenges the Mexican authorities’ neglect
"I want to believe that Álvaro is still alive. His dad often dreams about him and sees him working on a farm.”
This month, a caravan of 44 Central American mothers has toured Mexico in search of their missing children. They have covered 4,000 kilometres, visiting as many towns as possible on “the migrant’s route” towards the USA.
This is the ninth caravan of Central American mothers in Mexico and it finishes today, International Migrants Day.
I meet them at a press conference in the backyard of a local NGO in central Mexico City. It is all slightly chaotic, but the mothers manage to get their message across.
Each woman has a big picture of her loved one displayed on her chest, along with their name and a phone number. I have met many relatives of missing and disappeared people in Mexico, but I can’t help feeling a chill down my spine when I see them wearing this “uniform”.
One of the mothers is Carmen Cuarezma, originally from Nicaragua but currently living in Costa Rica. Her son, Álvaro Guadamuz Cuarezma, set off for the USA on 21 March 2010. He went missing in 2011 and his last phone call came from Mexico.
As we begin talking, Carmen says: “Before we start, please look at my son’s picture and note down my mobile number. If you ever see him, just call me straight away.”
Kidnapped for ransom
“Álvaro was 27 and studying a science course at university,” Carmen tells me. “But his day job as a factory worker wasn’t enough to pay for his studies. He told me he wanted to go to the USA, find a job and complete his studies there. It was the first time he attempted the trip.”
“He called me every week as he went along – from Nicaragua, Guatemala, southern Mexico. In January 2011 he called from Medias Aguas in Veracruz state and told me that he had been kidnapped. I had to transfer a ransom of US$2,000 to his kidnappers so that they would release him. I burst into tears, as there was no way I could raise that amount. I just prayed for him.”
“The biggest relief of my life came two months later when he called me and said “Mum, I escaped from the kidnappers, I just ran away, I didn’t even have a shirt”. But our joy was short-lived. That was his last phone call to date - we haven’t heard from him since.”
That day, Álvaro was calling from Tierra Blanca, also in Veracruz state. This is one of the most dangerous parts of the journey for the many thousands of Central Americans who risk everything every year to reach the USA.
An epidemic of abductions
Álvaro’s kidnapping is far from an isolated case. Three Guatemalan mothers later tell me that they were also asked to pay ransoms, which they did, only never to hear from their children again. The abduction of migrants travelling through Mexico is at epidemic levels, with little being done to stop it.
Beatings, arbitrary arrests, forced labour, sexual assault and killings are also common. As in Álvaro´s case, the vast majority of attacks are never investigated and nobody is held to account.
Criminal gangs are usually responsible, but public officials also often collude with gangs. They turn a blind eye to their activities, or sometimes they detain migrants and hand them over to the gangs.
As in Álvaro´s case, the lack of investigation and official neglect means that the truth about what happened is rarely established, nor do the missing migrants’ loved ones get justice.
People who protect migrants and give them food and shelter along the route also suffer threats and intimidation, often by the same groups who attack migrants. These incidents are rarely investigated either, leaving those who defend migrants’ human rights at serious risk.
Carmen shrugs her shoulders and looks at the wall when I ask if there is any reason why Álvaro wouldn’t have checked in with her since 2011. “No, there’s no reason,” she says, without making eye contact.
I realise that her hope is being crushed by the realization that having no news for such a long time means it is hard to believe that Álvaro is still alive. It is a sad and moving moment, and very painful for Carmen.
“We want the Mexican government to help us find our children,” she says. “But they haven’t given us any meetings yet. They are not interested, even though many Mexicans have also disappeared.”
But the situation isn’t all bleak. Some mothers I speak to point out that when their caravan started nine years ago, very few people cared and few journalists would turn up to hear their stories. They faced a hostile reception in communities where migrants’ shelters are based.
Today, this has changed. The mothers are welcomed everywhere, people give them presents, listen to their stories, and journalists are squeezing into the NGO’s small backyard with camera crews, cables and microphones to interview them.
But the authorities are still deaf to their demands.
The Mexican authorities have a responsibility to establish the fate of all missing migrants and hold those responsible for attacks to account. The state should also stop and prosecute any public officials colluding in abuses against migrants.
That would be the best way to protect the many vulnerable people who make the dangerous journey through Mexico in the hope of a better life.
Support the mothers’ caravan by signing our online petition (in Spanish only).
Help migrants as they travel across Mexico – our video clip will show you how.
Find out more
Watch our documentary featuring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal