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Eyewitness account: Migrants tell of fleeing atrocities in Mexico

Jennifer Harbury  |  Issue: May | June 2020
migrant volunteer feeding other migrants

Migrant lady volunteers to cook for the hundreds of migrants who lived in tents while waiting to be processed to come to the US. Tijuana, B.C., Mexico. December 2019.


REYNOSA, Tamaulipas, México – The shelters in Reynosa began to fill to overflowing once again in December, just as the cold arrived. Thanks to Church World Services, we were able to get a lot of blankets to them. The new people were coming in from Africa, Haïti, and Central America for the most part.

The big change has been an abrupt and very sharp rise in Mexicans arriving from the Mexican states of Tabasco, Guerrero and Michoacán. There have always been asylum seekers from that region, which has been hard hit by the cartel wars for many years now. But the violence there has exploded since last November.

People showed me photographs of themselves with black and blue bruises from head to foot, and with badly battered faces.

One photo showed three men being led away with their hands tied behind their backs and hitched to the person behind them. Another photo showed a large pit with the severed limbs and heads.

In many areas, schools have closed due to the kidnapping of children. There are many reports of children being killed to punish their parents for disobedience to the gangs or to sell them for their organs. There have been reports of several children’s bodies found with their torsos hollowed out.

Pre-teens are being taken for trafficking or forced recruitment as well.

Some families have reported being run out of their homes at gunpoint, past burning houses and vehicles and dead bodies on the ground. They were told their lands had been confiscated.

Many of them have fled to avoid being forced to work with either cartel, but if they return, they could be punished for fleeing. These people have been arriving totally shellshocked.

So are people arriving from Cameroon in West Africa, most of whom had fled village massacres and have no idea where their families are.

The Mexican government stopped sending assistance to the shelter, leaving the pastor to deal with a sharply rising population, no funds for food and no school.

The Angry Tías have stepped in and we are providing funding for at least a full month. There are no teachers. At least the Médicos Sin Fronteras team is still there. The coronavirus is no help. The shelters could be shut down at any time.

I was last there on March 16 and am now sheltering in place. I am willing to continue crossing if that is permitted and justifiable, and then self-isolate back in United States. But I fear the bridge may close down soon as well.

Meanwhile, the Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP) programs and the Guatemala safe-nation status have proven deadly. We were all delighted with the great new Ninth Circuit federal appeals court case, declaring the MPP program to be unlawful. But the injunction was promptly stayed while the case went to the Supreme Court.

So, people remain trapped in Tamaulipas, the most dangerous area, on the heels of the Ninth Circuit decision.

And now coronavirus will lock people into northern Mexico in an even worse way. People are terrified of being quarantined in the shelter, which would be much like the Princess cruise ship experience. So, they are moving into unsafe apartments outside the walls.

The Angry Tías will keep the shelters well stocked and with decent communications systems in place. For now, the virus has not spread much into northern Mexico, but it will. As medical needs shift, we will see how we can best assist.


Jennifer Harbury, attorney and human rights advocate

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