“I am a grain of sand in the government’s shoe: I make them uncomfortable … they have to cope with me, because the only other alternative would be to kill me.”
Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra is a Mexican Catholic priest. He was deeply touched by the conditions that thousands of Central American migrants face when they ride the train northward to the United States through Mexico, where they are often the victims of criminal gangs and police violence. The National Human Rights Committee of Mexico estimates that over 11,000 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico during a six-month period in 2010.
In 2007, Father Solalinde founded the Hermanos en el Camino (Brothers of the Road) migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico, joining a system of several shelters and food kitchens that have emerged along the unauthorized migratory route toward the United States and provides migrants with a short respite from danger. But by putting a spotlight on the dramatic conditions and the kidnappings faced by migrants, and on the collusion of police and politicians with kidnappers, Father Solalinde himself has become a target for attacks and death threats.
Mint Press News (MPN): You work with migrants in Mexico; can you explain what you do?
Father Alejandro Solalinde (AS): We have around 65 or 70 places – houses, shelters, food kitchens – around the country where we can host migrants. We give them to eat and drink and allow them to rest for a few days before they continue their journey. We also inform them on the different routes to the north, to the United States, on the dangers awaiting them, on the risks of being kidnapped, on the Mexican and the American migrant legislations … And then we let them decide what they want to do. Sometimes, when they have received all the information, they decide to return home; in this case we organize the repatriation. If they want to pursue their journey to the north, we let them go. Or some of them want to stay in Mexico. In this case, we help them to take the necessary steps.
For each person arriving, we take a photo and we ask for their personal data and how to contact their families, so that if something happens to them, we can identify them and inform their families. We know who stayed with us and when.
MPN: Where do these migrants come from?
AS: From Central America, mainly from four countries: 1) Guatemala, 70 percent of which are indigenous people; 2) Honduras: this is a country that is literally running empty and a lot of these migrants are young, even minors. One in four of those coming from Guatemala and Honduras are children, what we call “not-accompanied minors”; 3) El Salvador, the country with the highest increase; and 4) Nicaragua.
Poverty is certainly an issue for most of them, but they mainly try to flee insecurity and violence. In Central America, there are a lot of criminal gangs – except in Nicaragua – and they ransom the people. Sometimes, the poor are obliged to work for them because they have no other choice since no one cares for them, no one helps them, not the government, not the Catholic Church. They want to escape that life and find security.
MPN: Are they all aiming to go to the United States?
AS: Yes, most of them, probably around 85 percent of them, I’d say. And even if we tell them “don’t go, it is too dangerous, the gangs might kidnap you,” they still want to go. It is like they have been programmed, someone has put them a chip or something with the destination ‘United States.’ But out of 100, only around 30 actually manage to get there. Officially, there are about 11 million undocumented Hispanic people in the States — we think it is more about 13 million.
MPN: There is also a more political aspect to what you do?
AS: Yes, we lobby the Mexican authorities so that they would change the laws and promote public policies. We have always been engaged in a dialogue with the government, whatever the governing party. The major issue is the deficit in the judiciary system; as a result, the migrants don’t obtain justice. Under the previous government of [former Mexican President] Felipe Calderón, we lodged [one] hundred, two hundred complaints and the authorities did not do anything. I once told them: “We gave you all the information you need, what are you waiting for? You are sitting here quietly, whereas over there, there are kidnappings.” But nothing changes. The kidnappings go on.
We want the judicial structures to change, that the migrants can obtain justice and protection, that our complaints be processed and acted upon, that the kidnappers be arrested.
MPN: Doesn’t the Mexican government do anything to help the migrants?
AS: What they do is obey the United States by stopping them and preventing them from crossing the border to the north, by organizing squads and special ops everywhere against the migrants and by violating their human rights. They pursue them violently, they don’t respect them, they don’t treat them as human beings. Besides, they misunderstood what the American authorities expect from them.
MPN: What makes you say that they obey the United States?
AS: Well, the United States and Mexico signed the Mérida Initiative in 2008, a kind of security agreement [to fight organized crime and drug trafficking]. But Mexico has misunderstood the aim of this plan, because the United States never said they will give money for the Mexican government to violate the human rights of migrants. I spoke with the last two American ambassadors in Mexico, Carlos Pascual and Anthony Wayne. None of them said the United States had given money to Mexico for them to violate human rights. So this is the total and absolute responsibility of the Mexican government.
MPN: You know, in Europe, the EU signs agreements with North African countries so that they would stop the migrants. Officially, they do not condone the human rights violations, but in practice, they close their eyes on what is happening as long as the migrants do not reach Europe.
AS: Listen, I am going to tell you something. The American ambassadors told me that the United States had paid dearly their human rights violations in Iraq and in Guantanamo in terms of credibility — both internally, vis-à-vis the American people, and externally, in their relations with other countries. Last May, I was in Washington, at the Department of State, with [Deputy Assistant Secretary] Matthew Rooney and seven other people. By the way, they all speak perfect Spanish, except one. They told me that they had always asked the Mexican government to respect human rights, and that in the Merida Initiative, there is a clause about the respect of human rights.
And you know what? Two months and a half after that meeting, the Department of State issued a communication sanctioning Mexico, saying that they froze I can’t remember how many millions in the framework of the Mérida plan. They gave two reasons: abuse of authority and the no respect of the human rights of migrants. This happened not so long ago, and it is the first time that the U.S. sanctions Mexico for the violation of human rights. So there is hope, I believe, because I don’t think the U.S. is saying to the Mexican government, “You can do whatever you want.”
MPN: The migrants in Mexico are hence the victims of the violence of both the criminal gangs and the Mexican police?
AS: At one stage, there were special ops organized by the Mexican police against the migrants’ train, and, strangely enough, every time there was a police operation against the train, there were kidnappings. Who told the criminals when and where the operations would take place? I don’t know. But this is how it went. So it is very doubtful that these were isolated events. We think it is rather a state policy.
MPN: You mean, the kidnappings?
AS: Yes. Mexico with Felipe Calderón did not dare put a wall to prevent migrants from crossing. But somehow, they still manage to stop the migrants in another way.
MPN: Why not dare put up a wall?
AS: Because they were afraid of what public opinion would say. But behind [the scenes], they continue to mistreat the migrants. Moreover, the government has systematically negated the kidnappings. In 2011, there was an attack against the train and many migrants were kidnapped. We had many witnesses, we saw the people who did it and so we lodged in a formal complaint, but the authorities totally negated the facts. They said that “Father Solalinde is not telling the truth,” that “he has to prove what he is saying about the kidnappings.” I retorted that it is the Mexican government who should prove there had been no kidnappings. Out of the 200 people that disappeared, 139 had been registered with us. So I challenged the government: “If you can tell me where these people are, if they are alive, you would prove that there were no kidnappings and I accept that you say I am a liar.” Two months later, they had [located] 7 people out of the 139. As for the others, they were never able to prove the people had not been kidnapped.
MPN: Why are these people kidnapped? As you say, most of them are poor.
AS: Yes, but they have family in the [United] States, so the gangs hit them, torture them and then they join the family in the States and tell them their relative would be released only if they pay. Some have to sell their houses; others have to ask for a bank loan and then work for years afterwards to re-pay it. But you know, sometimes the payment to the kidnappers is done through banking transfer or via companies like Western Union. Do you really think the government cannot control who receives the money? Sometimes, the name of the kidnapper is on the payment receipt!
MPN: You have been threatened; do you know who it is?
AS: I touch upon many interests; but I am a Catholic priest and I believe in God and in God’s kingdom. When I defend human beings, I run into trouble. I criticize the Mexican government because of the Merida Initiative. I think they are obsequious with the north and mean with the south. I criticize the cartels because of the way they treat their brothers, this cannot be. As for the Church, I criticize the corruption, the power and the issue of human rights because they do not admit women. I cannot keep silent faced with so many injustices.
Helping the migrants in Mexico is a risk, a subversive act: it goes against the power, the interests of the cartels, of the state. Those that trade the migrant have made him a good: the aim is to get a maximum of money out of him. We found mutilated, incomplete bodies — this must be organs trafficking. No one knows who these people were, it must be migrants. But this question is taboo.
The government hides it, does as if nothing happens. As they say: in Mexico, a lot of things happen, but they say nothing happens.
MPN: The Mexican government seems to have a very ambiguous attitude towards you…
AS: I am a grain of sand in the government’s shoe: I make them uncomfortable. As long as there is no justice for the migrants, they’ll have me on their back. I won’t give in to pressure and no one can buy me. So, it is very uncomfortable for the government.
One day, a very corrupt governor of Veracruz tried to buy me over by promising me he would suggest me for the Nobel Prize and things like that. He probably thought I would stop denouncing him. But I did not, and I go on and on. For me, this is a question of conscience. The government does not like it very much but they have to cope with it. Either they allow us to help them, or we go on moving and doing, at the national level and at the international level – as I told you, last May, I was in Washington, at the Department of State. We move a lot, to raise awareness.
So they have to cope with me, because the only other alternative would be to kill me. But if they kill me, the political cost for the Mexican government would be very high. They can’t afford it. Mexico is a very corrupt country, it is full of cartels but the cartels won’t move if they don’t receive a political order. The order needs to come from very high.
MPN: On the other hand, you have received the National Human Rights Award?
AS: It was actually the national commission for human rights that nominated me, but it was indeed President Enrique Pena Nieto who gave it to me. If they think this prize is going to shut me up, though, they are wrong.
MPN: You mean, this is why they gave it to you: to try and shut you up?
AS: I don’t know if this is the reason but what I know for sure is that I had criticized, I had denounced the president of the national commission for human rights. So he might have thought I’d stop if he gave me a prize. But if they think they can silence me like that, they are wrong.