La prensa

Braking the Train of Death

Created: 24 November, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
7 min read

Frontera NorteSur

    Lucia Elizabeth Contreras watched as her brother Salomon set out for Mexico en route to the United States. The young man from El Salvador never made it to the destination of his dreams. Instead, his sister was later horrified to see pictures of her ill-fated brother tortured and murdered, recovered from a Mexican grave along with three other victims.

    The Contreras family’s saga is among several personal stories showcased in a new Amnesty International (AI) campaign aimed at defending the human rights of the estimated 400,000-500,000 Central American and other migrants who travel across Mexico every year in an often tragic attempt to reach the Promised Land on the other side of the Rio Grande.

    Organized around the theme of “The Invisible Ones,” the campaign was strategically timed to kick-off during the Fourth Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) held November 8-11 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. As part of the campaign, a photo essay and documentary directed by Marc Silver and prominent Mexican actor/director Gael Garcia Bernal will be shown in at least 9 Mexican cities in the coming weeks.

    “This is of prime importance to Mexico because it allows the opportunity to speak out about a scandal of human rights,” said Alberto Herrera, executive director of AI’s Mexico office.

    Prior to the GFMD, “The Invisible Ones” film was released on You Tube.

    Scheduled showings include the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Tabasco, where rampant violations of migrants’ human rights include rape, robbery, murder and kidnapping. Migrants pass through territories in dispute by drug cartels, exposing themselves to war situations.

    According to AI, upwards of 60 percent of female migrants traveling through Mexico suffer some sort of sexual abuse.

    Together with co-director Garcia Bernal, Herrera presented “The Invisible Ones” at the GFMD. The film consists of four vignettes that portray the stories of migrants like Salomon Contreras and shows images of the crawling train ominously known as “The Beast” or “The Train of Death” that transports thousands of people across Mexico to uncertain fates.

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    Referring  to last Augusts’ mass killing of 72 Central American and South American migrants by suspected elements of organized crime in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Herrera lamented that it took the spilled blood of human beings to get serious notice of a long-running human rights crisis which “should have been a priority.”

    Four months before the San Fernando massacre, AI met with Mexican officials to convey the international human rights organization’s concerns about migrant issue.

    Previous AI advocacy work in Mexico, perhaps most notably the 2003 campaign against the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua, gave human rights violations in the country a high international profile.

    In his address to the GFMD, filmmaker Garcia Bernal said the months spent making “The Invisible Ones” brought into keen focus for him the urgent need to uphold the rule of law, educate the public about migrants and thoroughly re-examine the efficacy of a “system” that doesn’t guarantee the economic well-being of “people in their places of origin.” The 2000 Oscar nominee said he was stirred by the commitment of people of faith in the migrant world to overcome extreme hardships.

    Acknowledging he was an agnostic, Garcia Bernal said he nevertheless walked away from “The Invisible Ones” project convinced of the need for society to revisit the matter of spirituality.

    “Everyone has to interpret it in their own way.” the artist said. “I’ll leave it at that. I’m really honored to be here.”

    AI’s campaign is one ripple in a wave of national and international actions surrounding the migrant situation in Mexico in recent days.

    According to Mexican media stories last weekend, 108 people, including 103 Central Americans and 5 Mexicans, were rescued by Mexican military and federal law enforcement authorities from a plantation in Chiapas state, where the group was reportedly held in slave-like conditions.

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    Convening in Mexico City from November 4-6 and then again in Guadalajara on November 9, the International Tribunal of Conscience of Peoples in Movement approved resolutions that roundly condemned the Mexican government, as well as a host of other world governments- including Washington-for allegedly committing crimes against humanity in relation to migrants.

    Based on previous atrocities, the civil society panel held the Mexican government ultimately responsible for the San Fernando massacre.

    According to the Tribunal, San Fernando was “the worst collective crime of its kind in Mexican history” since the 1997 murder of 45 indigenous people in Acteal, Chiapas, by an anti-Zapatista, pro-government militia.

    Tamaulipas, the Tribunal noted, is one of the most heavily-militarized states of Mexico.

    Representing more than 500 international organizations and leading pro-migrant activists like Elvira Arellano, who was deported from the US in 2007, the Tribunal announced its intention of becoming a permanent forum dedicated to trying and holding governments accountable.

    The grouping also sharply criticized the government-hosted GFMD for not representing the voices or interests of migrants.

    In Puerto Vallarta, AI showed the Garcia-Silver documentary and displayed its photo essay in public venues outside the GFMD. At the Cuale Cultural Center, about 100 people-roughly half foreign and half Mexican-viewed the film during the first three days of its run, according to Katia Torres, member of an Amnesty International group from Guadalajara that helped organize the events.

    Publicizing “The Invisible Ones” in an international resort like Puerto Vallarta virtually guaranteed word of the campaign would spread spread far and wide. Torres said residents of the US, Canada and New Zealand were among the film-goers. “Many people leave moved,” Torres told Frontera NorteSur. “They say it is a difficult situation. What can we do?”

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    For starters, AI had postcards on hand which people could sign and send to Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The message urged Calderon’s government to take a clear stand against the abuse of Central American migrants, and form a high-level working group to coordinate migrant protection and punish those responsible for human rights violations. Among the postcard signers was Iraq’s immigration minister, Torres added.

    For some days after the GFMD left town, AI’s exhibit stood on Puerto Vallarta’s world-famous boardwalk. Consisting of large photos and a map tracing the main migrant routes across Mexico, the display instantly became a new attraction, as residents and tourists alike stopped to gaze at pictures of the “Train of Death” or the cemetery in Chiapas where migrants are buried in vacant patches of dirt between tombs. Others snapped pictures of the photos, or pondered the writings that explained the stories behind the stunning images.

    Some onlookers remembered their own migrant days-and brushes with death.

    “All immigrants are humans, and we should respect each other,” said Mexican Alfonso Barrera.

    A lanky building maintenance worker with a solemn voice, Barrera recalled working the southern California docks without papers in the early 1990s.

    When war erupted in the Persian Gulf, Barrera helped ship provisions to US soldiers. While laboring 12-hour days to supply the troops overseas, Barrera said he was offered an opportunity to join the US military and legalize his immigration status. But the former dock worker said he had to think really hard about the offer, which he eventually declined.

    After all, Barrera said, many people head off to war zones only never to return home.

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