Introducion: Caring for Migrants
How many bodies must be out there, in the land surrounding these tracks? Father Solalinde put it well: this land is a cemetery for the nameless.
At a moment in which international news organizations are reporting on and denouncing femicide, the murders of journalists and students, and widespread drug violence in Mexico, it is perhaps no surprise that the country has been referred to as a mass grave. Often overlooked, though, are the deaths and constantly imperiled lives of thousands of Central American migrants who travel through Mexico, facing relentless violence from state actors, organized crime groups, and individual citizens as they make their journey north. As Achille Mbembé describes, in the triple loss of home, rights, and political status, migrants face “absolute domination, natal alienation, and social death (expulsion from humanity altogether)” in the face of the narcopolitical Mexican state, as well as literal death and violence. Some of these migrants publicly describe the fatal conditions of migration, and at moments massacres of migrants are made visible and public, but in many cases these migrants are simply disappeared, leaving them in a state of constant vulnerability and their family and loved ones in uncertainty and fear. The underlying violence behind these disappeared persons hovers over Mexico:
The migrant who never arrives and dissolves in the desert sand, of the migrant who remains annexed to the sacrificial feast of the single line, mutilated by the Beast, of the torn-up body of the young girl who only emigrated to fatten the fatal statistics of feminicide, along with the mute rattling of the bones recovered from the common graves, silent witnesses to a brutal story of repression, are [Mexico’s] Hamletian skull, for in it is concealed the dark secret of a time threatening to take destruction to the extreme of total disappearance, as an ironic variation of the infamous Final Solution.
Our primary concern in this section is to explore the conditions of death and life in the process of migration in Mexico and to consider resistant, life-affirming strategies that nongovernmental groups put forward in relation to migrants both alive and dead. Although our lens of focus is forensics, we consider forensic work as closely tied to the creation of life and to reparation, and thus we consider both the work of shelters like La 72 Hogar and the efforts of traditional forensic teams, specifically the Border Project, focusing on both groups’ relationship to the politics of mourning and community-building. Although La 72 and the Border Project are laudable efforts by civil society to improve migrant conditions, they are the result of a lack of infrastructure and efficient state initiatives. We attempt to problematize the conditions that have made these nongovernmental organizations necessary as pockets of hope in the face of a larger machine of complicity in the migrant situation. Moreover, we zoom in on the forces of life and death that operate in both projects. Finally, we attempt to examine the humanitarian efforts of the Border Project against the backdrop of the recently-implemented policies of Plan Frontera Sur. While Plan Frontera Sur acts as a state policy around migration, how do its conditions apply to and affect humanitarian efforts on the ground? In attempting to unravel these issues using the angles of mourning and forensics, we hope to add to the discussion of migration and what happens to migrant bodies both dead and in the face of death.
La 72 and Contemporary Migration in Mexico
It is a hot Friday, and there are about thirty of us eagerly gathered around a young volunteer named Carla at the migrant shelter La 72 Hogar. We are in Tenosique, Tabasco, 56 kilometers from the Mexico-Guatemala border, where migrants cross each day on their journey north. Carla leads us through the shelter compound, pointing out various murals covering the walls and surfaces of La 72 while explaining the everyday functions of the shelter.
The shelter’s name and a number of the murals and public art displays within its walls serve to memorialize the 2010 massacre of 72 undocumented Central and South American migrants in the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. In the early 2000s, conflict erupted amongst powerful drug trafficking groups in the area, leading to vicious intra-gang warfare and to an increase in the targeting of undocumented migrants. By asking for ransoms or threatening individuals at gunpoint, drug trafficking groups preyed and continue to prey on migrants as a pool of recruitable labor. It was in this context of escalated violence that the 72 migrants in San Fernando were murdered.
After traveling for miles to reach safety, an Ecuadorian migrant, who survived the massacre by faking his own death, brought the site of the massacre to authorities’ attention. According to his testimony, the events leading to the massacre began when a bus occupied by migrants was surrounded by three other buses, whose occupants demanded that the bus be stopped. Members of the armed drug trafficking group Los Zetas split the migrants into two different buses and drove them to a remote countryside warehouse. The following day, members of Los Zetas cold-bloodedly murdered their 72 hostages, placing the bodies in clandestine pits. Although the reasons for this violence remain unclear, the Ecuadorian migrant who survived maintains that the hostages’ refusal to pay Los Zetas or be coerced into forced labor may have provoked the shooting. The incident, which became known as the San Fernando Massacre, marked the first and largest publicized example of the violence migrants face in Mexico.
Named in tribute to this harrowing event, La 72 is the brainchild of Fray Tomás, a Franciscan friar whose work is inspired both by liberation theology and Zapatismo (see “Theological Counter-Machines” and “Migrant Zapatismo” in Actors, Networks, and Counter-Machines for more on these influences). Fray Tomás arrived to Tenosique in 2010, the same year as the massacre. Immediately, he found that the area was overrun with organized crime; killings, extortion, rape, and corruption ran rampant. This reality, along with the recent San Fernando Massacre, emphasized the gravity of the situation of migrants and motivated him to create La 72, which serves both as an active memorial to the murdered migrants and as a mode for the production of life and political subjectivity in response to the region’s humanitarian crisis; his work might be considered one form of a realization of Judith Butler’s suggestion that “to grieve, and to make grief itself into a resource for politics, is not to be resigned to inaction, but it may be understood as the slow process by which we develop a point of identification with suffering itself.”
You did not add any pictures to the gallery.
As we walk through the shelter, this ideological mission becomes clear. Virtually every surface is covered in a mural; some are inspirational, some deeply political, and some detail and memorialize events deemed important to the history of the shelter. The daily operations of the shelter work are centered on modules–areas or rooms that address specific needs. Carla points out the health module, the office, the women’s quarters, the computer room, and the volunteer’s quarters, among others. Everything seems well-organized, and tasks are shared communally. All around, people are lounging in the relative shade of the buildings. In the heart of the shelter’s courtyard, we hear yelling and whooping and children’s laughter as people take turns hitting a piñata. Others are eagerly gathered around, egging them on.
By this day of our trip, we have already visited three different migrant shelters, and it is clear that this fourth one is unique. The atmosphere is full of energy and color, and activity is everywhere. The feeling is one of a well-oiled machine. Migration is a brutal process, especially in Mexico, as migrants run the risks of rape, murder, injury, assault, robbery, arrest, and deportation as they make the long journey north, along with “the repeated, non-lethal shocks” and dangers of dehydration, heat stroke, hunger, and plain physical exhaustion. In his talk, Fray Tomás mentions that there are 22 deaths a day in Mexico. Massacres and mass disappearances such as the San Fernando Massacre are not uncommon. We have met with migrants who shared their stories of assault, amputation, and countless deportations.
The extent of the death and disappearance in this land is enormous and has only increased in the recent years following the implementation of the so-called “War on Drugs” and later the Plan Frontera Sur, both funded in part by the United States. Experts estimate that there have been 80,000 deaths and 27,000 disappearances since the start of the “War on Drugs” in 2006. Numbers can be misleading, however, and it is impossible to really know how many undocumented migrants are killed or go missing each year unreported. As journalist Óscar Martínez argues, many migrants do not become part of the statistical pool because some people die in “desolate sections[…] Nobody is going to find you. You’re going to make it by yourself or you’re not. It’s that simple[…] You probably won’t even end up as a statistic if you die there.” Numbers are effective in contextualizing and bringing to light migrant exploitation, but they can also deceive and numb the realities that have caused these deaths. In a sense, dead bodies become innumerable as many other social factors, such as rape, kidnapping, and robbery, also, constantly and less quantifiably affect the possibilities of life of migrants moving north.
At the same time, though, keeping track of migrant death, numerically and not, is an important act of caring for the living. Many dead bodies aren’t counted or found, leaving migrant families, loved ones, and sympathizers in unfathomable desperation and pain. Faced with these countless disappearances, families and friends of missing migrants, activists, journalists, and others are left bereft, unable to put the dead to rest or even to know whether their loved ones are alive or dead. In the face of this dehumanization, the work of the shelter, says Fray Tomás, is to create a new world and to create a new identity for migrants, one that is visible, relevant, and dignified.
Considering its practical mission to provide shelter for migrants, its politicized rhetoric, and its vibrant artwork, La 72 serves as both an aesthetic memorial and a site of ongoing empowerment for migrants, whom the shelter workers encourage to fight for just transit and for their rights. As such, it creates the utopic possibility of life from the literal and metaphorical graves that surround it and that many of the migrants are fleeing from.
The gangs in Central America teach people to keep silent, to disappear themselves. Instead of stepping in, responding, or going to the police when someone is in danger, the violent retribution and impunity of gangs cause people to stay silent or to simply try to escape in the face of threats. We heard several stories from migrants from Honduras, for example, seeing something and not being able to say something for fear of retribution. We heard stories of people trying to pray away what they had witnessed. Honduran migrant Denia had just arrived at La 72, her legs burning from walking for ten hours straight in crocs, her skin burning from ten hours under a beating sun. As she eats rice prepared by her fellow migrants who arrived before her, she speaks of her country, its troubles fresh in her memory. She had been brutally assaulted and raped outside, in plain sight of her community in Rivera Hernandez, San Pedro Sula (the most terrorized barrio in the country). “There were many people in the street. They went inside. They locked their doors. So, ‘nothing happened.’ Like that. They cannot help. They are enslaved. If I see that [the gang members] are assaulting someone, even if I want to, I cannot help.” Many migrants leave their countries unannounced. Denia lied to her family about her future when she left, in hopes of keeping them safe. “My family doesn’t know that I’m here. I simply said, ‘Mama, I want to let you know that I got a job abroad.’ ‘Really? Thank God! That’s what I’m talking about!’ she said. If she knew, she would die.” Denia assures me, or maybe she is assuring herself, “If I’m not there, there’s no problem.” That is, if she disappears herself, the problem will also disappear. Although a migrant’s journey is constantly threatened by death and violence, her ability to make this journey and keep her family ignorant may in fact save their lives. Unfortunately, though, gangs within Mexico employ similar tactics and pose a similar threat to both migrants and their families, whom they often call to extort for money.
But as the gangs in both Mexico and Central America struggle to keep people silent and to render bodies unidentifiable, they make sure their presence is known with the most gruesome, visible killings possible. Bodies are rolled and tied up into the smallest bundles possible, then thrown in a ditch, or sliced with a machete, or put through a grinder. “They work really well,” says Adi, a Honduran migrant who has been at La 72 for two months waiting to hear about a humanitarian visa to stay in Mexico.”You’ve seen when they butcher a cow? Or a pig or chicken? Like this. But live. With life. So that they feel the pain.” After we ask how the morgue can even try to identify these bodies, outside of DNA tests, Denia adds, “They reconstruct and rebuild again. Like a puzzle.” She apologizes, laughing, for this seemingly-glib choice of words. But her metaphor is reminiscent of journalist Leila Guerriero’s description of the process of forensic reconstruction: “Once the reconstruction is done—the counting of its parts, its injuries, the extension of what remains of it over the table—the skeleton will go back to its box, and that small patience of the oval-faced woman will come to an end, years later—if luck will have it—with a name, a coffin the size of a femur and a family mourning for the second time; and perhaps the last one.”
Though Denia’s smile in the face of this grim, violent possibility is bright, and though she is in the life-affirming safe haven of La 72, she admits that even still, “I am not well.”
Unlike the gangs, the authorities in Mexico don’t want their tortures seen. Adi recounts his time with immigration officials. “They were not allowed to bruise me. Nothing. It was torture, as I say. Violent. But without bumps, without anything.” This deliberately traceless violence was accompanied by freely-wielded verbal abuse. He couldn’t get into the details of this form of torture, though: he tried, but was choked up. The insults and threats seemed to bother him more than the physical pain he could actually describe, which included twisting his arms behind his back and spreading his legs open to force him into the splits.
Atrocities like these are fueling Fray Tomás’ mission to empower the migrants he encounters. They are reminded of their rights daily. The bright, colorful murals on the walls depict several routes north, with big red dots indicating areas of danger and different symbols indicating other areas where migrants may get assaulted or kidnapped (black guns) or where they can expect a 100 peso fee to board the train (bright green dollar bills). Carla, a volunteer at the shelter, tells us of the La 72 registration process “We ask where they came from, where they’re going, why they left their countries. With this we learn some statistics about the reality of living in their country, and it helps us detect if any of them experienced assault or extortion in Mexico.”
Aside from helping to identify unidentified bodies (officially labelled NN, or ningún nombre: no name) reconnect those looking for missing loved ones, this registration serves to give more accurate information about why people are fleeing their countries and what harms they are facing in Mexico. It is all a work in progress. Carla tells us about a man that forced the shelter to take some new measures of precaution. Alcohol has never been allowed on the premises of La 72, but now it is very clear that drinking elsewhere and coming in drunk is not acceptable. Last year, a man who had been staying at La 72 for months, constantly drunk, was serving as a bad influence in the shelter, so he was told to leave. Ten minutes later, Carla was called to go identify his body. The death was fresh, so she easily recognized him, but her data from his registration months earlier confirmed his identity and helped them repatriate him to Honduras. “Following that, the first thing is that we deliver any drunks that enter the shelter to the police so that they can be held for 24 hours.” Aside from this restriction, migrants at La 72 have the freedom to leave the shelter as they please during the day, and many take on jobs and work to make whatever money they can to get them to their next destination.
These migrants will not go out with a silent shout, but with life. “My life is worth more than a thousand dollars,” states Adi. “My mission is something else.”
Forensics and the Border Project
La 72 is one way that life may be prioritized and nurtured in the face of death and violence, but there are many routes to life from death. As Jacques Derrida writes, “’displaced persons,’ exiles, those who are deported, expelled, rootless, nomads, all share two sources of sighs, two nostalgias: their dead ones and their language.” Forensic anthropology and the repatriation of remains is another area of interest in this section, serving as an alternate way that the fatal violence wrought upon migrants may possibly be repaired or that the operatives of this violence and death may be brought to justice. At the same time, as Adam Rosenblatt states in his Digging for the Disappeared, it is important to remember that the work of forensics is inevitably lacking in the face of mass murders and ongoing violence. No amount of forensics work can undo the violence that was and is done:
Forensic experts’ capacity to “repair” the irreparable is limited, as is their ability to restore human rights to those whose rights were so thoroughly violated. Despite—or perhaps because of—these limitations, their work at mass graves is an act of science and humanism, an acknowledgment of the boundless grief and love felt by the living. It is also, and equally importantly, a promise to the dead.
However, in spite of the limitations of the field, many forensic scientists and groups have tried to mobilize forensic techniques in the service of justice or of healing. As Rosenblatt explains, this forensics of caring “aims to restore the dead body’s own integrity, and its place within the social and material world from which it was violently torn. It seeks, in every touch, examination, and technical practice to which the dead body is subjected, to respond to, reverse, and/or repair the violence suffered” even as it seeks to aid the more formal, legal process of reparations. Though Rosenblatt’s theorization is recent, forensic work has been involved in this form of caring for many years. In Argentina, almost three decades before the 2010 San Fernando Massacre, human rights organizations, including Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, conducted a concerted, interdisciplinary effort to identify individuals disappeared during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and ’80s. In this spirit, in 1984, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) first assembled, developing and employing forensic techniques to document and investigate human rights violations. As a pioneer of scientific human rights investigation methods, the EAAF has employed its systems to identify bodies in human catastrophes and massacres worldwide, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina and South Africa. In 2001, the EAAF began operations in Mexico. Over the course of their projects on femicide and missing persons in the north of Mexico, the EAAF personnel noted the need for a transborder effort to identify disappeared individuals who entered Mexico through Central America. As a consummation of these conclusions, the EAAF, alongside the migrant advocacy group Voces Mesoamericanas, developed the Border Project.
The Border Project is a regional effort to identify and locate missing migrants, whether they are alive or dead. By creating a regional DNA database, it attempts to connect the disappeared with their loved ones and to identify human rights violations. In the process, the Border Project reiterates the perils of migration and the shared responsibility of various actors for the political and human disaster at hand. More importantly, it offers valuable insight into the conditions of migrants. With death always on the horizon, a migrant exists in the tension between the struggle to live and the inevitable threat of death. By shedding light on those who have been disappeared, the Border Project aims to be a way of repairing some of the damage, recognizing the victims and their rights, and connecting families to their disappeared. In Rosenblatt’s words, it engages in the forensic work of “[recovering] bodies that have been treated as trash, and [making] them precious again”
La 72 and the Border Project developed in response to a lack of efficient systems in place to counter the dangers of migration. These nongovernmental efforts point to the absence of state funding and endeavours geared towards the migrant issue. Acting along similar lines and with similar goals, La 72 and the Border Project are concerted efforts that act as engines, or machines, countering the fatalistic nature of migration and the complicity of political actors in the violence involved in migrating. While the Border Project attempts to bridge the gap between the disappeared and their previous identities, La 72 aims to invigorate the living. At opposite poles, both are a cheer for life in the midst of death. Working around the lack of effective state actions, La 72 and the Border Project orchestrate and usher in new lenses to study and alter this human disaster.
Resisting Death: Tenosique and the Production of Life
We are a vegetation of blood we are flowers of meat that drips blood we are the newly-pruned death that blooms deaths and more deaths to make an immense garden of death.
Indigenous philosophy across the Americas is concerned with death as a social, spiritual, and economic phenomenon that transcends latitude, space, and time. In numerous codices, legal contracts, oral stories, and journals dating to precolonial and colonial Mesoamerica, death is continuously theorized by metaphysical transactions in which death is brought back to life through memory and ritual. Unlike in Christianity, ultraterrestrial destination is not conditioned by ethical behavior, but functions according to the circumstances of one’s death. Tlaxcalteca poets resisted the argument that life is bounded to its material physicality, arguing that the living must be bound to the dead since these two are affected by the destination of death across the underworlds and vice versa. Death, according to the Tlaxcalteca and other native Nahua philosophers, always affects the materiality and behavior of the living. Remembering the dead reconstructs how we value the living. Mourning the dead, particularly in times of violence, is intrinsically related to how life is produced and protected by those living but threatened by death.
Mesoamerican indigenous literature and thought has been concerned with the relation between life and death for many centuries, particularly the ways that death can affect the material conditions of the living. Rather than tracing migrant securitization and death through theories of capital accumulation or biopolitics, we want to argue that La 72 reproduces Mesoamerican ideologies about death, remembering the migrants that have perished in the past in a manner that allows for the production of life. The dead are brought back to life not only through the symbolic memorialization of their life, but also by the repeated reframing of their deaths as a possibility for life. As Fray Tomás asserted in his interview with us, the main goal of La 72, regardless of ideologies or specific ethical issues, is “to defend life.” He states: “we are above the official morality of the [Catholic] Church. Here, we defend life. That this our morality.”
La 72 is conceived of as a migrant shelter with the intention of reproducing life not only by providing food, shelter, and legal support, but also, most importantly, by creating possibilities to humanize migrants, to ensure that they know that their life is valuable, and that for that reason they have dignity and rights:
If they come defeated, hunched, frustrated, with their feet destroyed, with headaches, the women raped, the men kidnapped and tortured, the people that form of our sexual diversity humiliated, the children outraged, trafficked… Everyone here reconstructs ourselves, and we go out with our head high. If the migration patrols get us again, we are not going to bow our heads to any authority.
As Fray Tomás acknowledges, migrants are ruptured and exploited by state violence via Plan Frontera Sur, organized crime, and clandestine exploitation; part of recreating and reconstructing life at La 72 is bound to recognizing that migrants should not feel ashamed or stay silent against the violence that surrounds them. Caring for the migrant in life requires an understanding of the precarious situation of migrant death. Organizing shelters and migrants through a discourse that empowers and humanizes their lives is a reminder that death is no longer a possibility. La 72 is a space where life is produced by ensuring basic needs are met and rights are advanced and strengthened.
Another group that counteracts the perilous situation of death near the southern border is the Border Project. In a currently-unpublished interview with Mercedes Doretti, she states that one of the main goals of the EAAF is to “identify a set of remains… linking those remains… to a whole life.” In a sense, as Rosenblatt discusses, bringing remains to life, or to a life, is a way of caring for the dead, allowing them to be connected with social networks. Forensic work allows for the remains of the NN to be brought back to a social context, ceasing to be unknown. As Doretti states: “it becomes part of life a historical moment, a particular crime that was frozen until that moment of identification.” The work of the EAAF brings and connects the physical remains of the dead into life. Similar to the theorization of “remembering the dead” in Mesoamerican thought, the dead, in this case the remains of the dead, are bound to life by connecting those remains with living persons such as their families; further, forensic recovery allows for crimes resulting in migrant death to be contextualized and understood as crimes that can and should be investigated.
La 72 and the EAAF are only two examples of the work that activists, academics, and scientists are developing to remember death and to bring death back to life. L 72 remembers death and uses it as a possibility for life by opening its doors to migrants currently undergoing unprecedented violence. The EAAF reconnects the remains of the mutilated dead to families, friends, and the state in order to bring them back to life. While these two work differently to produce life from the memories and remains of the dead, they do similar work in producing life, against all odds, for the thousands of migrants making their way north.
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