SALTILLO, Mexico – Dozens of migrant shelters in Mexico have closed their doors or scaled back their operations in the past few weeks to contain the coronavirus devastation. This puts people at greater risk as migration from Central America to the US increases again.
Reuters spoke to those responsible for over 40 shelters that had sheltered thousands on a route where undocumented immigrants were often subjected to attacks, robberies and kidnappings – before the pandemic forced them to close or limit their capacities.
The closings are causing new headaches for migrants who have already finished reducing the southern routes of a Mexican freight train called “La Bestia” (The Beast), which has long helped them get north.
Fewer shelters mean less safe places for Central Americans to hide, even as many have traveled hundreds more kilometers than before, over a dozen migrants told Reuters.
When the main shelter in the northern city of Saltillo, a busy base on the road to Texas, closed before Christmas because of a COVID-19 outbreak that killed the founder, dozens of migrants were forced to camp outside on the sidewalk.
Concerned about the prospect of gangsters who are often the victims of migrants in the city, a major transit point for violent drug gangs, they organized their own night patrol.
“At night, suspicious cars park nearby or go around the area with two or three men,” said 27-year-old Honduran migrant Michael Castaneda, who helped organize the guard. “We know the gangs are watching us and they know we are watching them.”
A network of privately funded shelters provides food, legal and medical assistance to tens of thousands of migrants crossing Mexico each year. They are run by non-governmental or religious organizations and are subject to government regulations, including health laws, that have forced some to end the pandemic.
Castaneda plans to reach the United States to work and send money back to his parents and three younger siblings to rebuild their family home, which was hit by two devastating hurricanes that struck Central America in November.
But his journey through Mexico has been slow, he said after injuring his leg en route and unable to access medical care or rest properly due to closed shelters.
Estimates vary in terms of the number of accommodations. In a 2020 study by the BBVA Bancomer bank, however, 96 accommodations, rest houses and canteens were identified for migrants on Mexico’s most important migration routes.
The increasing risks that Castaneda and other migrants face could complicate the Mexican US. Efforts to improve their lot under the new US President Joe Biden, who has pledged to pursue more humane policies than incumbent Donald Trump.
Biden’s inauguration on January 20 and the two hurricanes have already encouraged some Central Americans to head north. Social media chats by migrants say that on January 15th a large caravan with a migrant background is organizing to leave Honduras.
The number of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans caught trying to cross the US border more than tripled between July and November, official US data shows.
In the southern city of Tenosique, a meeting place for migrants coming to Mexico from Guatemala, an influential animal shelter called “The 72” had to close its doors to newcomers in late November after a coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s a shame not to let people into the shelter because that’s what we’re here for, especially at such a difficult moment,” said director Fray Gabriel Romero.
Before starting to turn away migrants, Romero said he had taken in Central Americans who lost their homes and livelihoods to Hurricanes Eta and Iota in November. Even now, dozens of migrants arrive every day, he says.
In Saltillo, concerned residents shared hotplates of tamales with migrants on Christmas Eve, and the city has improvised to deal with the loss of housing.
Long-time resident Glenda Troches, a Honduran woman, has opened her modest wooden house to migrants. She is well aware of the dangers she faces after being abducted by a gang herself.
Troches offers refuge to compatriots like Sara Servellon, a 32-year-old who left Honduras with her husband for the United States as Eta got closer.
By then, gang violence, lack of work and the pandemic had convinced them they had no future in Honduras, Servellon said.
Even so, she was so tired from the hike through southern Mexico that she first fell in the face and passed out while trying to climb aboard the “La Bestia” on the way to Saltillo, she remembered.
“I was so weak,” she said.
However, they quickly moved on.
Before reaching Troches’ makeshift refuge for migrants, Servellon said she had not slept safely in an animal shelter since the southern town of Palenque, more than 1,000 miles away.
“We had practically walked all over Mexico,” she said, “and we hadn’t eaten day or night.”