By Paolo Moiola
Each year thousands of Central American migrants try to cross into Mexico to reach the northern border and enter illegally into the United States. This is a tiring and very dangerous trek because of drug traffickers and local authorities. Very few of them reach that point. Most of them turn back or settle on the way, withstanding violence and abuse, and putting their own lives at risk.
Within this context enters the work of Father Alejandro Solalinde, a 72 year-old Mexican priest, founder of the Migrants´ Shelter “Hermanos en el Camino” (Brothers in the Road), which takes in migrants in Ixtepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Paolo Moiola, Latinamerica Press collaborator, talked with Father Solalinde, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2017, who is living for years with armed security due to the death sentence ordered against him by drug traffickers, who make huge profits at the expense of the migrants.
Father Solalinde, how would you define yourself?
First of all, I would say that I am a Catholic missionary. I work in Ixtepec, in the state of Oaxaca, in the shelter-refuge for migrants. I started all this in 2005, when I asked the bishop to let me be the one to deal with them. It was not easy because it seemed as a waste that a priest would dedicate his time to the people in the street, the migrants. But in the end, I got the approval.
How many people does the shelter take in?
At the moment, the Migrants´ Shelter receives one-hundred people a day. These migrants stay for a couple of days or three at the most, and then continue on their way.
They mostly come from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. But also from Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela, even from Belize. Most of the time, they arrive only to try to make it across the border into the United States. According to statistics, 50 percent remain in Mexico, while 25 percent of them go back home; they give up.
And how many of them reach the end of the line, the American paradise?
According to the numbers, 25 percent of migrants achieve this goal and enter, even now with [President] Donald Trump. Those who control the border are not Mexico or the United States, but organized crime. If you pay or carry drugs, they manage to get you cross. There is no wall that can stop them, regardless of how sophisticated it could be.
In Europe most migrants are young men. What about here?
Here the majority are also young men. I estimate that they are about 80 percent of the total. But there are also children and women. I have seen very few older people; they have probably resigned themselves to stay in their homelands. The sick also stay back home. The young and healthy are those who travel.
What is a typical day like in the Ixtepec shelter?
No two days are the same, but one thing is always the same: each day is always very intense. Early in the morning — close to 5:30 am — I pray and read the Gospel of the day; I exercise; I wash and iron my clothes, if I want to be clean; no one has to do it for me.
Then I go down to the floor where the migrants are. In occasion I have breakfast with them after they have completed the cleaning of the place. I visit the different areas of the shelter to check on things: the carpentry area, the bakery, the farm, and the kitchen (an area that is always in need of a lot of work).
We also have a library and a computer room where the people can get in touch with their loved ones. There is an infirmary staffed by two doctors and two nurses. There are also five persons in charge of a psychological area. In short, we are like a small city.
When the migrants arrive at the shelter, how are they welcomed?
I cannot talk to all of them individually, so I call them all together, normally in the chapel. I call them after they have eaten, washed up and changed clothes.
The first thing I ask them is: “How was your trip here?” and then: “Raise your hand those who come from Honduras; those from Guatemala; those from El Salvador”; and so on. This helps me understand what kind of group it is. Then: “Raise your hand those who are Evangelical Christians”. To those who raise their hand I ask them to introduce their church by name, and we applaud for each church. This is a way to acknowledge that they are in the right path, and that we are brothers in faith.
I then do the same for Catholics. In the end I say: “Raise your hand those who claim no church or religion”. And also many of them raise their hand.
I then ask them if anything happened on the way. I ask them to tell me if they have already presented a complaint or not.
What complaints are you referring to?
The law says that if a migrant has been a victim of a crime, must have a humanitarian visa. The same is true for victims of persecution in their own countries, or if violence reigns in their countries.
Our registry office evaluates the legal status of each person who arrives. Even before the office evaluates their psychological and physical condition: if the person is in need of medical attention, is sent to the infirmary. If the person presents emotional problems because of what has gone through, is sent to see the group of psychologists.
Besides you, how many more people run the shelter?
We have a team of eight permanent staff. But we do receive help from numerous volunteers who come from all over the world. Even from China and Australia. And there are many people who come from Europe.
When and why did the drug cartels started to show interest in the migrants?
It all started with [ex-President] Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) who waged a senseless war — a lost war — against drug trafficking [that left 60,000 deaths and 26,000 disappeared during his term, according to official and independent figures]. This war provoked the crumbling of some drug cartels and the pillaging from others, among them the Zetas cartel.
These last ones were left without liquidity to pay for the drugs. The drugs cannot be paid on credit: they are paid immediately. So, the Zetas thought in obtaining money from the migrants. They knew that the migrants do not have anything on them, but they have friends and relatives living in the United States. So, they started to kidnap them and to ask for ransom. In a few short months they were able to extract millions of dollars.
Besides the ransom, they also realized that they could get more from the migrants: from prostitution, labor exploitation, and organ trafficking.
How many cartels are involved?
Mainly the Zetas and in a smaller scale the Golfo cartel; we do not know about the rest, but they certainly do not traffic with migrants in a systematic manner.
And what are the Mexican authorities doing about it?
They are part of the business, of course! Immigration agents, the police, politicians at all levels are accomplices, especially in the case of the migrants. They know that they are an easy and large source of money.
I usually define my government as a “narcokleptocracy”. The drug traffickers have infiltrated all the Mexican institutions. It is unusual to find — and I have never met one — a politician or government official that does not steal.
In the Mediterranean we find the junk ships or inflatable rafts; in Mexico we have La Bestia (The Beast).
They started calling it The Beast because it is a cargo train and it was not designed to transport people. So the migrants travel on top of it or in the tight space between the cars for 12, 13 or 14 hours.
Many accidents can happen, especially if the people fall asleep, or when organized crime members come on board who throw them off the train if they do not pay.
The train departs from the South, from Chiapas, one hour from Guatemala. It branches in different ways and it can reach Mexicali or Ciudad Juárez, at the border with the United States.
Do you also visit the (supposedly) American paradise?
Yes, I travel to the United States four or five times a year to meet with groups of migrants, to see how they are faring or what it is that we can do for their rights. There are over 34 million Mexicans living there legally. And there are 6 million Mexicans who are undocumented (of a total of 11 million undocumented people, this according to the Pew Research Center).
They all send money to Mexico. The latest figure  mentions some US$27 billion a year. This is why I say that, after drug trafficking, remittances are the main source of money for the country.
Europe is debating on whether migrants should be welcomed or rejected. Do you consider that there is a right to emigrate?
I believe that there is a right not to migrate when all the fair living conditions are in place in their countries of origin. However, the capitalist system has destroyed the living conditions in the native countries of the migrants: due to the violence, the lack of jobs, and the nonexistence of development opportunities for young people.
The migratory movements have always existed. But this is the first time in the history of humanity that migration takes place from South to North. It has historically been the opposite: North to South.
All over the world, migration and migrants are the problem of the century. What can be done?
We agree in that this is a structural problem, I mean, it stems from the liberal-capitalist system, so the only solution is to change the model. It is evident that we cannot continue like this.
We cannot have 99 percent of the world population living from the crumbs dropped by 1 percent of the population.