Nataniel Hernández is an activist and a lawyer at the Digna Ochoa Human Rights Centre, in the Chiapas region on Mexico’s southern border. He comes from a family of activists, and up to the age of ten Hernández’s experiences were those of any child from Chiapas. But a harassment campaign against his father forced them to move and take extreme precautionary measures. It was then that he says that he lost boyhood, and he could not afford to have close friendships, however it was also when he clearly understood the situation in his region. «After witnessing so many abuses and over-reactions committed by the Mexican state, I decided to study in order to become a lawyer», he remembers. In 2005, he began his work at the Digna Ochoa Human Rights Centre, specialising in the legal consolidation process, with the aim of financing training for the integration of youth groups.
His documented research into corruption, investigations into megaprojects and raising awareness against the violent gangs that benefit from enjoy institutional collusion in Chiapas, have meant that Hernández has been repeatedly threatened. The first time was in 2012. He is once again, he says, the target of a public campaign to discredit him in a country in which the murders of journalists and activists go unpunished, and end up as unresolved cases, filed away in police archives. «Our profession is noble and worthy, it strengthens processes of change and transforms situations, but it takes place in a scenario of aggression, of threats and obstacles and under campaigns of smears and accusations.” As a defenceless figure, Hernández expects little from the state, and endorses the strategy of regrouping in local communities.
The ideals of the EZLN have filtered through in some parts of society in this generous region, with its pastureland for livestock, fish for fisherman, and with a land that provides watermelons, melons, coffee, cocoa and mangoes. The local community is leading the change, especially when faced with the malfunctioning state, as was seen in late 2018, when the first migrant caravan from Central America began its journey and Chiapas was the first stop on the route. New needs arose, and activists from the Digna Ochoa Human Rights Centre redefined their priorities; they began to help these diverse groups who were fleeing from violence, a lack of opportunities and discrimination. Four years later, without abandoning their original aims, they still attend to those who cross Chiapas on their way to the United States.
In October 2018, in San Pedro Sula, at least a thousand people began their walk northwards, destined for the United States, fleeing violence and lack of opportunities in Honduras. Children, women, the elderly and young people began a group journey that was soon to be emulated by other disadvantaged communities from Central America, South America and the Caribbean islands; it would become known as “migrant caravan”. These people, are the symbol of an unresolved problem, and they continue their roles in an odyssey of thousands of kilometres in which they cross borders, avoid mafias and, in Mexico, which is the longest stretch of the route, await a chance that will allow them to enter into the U.S.A.
In times of ever-increasing global instability, it is unlikely that these caravans will halt, especially because as the current situation in their countries of origin is a desperate one: The populist, authoritarian figure of Nayib Bukele, who experiments with Bitcoins presides over El Salvador. In Nicaragua, the government imprisons opponents and clamps down on social uprisings, while in Venezuela and Haiti, political and economic instability has suffocated the population for too long. As a result, migrant flows continues to rise: in Mexico, the number of requests for asylum in 2021 reached 130,000, almost twice that of 2019 and more than one hundred times the 2013 figure.
In a world in which intolerance towards migrants is increasing, governments have a propensity to implement measures that restrict their rights. In Mexico, at the beginning of 2019, the recently elected president Andrés Manuel López Obrador welcomed migrants with open arms, and facilitated their journeys to the border with the U.S.A. However, his policy was soon to change. In June, faced with Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexican products, the Mexican government gave its support to the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” protocols. As a result, the northern border of Mexico became a place where tens of thousands of migrants now have to wait while their legal situation with respect to entry to the U.S. is regulated. At the same time, the Mexican government militarized their southern border with Guatemala, and as a result, it hindered the advance of the caravans. Now, having passed the critical stage of the coronavirus pandemic, migrants are denied asylum: in 2021, Mexico rejected over half the 26,000 asylum requests from Haitians who the U.S.A. had previously denied entry to.
“Both the American and the Mexican authorities have violated their obligation [derivada de les seves pròpies legislacions i del dret internacional] to protect the human rights of children asylum seekers. They have violated their rights; firstly, by denying them access to asylum procedures and by having expelled them illegally to the border, and secondly, by returning them in a precipitous manner to their countries of origin, without having adequately evaluated the possible dangers they were exposing them to”. These are the considerations of Amnesty International in the report ‘pushed to danger’, on the forced returns of unaccompanied migrant children, the weakest link in the caravans. «During the first year of this disastrous and discriminatory policy [de març de 2020 a març de 2021], the Trump and Biden governments have illegally expelled over half a million migrant people and asylum seekers, including the 13,000 or so unaccompanied children who were expelled by the Trump government», it adds.
Despite initial expectations, the arrival of Joe Biden at the White House has not altered U.S. migration policy. The decision of a local court forced him to reverse his intention to eliminate the Migrant Protection Protocols, and pressed him to renegotiate with Mexico. Furthermore, using the excuse of the Coronavirus crisis, he denied entry to migrants on the basis of the controversial public health regulation Title 42.. The result is, that in the world beyond political proclamations, migrants are still returned to the violent northern border of Mexico. And it is here where their tortuous journey begins. Those who are desperate attempt to cross the border illegally, while those who acquiesce search for a temporary existence in the land of the Aztecs.
Local organizations are helping the migrant caravans. What does the work of the Digna Ochoa Human Rights Centre involve?
We are focused on the fight against violence and concentration of land ownership [according to the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre, between 2010 and 2021 the number of migrants in Chiapas exceeded 14,000], but being an area of transit for the migrant caravan, we reach agreements to help with the monitoring of migrants during the 146-kilometre journey from Mapastepec to Arriaga. We also carry out humanitarian actions: we have formed brigades that deliver water and food. This is possible thanks to communities, who empathise with the situation of the migrants in the face non-committal stance of the Mexican government.
The fact that migrants are trying to reach the U.S. is nothing new, although what is certain is that they are now travelling in large, mixed groups.
Lately people from Central America, Haiti and Cuba and African countries are coming; families and entire communities whose basic conditions for survival, or access to water or food are not guaranteed, they are fleeing from violence and exploitation. This is the bulk of those on the migratory route, and those on it are also maligned. They are reputed to be gang members and criminals, but behind every migrant there’s a tough tale. A similar situation similar is that of Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz, with the infiltration of organized crime together with a lack of opportunities and poor living conditions. This explains why entire communities arrive in the caravans, the young, the elderly, women, people who are looking for the way to reach the U.S. and start a new life.
What are the fears of these migrants when they arrive in Chiapas?
There is a general fear of being detained. But it’s not just the detention itself, it’s also the way that the migratory authorities act, in this case the army, navy and the national guard. There are many cases of human rights violations: I am talking about torture, aggressions, their belongings are taken from them, women are sexually abused. In most cases, the arrests are arbitrary, and migratory laws are improperly applied. Migrants are brought to detention centres where they might have to stay for days or weeks without being able to contact either relatives or institutions. These are extremes that have converted detention into a tortuous experience. Meanwhile, organized criminal organisations [that have infiltrated these government bodies] are forcing women and girls into sexual exploitation networks.
In October 2021, the National Guard killed two Cubans who were travelling with a group of migrants in Pijijiapan, Chiapas. Yet by way of contrast recent information talks about migrants camping in the centre of a square in the same city. What’s the explanation behind these two facts?
Those looking for another way to reach the north and move away from the bulk of the migrant caravan are vulnerable to suffering an attack or being chased, such as what occurred with the two Cuban migrants. They can travel faster, but the risk is higher. The National Guard does not have orders to shoot, just to check through documentation and make arrests. The Cuban group had no weapons, but the National Guard justified their actions by saying that they were in a trafficker’s car. It is absurd.
Since 2019, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has militarised national borders. What are the effects of this decision?
No sustainable aid model exists in this humanitarian crisis, the only aim is to contain the flow of migrants to North America. Continuing the militarization of the country has been a bad strategy, especially on the southern border, where power has been handed over to the National Guard in those hot areas, and where organized crime supposedly takes place. The government militarization policy is out of place, as police abuses continue, as do the movements of people. What now happens is that they are placed in strategic areas of Chiapas where there are Zapatistas, where megaproject development is planned. This militarization does not follow a strategy that aims to combat criminal groups in the area, it rather serves the interests of big money for megaprojects in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Guerrero and Puebla.
Did you expect this from the Left López Obrador?
Speaking for ourselves we did not have high hopes. The political party has changed, but the model is the same. There were people who hoped for a substantial change with López Obrador, but we have seen the [polítics] of PRI and PAN party politicians in the new government. No one is going to change the situation from on high, however there is hope for a transformation if people resist in villages and towns.
Do you trust in a change in U.S. migration policy?
Migrants keep the economy alive around the world, but unfortunately, I do not think that fact changes anything. Given that this is a global cause, we need to create a global movement that demands the recognition of migrant rights, which are currently rendered invisible; migrants are subject to violence, exploitation and disdain.
In Mexico, human rights defenders and journalists are under constant threat. In 2019 they assassinated Sinar Corzo, an activist who was a friend of yours. How can we defend society when governments do not respond?
To reduce violence, because official protection does not work, we need to develop mechanisms that work outside of institutional logic. The number of murders of journalists and activists is rising because the Mexican government criticizes them. The murder of my colleague Sinar Corzo, a defender of human rights in Arriaga, is just one more from a long list of unpunished crimes in which no investigation or punishment takes place for those who commit these atrocities. Last year, a group controlled by the local government wanted to shoot me. The problem is that nothing happens; there is no justice. Yet the system regularly imprisons activists, as with my colleague Kenya Hernández, who has nine criminal proceedings filed against her for supposedly attacking public communication channels.