By Amelia Frank-Vitale and Arelí Palomo Contreras
Mariela was jostled violently as the train moved forward. She was sitting atop a rusty wagon, with few places to get a good grip. A small, brown-skinned young woman in her early twenties, Mariela looked as though her hair was dyed long ago and its color is now a kind of burnt black-red. She has a big smile and sparkling eyes. On top of the train, in the middle of the night, Mariela was exhausted, having only slept a few hours in the last three days. The rhythmic motion of the train was hypnotic, adding to the fatigue that almost overwhelmed her. I have to stay awake. If I fall asleep, I’m dead.
For many migrants like Mariela from Central America, traveling on top of freight trains to try to make it to the United States, staying awake is the last line of defense. People who fall asleep are more liable to fall off the moving train and get sliced to pieces by the blade-like steel wheels. Migrant advocates have a saying: if the train gets a piece of you, it wants to eat the rest of you. Though it isn’t death itself that necessarily frightens migrants. For many of them, the fear of losing an arm or a leg is what keeps them awake on the train. This would mean not just failing to cross the border, but it would be the end of all chances to succeed. All of this was in Mariela’s thoughts as she arrived, her sparkling, tired eyes kept open only by inertia, to Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz.
At two o’clock in the morning, along with another 25 migrants – 3 women and 22 men – she climbed down from the freight car as the train stopped near a dead-end street. She could hear cars driving across the bridge above. In spite of the weariness, everyone managed to make conversation, look around and laugh a bit about the journey. Laughter and camaraderie are some of the things that make this trip bearable.
Two young Central American men, one skinny and tall and the other short and pale, were already there when the train stopped. They started to talk with the forming groups of migrants. Everyone was nervous, waiting for the next train to come through, as this was the train that would take them northward to Tierra Blanca, Veracruz. The stories and myths about this next town were many, but they all contained the same basic information: Migrants were being kidnapped by men with guns and fancy trucks. People were taken into big deserted houses, placed deep in the mountains. By torturing the migrants, these men obtained the phone numbers of the migrants’ relatives in the United States. Then they made the migrants call their families and beg for the ransom money that would save their lives.
“…But we will help you, we know how to avoid them”, said Flaco, the nickname given to the skinny one. Mariela was smiling thankfully. They were Central Americans, like her. She could tell by their accents.
So far, I have met people willing to help me, point me in the right direction, or warn me about checkpoints. Maybe with their help, I can make it through Tierra Blanca and to the US border quickly.
The darkness of the night seemed to stop the course of time, but soon enough the next train arrived. All the migrants, including “Flaco” and “Shorty”, scrambled to the tops of the wagons and the engine screamed its departure. The train advanced slowly and suddenly it stopped. Two black trucks appeared with armed men inside them. Flaco and Shorty, clearly not surprised by this turn of events, climbed calmly down the wagon’s ladder, while the rest jumped down, running in panic as gunfire broke the early morning silence. Mariela stayed paralyzed as she watched those who tried to escape get shot.
It’s them. Los Zetas used to be a group of elite soldiers in the Mexican armed forces that deserted from the military and became the heavily armed “enforcement” wing of one of the country’s most powerful drug cartels, The Gulf Cartel. They were hired by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the cartel’s leader from 1998 until 2003, to protect, gain and control territories for drug trafficking through sophisticated tactical operations. In the few years since, Los Zetas have become the most violent and diversified of Mexico’s transnational organized crime groups.
In 2008, five years after Guillén’s detention, los Zetas broke their ties with the Gulf Cartel and became an independent group, battling the Gulf Cartel for control of Mexico’s eastern territory.They quickly became a powerful new entity, consolidating control of every illegal market within their territory, which ensured them economic stability. Whether it was calculation or luck, the brilliance of the Zeta Corporation, as they call themselves, was to diversify their business to include any illegal market where they could turn a profit. The Zetas operate like a business, motivated solely by the bottom line. They combine an indiscriminate use of brutal violence with a pure capitalist corporate structure, making them a powerful force within the unregulated markets of trafficking.
As shockingly violent as they have proved to be, los Zetas are a product of modern society; they occupy a space made for them by political corruption, decades of neoliberal economic reforms, and the resulting deterioration in social cohesion. They are not simply a transnational company of drug trafficking like the drug cartels. They are a well-structured organization of mercenaries that seeks to control and paralyze those social structures necessary to allow them to master illegal markets: the police corporations and the justice system. War against them is not a war
against drugs, it’s war against uncontained free-market violence. They are a reflection of our own system: pure unfettered capitalism where the capacity for violence has market value. To date, the drug war in Mexico has an official death toll of nearly 50,000.
The violence of los Zetas against migrants is now famous, after the discovery of 72 executed bodies in a ranch in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in August 2010.
This case became well known, but it was not anomalous. Los Zetas have capitalized on the flood of undocumented migrants making their way across Mexico. Mostly Central Americans, many of the migrants cross Mexico by riding on top of a series of freight trains. The tracks pass through remote, Zeta-controlled areas, leaving little possibility for migrants to escape when los Zetas decide to stop a train. Other times they simply round them up when the train stops in the train yard; their power in the territories they control is so absolute that they fear little recrimination should someone notice the mass kidnappings. They hold migrants for months in their ironically termed casa de seguridad, or “security houses”, torturing them until they finally give up the phone numbers of relatives in the United States. They collect ransom money from these relatives, only after breaking the migrants, body and soul.
Mariela realized Chiqui and Flaco were standing in front of her. She didn’t remember when they appeared there. She had been watching the gunfire fixedly, memories of stories of los Zetas flashing through her mind while she saw her fellow migrants fall to the ground. Chiqui and Flaco picked her up and put her with the rest of the survivors. They counted them. Nineteen. How many had we been? Twenty five at least. What was her name? The Honduran girl, younger than me, we all just called her Morena. Someone should tell her family…
One of them, showing off a large gun, approached the group and told them, boldly, “don’t try to escape. You won’t be as lucky as your friends there”, pointing into the void of darkness where everyone knew the bodies lay. Someone might find the bodies of the two women and four men killed that night, but no one would claim them or recognize them, they were all unknown immigrants, shadows of another place.
At gunpoint, the men ushered the migrants back onto the train. During the whole trip, Mariela couldn’t tell how long they traveled; Chiqui and Flaco never took their eyes off her. Eventually they arrived at a small crowded town, one of the many that have seen corruption grow within its population, houses and streets. In Mexico, corruption has been one of the essential components of the endurance of the political system and drug trafficking.
A cattle truck was waiting for them in this town, and the kidnappers forced everyone to pack inside. After half an hour they arrived at a big, white house. It had no doors or windows, but a fortified fence at the entrance. Entering with her group of migrants, Mariela realized there were already more than a hundred people there. Most of them were sitting on the floor with their heads down, others were being interrogated, getting beaten, or making uneasy phone calls.
Mariela didn’t fully understand what was happening. She followed the others through the house, terrified by the bloody faces, the scared, weeping voices speaking on cell phones, and the prayers and screams. Then, all of a sudden, she heard nothing. As she collapsed to the floor, she barely managed to break her fall. She grabbed her right ear, ablaze with pain, hearing nothing but a long beep. She turned up slowly and saw Chiqui’s face. He was saying something, screaming at her like a mad dog, but she couldn’t hear. Flaco pulled her up, as she started to regain hearing.
“Mind your own business, you fucking whore, or I’m gonna rip off your ear the next time!” Flaco dragged her down a corridor, everybody looked at her as she passed. She was still dizzy from the hit, and she could barely keep her balance. Where am I?
Finally, they stopped outside an empty, dirty room. Flaco tossed her to the floor and left. The pounding in her ear was all she could focus on, and then Chiqui was there again, barking like a dog.
“We want the phone numbers of your family members in the United States!”
Mariela gave them a false phone number. For a while nobody answered, as both Chiqui and Flaco tried to reach Mariela’s family. After three days, a woman answered, and she said she didn’t know Mariela, but she managed to fool them, telling them that she probably didn’t remember her very well because she wasn’t direct family. This lasted almost a week. Meanwhile, they ate once a day, their hands were tied, and they could stand only to go to the bathroom. Each day that passed, Mariela invented something that kept Chiqui and Flaco believing that they were dialing the right number. Mariela knew they would find out sooner or later, but she couldn’t let herself think about what might happen then. I’ll kill myself before I let them rape me. But how?
Flaco stepped into the room with some food; he threw it to the others, looked at Mariela, grabbed her, and dragged her to an empty room. Her worst fears were coming true. They knew. She could handle the beating, but she didn’t know if she could endure being raped. When Flaco was done with her, Chiqui came in and took his turn.
“We are going to take you to Reynosa to meet the boss. There you will give us those numbers”.
Mariela woke up because of the pain. Slowly she opened her eyes, she saw the others getting up, scared but moving. What were they doing? A sharp pain pierced her leg, it reminded her of the pain in her ear and the many bruises she now had. She moaned just a bit but was too tired to move. They had been there more than a week, with almost no food or water, confined in that room, sweating all day and night because of the unbearable heat.
She felt a hand pulling her hair.
“Move, you fucking whore, move!” said the now-familiar barking voice. Chiqui pushed her outside. After a week indoors, the sunlight was blinding. Flaco and six armed men pushed her group back into that cattle truck.
The cattle truck went fast. Sometimes it pulled over to the side of the road for 15 or 30 minutes, while the driver waited for his partner to see if the road was free from military checkpoints or to pay off any authority checking the road. Sometimes, while they waited, Chiqui and Flaco seized the moment to rape Mariela again, in plain sight of everyone else. It took two days get to their destination: Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Mariela vaguely remembered something about a boss.
By the middle of the year 2009, mass migrant kidnappings were already a national concern. The statements of victims declaring that immigration officers, federal and local police agents were accomplices of los Zetas were rising in number. The federal government mostly denied it all, like any dependent addict. Corruption is like a drug, it makes you feel invincible just when you are about to crumble. Despite the accusations made about the federal police and its connections with los Zetas, in the name of the “drug war” these same police forces were getting brand-new, powerful weapons, high-tech vehicles, and special training to fight against organized crime.
Especially troubling to human rights organizations was the deal struck between Mexico, The United States, and Central America in 2008, the Merida Initiative. According to the March 2011 Mérida Initiative factsheet from the US Department of State, this agreement provides 1.5 billion dollars to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to fight the war on drugs in Mexico and Central America. It provides training and equipment to the Mexican armed forces to conduct counternarcotics operations.
Technically the Merida Initiative does not give weapons or cash directly to Mexico. Rather, it provides funds to buy helicopters, planes, and other high-tech military equipment from private US defense contractors. It also funds US security firms to train police forces and the Mexican military. There have been widespread and well-documented reports that this training includes the controversial “enhanced interrogation techniques” developed for the “War on Terror”.
Human rights violations by the army and police forces have more than doubled since the launch of the drug war. Many of these incidents are things like illegal searches, but the allegations also include rape and torture at the hands of authorities. This is not surprising when the police forces are so heavily linked to the organized crime groups against whom they are supposed to be fighting. A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch details the human rights abuses committed by the Mexican government in the name of fighting organized crime.
While the Merida Initiative does not officially provide arms to this conflict, most of the weaponry used by all parties in the drug war can be traced back to the US, whether obtained illegally or legally. In fact, according to the US Congressional report “Halting US Firearms Trafficking to Mexico”, some 70% of firearms found at crime scenes in Mexico came from the US.
In Reynosa, Mariela and the others were taken to a big house with two floors. Things moved faster here than in the other house: there were guns everywhere, people coming and going, cell phones ringing, the particular sound of the radios from the top floor. Mariela and the rest of the group were taken to a room where they were photographed, and a woman named Marleny wrote down their names. There were also two big televisions, announcing news from all over the country and the United States, and three fat guys who watched their every move.
There were women who had bandages on their hands; some of them were crying, others were silent, their eyes betraying that they were gone, absent.
“They cut their fingers off because they didn’t want to give the phone numbers”, said Marleny, with a familiar accent.
Mariela glared at her, her pain turning to rage, built up from all the beatings, the screams, the useless begging to God and then to merciless men … that accent … she is from Honduras like me… how dare she!
“Traitor!” Mariela screamed as she lunged at Marleny. She hit her as hard as she could before the three fat men grabbed her and took her out of that room. They beat her so badly she lost consciousness. Later, when she could barely open her eyes, she recalls hearing Marleny say, “Rape that whore”.
She was too weak to realize what was happening. Some men took her to a room and then more men came and raped her. She doesn’t remember how many; she lost count.
It felt like needles in her face. It was ice-cold water. She woke up, she was still there, trapped in that house. She stood up, Chiqui was barking at her again. He took her up stairs to see Echevarria, the boss.
A tall, white, skinny man with an eagle-like nose appeared at the top of the stairs.
“So first you tried to fool us, and then you tried to beat up Marleny. You are going to give us those numbers or I’m going to cut your fingers off. You see, those women really didn’t have any numbers to give. They proved it with their fingers”.
Mariela’s heart was beating fast. She started to cry. She was lost. She was broken. She gave her sister’s number.
“I’m sorry Yesenia…” she said, when her sister answered the phone.
“They got me you know…” she sobbed. Chiqui took the phone away. That would be the last time she would speak with her sister for a long time. They demanded $5000 for her. It doesn’t matter if she pays; they will never let me go.
Three days after that phone call Yesenia paid, but, once again, Mariela’s fears were warranted. They did not let her go. Mariela couldn’t remember the last time she took a shower. It could have been months.
She had lice and painful, itchy sores on her body. She decided to die, the only way she could think of. She stopped eating.
A guy from the kitchen, another man called Flaco, tried to help her. Even dirty and broken, Mariela was a beautiful woman, and perhaps because of this Flaco took pity on her.
“I’m going to help you, but you have to be able to stand up. So you have to eat”. So she did. Maybe he wanted something from her too, but she would do anything to escape this hell.
The sunset was the sign for the group gathered at the shore of the Río Bravo, that they would soon cross the border and into the desert. Mariela watched the coyote talking with the Zeta lookouts guarding the river. In all the stories she’d heard about them, she remembered someone saying, “Nobody crosses the border here without their permission, every person must be reported and the fare paid”.
“You are going with that group,” said Flaco.
She mingled with the group, crossed the river and walked for hours. She was thinking about her sister when the U.S. border patrol started to chase them. She tried to run, but she fell immediately. She was still too weak. After being apprehended, Mariela was hospitalized for seven months, slowly recovering physically from months of beatings, malnutrition, and inactivity. Once she was deemed well enough to be released, she was deported back to Honduras on March 3rd, 2010. She couldn’t quite calculate how long she had been held captive, but she knew it had been well over a year since she left.
The chatter in the bus fell silent as the Caravana participants realized they were entering Tierra Blanca. Unlike in the other cities the Caravana had passed through, there were no crowds of supporters waiting to greet the buses. There wasn’t a welcoming parish with a simple hot meal prepared for the tired travelers. There was pouring rain, a chill in the air, and a cold, damp gymnasium offering a concrete floor for people to sleep on.
Mariela was nervous. There was something powerful about hundreds of people, migrants, victims, their family members, and supporters, pulling into Tierra Blanca. But the hush that fell over the crowd came from a mix of awe and anxiousness. This was Zeta territory. The notoriety of the priests leading the Caravana and the gaggle of press following its every step had kept everyone safe until now, but Mariela knew that there are no guarantees with the Zetas.
Because of Tierra Blanca’s infamy for Zeta kidnappings, the meeting had to happen here. The special rapporteur for the rights of migrant workers and their families from the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, Felipe Gonzales, was coming to Mexico in July of 2011. He was invited in by the Mexican government, according to protocol, and his preliminary itinerary consisted of meeting with the now-famous Mexican priests who defend migrants and run shelters, heads of NGOs, and government representatives from various states. The many different organizations that make up the Caravana knew that this would not be sufficient to really understand the violence migrants face in Mexico. Gonzales had to come to Tierra Blanca and he had to hear from victims themselves. He had to hear from Mariela.
The Caravana Paso a Paso Hacia La Paz (Step by Step towards Peace) had a symbolic importance and a practical purpose. It combined public action, calling attention to the violence and injustice migrants face, with a private meeting, giving direct testimony to a representative of an important international organization. There had been marches and vigils in each city the Caravana passed through, making its way from Mexico’s southern border to Veracruz. In Tierra Blanca, though, the presence of the Caravana held more weight, bringing light to the very place where migrants travel in the shadows and the Zetas rely on the darkness to carry out their kidnappings.
For a few hours, the Caravana occupied the train tracks in Tierra Blanca, holding a press conference in the very place where migrants are kidnapped while officials look the other way. Then, those who had been victims of kidnapping or family members who had had loved-ones disappear while trying to make their way through Mexico had a private meeting with the Rapporteur. This meeting had to be strictly confidential. The organizers suspected that the Caravana had at least a few Zeta infiltrators.
As person after person described in detail to the Rapporteur the horrors suffered in Mexico, the Rapporteur and his team were sickened.
He heard a dozen testimonies, each more emotional than the last. Mothers described the heartbreak of losing their children who had left home to try and help the family financially. A young man broke down in tears as he recounted being kidnapped only a few months earlier in Tierra Blanca. Mariela shared her story.
Shell-shocked from the testimonies, the Rapporteur and his team thanked the organizers for bringing them to Tierra Blanca, for making them listen to these testimonies straight from the people who had lived them first hand.The Rapporteur has yes to issue its full report on its visit to Mexico, but its preliminary observations were released almost immediately, based largely on the testimony it heard from migrants like Mariela in Tierra Blanca.
Mariela was exhausted, depleted, but she spoke about a reality that for most people, even many migrants on top of a fright train, was unimaginable. She was proud of herself for telling the truth. Maybe if people know the truth, they will put a stop to this.
Before sunset could heighten the dangers of Tierra Blanca, the Caravana moved on, headed towards Mexico City to lobby the Mexican legislature for immigration reform, including demanding a temporary visa for the Caravana participants. For a day, at least, Tierra Blanca had not belonged to the Zetas.
Mariela is not this woman’s real name. Throughout this article we will use pseudonym.
This article was originally written in 2012.