The road to Sasabe


Earlier this month seven Twin Cities members of Witness for Peace drove from Minnesota to Mexico, visiting towns on both sides of the border, meeting and speaking with a wide variety of people, and finally meeting up with the Border Trail Walk for the final leg of their 75-mile journey from Sásabe to Tucson. What follows are dispatches from that trip.

Sásabe is a dusty border town, with 50 people living on the U.S. side and a few thousand living on the Mexico side. Thousands of immigrants travel the road to Sásabe each week, mostly headed for unofficial, uninspected desert crossings. The stories they carry on that dusty road show the inescapable connection between globalization and immigration.

The road to Sásabe begins in Washington, D.C. and in Mexico City, where powerful corporate interests command legislation that bankrupts small business owners in Veracruz and subsistence farmers in Chiapas, driving them north to serve as cheap labor in fields and factories.

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, took effect in 1994, and has built corporate profits, while depressing Mexican wages and driving more than a million small farmers off their land. Corn farmers were devastated as cheaper U.S. corn flooded Mexican markets, beginning in the 1990s. Their U.S. competition comes mostly from large farming operations, which receive the lion’s share of U.S. farm subsidies, to the detriment of small farmers in the United States as well as those in Mexico.

After NAFTA, the Mexican government also ended the CONASUPO program, which had provided marketing assistance and support to small corn growers. (Cuts to CONASUPO had begun in 1988, even before NAFTA, as part of neo-liberal economic restructuring.) Now small Mexican farmers have no way to compete with large U.S. grain companies, such as Cargill or ADM. At the same time, government subsidies that had kept down the price of corn tortillas ended. Between 1997 and 2002, the price of corn tortillas, a staple food in Mexico, more than doubled.

Farmers in the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca were hit hardest by NAFTA, with millions of people forced off their land to seek work somewhere else in – or outside – the country. René and Mauricio are two of those migrants. They left Chiapas in May, in a search for jobs that is now taking them to the United States. On June 1, at a migrant shelter in Altar, about sixty miles from the border, they stayed up late to talk with a group of Minnesota visitors.

“I worked in a cattle ranch and earned about 400 pesos ($36.00) per week,” Mauricio told us. “Then last October it rained a lot. My boss lived next to a river. The ranch was flooded, killing cattle and chickens and everything. I lost my job. The flood wiped out the mangoes, too. My boss was ruined.

“I started working at another job. Then I came up here with my friend. I worked to harvest calabazas (squash) up here for a couple of weeks – they weren’t paying much. I went to Guaymas, Sonora, and they weren’t paying much either.”

“I’m not married – I just support my mother and a nephew. I’m her only son and she wants me to go back to Chiapas. I say “I’ve come this far. I’m not going back to Chiapas with nothing.’ I’m afraid of robbers and snakes. But I’m with my friend and we are going to make it across.”

The town of Altar has become a major jumping-off point for migrants, who must now cross through forbidding desert terrain. Walls and major enforcement efforts have made safer crossings impossible for most. In the high season for immigration, January through March, about three thousand migrants take the road from Altar to the border at Sásabe each day. In May, the Mexican Grupo Beta police, a force charged with protection of immigrants, say the number is down to about 1,000 daily.

Grupo Beta stops northbound vehicles at a checkpoint on the heavily rutted dirt road that runs from Altar to Sásabe. They count the people packed into the vans that traverse the trail daily. They tell people to stay with a group, warn women that they especially need the protection of a group, warn them never to let their children leave the group. They warn of the dangers of the desert – dehydration, scorching sun during the day, snakes and scorpions, robbers.

Mountains beckon in the distance. Along the road, majestic saguaro cactus stretch their arms 30 or 40 feet toward the blazing blue sky. Squat barrel cactus and spiky ocotillo bear shriveling flowers. Paddle-shaped nopales and shrub-like chollas grow everywhere, mixed in among the creosote bushes and mesquite trees. .

Neither the forbidding terrain nor the discouraging messages from Grupo Beta nor the U.S. government’s posturing with National Guard troops and increased Border Patrols can turn back many of the determined migrants on the Sásabe road. Most will make it across the border. Some will die in the desert – 460 bodies counted last year. Many will be captured and sent back across the border. Most will make it to the north.

One of the two Grupo Beta agents at the checkpoint is from Chiapas. He has found work in the northern part of Mexico. Many of his fellow Chiapanecos find work in the maquilas (factories producing goods for export only) clustered along the northern border.

Cecilia Guzmán, who has lived in the northern border city of Nogales for more than 60 years, watched her city grow from 30,000 people to its present size of somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000. The maquilas began coming, she says, after the United States ended the bracero program in 1965, sending thousands of Mexican “guest” workers home. At first, the maquilas paid rent to the Mexican owners of the land and factory buildings. After the passage of NAFTA, foreigners could buy the land outright, so less money comes to Mexicans. In 2000, about 100 maquilas operated in Nogales, but the economic downturn after the 9/11 attack in the United States resulted in 20 or 30 closings. Now the number is back up to about 90.

The official work week in Mexico is 48 hours. The minimum wage in Nogales is now 48 pesos per day, about $4.50. Most maquila workers make more, earning bonuses for perfect attendance or error-free production or taking fewer bathroom breaks. The average worker may earn closer to 70 pesos per day, closer to six dollars. They work in electronics manufacturing at Motorola or Anfenol, making staples and office supplies at Acco or combination locks at MasterLock or leather belts to be sold at Wal-Mart and K-Mart.

Guzmán believes that there is some benefit from maquilas, because they do provide work for people. Some maquilas even provide a type of subsidized housing for some workers. Most workers live in colonias, spreading over mountainsides with housing ranging from cardboard and wood shacks to prized cement-block homes. Colonias generally lack sewage, running water and other amenities.

She points out that maquilas cause other problems. Nogales means walnuts, and oak and walnut trees filled the town when she was young. Now the pleasant groves where her family picknicked on Sundays are gone, cut down to make room for maquilas. Today industrial wastes poison the people and environment.

The economic refugees crowding Nogales and other border towns or crossing the desert at Sásabe will not stop because of National Guard troops or better walls or enforcement, but most would happily return to their homes if only they could earn enough money to feed their families. The road to Sásabe begins in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City with trade agreements and neo-liberal economic policies imposed by political and corporate power. The same powers that pushed through NAFTA and CAFTA, that ended CONASUPO and food assistance to the poor – these are the powers that must act to build or rebuild just and sustainable economies, so that migrants have no need to take the dangerous road to Sásabe.

A Life in Nogales
June 1, Nogales, Mexico—Steep stone steps lead up from the street to the comfortable home of Cecilia and Francisco Guzman in Nogales, Sonora. They have invited us to lunch and to talk. Cecilia, the activist in the family, does most of the talking, while Francisco saws and finishes mesquite wood for bar tops on the deck outside the living room. Photos of their three adult children and their three grandchildren decorate the walls and the massive, intricately carved wooden bookcase.

Cecilia has spent her life – more than 60 years – in Nogales. “I was born on a very clean, very peaceful border,” she tells us. During the sixties, about 30,000 people lived in Nogales. Walnut trees, the nogales that gave the town its name, covered the hills. The town’s economic life depended on the train and on tourism, with trinket shops and occasional bullfights needed to entertain the visitors.

Everything began to change at the end of the sixties. The United States terminated the bracero program, sending home to Mexico the thousands of guest workers who had traveled north to work over more than 40 years. That is when the maquilas came to town. Maquilas or maquiladoras are factories making goods for export. Under special deals with the U.S. and Mexican governments, manufacturers got tax breaks and used cheap Mexican labor to manufacture goods and export them back to the United States. Electronics factories – Motorola, WestCop and Señor Ricard – were among the early maquilas.

Population growth continued through the 1970s and 1980s, ballooning during after the 1990s to today’s unofficial total of about 400,000. As Mexico’s agricultural sector suffered under the weight of neo-liberal economic policies and NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), displaced farmers and workers headed north to the maquila zones – and to the United States.

“Nogales was not prepared to receive all these people,” Cecilia says. “The topography with all the hills do not have room for all the houses. … All these people working in the maquilas or deported back from the U.S., have no place to live.” With no available housing, the newcomers squatted on land they did not own, carving colonias out of the hillsides, shanty towns with dirt roads. Concrete block homes rank highest in the colonias, but most people start with wood or even cardboard. Even long-established colonias often lack electricity, sewer and water services.

“Some of the maquilas have a subsidized housing program now,” Cecilia says, “but you have to pay at least two minimum wages. the people don’t have the money so they have to squat or invade the land.

“In many families both parents must work and that leaves the children at home alone, without supervision, and they can go to school or not as they please, and this causes a lack of orientation and severe social problems.”

During the 1990s, Cecilia worked with tunnel children. Cecilia explained that the tunnels under Nogales reach all the way across the border, and were used to smuggle both migrants and drugs. Many children lived in the tunnels, some as members of armed gangs.

“There was a very dangerous tunnel that the authorities would not enter – neither Mexican nor U.S. authorities – partly because of the pollution and partly because of the armed people. In this arroyo, there was always water running, draining garbage, chemicals, sewage. So the children were very sick, in part from drug addiction but also many other illnesses. My mission in working with them was to try to get them out of there, to reconnect them with their families, to get them medical care, and to teach them to read and write. … These were kids from 10 to 18 years of age.”

Cecilia says that her work with the children was so all-consuming that it affected her family and her health. By 1998, she realized that she had to find other work. Four years later, the military and the Border Patrol invaded the tunnels, finally closing them off from the children. Today, Cecilia works with BorderLinks, which does advocacy and educational work around immigrant issues on the border, and has staff on both sides of the border.

In her analysis, the maquilas offer some benefit, providing work for people, even if salaries are low. The minimum wage in Nogales is about $4.50 per day, and many maquila workers earn more than that.

But the maquilas also create new problems. She recalls the Nogales of her youth. “Once the place was full of walnut trees, but now there are none. And we also had many oak trees. Now they cut down all the trees to make the maquilas, where we used to go on Sundays for picnics and to walk. Everyone in the city would go there, but now there is nowhere to go.”

Even worse, she says, the industrial and chemical wastes from the maquilas have poisoned the water and the air. Across the border, public health studies show alarmingly high rates of lupus and skin cancer in the sister city of Nogales, Arizona. Cecilia believes that her city suffers even worse, with elevated incidence of anencephaly and other birth defects – but similar public health studies have not been done here.

Despite the problems she sees around her, Cecilia continues to work for change. “We Mexicans do not live on hope, we live on faith,” she insists. “We have much faith that there will be changes. I work with BorderLinks because it is sowing a seed of change. …

“This year we are in elections. This is a vulnerable moment, and I think that we need to keep insisting on change and we must be ready to make change within ourselves, too. If there are changes within each person, we can make changes outside .. over the generations, with children and grandchildren. The young people, the students, the youth give us hope.

“I don’t think hope should ever die.”

Passing Through Altar
June 2, Altar, Mexico—Four Mexican men and seven visitors sit in a tight circle in the spacious gravel courtyard in the middle of the night. As other residents of the migrant shelter sleep, they plunge deep into conversation, explanation, translation. Omar, the youngest, is from Veracruz. Rene and Mauricio are from Chiapas. Gerardo, the oldest, is from Sinaloa. They listen as Maria introduces the visitors. Todos somos hermanos, she says. The fact that you have such difficulties passing borders is wrong. We would like to know why you had to leave your families and your culture, and also about your work here in Mexico.

Rene welcomes the visitors. “I am happy you have come. We are brothers, we have the same blood, the same God.” Mauricio agrees. He was very happy to be invited to sit down and eat the evening meal with another group of visitors, the American high school students. “It makes you feel good inside to sit and eat with people. I never was invited to sit down and eat with Americans before.” He is glad to talk. “We couldn’t sleep anyway,” he explains, “too many things going through our heads. It helps to talk.”

CCAMYN is the Centro Comunitario de Atención al Migrante y Necesitado in Altar, a formerly small town in the State of Sonora in Mexico. CCAMYN opened its doors in 2001, as a program of the Catholic Church, with the goal of “being an oasis in the desert for our migrant brothers and sisters.” They serve meals, provide showers and a place to sleep for a few nights, provide some medical care, and support and stand with migrants who are heading north and with those who have been captured and deported back to Mexico. Migrants can stay one to three nights at CCAMYN before leaving – for home or for the border.

Earlier in the evening, CCAMYN’s human rights director, Francisco Garcia, spoke to an attentive circle of visitors. He explained how Altar’s main economic activity shifted from agriculture to migration over the past ten years. “The year 1994 is a year marked in the history of our country because that is when the infamous NAFTA agreement took effect. This agreement has been beating down our country. Until now we have seen far more disadvantages than advantages.

“This was also a historic year because the first time a guerrilla insurgency appeared, as a reaction to the free trade agreement. In that same year, the United States initiated three big operations on the border. The objective of these operations was to completely end immigration, an objective clearly not achieved…. On the contrary, the migration moved to the most dangerous and remote locations.”

Daytime temperatures in Altar climb well above 100 degrees. Located in the unforgiving Sonora Desert, it is a 65-mile van ride from the U.S. border at Sásabe. Francisco continues: “And since 1994, when migration was channeled to these areas, our undocumented brothers and sisters, illegals, migrants, whatever you call them, did not only appear in the United States, but also in statistics. We began seeing a lot of migrant deaths. Deaths grew every year. Every year, more migrants die looking for the famous American Dream….

“In 1997, 200 people came through Altar each day. Then there were 400 in 1998, 600 in 1999. In 2000, 2,200 migrants arrived here every day. … In 2002, 2,300 came each day, and the number kept growing. In February the last numbers we saw from the 13 of February to 13 of April, there were 3,200 people passing daily, according to the count on a route between Altar and Sásabe.” The high season for migration comes in January through March, with comparatively lower temperatures.

Francisco’s message is clear and emphatic: “Who really is the migrant? Is it a human being like ourselves who has a family and no better options for a better life? Whose only hope is to get to the United States to work, to offer the only tools he has, his hands and feet? With the hope that that job will offer them a better salary. …

“Go and tell everyone from your family to your workplace to Congress, that migrants are human beings, that they migrate for necessity. Would you leave your home if you had a way to support your family? They leave because they have no way.”

Omar, Rene, Mauricio and Gerardo speak more quietly than Francisco, offering personal stories rather than analysis.

Omar worked in a business fixing LP gas canisters, earning about $30 weekly. “The wages here are so low that I can’t make it. I want to study and work and then come back to build a home.”

Gerardo worked in the fields – onions, tomatoes, fruit, vegetables. “I was just about a prisoner of the company,” he says. He earned 70 pesos, a little more than six dollars a day. But, he explains, a canasta basica, the food for a family of four, costs 300 pesos. So his wage would not even feed a family, much less pay for clothing or housing them.

Rene comes from Chiapas. He must migrate because his wages are not enough to support his two children. He has to leave in order to support them. Coffee prices dropped drastically this year, he explains. “I talked to my brother and decided to go and see how luck treats me. I have three brothers in the United States, in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles. When I told my brothers I was coming up north, they said it is really hard. One of them said he was turned back six times before crossing.”

Mauricio, also from Chiapas, worked on a cattle ranch until floods wiped out the ranch. He has looked for other work, picking squash for a while, cutting grapes for a while, never finding a job that lasted or that paid enough to live. “I’m not married,” he tells the group. “I just support my mother and a nephew. I’m her only son and she wants me to go back to Chiapas. I say “I’ve come this far. I’m not going back to Chiapas with nothing. I’m afraid of robbers and snakes. But I’m with my friend and we are going to make it across.”

As the conversation winds down, the men have a message for their visitors. “Tell people in the United States that we are not robbers. We are not criminals. We just want to work. All we want to do is work.”

One Family’s Story
June 2, Altar, Mexico—Omar is the son, 18 years old, shy but with a ready smile. His mother, Mireya, is a short, stout woman, hesitant to talk much. Omar says she worked in Veracruz as a cook and a maid, taking care of other people’s homes. He thinks she will do the same in Santa Anita, California, which is their destination. Cecella is Omar’s aunt, Mireya’s sister, and the family resemblance between them is clear. She and her husband, a quiet man who stands apart from the women and Omar, complete the family party.

The family had a business in Veracruz, selling shoes, mostly children’s shoes and sandals. Then, says Cecella, “after the bombing of the Twin Towers (9/11), the whole economy of the country fell down”. Factories in Veracruz closed. Just as the big businesses closed, their small business became heavily indebted, unable to survive. They could no longer afford to buy food and clothing and pay the light bill, so they decided to leave, to go “up there.”

Omar says he will stay in the United States for four years, save his money and go back to open his own business, selling something, maybe clothes, maybe shoes. He will be a businessman, a merchant. His aunt does not want to stay that long. Just long enough to make enough money to start their business again, she says. The grandparents are still in Veracruz. They are in good health, but you do not want to leave family.

I ask Cecella what work she will do, surreptitiously observing her carefully groomed nails. Any work, she replies. Any honorable work. When you need work, you cannot say “I will do this, but not that.” Any job that there is. And we do not want luxury, she assures me, so we will save money to go back and start a business again. And to live on while we start the business, until it begins to make money.

The family spent 24 hours on the bus, traveling from Veracruz to Altar. The next leg of the journey will take them to Sásabe. Then they will travel across the desert for three nights, maybe four. They will travel only at night because of the dangerous heat of the desert days. They have been waiting in Altar for eight days for a “friend” to arrive from Arizona to guide them across. He will come today or tomorrow, they say. Meanwhile, they sit and wait outside the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on the shady side, in the plaza of Altar.