As nearly three million people in Mexico struggle with the aftermath of last week’s devastating 8.1 magnitude earthquake, impatience is growing in poverty-stricken communities. Instead of waiting for federal assistance that may never arrive, residents in the country’s southern Oaxaca state are organizing to assist each other in a spirit of solidarity and mutual assistance.
Among these groups is a brigade of nearly 50 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, who are offering their unconditional support to communities in Oaxaca’s poverty-blighted Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The brigade’s tireless efforts have earned them the status of heroes in a country where they are usually faced with discrimination, distrust and abuse.
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Their orange shirts and red helmets covered in dust, the group of migrants have spent the past several days moving toppled street lamps and electrical poles, digging makeshift graves, providing medical aid to survivors and helping to clean up the piles of rubble and shattered glass in the cities hit hardest by the quake — Juchitan and Asuncion Ixtaltepec, Oaxaca.
The migrants live in nearby Ixtepec at the Hermanos en el Camino Hostel. The shelter was founded 11 years ago by Catholic priest and human rights defender Padre Alejandro Solalinde, who saw the need to protect refugees from police and criminals.
When the massive quake struck, the shelter’s residents immediately joined forces with the Humanitarian Peace Brigade Marabunta to begin addressing the most pressing problems faced by locals.
“Sólo El Pueblo Salvará Al Pueblo” — Only the People Can Save the People
Longtime migrant justice advocate Hermano Jose Filiberto Velazquez Florencio, a member of Solalinde’s mission, helped to coordinate the brigade’s aid efforts. The clergyman has been an advocate for the poor and dispossessed for years, standing alongside the country’s abused migrants and touring the country with relatives of the 43 disappeared students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. Velazquez has even traveled to the United States to advocate for undocumented workers and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, holders faced with possible deportation.
Speaking to teleSUR from the neglected Séptima Sección or Seventh Section of Juchitan, Velazquez explained that the government’s aid efforts have had little impact on the poorer communities within the city and along its outskirts.
“Right now, the rain is starting and people aren’t living in the houses because they are afraid of more earthquakes,” Velazquez explained. Over 1,000 aftershocks swarmed the region following Thursday’s quake, terrifying residents who choose to live outdoors and sleep in beds moved in front of their homes or in the streets.
“There are shelters, but people don’t want to leave their homes” due to thieves robbing the destroyed homes, he added.
The displaced families are now spending their last bit of savings on expensive food sold by price-gouging merchants and cooking it outdoors using bits of wood taken from the rubble.
“The government isn’t giving them any support,” Velazquez said.
The state of Oaxaca suffered well over 5,000 destroyed homes and 76 of the 96 fatalities resulting nationwide from the quake. However, the multi-ethnic Indigenous people of the region have long been subject to the inequities of government neglect and a failure to properly develop the region.
“Most of the houses were old, maybe more than 100 or 200 years old — the materials were poor, the structures lacked steel and concrete,” Velazquez explained. “This is the primary injustice of the earthquake — these were poor people who didn’t have the houses, the infrastructure, that could stand.”
In the meantime, local civil society groups and social movements such as the shelter and the Marabunta Brigade have mobilized their resources toward helping the people of the Isthmus, sparing no effort to prove that “sólo el pueblo salvará al pueblo” — only the people can save the people.
“We are hearing one voice from the mass media, but the reality is that independent organizations are the ones supporting the people here — this is the reality that we on the ground can see, that we can hear, and that we can feel in our hands,” the theologian notes.
From Distrust to Unity
Migrant Brigade members are no strangers to poverty and desperate conditions. Tens of thousands of Central Americans have fled their home countries in recent years due to a combination of economic desperation and extreme violence committed by gangs and state security forces.
“Most of these immigrants were on their way to the United States but after the new immigration policies were put in place by Donald Trump, they decided to stay for a bit longer in Mexico, in our shelter,” Velazquez explained. The desperate refugees are hardly treated better in Mexico — from 2013 to the present, the country’s authorities have done much of Washington’s dirty work of intercepting migrants intent on crossing the US border. Human rights are hardly a concern for Mexico’s state security agencies.
“They go through huge difficulties to avoid being deported by the Mexican Institute of Migration,” Tijuana-based border activist and aid worker Hugo Castro told teleSUR. A coordinator for Border Angels and comrade of Father Solalinde, Castro has worked directly with countless migrants who’ve crossed the country and seen the worst it has to offer.
“Police arrest them because they don’t have identification, and then the officers torture them while demanding that the refugees name their country of origin, looking for a reason to hand them over to the Mexican migra,” Castro explained, adding that poor treatment from citizens also plagues the refugees.
“Business owners pay them less than average because they don’t have working documents, and they also face discrimination by Mexicans who see them as potential criminals when they are actually victims of forced migration,” Castro said.
A recent study by the National Survey on Discrimination found that seven out of 10 Mexicans distrust or dislike refugees, providing an incentive for brigade members to prove themselves through their good deeds. The brigade has even helped to assist those who once targeted them, including police officers and the prosecutor for crimes against migrants in the region, Ana Maria Clavel.
“Her house collapsed and we helped her find her belongings … she was very surprised that the migrants helped her, because she has been so hard on them,” fellow brigade coordinator Ernesto Castañeda told Sin Embargo.
The migrant brigade is offering their assistance purely from a position of human empathy, Velazquez explained.
“When you ask them why they are helping, their first answer is that it’s because they are human beings whose first instinct is to help other humans who are suffering. They feel good when they see that they can help other people.”
The migrants plan on continuing their efforts until the job is done or they are no longer needed. However, the government’s neglect and outright corruption could ruin any chances that the communities will actually see the recovery promised by officials.
The Future: Corruption or Solidarity?
Media outlets like Univision, TV Azteca and Televisa have largely focused on the “national unity” aspect of the tragedy, broadcasting mournful speeches and press conferences of politicians like President Enrique Peña Nieto and Oaxaca’s governor, Alejandro Murat.
Scant attention has been given to the disorganized and careless nature of the government’s recovery efforts, which have amounted to a small handout — simple rations and a blanket — along with public relations stunts aimed at drumming up support for unpopular politicians hoping to improve their chances in next year’s general elections. In many cases, Velazquez claims, the aid is intentionally being blocked for the sake of electoral fraud, a tradition with a long history in Mexican politics.
“Food has been given to the cities but the political leaders are taking all of the aid and in the future they will use the food to buy votes, so the corruption of our leaders is a big problem — the political parties are getting in the way of the people’s needs,” Velazquez laments.
Hermano Velazquez and the migrant brigade are hoping that supporters throughout the country and the world will allow them to continue serving the needs of the people in the region.
“The family we helped today are today are very grateful and they know that the people who helped them are immigrants,” Velazquez said, gesturing toward a family gathered outside of their wrecked home. “Now they won’t see them as strangers or criminals, but as humans when they pass through these cities.”
“The people need tents, they need water, they need food … We need a lot of help here, a lot of hands to clean the houses, but also need donations of food through Hermanos en el Camino so that we can continue working for these people.”