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The Humanitarian Crisis of Migration in Central America

By: Sofía Ramírez Fionda - Oct 17, 2013, 2:13 pm

Español In 2010, Óscar Martínez published Los migrantes que no importan, the story of immense suffering that Central Americans experience if they want to pass through Mexican territory and reach the United States’ southern border. Published three times in Spanish, the English version is out this month as The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Verso Books.

IMG tapaAfter introducing the newest release in New York over the weekend, Óscar Martínez spoke with the PanAmerican Post. In particular, he shared his experience researching and writing the book and the significance of the English version.

The Salvadoran’s story starts in 2008, when the ElFaro.net journal and the Ruido Foto agency launched the En el Camino project (On the Road), with the aim of researching and documenting the Central American migrant journey. Martínez, who had already been involved in minor projects about the topic, started with his colleagues to live and travel together with the migrants, as thousands of them do every year. After that experience, he has only one way to describe their plight: a “humanitarian crisis.”

The Genesis of the Migration Project (Spanish)

“We decided to share the trip with undocumented people, to travel with them,” Martínez says, “as journalists, in order to understand what happens to them and to get their testimonies.” This way of working and the journalists’ commitment was very different than that of the local media. They did not get involved, but rather chose to analyze it from a distance.

The Role of Conventional Media (Spanish)

The En el Camino project went on for two and a half years, and Los migrantes que no importan was one of three final products. The other two were a pictorial book from the the photographers, also entitled En el Camino, and a documentary, María en tierra de nadie (María in no man’s land), directed by Marcela Zamora, also an ElFaro.net journalist.

The main objective was to shed light on the population suffering from organized crime. Migration, according to Martínez, is an invisible phenomena the world needs to see, but “migrants do not speak up because they have a justified, deep fear of public authorities.”

“Journalism is a lamp which lights up the dark corners of a room.” (Spanish)

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Óscar tries to explain the situation: “People are seen increasingly by politicians as mere electoral assets. I believe a population that does not vote, which is characterized as gang members, violent, and poor — even in Mexico which is adjacent to Central America — and who cannot formally respond . . . that is a society that does not disturb you as a politician, a society to which politicians are not going to pay interest.”

Furthermore, invisible migrants transit a desolated Mexico, far from major cities and media. These are places where the state has decided to give control to organized crime. Many years ago they started to exploit the abandoned situation of the migrants, turning them into targets for kidnappings, rape, and human trafficking. “We even had to ask permission from drug traffickers to move to certain locations,” he shared.

What about each migrant’s home state? Martínez is skeptical about the Central American states’ capacity or will to resolve the problem:

“Instead of raising their voice about the humanitarian tragedy that the Central American population experience in Mexico, they have decided to shut up because governments know that these people represent about 20 percent of gross domestic product when sending remittances from the United States.”

Óscar believes his work has brought some changes along the migrant route. In his book, he denounces several areas where abuse occurs, both by organized crime and by Mexican authorities — which appear to be one and the same sometimes — and this knowledge, he contends, has prevented and reduced some serious crime.

The Importance of the English Version (Spanish)

For the author, the main objective of the book now is to reach the English-speaking public, predominantly in the United States. Most importantly, he wants it to be a “political weapon” for those politicians who dare to demand solutions relating to the border with Mexico. “I would like them to know about a topic over which they have direct control, which is the border with Mexico and its murderous design.”

Violence Becomes Normalized (Spanish)

Migrants in Mexico are people who have lost all their rights, Martinez says — but not only are changes necessary at the political level; you also need to make people aware of the problem. We need to “explain the experiences that people went through to be the gardener who cuts your garden or the woman who cleans your house.”

The root of the problem, he says, is that so many people see an immigrant population subject to violence as normal, simply on account of their social class.

“I was very surprised by the human capacity for indifference. The path of migrants is one of the most desolate places that we can find in America. Then there is the indignity to which they are subjected, the constant and increasing crime against them — and yet it goes on and becomes normalized.” It is essential that journalists shed light on the subject to begin to reverse the process.

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Óscar Martínez last Saturday presenting on The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail — Union Docs Center for Documentary Art of New York. Source: Verso Books.
Sofía Ramírez Fionda Sofía Ramírez Fionda

Based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ramírez Fionda is a former Spanish-language editor and journalist with the PanAm Post. She holds degrees in political science and international relations, and you can follow her on Twitter @SofiFionda.