By Monica Campbell
Tenosique, Mexico—On a recent morning, Juan Carlos, a young, black-haired Honduran, rested under a tree that blocked the hot sun. He had just crossed the wide and brown Suchiate River and Mexico's southern border. He now settled for a moment in the outskirts of the small agricultural town of Tenosique. After four nights of walking through the Guatemalan hills and jungle to get here, he was one less border away from the United States—and exhausted.
Soon, the next phase of Juan Carlos’ journey would begin. With little warning, a freight train would move through Tenosique, along the railroad tracks where Juan Carlos now rested. He would sprint and try to grab onto a boxcar’s metal ladders, hoist himself aboard and head further north.
Catching the train was one worry. But there was something more pressing. The soles of Juan Carlos' knock-off Adidas shoes—the critical synthetic cushion blocking his flesh from rocky, dirt ground—were thinning. Bulging blisters sounded alarms.
"I had a feeling this would happen," he said. "I'm trying to ignore the pain. Not think about it."
So, Juan Carlos took notice when a white trailer truck pulled up alongside the train tracks. Other migrants, those more experienced with this trek, quickly jumped to their feet and began lining up.
It was a quick, one-time chance at medical intervention.
Operated by the Mexican Red Cross, and in recent partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the truck was a mobile medical unit stocked with supplies needed to treat people bound for the United States. Mostly, the needs are basic: treating lacerations caused by falls over rocks or barbed wire, intestinal infections from drinking river or lake water, dehydration and severe blistering. But such ailments can go untreated as migrants tend to remain underground during their trek and simple remedies, from bandages to aspirin, are often out of reach. By mid-journey, migrants like Juan Carlos, who asked that only his first name be used to protect his identity, usually have only a few pesos to spare if any at all.
In April, a Pew Hispanic Center Report showed the number of Mexicans migrating into the U.S. slowing because of a weak American economy and a tighter border. But Central Americans continue to make the crossing. The economies in countries like Honduras and Guatemala remain very weak and violence is rampant. Although precise numbers for the number of Central Americans moving through Mexico are not available, Mexican migration authorities last year reported deported some 40,000 Central Americans home. The number of church-supported migrants' shelters set up throughout Mexico and along the routes used by Central Americans is also increasing, with more than 60 refuges now set up along the way, as demand continues for food, clothing and safe haven.
Juan Carlos waited for about 20 minutes until it was his turn to enter the medical trailer. When he stepped inside, Oswaldo Bello Lovato, the clinic’s 25-year-old doctor, asked basic questions: name, age and his country. He was also asked how Juan Carlos felt.
“Look,” Juan Carlos said, taking off one of his shoes to show a series of puffy sores on the bottom of his feet. His ankles were swollen from overheating and fluid retention.
“How long have your feet been like that?” Bello asked.
“Since yesterday,” said Juan Carlos.
Bello handed him a tube of anti-blister cream. Keep applying it for at least a week even if the blisters go away, he said.
“Anything else?” Bello asked. “How are you feeling today? Headaches? Fever?”
Juan Carlos complained of stomach pains. He didn’t suffer from diarrhea yet, a typical ailment among migrants triggered by drinking contaminated water.
Bello handed him a few anti-parasitic tablets in case things worsened.
Juan Carlos took his medicine and stepped down from the white trailer. He applied the blister cream and it was cool and soothing. His spirits seemed up.
"I see their mental health improve with just the most basic consultation," said Bello. "The idea that someone is willing to pay attention to them is unexpected."
That morning, Bello would see about 50 men like Juan Carlos. That afternoon, a new wavelet of women and men would appear when the clinic rolled up to a migrants’ shelter just up the road. Bello prescribed anti-rash and anti-diarrhea medicine, offered adhesive bandages, aspirin and other medicine to lower fevers. Some migrants were sent to a small private room within the trailer for antibiotic injections. Bello would also ask about conditions—diabetes, asthma and hypertension—that could go hidden and flare up during the trip.
Bello started working at the mobile unit earlier this year. It's his first job out of medical school. He is also from a nearby town and grew up seeing migrants like Juan Carlos pass by his house. Growing up, he remembers his mother offering them food.
“Seeing people moving north to the United States has always been part of the landscape here,” he said.
Ana Berta Vásquez, a young nurse working alongside Bello also grew up in the area. She said that it’s not a big leap for Mexicans here, in one of the country's poorest areas, to imagine the migrants' plight. "They probably don't have money, enough water and then there's the summer heat,” she said.
María Canchola, working in the ICRC’s migration project in Mexico, said that the migrants’ needs are enormous. "Right now, our focus is on treating those who may be sick,” she said. More extensive medical attention can include the need for artificial limbs for migrants left maimed after falling off a train. But as much as the ICRC’s mission in Mexico centers on immediate medical treatment, it also aims to address other humanitarian consequences of migration. The group also supports coordinated work among forensic experts in both Mexico and Central America to identify human remains found in Mexico—a growing problem as migration becomes increasingly dangerous.
The trip is no longer about sneaking past Mexican migration authorities or the U.S. Border Patrol. Migrants face organized criminal groups who may kidnap migrants and demand ransoms from their relatives living in the U.S. In 2010, and in what appeared to be a botched mass kidnapping, 72 Central American migrants were massacred in northern Mexico and near an area that Juan Carlos would likely travel through. Such killings are now routine in Mexico and it is common to have remains go unidentified.
Back at the clinic, a sense of calm surrounded the area. Although the migrants are illegal entrants in Mexico, the Mexican government supports the Red Cross mission of responding to healthcare needs without distinction of a person’s legal status. Local migration officials are not allowed to sweep in on the migrants drawn to the clinic.
After his consult, Juan Carlos chatted with some of his fellow travellers. As he moved north, Juan Carlos had met others like him. They felt some safety in numbers, against the threat of the gangs who can rob migrants of their cash, cell phones and anything else considered valuable.
But whatever calm he felt began to wash as talk turned to the journey ahead. “Up there,” said Juan Carlos, pointing north along the tracks. “We’re hearing that there’s a spot where people will come out with guns to rob us. I’ve already been robbed though, in Guatemala. I gave all the money I had. I’m not sure what else they can get from me.”
Still, Juan Carlos remained determined to leave his home in the hills of Honduras. He earned $5 a day as a coffee picker. “Not enough to support my family,” he said. In Houston, Texas, where a cousin lives, Juan Carlos said he would take “whatever job God gives me.”
With that, Juan Carlos grabbed his backpack to use as a pillow and settled on the ground. He eventually shut his eyes. He would think about the rest of his trip later.
Monica Campbell is a San Francisco-based journalist who reports frequently from Latin America. In 2011, she wrote from Afghanistan for Intercross. First post of this series on migration in Mexico is here.