By Monica Campbell
Altar, Mexico - Dodging police checkpoints, riding cargo trains and sleeping in shelters or abandoned yards. Two weeks of this and Javier was weary, but nearing the end of his three-week journey from Honduras to the United States, where he hoped to start a new life.
Javier, who requested that only his first name be used for anonymity, had arrived to Altar, a Mexican town just south of the Arizona border and set in the hot Sonora desert. There is one main business here: the trafficking of migrants, from throughout Mexico and Central America, to the United States. A staging ground, it is where people like Javier prepare to cross, buying jugs of water, insect repellent, cheap walking shoes and packets of powdered rehydration sport drinks. Connections are also made here with men who drive beat-up Dodge vans and shuttle migrants along unpaved roads to the border’s edge. And then there are agreements sealed with coyotes, or human smugglers, who will facilitate the crossing and arrival to safehouses within the United States.
But for Javier, there was another stop in Altar. From fellow travelers, he knew that the Mexican Red Cross stationed a small clinic here, just to one side of the plaza he was told. While the Red Cross also has mobile units like this stationed in Mexico’s south, near the Guatemalan border, Javier’s route did not take him by those areas. So, relief washed over Javier as he stepped into the white trailer-turned-medical station and received a small packet of antibiotics, a basic remedy for a stomach virus that had dogged him for nearly two weeks and, he believed, was the fault of drinking dirty water.
“I’ve felt weak and was worried that if I tried to cross the desert like this, feeling dehydrated, something bad could happen,” he said. The medicine was also free. “Thankfully,” Javier said. “I don’t have any pesos to spare.” Already, Javier was robbed of nearly all his money by bandits near Mexico City’s train tracks.
In 2003, the Mexican Red Cross debuted its project for migrants crossing through the state of Sonora with a mobile clinic in Nogales, a small city that sits just on Arizona’s borderline. Then, as demand increased, a second unit was placed in Altar. All told, three clinics exist in Mexico’s north and have served nearly 70,000 migrants since operations began in 2003.
In Altar, the clinic is simple: a trailer houses a consultation room, two small treatment areas and a private room for the staff. If a migrant’s condition is serious—commonly, severe dehydration or respiratory problems—they are taken from the clinic to the hospital in the nearby city of Caborca.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also supports the clinic with equipment and supplies.
Carlos Freaner Figueroa, the Mexican Red Cross delegate in Sonora, said, “The clinics started because we began hearing news about migrants dying in the desert. So we looked for a way to help and the most humanitarian method seemed to station mobile clinics near the border.” It was also key, added Freaner, to have the clinics located exactly where migrants tend to converge, such as Altar’s main square.
“You see how people arrive here sick, with destroyed feet, parasites and other problems,” said Enrique Brown Pérez, a native Sonoran and a veteran Red Cross worker tasked with managing the clinics, including the Altar unit, which was established in 2011.
When it is hot, when temperatures move above 100 degrees, things get worse, Brown said. In the summer and with its droughts, people look for water wherever it exists. That can mean drinking from ponds also shared by farm animals. Dehydration also intensifies as migrants can travel in run-down vehicles and trailers without air conditioning.
Before the clinics were established, Brown wondered where migrants went for basic medical needs. “This is truly something we didn’t know,” he said. “Our conclusion was that migrants simply went without any care.”
The station is also located just where migrants prepare to embark on one of their trek’s most expensive and dangerous segments. Tighter border surveillance—the presence of the U.S. Border Patrol along Arizona’s border has nearly tripled in the past decade—means higher smuggling rates that can average $2,500 from Altar to major U.S. cities. Gangs have also increased their rule of the border and can extort migrants and their smugglers. Refusing or being unable to comply can prove deadly.
Next, there is the threat migrants face by kidnappers along the way, criminals who can call and demand ransom from relatives in the U.S. waiting for their family member to arrive. It is an enormous business. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, a government agency, more than 11,000 migrants were abducted in Mexico over a six-month period in 2011. The danger also exploded into public view in August 2011, when 72 people were found in a mass grave at a ranch in northern Mexico.
In an attempt to provide a layer of security, the Red Cross clinic includes a secure phone line for migrants to call relatives back home. “Supporting basic medical assistance is one goal, but so is providing the possibility for migrants to maintain or re-establish contact with their loved ones” said María Canchola, who heads the ICRC’s assistance project for migrants in Mexico.
Despite the dangers, there was no going back for Javier. He came from a part of Honduras, near its eastern hills and the rough industrial city of San Pedro Sula, where the combination of poverty, unemployment and gang violence has left life difficult. “There are few young men like me left where I’m from,” he said.
After receiving his medicine, Javier picked up some supplies at a small store located near the clinic. It was stocked with the staples Javier looked for as he killed time before crossing the desert: soft drinks, a video game, sunscreen and a selection of pocket prayer books, an offering of the practical and spiritual as the next phase of his journey began.
Monica Campbell is a San Francisco-based journalist who reports frequently from Latin America.
In 2011, Ms. Campbell reported from Afghanistan for Intercross.