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'A Nazi Concentration Camp'. Cuban Migrants Describe the Hell They Endure in Tapachula

At the Estación Migratoria Siglo XXI Detention Center the Mara Salvatrucha gang is in charge, but the Mexican guards’ behavior is worse, they tell DIARIO DE CUBA.

Ciudad de México
The conditions under which migrants detained at the Estación Siglo XXI languish.
The conditions under which migrants detained at the Estación Siglo XXI languish.

After a journey through eleven countries, dodging death in the Darien Gap, and approaching the "American Dream", Cuban migrants not only face deportation, kidnapping and rape, but also must deal with Mexico's National Migration Institute (INM), one of the most corrupt federal institutions in the country, as the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his secretary of the Interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero, have themselves acknowledged.

"You're ecstatic to see how close you are to the 'Yuma', but it doesn’t last long, when crossing the border Cubans suffers a xenophobia they've never experienced," said Reinel (real name withheld) upon arriving in San Marcos, Guatemala, a border town with Mexico.

When stepping on Mexican soil in Frontera Hidalgo, he and four other Cubans, travel companions, paid $200 each to be taken to Tapachula, the second largest city in the State of Chiapas. The trip between Frontera Hidalgo and Tapachula costs 10 dollars. It takes anyone who enters legally 30 minutes.   

However, just 7 km from the urban area, facing an INM checkpoint, the coyotes ordered the Cubans, and another 15 migrants of different nationalities, to get out of the vehicle.

"We tried to evade the checkpoint, but couldn’t. We were intercepted by the guards. Three got out of the van and asked us: 'Are you Cuban?' We had barely answered 'yes', when, without a word, they beat us with batons, kicked us, and put us in the vehicle. The rest of the migrants were allowed to continue," he said.

"After seven hours, we were taken to the Estación Siglo XXI migrant detention center. Reinel also told DIARIO DE CUBA that those who reported them to the INM guards were the smugglers themselves.

The Estación Siglo XXI: "a concentration camp for migrants"

The Siglo XXI facility is a temporary detention center for irregular migrants with a capacity for 900 people, but the number of people held ranges from 1,200 to 3,500. The center is not very different from a prison, complete with guard towers, walls crowned with barbed wire, from 5 to 15 meters; and bars in the common areas where the guards patrol.

In its 15-square-meter cells up to 50 migrants spend their days and nights, whether members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, or political refugees.

"It's sad, but at Siglo XXI one can get all kinds of drugs. Inside, Mara Salvatrucha is in charge. But it must be recognized that they treat migrants with respect. The guards are very different," Reinel said.

At a press conference on June 20, on the occasion of World Refugee Day,  priest Ramón Verdugo, director of the Refugee Assistance Center in Tapachula, condemned  the inhumane conditions to which migrants are subjected at Siglo XXI.

"In Tapachula, the Siglo XXI migration station has a capacity for some 900 people, and there were 1,600. At these sites the attention these people require is not provided, such as health care, food, access to justice, and the handling of procedures like refugee applications," he said.

He also complained that those held there "speak of an infinity of very difficult situations, from the offering and granting of abortion pills to women in the last months of their pregnancies, and a lack of food."

"The cruel treatment of migrants, as well as torture, is something that is endured every day at the migratory stations," he added.

Reinel is one of hundreds of Cubans who have been detained at the Estación Siglo XXI. There he suffered the worst of his journey since leaving his native Cuba eight months ago.

"They took away what little we had of any value: cell phone, clothes, money. One of us even had his boots taken. They shouted at us: 'Cuban sons of bitches. You are less than a dog... " he said of the first moments after his arrest.

After seven hours, when the small patrol vehicle was packed with 20 more migrants, they were taken to Siglo XXI.

When being checked into the immigration detention center, they were thoroughly searched, even their private parts. "They don't care if it's a child or a woman, even a pregnant one." A loud cough interrupted Reinel's account. Recomposed, he added: "After two weeks, I am still sick from Siglo XXI".

"There they took us to a small room measuring barely 15 square meters. I was really scared when I saw the tattoos of the other inmates. I realized that they were members of the Maras. There were 60 of us in the cell. Women and children were told to sleep in the corridors, in the midst of the garbage, and subjected to the overpowering odors emanating from the toilets. At 6:00 PM we were placed in the cells. The detainees spend the night practically on top of each other. They sleep little, due to the cries of despair. There, if you're not strong you can end up going crazy."

"This experience will affect me for the rest of my life. Siglo XXI is no different from a Nazi concentration camp. It is so bad that they don't allow any members of Human Rights organizations in, or humanitarian aid; much less journalists."

Reinel and his traveling companions received their first bites of food 36 hours after being detained. "They gave us one meal a day. They were small servings of rice, eggs, and lentils or beans. "

According to Reinel, the best way to survive in the Siglo XXI is to make friends with the Mara Salvatrucha higher-ups, and to keep a low profile with the guards.

"There, whoever complains, says something to the guards, or refuses to sign for voluntary deportation, is taken to the 'Hole,'  a small room where no light penetrates. Whoever is taken there must spend 15 days in the midst of his own excrement and urine. It is better to not even look the guards in the eye."

Getting out of Siglo XXI costs $6,000. That's what a friend paid a lawyer. I met another who paid the guards $2,000 to let him out, off the roof. But I was lucky: "I managed to get out thanks to the help of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) and the UNHCR."

Waiting for an answer

Today Reinel is waiting for a response to his asylum request. Although the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) document allows him to walk around Tapachula unmolested, he lives in constant anxiety, as he knows several cases of Cubans who have been had their papers destroyed by INM guards. Others have been locked up again at Siglo XXI while the validity of their documents was verified.

Finally, Reinel was thankful for the support of a compatriot, a Cuban businessman who has been in Mexico for over 20 years and provides decent and well-paid work to a bit over a dozen Cubans at his factory.

Dozens of Cubans spend the days and nights outside, exposed to the elements

The streets of Tapachula have become a kind of open-air refugee camp. By day migrants go about hiding from Mexico's National Migration Institute officers, and remain at the mercy of criminal gangs. Fear of deportation, and running into gang members, are constant. 

Late at night they go to the COMAR facility in Tapachula, Chiapas. Lying on mats, sheets of cardboard, or on the hard floor, and covering themselves with plastic or newspapers, men, women and children spend the night while waiting in line to plead for protection and a little help. They are fragile beings who have become like tokens in negotiations between countries, but what hurts the most is the Cuban government's inaction.

Shara is a young woman who has been suffering, for 15 days, the plight of a female Cuban migrant on the streets of Tapachula. There, her medical degree is of little use to her. In fact, she considers it a problem. "If they realize that I was part of the medical mission sent to Venezuela, and that I fled secretly, they’d deport me immediately."

"My husband and I have been lucky enough to not end up in the Siglo XXI. I know about a Cuban mother and her eight-month-old baby who were taken to that hell hole. I don’t know whether they got out, or they deported them."

In hiding, he works at a stationery shop where he earns half the minimum wage in Mexico. "Our idea is to ask for asylum here, and wait for things to get better, to continue. We are not going to take a gamble and place ourselves at the mercy of the coyotes; they are bandits who steal, kill, cheat and even kidnap migrants, especially Cubans."

Late at night, Shara and her husband seek shelter near the COMAR facility. There they hear stories like that of a Cuban family kidnapped by the cartels and that had to pay $ 3,000 for their release. But the one that most shocked him was that of the persecuted politician and fellow refugee, from Trinidad and Tobago, Orlando Ezequiel Márquez Montes de Oca, who was deported to Cuba despite having the refugee status from UNHCR.  

Second time's the charm?

This is Daniel's second attempt to enter the US. His first was on a raft headed for the Florida Keys, but he failed.

According to the young man, the worst part of the Cuban emigrants' journey, through eleven countries, has been in Mexico.

"Here, to survive you have to work  under the table. I've been lucky to have the help of a Cuban businessman. I'm fine. With what I earn I can pay the 100 dollars of rent, gas, water and food. But there are hundreds of Cubans living on the street. Some receive help from the Catholic Church, but most are suffering. (…) Crossing from the border with Guatemala to the Mexico/US border costs some 3,000 to $5,000, and most of us can't afford it," he told DIARIO DE CUBA about their decision to gather in Mexico.

Daniel's first attempt to reach the US was in 2016. It took him and his four cousins a year to build a raft, using tractor tires and a motor from a Soviet Ural motorcycle.

"A few miles after leaving Isabel de Sagua in Villa Clara, we ran into a Cuban Coast Guard boat, and for an hour they tried to sink us, but when we reached international waters they gave up," he recalled.

Daniel says that, just a few miles from Florida, they were intercepted by the US Coast Guard. "They treated us well on the vessel: a good bed, medicine, and good food, but they returned us to Cuba," he lamented.

Daniel is saving up money and waiting for his appointment to ask for asylum. "I’m sure that the US will give it to me. I still have the paper they gave me. Thank God, not even the Darien jungle damaged it."

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