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Cubans in Tapachula, A City on Edge

Here the Central American drama, characterized by extreme poverty, gang violence, drug and human trafficking, is all on vivid display. DIARIO DE CUBA travels to the penultimate border that the island's emigrants must cross on their way to the US, this report being the first in a series.

Ciudad de México
Tapachula, in Chiapas, Mexico.
Tapachula, in Chiapas, Mexico. Diario de Cuba

On Tuesday, January 5, 2021, in front of the offices of the National Institute of Emigration (INM) in Tapachula, a riotous scuffle shattered the delicate tranquility of this small city in Chiapas, southern Mexico. Nearly a thousand migrants who were waiting to process their "humanitarian visitor" cards got into a fistfight. The Mexican National Guard (GN) intervened to quash the chaos, and the local press covered what had happened. When journalists asked those present regarding those responsible for the melee, all fingers pointed at the Cubans.

According to several Central American emigrants on hand, it all started when the Cubans took it upon themselves to organize that line of 1,000 people, almost all of them belonging to the last caravan of immigrants that had just arrived in Tapachula. This impromptu effort, they said, ended up producing a list that clearly benefited emigrants hailing from the island.

"That was the talk of the town in Tapachula. Things like this always happen. Cubans form small groups, and that is when the problems start. Some Cuban thinks he's found a way to beat the system, a chink in the armor, and then everyone joins in," one of the many Cubans currently residing in the city told DIARIO DE CUBA.

A tense situation

With more than 8,500 testing positive for Covid-19, and more than 1,200 deaths associated with the virus in Chiapas, on January 7 immigration authorities decided to stop accepting documents, on the pretext that the concentration of emigrants would only exacerbate the health crisis. With one stroke of a pen, emigrants from Haiti, Africa, Central America and Cuba were left stranded in front of the INM offices in Tapachula.

While this was happening, the president of the Mexican Republic's Employers’ Confederation in the Costa de Chiapas region, José Antonio Toriello, descried the migratory crisis that was developing in an interview with local media. "They continue to do nothing, and are a security threat," Toriello said then about those stuck in front of the INM of Tapachula, while recommending a heavy hand and strict control over the caravans that arrive in the city.

The political atmosphere in Tapachula was turning extremely xenophobic, and news stories associated with the migration issue became more and more frequent. The situation, already unsustainable, took a turn for the worse after the announcement of yet another caravan set to leave Honduras, cross Guatemala, and arrive with thousands of emigrants, destined to join those already there.

On Friday, January 8, Guatemalan military spokesman Rubén Téllez announced the deployment of up to 4,000 soldiers to prevent the emigrants in the new caravan from entering Tapachula en masse. Honduran border troops, meanwhile, promised the same.

Both measures were the result of pressure exerted by the United States on Mexico, which, in turn, leaned on Guatemala and Honduras, according to the newspaper La Jornada. As part of his anti-immigration policy, and in light of the alarming epidemiological situation in the United States, Donald Trump threatened the Mexican government with economic and trade sanctions if it did not put a stop to the crossing of massive caravans. The reaction by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of Mexico, included placing pressure on his Central American neighbors, despite the fact that this represented a breach of his electoral campaign promises.

The INM in Tapachula managed to dissolve the line of migrants stranded in front of its offices by annnouncing that immigration procedures would be handled by email. Suddenly, the crowd dispersed throughout the city. Now, as they disappear into the local population and wait for the ponderous Mexican bureaucracy to give them answers that never seem to arrive, the city trembles at the prospect of the impending arrival of thousands of immigrants more, unwilling to stop their sojourn.

A city of emigrants

Tapachula is a small city, of just over 380,000 inhabitants, located on the southwest border (with Guatemala) of the state of Chiapas, very close to the waters of the Pacific. Compared to other areas of Mexico, the city is a bit down at heel. There are no skyscrapers or large shopping centers here. Many houses have just one story, and many streets are in poor condition. The taxes are rickety, and street stalls dot the sidewalks hawking Chinese merchandise, and fresh fruits and meats.

Tapachula might remind a Cuban of Havana, especially certain areas far from the center of the city, where the most vulnerable populations coexist, including immigrants. Perhaps the few details that differentiate this city, surrounded by jungle, from the Cuban capital are the presence of fast food chains, young boleros (shoeshine kids), and the scent of cooked meat.

Tapachula started out as a city of emigrants. Its population is a homogeneous mix formed over centuries, comprised of Mexicans and Guatemalans, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Arabs, French and Americans. Over the years the city has incorporated more nationalities into its melting pot, largely because it is the most important border point between North and Central America.

Usually it is just a stopping place for the incessant multitudes of migrants making their way towards the United States. However, there are always those who end up staying; some for a time, some permanently.

Here the Central American drama, characterized by extreme poverty, gang violence, and drug and human trafficking, is all on vivid display. However, in the last five years, tragedies from elsewhere have affected the city. Cubans, Haitians and Africans have joined the steady stream of Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans passing through. The new inhabitants are, as they say here, "extra-continental".

Waiting for the next caravan

According to Rita Robles, the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center's spokesperson, the presence of Cubans in Tapachula began to be felt in early 2017, when Barack Obama decided to cancel his country's "dry feet, feet wet" policy. As it was no longer possible to take to the sea in search of the American dream, Cubans decided to adopt another migratory path to reach the same destination.

As countries like Guyana and Nicaragua (and, at the time, Panama) made it easy to organise trips from the island, Cubans were able to undertake the gruelling journey through the forests and across the rivers of Central America. Along the way, they have often joined convoys of emigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that traverse these areas. Along with them they have braved the many dangers along the way: assailants, diseases, hunger, kidnappings, blackmail, rape, gang violence and corrupt police.

"Most of the Cuban emigrants are young men. There are few women, and few minors. Over time, they have become one of the nationalities with the greatest presence on the route of emigrants to the United States, "explains Robles, whose work focuses on comprehensive assistance for immigrants in Tapachula and the protection of their human rights.

According to the Migration Statistics Bulletin, put out by the Mexican Interior Ministry, 2,461 Cubans showed up at the INM in Tapachula in 2019. This number was only topped by those for Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans, historically thronging this emigration route to the United States.

In 2020 the figure plummeted, due to the closure of Cuban airports and the restrictions and lockdowns imposed in many countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, only 176 Cuban emigrants entered the city - at least according to the official figures. There were almost twice as many men than women. Cubans, also outnumbered by Haitians, made up the fifth largest group of nationals passing through the INM in Tapachula.

2021, though just in its first month, augurs shocking figures. During just the first two weeks of the year hundreds of Cubans arrived, and they still have not yet been able to complete the immigration procedures necessary to cross the country, while hundreds more may be arriving in the next few days as part of the relentless convoys that are currently crossing Central America.

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