“The Other Heroes” of the September Earthquakes

6 months after, Mexico Must Not Forget

By Diana Sanchez, Campaigner, Amnesty International

Mexico faced very difficult times six months ago when it was hit by the second earthquake in one month and the deadliest the country has been through in 30 years. The earthquakes of September 2017 left behind hundreds of people that lost their lives and great damage in the communities closest to the epicenters. During that month, Mexican citizens went out and helped their own, proud of their human side, and were even recognized internationally for their selflessness and heroic actions as civilians.

Looking back at those days, let’s remember there were other heroes in the story too; the so-called “migrant brigade”. They were people from Central America staying in the shelter “Hermanos en el Camino” in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, that, after being at the epicenter of the first earthquake in September 7, got organized and left the safety of the shelter to help people in the town of Ixtepec. When the second earthquake hit the center of the country on September 19, they stopped their journey to the north and stayed to help in any way they could.

Some of them were migrating through grave danger to find new opportunities in the United States or Mexico, but many others left their homes because their lives were at risk if they stayed there due to generalized violence in their countries. Regardless of their reason for being in Mexico, and despite the fact that being caught and deported could mean putting their lives at risk, they stepped up and went out to help Mexican people in need.

They were in the news, they had videos made and were interviewed by national media; they had pictures taken and were received with gratitude everywhere they went in the country.

Several weeks later, I went looking for them to a shelter in Mexico City, where some of them were still staying and was able to speak to a couple of the brigadiers. *Carlos, a young man from Guatemala, told me that he lived in Los Angeles for 2 years and was deported 6 years ago. Now he was moving again looking to stay in Mexico this time around.

When asked about the earthquake he said he was part of a rescue team back home which motivated him to go out and help. He mentioned he wasn’t scared of getting deported because he was doing nothing wrong, he was helping. “I think Mexicans realized then that people form Central America have good hearts, we are not here to mug or be violent to anyone… Everyone, because we are humans, need to help each other.” Carlos also mentioned that when faced with migration authorities, they let the brigade through once they knew they were heading out to help.

But what happens when Central American people face catastrophe or life threatening situations? What is Mexico’s reaction to the crisis that people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been living for years? Do you want to guess? It’s not good.

In recent years, many people crossing undocumented to Mexico specifically, from those three countries, have been leaving their homes, not to find the “American Dream”, but to find safety from brutal gangs called maras and violence that threatens their lives every day. In 2017, Amnesty International interviewed 113 people from these three countries of Central America for a research piece launched summer 2017. 86% of them said their main reasons for migrating were major threats to their life, direct attacks or extortion through “war taxes” from maras in their home country.

One of them was a 23-year-old Honduran man who left his country five years earlier because the mara was looking for him after he had fled the ranks of a gang that he had been forcibly recruited into at the age of 13. “I’ve been deported 27 times from Mexico. The Mexican migration agents don’t care why you’re leaving your country. They make fun of you.”

Despite clear evidence that this people are at risk, Mexican authorities are not only mistreating migrants from Central America but they are failing to comply with the law that states that it is their obligation to provide protection and direct them to the right place so that they can request asylum. Instead, Amnesty International has documented that in many cases people looking for protection are being turned back to risk by Mexican authorities.

And it’s not only authorities that are not listening. Mexican citizens are not willing to speak up for them either. Two months after the earthquake I explained the situation of people fleeing from Central America to several groups in Mexico City. I asked them if they would call on authorities to respect Central Americans’ right to ask for protection. Even when most of them said they might do so, they all had their doubts. They all questioned their security in relation to the newcomers. They also presented some doubts about helping foreigners before helping people from their own country.

They seemed to have forgotten, they seemed to have not payed attention to the fact that the strong willed people from Central America who had been through unimaginable risks and threats previous to the earthquakes, were there for Mexican people when they needed it the most. What is stopping Mexico from stepping up and at least abiding by the law that will allow Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadoran people to have a chance at life?

Mexico must not forget that, when in need, Central Americans didn’t think twice about their lives and their safety before going out to help, and Mexicans were happy to take that help. Let Mexico be willing to give that help right back.