Sin Nombre's Terrifying Political Reality

Slide 1: The world of Sin Nombre

Guillermo Villegas (left), Paulina Gaitan (center) and Gerardo Taracena in Sin Nombre

The world, in all its harsh reality, of undocumented immigrants like the Honduran teenager Sayra in Sin Nombre, is not the chaotic creation of random fate.

The desperate people that leave their homes and illegally cross borders do so for good reasons. The organized criminals who terrorize them on their journey were not born thugs. The officials that prey on their vulnerability are not corrupt by nature. The Americans who detain and deport those who slip through the fortress walls are not uncaring people. 

Each year, tens of thousand of Central Americans leave their families in the hope of gaining successful, if illegal, entry into the United States. Between their home countries and their dreams of a better life in the U.S., lies Mexico.

Slide 2: The State of Mexico

San Diego Minutemen protest in San Marcos in Southern California.

As the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz once famously declared, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

For today's migrants, like Sayra, a riff on that famous quote might be, "Poor Central American, so far from the United States so close to Mexico."

Slide 3: Between the USA and Central America

Mural depicting the distinct modes of passage used by immigrants traveling to "el Norte" in Casa del Migrante in Tecún Umán, Guatemala. (Photo by Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens, published in NACLA.)

On the one hand, Mexico calls for improvements in the treatment of immigrants in the United States. On the other hand, Mexicans can't help but notice that it is hypocritical for their government to protest the treatment of Mexicans north of the border while, at the same time, turning a blind eye to the treatment that undocumented Central Americans suffer in Mexico.

Slide 4: The Border Issue

After taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon established a new force of 645 people to police Mexico's border, most of whom were deployed in Chiapas, to keep out Central Americans. Yet the southern border of Mexico is totally porous, and the main hardship for Central Americans making the trip north is not crossing the borders, but surviving once they get into Mexico.

Slide 5: "A very big monster"

Hundreds of Central American migrants ride atop freight trains leaving Arriaga, Mexico en route to the United States. Among other dangers, many have lost limbs as a result of falling onto the tracks below. (By Carlos Bartolo Solis, Hogar de la Misericordia,

Like in Sin Nombre, many Central American migrants ride the rails north. Just how many was made clear in July 2007, when the Connecticut-based rail company Genessee and Wyoming Inc. stopped operations. As a result more, than 2,500 Central American migrants camped for weeks along the tracks in Tenosique, in the state of Tabasco, waiting for a train that would not arrive. Some gave up and began walking the 200 miles north to the next rail terminus.

Francisco Aceves, who coordinates Grupo Beta, a Mexican government agency that helps migrants, says that corrupt officials are the biggest obstacle that migrants face. The group hands out pamphlets that tell Central Americans how to avoid extortion. He told the Christian Science Monitor, "We are working against a very big monster."

Slide 6: Fighting Back

Rafael Lara Grajales citizens fight back police suspected of being connected to the kidnappers.

Just how monstrous became clear on October 12, 2008, in Rafael Lara Grajales, a town outside of Puebla, Mexico, where local residents rescued more than 60 Central American migrants who were being imprisoned by kidnappers. The victims had been sold to the kidnappers by local police officers for $100 a head. The kidnappers had demanded that the captured migrants give them the names and phone numbers of relatives in the United States or Central America. Those relatives were then called and told to pay ransoms of up to $5,000. Those who refused to cooperate with the kidnappers and provide contacts for their relatives were burned and beaten.

Mauricio Farah, who works for Mexico's national Human Rights Commission, told the Los Angeles Times: "We're seeing an increase in organized crime against migrants. They know the migrants' route. They assault them, pull weapons, threaten them and take them to safe houses."

Slide 7: No Place to Go

Police raid in Ixtepec

The Mexican government is aware of the problem. Cecilia Romero, head of the National Migration Institute, has said: "For the Migrants that try to cross [Mexico's] national territory, we can't give less guarantees than those we demand for Mexican migrants."

The Catholic Church has also gotten involved. In January 2008, the Pontifical Commission for Latin American, which reports to Pope Benedict XVI, granted at least $20,000 to help build a shelter in Ixtepec, Mexico, for illegal immigrants. This good deed raised nativist ire in the United States.

Slide 8: The Fate of the Poor

Texas Minuteman website's lead photo.

Jack Martin of the Federation of American Immigration Reform accused the Pope of "facilitating illegal immigration to this country." He told USA Today, "There is definitely a particular interest on the part of the Catholic Church that derives from the fact that the majority of the illegal immigration into the country is from Catholic countries. It helps fill the pews, it helps fill the coffers, it helps fill the recruits to the priesthood."

But perhaps the church's interest is also humanitarian. Central American migrants in Mexico heading for the United States are desperately poor.

In Honduras, about 40 percent of the country's 7.5 million people earn less than $3 a day, making it one of the poorest nations in the world.

Slide 9: A History of Poverty

United Fruit workers in Honduras.

People are poor in Honduras because for centuries its people have been vassals, first to a Spanish elite, and their descendents, and later to North American fruit corporations.

In 1899, the Standard Fruit Company shipped the first banana out of Honduras to the United States. A banana Republic was born. To protect American corporate interests in Honduras, U.S. Marines intervened in Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, and 1925.

Slide 10: A History of Violence

The CIA-backed Contras used many different types for moving supplies and fighters around different countries in Central America, but also for flights into Nicaragua. This photograph is showing a busy scene from Aguacate airfield, in Honduras, in 1983. (Photo: U.S. State Dept.)

In the 1980s, Honduras became a staging area for the Reagan administration's illegal covert wars against Central American leftists. The one-time banana republic became known as the U.S.S. Honduras.

Through it all, the people suffered. Any attempt by the Honduran people to challenge their powers that be was quashed, often brutally and often with U.S. acquiescence. In the most infamous incident, about 30 nuns and women of faith who fled El Salvador to Honduras following the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero, were captured by the DNI, the CIA-supported Honduran secret police, tortured and then thrown out of helicopters to their death.

Slide 11: Honduras and Others

The Immigrant Workers Union (IWU) and other  community groups hold a candlelight vigil at the Dane County Courthouse in Madison, Wisconsin, to bring attention to the plight of a Honduran family rounded up by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency

Each year about 90,000 Hondurans try to cross the border into the U.S. illegally. And in recent years, tens of thousands of Hondurans are being captured and deported. This puts pressure on the Honduran economy, as the number of remittances decline.

Slide 12: Gang Violence

"We're Making a Killing in Central America." 1989 flyer from an original pencil drawing by Mark Vallen.

The gang portrayed in Sin Nombre, has its roots in the civil war in El Salvador, where the U.S.-backed death squads and military killed tens of thousands of people and forced thousands of other to flee to the United States.

Slide 13: More Gang Violence
This photo was in an exhibit of Salvadoran gangsters titled "Las Maras" by Spanish photographer Isabel Muñoz that was shown in Mexico City's Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo.
Slide 14: A Cycle of Violence

Isabel Muñoz took the photos in a Salvadoran prison. Photos courtesy of Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo

Speaking on the NPR show "Talk of the Nation," a caller, who had recently lived in El Salvador for seven years, said:

"During that time, I visited prisons, and I was surprised to see that most of the people in prisons spoke perfect English and they had been deported [from the U.S.] because of gang activity. … This is a cycle of violence perpetuated by war that we don't often think about living in the United States where we're so far removed from war, but by the end of the civil war in El Salvador, half [of] the population was under 18 years old. … And there were a lot of kids living on the streets. … So there's mass immigration to the United States, where … kids aren't assimilated. [A] lot of these kids grew up seeing nothing but violence as a way to resolve problems [and] dead bodies in the streets and terrible, terrible things. And so what is the way that they see to come together and solve problems?"

Slide 15: Empty Mexican Towns

In Mexico's Cerrito del Agua, freshly painted concrete houses line empty streets because most of their owners are working in the United States. A little more than half of the population of the state of Zacatecas - about 1.8 million people - now live in the United States, especially in areas surrounding Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. (John Gibler, In These Times.)

Likewise in Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement championed by the Clinton administration in the 1990s has exacerbated the kinds of social and economic displacements that make emigration the only feasible option for millions of desperate workers. Despite the growth of Northern Mexico's famous manufacturing maquilas, the much-celebrated trade agreement left that country unable to protect its agriculture and more vulnerable industries from cheaper products made elsewhere in the continent.

Many Mexican factories were shuttered and Mexican farmers found themselves unable to compete with grain imported from the United States. Economic pressures on ordinary people mounted. Mexicans from the countryside streamed north in the United States. Underpaid public officials turned to graft and bribes to survive.

Slide 16: What Their Eyes Have Seen

Soldiers Searching Bus Passengers, Northern Highway, El Salvador 1980 by Susan Meiselas (National Galleries of Scotland).

In her series, "Border Crossings," photographer Susan Meiselas exposed the desperate, secret attempts to escape into the United States away from the violence that was plaguing Central America.

"For those undocumented workers who have crossed successfully, we Americans rarely ask who they are or why they have left their homelands," said Meiselas. "We pass their silent faces on the streets, in stores, even within our homes. We see their eyes, but we don't know what their eyes have seen."


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