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In Mexico, rising tension at shelter for migrants

FOREIGN EXCHANGE

Travelers from Central America keep coming, despite the danger of the journey and the lower odds of finding work in the U.S. And locals are feeling the strain.

May 06, 2012|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Migrants watch television and sleep in THE crowded San Juan Diego migrant shelter in Tultitlan, Mexico.
Migrants watch television and sleep in THE crowded San Juan Diego migrant… (Keith Dannemiller, For…)

TULTITLAN, Mexico — The travelers, with bloodshot eyes and sleep-wrinkled clothes, press around a man with a map of Mexico taped to the wall. He speaks, and his finger traces various routes north to the border. All roads lead to trouble.

Up here, kidnappers and drug killers. Over there, Mexican army checkpoints. Farther along, a giant desert, with poisonous snakes and deadly heat.

Listeners rise on tiptoes to see better. A woman asks for a piece of paper; she wants to remember the name of the Mexican state bordering Arizona. Sonora. Others swap hesitant looks but stay silent, like soldiers being briefed on a terrible foe.

They are migrants, almost all from Central America, and they have endured much to reach this place, a church-run shelter about an hour's drive north of Mexico City. And they will endure more. The man with the map is a volunteer whose job is to make sure they know how much more.

The San Juan Diego Migrant House is hundreds of miles from any frontier, but in many ways it crystallizes the wider border-crossing drama: the hope and desperation of those caught up in the inexorable human flow, the irritation of residents on the receiving end of so much humanity.

This day, the church shelter is jammed with more than 100 migrants, who sprawl across floors and sagging bunks or squat on a sun-scorched concrete patio outside. Nearly all have ridden atop freight trains to reach Tultitlan, a rail crossroads in central Mexico that serves as a launch point for any number of paths to the northern border.

Gerson Varela, 26, from Honduras, had arrived three days before with a horror story from the road. Two of his cousins were wounded by gunfire, he said, when bandits boarded their train in southern Mexico. One cousin lost an eye in the attack, the other cousin was still missing.

The trio had been aiming for Atlanta, but Varela was thinking of turning back. He felt trapped between two bad options: forward or back.

"They say it's dangerous," he said of the road north. "But there's no work in our country.... You have to go somewhere else if there's nothing in your country."

The steady flow of people to the church shelter has rankled residents of the working-class neighborhood, called Lecheria. Some homes sport banners asking that the shelter be shut down.

Neighbors who once gave the foreigners food and a place to sleep say they now feel dismay as trash piles up in the street and migrants get high in plain view. Some locals are intimidated by knots of tattooed young men. There have been robberies. Fathers keep daughters in at night.

"We neighbors are not against them," said Luis Rodriguez, a 44-year-old mechanical engineer whose grandfather settled in Lecheria in the 1940s. "But things have changed."

Rosalva Martinez, 56, who lives on the dead-end street where the shelter is, sounded a lot like frustrated border dwellers in the United States when they talk about an influx of undocumented Mexican migrants.

"We're citizens, and we pay taxes," said Martinez, who works in an auto-parts store. "A country has to take care of its own first."

Residents have appealed to city officials, who say migration isn't under their control.

Christian Rojas, a baby-faced Roman Catholic priest in charge of the shelter, said the church wants a better location. Meantime, he said, offering bread and a roof to strangers is simple Christian mercy.

"They're people who didn't come for pleasure. They came for pure need," Rojas said. "This is a social problem, not a church problem."

Similar migrant shelters are said to be full all over Mexico, a sign that Central American job-seekers keep coming, despite poor odds. Economic doldrums in the United States mean jobs are hard to find, and tougher enforcement makes it more difficult to slip across the U.S. border.

On top of that, the migrant trail through Mexico has become a deadly gantlet, as drug gangs such as the Zetas increasingly prey on migrants to extort money.

Two years ago, 72 migrants from Central and South America were massacred on a ranch in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, about 90 miles short of Texas.

Migrants pouring off trains near the Tultitlan shelter say they know about the massacre. But, clutching tattered rucksacks, they say they hope for the best.

"It's always been dangerous," said Santos Ulloa, a 33-year-old Honduran wearing a Colorado Rockies cap. He last crossed five years ago, before Mexico exploded in violence.

Worsened risks are forcing cruel calculations. The shortest and cheapest route to the border from here is through Tamaulipas. But, as home to a bloody turf war involving the Zetas, it is also the most treacherous.

Gustavo Martinez Castro, a 20-year-old Salvadoran with close-shaved hair and Vans sneakers, said he would go that way to reach New York. Martinez walked to the wall map of Mexico and fingered an imaginary trip from the center to the Texas border and beyond.

He caressed the blank expanse to the north.

"Ah," he said, "the United States."

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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