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La 72 migrant shelter director visits Beloit, talks migrant crisis

Additional reporting provided by Nathan Marklin’21.

On Thursday, Nov. 7, Beloit College hosted Ramón Márquez, the director of La 72 Migrant and Refugee Center in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico for a lecture titled “Refugees and Migrants in the Southern Mexico Border Region.” The talk took place in Richardson Theater at 12:30 p.m. The event was hosted by Pablo Toral, Professor of Environmental Studies and International Relations. 

Prior to the lecture an information session for students interested in interning or volunteering with the organization was held in the Fireplace Lounge in Morse-Ingersoll Hall. Nathan Marklin’21 attended the session because he spent a month volunteering at La 72 in the Summer of 2018. “It’s a really humbling opportunity to work firsthand with migrants and human rights,” Marklin told the Round Table

Márquez’s lecture was introduced by Claire Ramos’19, who volunteered at the shelter before graduation, and who explained that La 72 is open to migrants who come from throughout Central and South America, mainly from countries from “the Northern Triangle,” an economic term that refers to the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. According to the Beloit College website, La 72 houses around 13,000 migrants and refugees each year since opening in 2011. 

Márquez said that La 72 was built “to respond to the humanitarian crisis and the huge migrant flow of people on the south[ern] border of Mexico with Guatemala.” Márquez explained that the shelter is located at the main point of entry in Mexico from Guatemala, whose border is 30 miles away. However, “Eighty-five percent of people coming in are from Honduras,” Márquez said, explaining that most migrants from Guatemala enter through the Mexican state of Chiapas. Márquez explained that La 72 has become a popular shelter “because we are really close to the cargo train,” which carries materials such as cement, and “migrants hop on the train as a way of transport to the north.” Ninety percent of migrants and refugees coming to La 72 are from Central America, with some coming from countries such as Haiti and Cuba. 

Márquez cited the 2009 coup in Honduras, when democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by the Honduran Army under orders from the Honduran Supreme Court, after Zelaya attempted to hold referendums to rewrite the Honduran Constitution. He cited the coup and the resulting increase in poverty and crime as a reason for heavy migration out of the country. 

The name of the shelter, La 72, is in memory of the 72 migrants killed in the August 23, 2010 San Fernando massacre, which was carried out by the Los Zetas drug cartel members in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The immigrants were shot one by one in the back of the head after refusing to work for Los Zetas, according to one boy who survived by pretending to be dead after a near-fatal shot to the neck. La 72 now has a red wall in their shelter filled with 72 crosses in order to honor the lives lost. “Mexico is not a safe country for the migrants,” Márquez said. “[Immigrants] can move through Central America without a passport, but when they come to Mexico without a visa, which obviously they don’t have, their status becomes irregular, and they are subject to discrimination and exportation.” 

“If this is not a humanitarian crisis, what are we talking about?” Márquez said. “In the beginning they were mostly men, transporting fast, trying to reach the US… but [now] we see an increase in women and children, unaccompanied minors, people in the LGBT community, and elderly people.” Márquez recalled the story of an 81-year-old man who recently came through their shelter. “What is happening in the world that an 81-year-old man is coming across the border?” Márquez asked the audience. “Something is wrong with the world.” 

Márquez cited several reasons for people being “forcibly displaced” from areas in Central America. According to the 2019 World Atlas, Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, followed by Venezuela. Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala are ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth. The World Population Review places Venezuela as having the highest crime rate in the world. Honduras and El Salvador both also make the top 10. 

These high levels of crime and homicide are also linked to government corruption in the Northern Triangle, a term that Márquez addressed as “a military concept,” choosing instead to refer to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as “the northern countries of Central America.” The high crime rates in these countries are related to gang violence and government instability. The elected president of Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández, was implicated in a 44-page document in a US New York District court for money laundering and drug trafficking in order to maintain political power. “It’s a mix of corrupted government and extreme poverty that does not have the minimum requirements to have a normal life,” Márquez said. The term used for these immigrants is “refugee or internally displaced [people].” 

The response from Mexico and the United States to the migrant crisis was a series of efforts to close borders, leading to a number of border crises since 2014. Márquez discussed the caravans of migrants that were most active in 2018, arguing against the word “caravans” is a charged political word. He elaborated, “They are not caravans—this has been happening for years. Caravans do not exist; these are large groups of people claiming their rights… we call them forcibly displaced groups.” 

Márquez cited the harsh response from President Trump to these large groups of migrants as leading Mexico “to do the dirty work” of preventing asylum-seeking migrants from reaching the Southern US border, which included “massive detentions and deportations.” In December 2018, the United States experienced the longest government shutdown in history at 35 days when Congress and President Trump failed to come to an agreement on funds to operate the federal government for 2019, due to Trump’s desire to build a physical wall on the United States-Mexico border. Trump ran his 2016 election campaign on the promise to build this physical wall, falsely claiming Mexico would pay for its construction. In May 2018, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto stated, “No. Mexico will never pay for the wall.”

Less than a month after the government shutdown, Trump declared a national emergency in order to allocate funds for the border wall. None of the previous national emergencies declared by a US president involved circumventing Congress to provide funds that it had previously refused to spend. 

Márquez also discussed the Migrant Protection Protocols, enacted by the United States in 2019, which state that undocumented immigrants can be returned to Mexico and wait for their immigration proceedings outside of the United States. These protocols are “an ironic title… and a dirty decision,” according to Márquez, because migrants are sent to the northern states of Mexico, which “have huge levels of violence.” Travel warnings have been issued by the US Department of State for the northern Mexican border states of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Coahuila due to high levels of crime and kidnappings. 

Another result of the border closures that Márquez discussed in his lecture is the Safe Third Country Agreement signed by Guatemala and El Salvador in 2019 under pressure from Trump and the Mexican government, which stipulates that the US can deport migrants back to Guatemala or El Salvador if they previously passed through those countries on their way to the United States. The title of “Safe” “is ironic,” Márquez said, because of the high levels of poverty and crime in both countries, which now face the strain of supporting asylum-seekers. 

Márquez talked about the “direct consequences of the initiatives,” which include “increased and legitimized violence.” He cited a recent shooting on the Mexican border of a Honduran man, who was shot in the neck while attempting to cross the border. The shooting took place on October 29 during an incident during which over 100 other people were injured by tear gas, according to AlJazeera

One in four people arriving at La 72 are fleeing from violence in Central America, Márquez said, making them asylum seekers and not economic migrants. In order to support these victims, “Mexico is going to have to assume more international protection in 2020,” He said. 

In a speech in 2017, Pope Francis called for Catholics in Mexico to “welcome, protect, promote, and integrate” immigrants. These four verbs can be put into action, Márquez said, and they include the focus pillars of “humanitarian assistance, human rights, vulnerable groups, and structural change.” This level of assistance and aid includes providing food, water, shelter, rest, clothing and hospital care, and assisting in filing police reports on crimes committed, such as kidnappings. In the last five years La 72 has assisted in filing nearly 900 police reports for victims of a crime. 

However, while La 72 can provide temporary shelter and housing, Márquez reiterated that Mexico is in need of structural changes in order to adequately respond to the humanitarian crisis. Currently, La 72 has a new dormitory for women, and hosts dances, movie showings, and games in order to give its residents “some kind of normality to daily life.” 

Márquez spoke for nearly an hour, and the talk was followed by a short Q&A from students. He advised that students can participate in both “short and long-term volunteering” and “can sponsor an initiative” such as “a month of food, solar panels, and remodeling.” When asked about what actions students can take “to mitigate the root cause of migration in Central America,” Márquez said “focus on the election this season and vote,” and encouraged students to pressure candidates to “hold other countries accountable for the policies they create around migration.” He also elaborated on the contribution of climate change to migration, saying that a lack of rainfall affects agriculture, “causing [people] to abandon the farms and look for jobs and shelter in Mexico.” Márquez also warned that “climate change will be the reason for the next massive migration.” 

More information on La 72 can be found on their website. 

Sources: U.S. Department of State, AlJazeera, Foreign Affairs, World Population Review World Atlas.

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