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The Tapachula detention center The Tapachula detention center where migrants are held without recourse to human rights protection.

7 lessons from 3 nights in a migrant detention center

The Mexico News Daily reporter was locked up in October

Mexico News Daily writer Ben Wein reflects on his incarceration last October in a detention center in Chiapas where more than 100 “rescued” migrants are held, some for months on end, under extrajudicial detention. 

There was no explaining my way out of it. Once the immigration authorities in Chiapas had demanded my passport, and I was unable to present it, my fate was sealed.

Ciudad Hidalgo, the small town on the Guatemala border, is where most undocumented migrants enter Mexico with their eyes on the United States. Immigration officials dot the road between the border and the nearby city of Tapachula, where I’d safely and regrettably stowed my passport in a hotel room.

Resistance seemed futile, and dangerous. Beside some inattentive immigration agents was a soldier with a very large gun. He looked perfectly well concentrated.

I protested but was promised I’d be taken to an immigration center simply to verify my details in a database. I readily accepted that premise, but truthfully I had another motive: as a journalist recently arrived to cover the migration crisis, I was intrigued to see where it would all lead.

Clarity came swiftly. I was loaded onto a bus by National Guardsmen with some 40 Haitian migrants and a few Central Americans. It was night when we arrived at the Siglo XXI detention center on the outskirts of Tapachula.

Once inside, it was belts and shoelaces off, and there was no way back. The bureaucrat registering my details had no interest in my tale of woe, nor did the half-dozen armed police in our vicinity. On paper, there was nothing to complain about: the bureaucrat helpfully reminded me that, according to the records, I’d been “rescued.”

It was a blessing in disguise. Tapachula is the heart of the American migration crisis, and the sinister Siglo XXI is its Sistine Chapel. In a place where no journalists are invited, there were some lessons that could only be learned from the inside.

1) Migrants are detained and held in Mexico at the threat of force. The government terms their detention as “rescue,” which is not only a misnomer but a lie. I spoke to many hundreds of migrants in Chiapas, and not one wanted the assistance of Mexican immigration authorities. They feared them. Everyone inside Siglo XXI was desperate to leave but not allowed to. They’d been locked up in large halls with more than 100 persons, guarded by armed police officers in watchtowers.

These prisoners weren’t only endangered by state officials but by other migrants, some of whom were members of Central American gangs. Many people inside were physically ill, and many others were suffering mentally. Hygiene was poor, sleep was scarce and the diet was short on vitamins. Mexico may be a risky place, but migrants sent to detention centers are guaranteed danger.

2) A murderer who has been arrested and imprisoned is in many ways better off than a detained migrant. Given that migrants have officially been rescued rather than arrested, they are not granted the rights awarded to criminal suspects. They have no access to legal representation, and there’s no promise of a phone call. Doubtless, the conditions in Mexican penitentiaries are squalid, but the same can be said for Siglo XXI.

Under extrajudicial detention, all possessions are confiscated, including cellphones and money. Migrants receive a mattress not unlike a gymnasium mat and some blankets and are told to find a place to sleep on a crammed floor. They wear the clothes they arrived in for the duration of their stay. Toilets don’t flush, and the stalls don’t have doors.

Ben Wein aboard the bus with migrants after his arrest in Chiapas.
Ben Wein aboard the bus with migrants after his arrest in Chiapas.

A courtyard area is open during the day, based on the discretion of immigration officials. On my third day, we were forced outside while builders did some heavy construction work inside. I frequently asked immigration officials what the legal capacity of our confines was, but was ignored. Such information was unavailable and no one thought it their duty to answer questions.

Effectively, our rights depended on the whims of disinterested immigration agents. I once asked an immigration official if I could leave Siglo XXI, given that I hadn’t been arrested. “I don’t recommend it,” he replied, gesturing at an armed policeman.

No migrant should have been detained for more than 15 working days, but many had been inside for months. Venezuelans, Cubans and Indians seemed to be confined the longest.

3) The police officers in Siglo XXI wore the uniforms of a police unit that no longer exists. The Policía Federal (Federal Police) was absorbed into the National Guard in 2019, the new security force established by President López Obrador. Why officers from a defunct unit were working in a migrant detention center is a matter for speculation. Some officers worked with Central American gangsters, known as Maras — four boys from Honduras. The Maras tried to break up protests organized by prisoners and they were feared because they were known to work with the police. Many migrants said the police supplied the Maras with cigarettes and marijuana to sell inside.

4) Obedience was a bad strategy in Siglo XXI, but it was adopted by most of the people inside. Immigration authorities seemed too overwhelmed and disinterested to keep close track of who was under their protection, so if a migrant didn’t protest their case, they faced being forgotten.

One Venezuelan journalist, Joel Rondón, repeatedly held demonstrations and managed to attain regular meetings with the center’s ghost like director. Rondón managed to speed up the release of many of his friends. Low on patience after more than a month inside, he feigned an escape one day and was tackled to the ground by police officers who put him in confinement. The next day, he was released. It is unclear why he was released, but making trouble seemed to speed up the process. He is now awaiting an asylum hearing in New York.

My passport was eventually delivered to the detention center by the owner of the hotel I’d been staying at in Tapachula. I was told by officials that my entry stamp was insufficient evidence and that the document had to be “verified” in Mexico City. I spent long periods banging on the locked metal door directly opposite two police officers. I provoked the officers by shouting for an immigration official over and over until they lost their patience and searched for one. It was risky but effective, and getting lost in the system seemed such an awful prospect that it was worth pushing my luck.

Disobedience has also proved effective for migrants outside of detention centers: most of those who have joined migrant caravans, in defiance of Mexican law, have eventually been awarded year-long visas, providing them the right to travel to the U.S. border.

5) The majority of migrants inside Siglo XXI didn’t fit media caricatures. The news media tends to display them as impoverished or dangerous. Firstly, the population was incredibly diverse: while there were many Central Americans and Haitians, I also saw Indians, Ghanaians, Uzbeks, Senegalese people, Cubans, Venezuelans, a Peruvian and even a couple of confused Irish backpackers.

Poverty is only part of the story. Migrants from the Caribbean or from outside the Americas paid for an expensive flight, normally to reach South America. Many of the migrants in Siglo XXI were young, decently educated and pulled by the promise of opportunity.

However, Central Americans, who were a minority in Siglo XXI, did largely fit the profiles discussed on both ends of the political spectrum. Many were fleeing serious hardship and danger, their age range was huge and some were criminals. Most were chancers looking to improve their lives. For them the United States was a couple of bus rides away, and many had worked there before. Given their vicinity and relatively short detention period in Mexico, it seemed logical to take the risk to improve their earnings by some twentyfold.

6) If you’re detained, your embassy may not be of much use. After battling my way to a phone call, there was no answer at the British Embassy in Mexico City. Luckily, I’d been writing to my friend Paulina Martínez Núñez before I was detained. She thought to contact the embassy separately and Vice Consul Andrew Castle was put on the case, apparently from Costa Rica. But the embassy’s assistance was miserly: “Despite numerous calls and emails to the detention center, we received no response,” Castle later wrote to me in an email.

Instead, I owed my release to Martínez. She ingeniously got the head of the National Immigration Institute (INM) in Chiapas on the phone. I was released soon after that call, which had been beyond the capabilities of embassy staff but was possible for a Mexican with the cultural know-how.

7) It wasn’t all bad. Being inside a detention center had its fun side. Sometimes it felt like being back in school, goofing around and playing tricks on the police and immigration officials. There wasn’t much anger at those officials: the migrants and staff were players in a cat-and-mouse game arranged by people in high positions, far from view. The officials were doing their jobs — poorly — and earning their salaries. With a dearth of activities on offer, chitchat was the best entertainment available.

I spoke to migrants from five continents, and everyone had a tale to tell. There was strong rapport between migrants, and unlikely cultural exchanges: Venezuelans bonded with citizens of Burkina Faso. Even the Maras were decent conversationalists.

For people who are down on their luck, the migrants were incredibly trustworthy. Once I had my passport but still couldn’t leave, the document became an object of fascination for the migrants. For them, a passport is everything, and a British passport had the glamour of a Ferrari. Short on entertainment, everyone wanted a look. Naturally, I felt protective of the small but invaluable document. However, the requests kept coming, and I started handing it out.

To their credit, the passport repeatedly disappeared from my view to some other part of the detention center but would invariably return after about 10 minutes, in perfect condition.

Mexico News Daily

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