THE CENTRAL AMERICAN REFUGEE CRISIS
Photography and text by Christina Simons
Introduction by Melanie Meggs
With a passion for justice and compulsion to observe, award winning international documentary photographer Christina Simons, provides key commentary into the unknown issues, places and aspects of this world. Her work has been exhibited throughout Australia, the United States, England, Spain, Russia and Mexico. Part Icelandic and American, she resides in Australia as a true citizen of the world speaking multiple languages. Having worked in the visual arts industry for over twenty-five years she is a technical master of imagery. Her work traverses many interests including travel, lifestyle and portraiture and is represented in publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian UK as well as working with several NGOs such as Medicines Sans Frontiers and UNICEF.
For her latest solo exhibition and multi-award winning series “Running to Nowhere”, Christina travelled to Central America embarking on a visual journey to pursue, share and expose the...Why? Why…migrants would flee and what are they running from?
Central American migrants have been making the perilous journey through Central America and Mexico for over 30 years. It is an old refugee story but in the current political climate it is not only ongoing but heightened by the family separations and mass deportations from the United States. Yet the numbers of people making this journey has not dwindled.
The journey across borders is made by various means. The environmental hazards of dehydration, food and water contamination, sunburn and disease, as well as the physical dangers of the trains, all come second to the risk of theft, rape, violence, kidnapping, and murder. Why would anyone risk such dangers?
Migrants passing on “La Bestia”: the beast, a freight train that traverses Mexico from the southern to the northern borders of Mexico. The journey is fraught with danger least of all from falling and being injured on the train. The route it takes is littered with migration police, cartel and military all of who want to exploit those riding it. Forty-seven years old Luis is from Guatamala. Two months prior he was chased by migration agents near the river and fell down the cliff landing in some rocks. He woke up 9 days later in hospital with half his face paralysed and four skull fractures. Flesh from his leg had been ripped off. He wants to go to the US to find his son who is in the army but doesn’t know how to find him. He was fine before the accident. He wept, “this accident, this journey has changed my life forever.”
My work on this issue commenced in 2015 with an assignment with Medicos Sin Fronteras (MSF) at their projects in refugee centres in Tenosique and Ixtapec in Mexico. It was profound to me to see hundreds of traumatised people mainly from Honduras and El Salvador, with stories so often the same: all trying to flee the violence and terror they experienced in their home countries. After meeting the individuals…the small children whose parents haunted eyes told me that they only wished for a safe future for their children; what started as an assignment for MSF evolved into a passionate pursuit to share and expose the…Why. Why…they would flee and what are they running from.
Karla Mariana has travelled to Tenosique from Honduras. She has been feeling unwell in her pregnancy, so she is resting on the concrete floor of the Alberge. Two of her five children rest near her. 2016. Rebecca (one year old) sits on the bed that she and her mother, Sandra share in Ixtapec. They are from El Salvador and are fleeing the violence in their country. Rebecca had two uncles who were murdered by the mara gangs and one who was recruited into a mara gang - they have not seen him again since that day. They await papers in a refugee centre known in Mexico as an 'alberge'. 2016. Elisabeth and her son David (14) sit together in the morning before David goes to work to sell mandarins. David is extremely intelligent and the Maras in El Salvador wanted to recruit him in 2015, so they left with only $5 USD. They slept on the streets and travelled by foot for 40 days. They were deported from Tapachula once. Along their journey two Central American men assaulted them by knifepoint. The men took all their money and sexually assaulted Elisabeth. They have been in the alberge for 20 days and are awaiting a humanitarian visa. She has been sexually harassed in the alberge and doesn’t really feel safe but they need to await their visas before they can leave. She wants to work as a chef and send her son to school.
In the 1980s ‘Mara’ street gangs originated in Los Angeles. Having fled from civil wars in Honduras and El Salvador, many joined the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) or Calle 18 (M18) gangs. In the 90s, the US government deported gang members back to their respective countries.
Now, decades later, the relocated ‘Maras’ are running poverty-stricken Honduras and El Salvador into desperate circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in Central America with the hopes for a safer life risking their lives to get to somewhere else, only to face separation, deportation or go into hiding.
Juan - no last name - is 21 years old and from El Salvador. He was born on the streets and has lived there his entire life. His early life was spent with his mother until she died when he was 6 years old. At this time, he was found by MS13 gang members and he was forced to become a spy, informing on the other major Mara gang M18. He spent 15 years working with both Mara groups. In order to cope with the stress of exposure and involvement in violence and killing, he took drugs and self-harmed, evidence of which he bears today in rows of cigarette burns all over his body. He is making the journey across Mexico to begin again and to start a new life without violence. He hopes to experience love and peace for the first time. When Wendy, an ex-MS13 member, was 12 years old both her parents were arrested and she went to live with her sisters. Her brother tried to rape her, so she began to turn to the MS13 gang as a family. With them she felt supported. Once she became a MS13 member, she started using drugs and so she was locked out of her sister’s house. One night she kicked the door to get in and went to bed. Not long after she heard voices of men who broke into the house and she told me “all of them raped me and they stole everything.” Three days later her sister found her, but didn’t believe her account of the rape. She instead accused Wendy of stealing from her. “Because they didn’t believe me, I wanted to kill my sister, so I did and before I could kill my brother I was arrested.” She has now found Jesus and burnt her MS13 tattoos in order to disassociate with the gang. Having done this, she risks being killed by other MS13 gang members as this is seen as a betrayal of her loyalty to the gang. Yamileth aka ‘Siniestro’ (sinister in English) is a 42 year old ex-convict and ex-bandita M18 member. A female gang member is known as a Jaina - similar word to hyena. Yamileth was accepted into the M18 gang even though she was a lesbian, which is usually not tolerated. She was initiated in high school. She started to kill when she was 16 years old. She would nurse wounded M18 men and M18 members and store weapons in her home. She quickly became a senior member of the M18 gang. She described in great detail the way in which they would hunt, torture and kill their adversaries the MS13 members or those deemed betrayers. She was convicted for first degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Upon release she found all the gang members she used to work with and who she considered family, were dead. This was and is her opportunity to exit the M18 gang life: anonymity. She now lives a peaceful life and hopes to reunite with her children.
It was clear that my devotion to document ‘the why’ would require an expedition lasting a few years and which took me all over Mexico, Honduras and Texas, following refugees on their journey meeting people who want to flee, are fleeing, have been deported as well as those in hiding. I have met ‘coyotes’ (those who transport the refugees across the borders) and I have met the people who the refugees are fleeing from.
Eric is 35 years old. He is a ‘coyote’ or ‘pollero’; meaning someone who transports or trafficks people from Honduras to the United States illegally. He’s done the trip 12 times and usually takes two or three people on each trip. He was kidnapped by the Zetas in 2007 for 7 days and by the MS13 in Mexico in 2004. His brother-in-law, Mauricio, was a coyote as well but quit his occupation when he witnessed the murder of a child by the cartel. He had tried to intervene but they beat him up and pushed their fingers into his eyes, blinding him for two days and that was when he escaped. Doris Zulema Brito Hernandez, aged 53, has been charged with Fraud and Human Trafficking. Doris and her husband arranged to take a trailer full of 74 people to Texas in 2003. Of those 19 suffocated, including a 5 year old child. She was arrested at the airport in San Pedro Sula. Family members of those who died filed their reports with the police in separate cities so she was charged in separate states for the same crime. She has three sentences totalling 29 years, which has since been reduced to 22. She has already served 11 years in Tamara Women’s Prison near Tegucigalpa, Honduras. They never arrested her husband because they couldn’t find him even though he would visit her in prison. He has since passed away. Their two children are currently wards of the state of Florida.
I have visited several locations along the route that the migrants take within Mexico. From Ixtapec near the Guatemalan border and the Suchiate River crossing in the south, all the way to Reynosa on the US border. I have visited several shelters all over Mexico with MSF where the migrants stay to recover from physical and psychological trauma. I have traveled north following a group of refugees along their journey. I’ve visited a group of women known as “Las Patronas” who have for over 30 years, thrown supplies to refugees traveling on ‘La Bestia’ (a giant freight train that migrants and refugees hitchhike upon) as it passes in Veracruz.
Laura was part of a large group of seven people travelling together who are all from the same neighbourhood in San Pedro, Honduras. We followed them from their arrival at the Succhiate river for the next 24 hours. After arriving in Mexico they spent three hours walking through Tapachula in the rain trying to find shelter. After evading a tip off from the bus driver to the migration police they were stranded on the roadside a half an hour walk outside Tapachula.
I have travelled throughout Honduras. I spent time both in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa meeting and talking with Mara gang members, ex-members in hiding and prisoners awaiting release. There I also met with many who hope to make the journey north or who have returned or been deported. I’ve met ‘Coyotes’, those who transport or traffic people across these countries illegally for a fee.
Olman Orlando aka ‘Danger’ shows his lip tattoo, ‘Yefny’. He is a prisoner at Danli Prison in Honduras. Upon release he plans to travel like most refugees through Mexico to the United States. Malgda Corales is 34 years old. She started her training to get into the M18 at the age of 12 and was initiated at the age of 13. She learned how to shoot a gun, and how to kill in order to be an active member of the group. At 16 she was arrested for several murders and sentenced to 18 years jail. She killed Ms13 as well as regular people. She has been moved several times around the various prisons of Honduras. Because she dresses like a man the guards beat her like a man.She has been tortured repeatedly in all of the prisons. She is now in maximum security because the M18 want to kill her for trying to leave the group. She has endured several assassination attempts in prison. She has survived 7 gunshot wounds. Human rights organisations attempted to get her out of prison so the penal system sent her to solitary so that the human rights group couldn’t access her. The isolation and abuse is too much so she had tried to kill herself. She is now about to be released from prison and wants to be out of the bandilla and hopes to reintegrate into society. However now that she has tried to leave M18 and they still want to kill her she plans to make the journey through Guatemala and Mexico and hopes to get political asylum in the United States.
I went to Texas on the US/Mexican border only to see what happens to refugees once they arrive in the United States. I visited the Laredo coroner’s office and the John and Jane Doe gravesites in Texas where hundreds of Central Americans finish their journeys in the worst possible way. Yet the better outcomes are grim when faced with brutal deportation policies and family separations. Between 2015 when I began this story it is now an even more desperate story than when I first started it.
The white crosses signify the unmarked resting place of John Doe illegal refugees found dead in Texas trying to find refuge in the United States.
There is a great deal of coverage on the border issues of the United States and Mexico and while covered by the media in parts, there is little enquiry into why Central Americans are fleeing to the United States to begin with. This story is rather the sum of its parts, radiating impact on several countries, crossing many borders. This is my point of difference in my story telling style; a holistic coverage of this issue across all its borders, creating a clear vision of how and why this is happening by focusing on the individuals who are impacted and suffering through this crisis.
Mauricio is 25 years old and from Honduras. He has spent several years travelling back and forth on “la Bestia” the freight train called “the beast” through Mexico, but has never made it to the United States. He survives by begging. Twenty-three year old Elder Anibar is from Honduras. He waits for the giant freight train known as ‘La Bestia.’ Elder was travelling with 6 other family members to help keep the young and older family members safe. ‘There was a lot of crime in Honduras. The maras threatened us so we had to leave.’ They were headed north toward the US when Elsy, Elder’s 55yo - grandmother, fell off La Bestia and injured her ankle so she decided to return to Honduras with her three year old nephew, Joshua. They have all found the journey extremely difficult. Elder will continue the trip with the other remaining four.
My work tells the story of what Central Americans face in their home countries as well as their journeys to America, once they arrive and why they would risk their lives to do this. My hope is this body of work would humanize the individual refugees and their circumstances creating exposure and awareness. I seek to generate compassion in an era where compassion fatigue, racism and intolerance ensues and that these refugees are better received in our respective countries with greater understanding and empathy.
Emerita de Jesús Palma is 79 years old. Three months ago, she travelled all the way alone from El Salvador to Mexico to find her son who is working in a banana plantation in Chiapas, but she got lost on the way. Due to her age she is applying for humanitarian visa as a vulnerable refugee and waiting authorities help to find her son.
During my most recent trip to Mexico in late 2018, the ‘caravan’ from Honduras was moving north through the country towards the US border. There was a lot of disdain for the refugees on social media within Mexico. One of my friends said to me that they were surprised and upset at how many friends they had to delete from their social media accounts because they were so against migrants and refugees. To which, I said "No! Don’t delete them! When we have this exhibition, show them the book, talk to them about it, ask them if they still feel the same way after they get to know these individuals a bit better."
Caught. Two adolescent boys being escorted by the Mexican military to the Migrant police for the deportation back to Honduras. Laura Avila is 51 years old and from Honduras. A year ago she lost her leg on the train “La Bestia” in Torreon Coahulla. “ I left my country to get a better life and I’m returning worse off.” Twenty-eight year old Juan Carlos was shot sixteen times and survived. He sits with his wife Yolani, aged twenty-four. They Are from SanPedro Sula, Honduras, and are taking refuge in Guadalupe refuge centre Reynosa, Mexico where Juan spends his days cooking for other migrants deported from the United States. They didn't want to leave Honduras but they and their families were repeatedly threatened by the Maras. Eventually the maras found and shot him 16 times. Amazingly he survived while the maras believed he was dead. They have spent several months getting to Reynosa, travelling slowly and stopping regularly due to his injuries. Now they are seeking asylum in the United States but they fear deportation even with legal documents. And if they get deported back to Honduras they face certain death. So they will stay in the refuge in Reynosa until they can get asylum legally and with certainty. August 2017.
A key theme of this project is that most of us have come from ‘somewhere else’. If not ourselves, then our family, our relatives, our friends, people we know and care about who are a part of our community. If the tables were turned and our circumstances were that of a refugee, then what would we do? Would we not make the same decisions? In this, we are no different to them.
All photos © Christina Simons
To view more information about the "Running To Nowhere" series and other projects by Christina on her website. You can read an interview with Christina here on the website.