I spotted her when she was making a call on the public phone close to the tent where I was standing. She had three kids, all less than five years old, clinging to her legs. She spoke on the phone with desperation in her voice and tears streaming down her cheeks. It was the 31st of June at the Migrant Support Center in Nogales, Mexico, just across the American-Mexican border. The CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) delegation, which I was a part of, had come to the support center to volunteer for half a day. Some of us went over to her to hear what was wrong. After receiving a cup of water she began to tell her story. Her name was Erica and she was from Mexico. She had tried to cross the desert to come to the US in search of work and for a better life for her kids. She and her children traveled with her mother-in-law and brother-in-law. When the US Border Patrol closed in on them they scattered in fear of being caught. Erica and three of her children were caught by the Border Patrol. She had no idea what happened to her mother-in-law, brother-in-law and most importantly, her forth child, Eric, eight years old. Rick, our delegation leader, made a few phone calls to see if the Border Patrol or the Mexican consulate had any information about them, while Rae, of our delegation, played with two of Erica’s wonderful children. No one had heard about Erica’s son or the other relatives. We feared the worst, that Eric had been separated from the group and was walking alone in the desert. An eight year old won’t survive many hours in the desert without food and water. The next day we got the call and the good news that we were all waiting for. Erica’s son and her mother-in-law and brother-in-law had been found, all well and alive. We all rejoiced with her.
Four hours work for some coffee
Unfortunately, this is not at all a unique story. From the few days we were in Mexico I could tell you a number of terrible stories. Of women who have to sell their bodies, over and over again, to get across the border. Of men who jump on trains in the middle of the night to sit on the outside of the train car, risking their lives in the process. Of men and women who again and again take the deadly walk in the desert to find a new life in the US, only to be thrown back to Mexico by the US Border Patrol. And many never make it across or return. 5000 persons have died crossing the border during the last 10 years. So why do they do it, you ask. It’s insane! What mother would risk the lives of her small children in the desert? I asked myself those very questions.
Some of my questions were answered when we were invited to Pola, Elisa and Carolina´s home in Aqua Prieta, Mexico. They are all working in a factory on the border. They earn $ 65 with all bonuses included for a 48 hour working week. And that is more than most factory workers make. The average is about $ 1/hour. Farmers in southern Mexico make even less. But it must be much cheaper to live in Mexico, right!? We went into a regular grocery store in Santa Ana, Mexico to check out the prices. They were actually quite similar to what you would have to pay in Sweden or the US. 1 gallon of milk for 44 pesos (which is a bit more than 4 dollars), a loaf of bread for 19 pesos (almost two dollars), one small package of ground coffee for 38 pesos. To get some understanding of how difficult it can be to survive on the average pay in Mexico we did a little calculation. A factory worker in Mexico has to work more than four hours to buy a gallon of milk, around two hours for a loaf of bread and almost four hours for a package of coffee. I would have to work for about 20 minutes to be able to earn that same package of coffee. When I asked about unions, they just laughed, saying that if you risked your job by being “difficult” there would be thousands of people willing to take your place in the factory. They made it clear to us that Mexicans and people from Central America (who often make even less), would much rather stay in their home countries but they go out of desperation, to be able to survive and support their families. NAFTA, the free trade agreement between USA, Canada and Mexico, has devastated the Southern Mexican economy. This is especially true for Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, where more than half of the population is dependent on the production of coffee. The price that a coffee grower can get for a sack of coffee has dropped dramatically since the 1970s, which is why we bumped into so many from this very state on our trip along the border.
The alternative to NAFTA
It does not have to be like this. We saw one example of this when we visited “Just Coffee”, in Agua Prieta, close to the border in northern Mexico. It started five years ago when coffee producers got together in Chiapas and formed a cooperative. They had known for a long time that while they were getting less and less for their coffee, the roasters and exporters of the coffee made huge profits. So why not roast and export ourselves, they thought? That is what they are doing today with Just Coffee (www.justcoffee.org) – you can order directly from their homepage) where they produce just and organic coffee. They are calling it Fair Trade Plus because all profits from the entire coffee production process go back to the cooperative, making it possible for them to make a decent living in their own country.
Outsourcing the dirty work
Thinking about Erica, her four children and countless others who suffer on the border each year, our delegation wanted to do a nonviolence action that showed our solidarity with the migrants and our resistance to the cruel border control system the US authorities have set up. One particularly disturbing part of the system is that the transport of migrants who have been caught by the Border Patrol has been outsourced to a private company called Wackenhut, one of the world’s largest security companies. This means less transparency about what happens to the migrants and less accountability for how they are treated. So at the end of our delegation we headed out in search of a Wackenhut bus, and surely we found one. We took out our posters with messages - in English and Spanish - like “No human being is illegal”, “Love needs no passport” and “The U.S.A…..made by immigrants”. We got cheerful waves of support from the migrants inside the bus. We went over and spoke to the Border Patrol and the driver and asked if we could provide water and food for the passengers in the bus, but they said that they had already taken care of it (Wackenhut has a reputation for mistreating their passengers). We stood with our signs for three hours until the bus left. Then we drove a bit further in our van and planted three white crosses by the road in remembrance of all who have died trying to cross the border.
The nonviolence trek continues eastwards
The delegation is over and tonight I am leaving Tucson, Arizona. After 36 hours on the train I will arrive to New Orleans. For an updated itinerary, see the bottom of the page. I expect that one of the highlights of the trip will be the US Social Forum in Atlanta, the first national Social Forum in the US, where thousands of activists will gather for workshops and talks on how to change this world for the better. I will travel with a van from NYC to Atlanta (for a second time!) with US FOR (www.forusa.org) which is a sister organization to the organization I am working for in Sweden. Looking forward to hear from you along the way!
Peace, Martin Smedjeback