WASHINGTON – The selflessness and courage needed to lend a hand to victims of crime is not a common asset, especially when you live in a place embedded in corruption.
That’s what Belen, Posada del Migrante (Bethlehem, Migrant’s Shelter) in Saltillo, Mexico, exhibits when it protects Central-American migrants who fall victim to organized crime. Saltillo is near Monterrey.
Father Pedro Pantoja Arreola, director of the shelter, was recognized for his service Wednesday at the 35th Annual Letelier-Moffitt Memorial sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies. He was presented with the international Human Rights Award, which has been given to only one other Mexican.
About 150 migrants who have been beaten, raped, mutilated and robbed arrive at Pantoja’s door daily. Most hope to continue their journeys even after the inhuman treatment they endure.
“All of the Central-American misery arrives at my home,” Pantoja said in his acceptance speech.
The shelter, which is mainly run by volunteers, is part of the organization called Fronteras con Justicia (Border with Justice) which has been active for 11 years and has helped more than 50,000 migrants. Most come from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Ecuador and are heading toward the United States.
Pantoja documents the testimonials of all of the migrants. But many of them are not willing to report to authorities out of fear of being sent home.
“Our work is based on the stories that migrants who come through our doors tell us,” Pantoja said.
The economic conditions in their countries push them to seek a better life elsewhere. The only means of transportation to cross Mexico is atop freight trains, which they call “la bestia” (the beast).
Their vulnerability makes them prime targets of kidnapping by organized crime.
Pantoja said 20,000 kidnappings have been reported this year.
Armed criminals assault the trains and take migrants hostage, then ask them for phone numbers of relatives in the U.S. or back home so they can ask the relatives to pay a ransom. Those who decline to provide information are often tortured or killed.
Migrants have reported seeing Mexican agents taking bribes from the criminals to let trucks loaded with captive migrants pass through checkpoints, Pantoja said.
Pantoja met with Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz. His district is along the Mexican border from Yuma to Tucson.
Pantoja told Grijalva he wants the Mexican government to stop ignoring the situation and protect migrants’ human rights.
“There has been a year since the massacre of the 72 migrants in San Fernando and the finding of the mass graves a few months after, but there is no formal investigation,” Pantoja said. “We want to take the government of Mexico to trial.”
He asked that the U.S. rethink the way money is being supplied to the National Immigration Institute of Mexico through the Merida Initiative. He wants the U.S. to know the consequences of providing equipment to corrupt agencies.
Grijalva said Pantoja can count on his support and that Pantoja needs is more public attention.
“We should try to get a broader response from the State Department,” Grijalva said.
He advised Pantoja to file a report with the State Department about what has been happening to the migrants.
Pantoja said he will continue to advocate his cause and try to gain as much support as he can, despite the danger.
“Our project has always been tied to death and blood,” Pantoja said.
Editor’s note: This story was previously published on Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.