TAPACHULA, Mexico (AP) — About 3,000 migrants turned out Sunday in what they called a mass protest march through southern Mexico to demand an end to detention centers like the one that caught fire last month, killing 40 migrants.
The migrants left from the city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala. They say their goal is to reach Mexico City to demand changes in the way migrants are treated.
“It could have been any of us,” Salvadoran migrant Miriam Argueta said of those killed in the fire. “In fact, many of our compatriots died. The only thing we want is justice and to be treated like everyone else.”
But in the past, many participants in such marches have continued to the US border, which is almost always their goal. Migrants are mainly from Central America, Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia.
Mexican authorities have used document restrictions and highway checkpoints to lock up tens of thousands of frustrated migrants in Tapachula, making it difficult for them to travel to the US border.
Argueta said that when migrants look for work in Tapachula, “they give us a job, maybe not a humiliating one, but one that Mexicans don’t want to do, hard work that pays very little.”
Organizer Irineo Mujica said the migrants were demanding the disbandment of the country’s immigration agency, whose officials have been charged, and some charged with murder, over the March 27 fire. Mujica called immigration detention centers “prisons.”
The roots of the migrant caravan phenomenon began years ago when activists organized processions – often with a religious theme – during Holy Week to dramatize the hardships and needs of migrants. In 2018, a minority of those involved had to travel all the way to the US border.
This year’s mass walk began well after the end of Holy Week, but Mujica, leader of the activist group Pueblos Sin Fronteras, called it “Viacrucis,” or stations of the cross, and some migrants carried wooden crosses.
“In this Viacrucis, we ask the government to bring justice to the killers, to stop hiding high-ranking officials,” Mujica said in Tapachula before the start of the long walk. “We also ask that these prisons be ended and the National Immigration Institute disbanded.”
Some migrants carried banners or crosses that read “Government Crime” and “Government Killed Them.”
The migrants only made it as far as the town of Alvaro Obregon, about 9 miles (14 kilometers) from Tapachula, before stopping to settle and rest for the rest of the day after walking since the morning.
The migrants stretched out under a covered sports field and under trees in a park in Alvaro Obregon. There was no sign at first of any attempt by the police to block them.
Mexican prosecutors said they would file charges against the immigration agency’s top national official, Francisco Garduño, who is due to appear in court on April 21.
Federal prosecutors said Garduño was negligent in failing to prevent the disaster in Ciudad Juarez, despite earlier indications of problems at his agency’s detention centers. Prosecutors said government audits found “a pattern of irresponsibility and repeated failures” at the immigration institute.
The fire in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, started after a migrant is believed to have set fire to foam mattresses to protest an alleged transfer. The fire quickly engulfed the facility. Nobody let the migrants go.
Six employees of the National Immigration Institute, a security guard at the center and the Venezuelan migrant accused of starting the fire are now in custody on murder charges.
Migrants, especially poorer ones who cannot afford to pay migrant traffickers, have often seen such mass walks or caravans as a way to reach the US border. The successive caravans grew to massive proportions in 2018 and 2019 before authorities in Mexico and Central America began cracking them down on highways.
The COVID-19 pandemic also played a role in halting the caravans as countries imposed health restrictions.
The heat and sheer exertion of the 750-mile (1,200-kilometer) trek to Mexico City usually forces migrants to start walking in the pre-dawn darkness and stop in the early afternoon in towns along the way.
Many of the migrants – some carrying infants or babies in strollers – also seek rides from passing trucks. In the past, authorities sometimes allowed this to happen and sometimes prohibited it. But sheer desperation drives many of the migrants.
Estefani Peroes, a Venezuelan migrant, was walking with her three daughters. In Tapachula they slept on the streets.
“We have nothing to eat, the authorities are not helping us, we are doing this to give our daughters a better life,” Peroez said.