“The caravan is something magical that happens where you have mothers who have only been able to cry over their disappeared child, and now the majority of them are organizers in their communities. They are defenders!”
Martha Sánchez Soler is the co-founder and president of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement. Every year, Martha leads a caravan of mothers from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala whose children have been disappeared in transit through Mexico to the United States. She spent much of her earlier career as a teacher.
How was the idea to organize a caravan of mothers of the disappeared born?
We travelled the length of the migratory route from Central American countries to northern Mexico, and we found there were small groups of mothers who were organizing to look for their children. But as they came without documentation papers, without money, without knowing Mexico—the majority of them arrived at the border and didn’t find anyone. What struck us as the most important thing was to support these mothers in their journey. The caravans have been building momentum and achieving their goals, which are, first and foremost to find their family members, and second, to put this issue onto the national agenda so that it’s not swept under the rug.
What does the Mesoamerican Movement of Migrants try to respond to?
We respond to the reality of what happens to migrants as they transit through Mexico—they’re threatened, they’re robbed of everything they carry, they are assassinated and disappeared. There are over 70,000 Central Americans who have in recent years disappeared in transit. We are a political movement, strong at fighting: protesting, demanding justice, visibilizing what happens, and also helping families to find each other.
What motivated you to dedicate your career to fighting for migrants’ rights?
I’m the daughter of Spanish refugees. I was born in France, I’ve lived in Spain, Mexico, the U.S. and now again in Mexico, so I’m a professional migrant! I’ve always worked in social struggle. When you look deeper, you see it’s always the same problem: economic systems that are absolutely unjust.
How has the situation of migrants changed, and has their security worsened?
Every moment, the situation worsens, because receptor countries have decided their strategy to prevent migrants from arriving at their borders is repression and containment. They never advocate to correct the causes of migration, which would be the only way to stop it. Migrants will keep moving if they are in danger in their country, or, if they’re dying of hunger, because there is a lack of opportunity to make even the most basic living. Land gets expropriated to make way for tourist developments and other projects, and the people don’t see any opportunity for themselves! Migrants are essentially Central Americans, but there are now also Africans and Haitians going through Mexico towards the U.S.
What are the dangers that migrants come across on their journey?
The U.S. used to be the chief deporter [of Central American migrants], but now Mexico is the lead deporter. So, the first thing that can happen to migrants is deportation. The second is extortion along the whole route. The third is that there are lots of checkpoints along the traditional routes used, so now migrants disperse among hills and in forests where they are at greater physical risk, and also in danger of local gangs or organized crime attacking them. And those attacks can start with kidnappings and asking the families of the migrants for money. If ransoms aren’t paid, they’re in immediate danger of being killed. The majority of women are raped on the trail. It’s calculated that over 80% of women are sexually attacked, as much by their companion travellers as by Mexicans.
The caravan draws attention to the plight of the mothers of the disappeared. What do they confront when their sons and daughters disappear?
The problem of disappearance is one where there is no closure, because you don’t know what happened. You don’t know if someone died, or if they are alive. You don’t know if they are jailed, or if the mafia has them. This is what tortures mothers, and keeps them in limbo. There are mothers whose child disappeared 20 years ago, and during the caravan, they are crying like it was the first day.
What do you think is the role that mothers play to address the issue of disappearances?
The caravan is something magical that happens where you have mothers who have only been able to cry over their disappeared child, and now the majority of them are organizers in their communities. They are defenders! The empowerment that this collective work of the caravan gives them is very important for them to change their quality of life. They don’t stop suffering, but now it’s a proactive form of suffering, and not one of defeat. They’ve gone from being victims to warriors.
Visit the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement's website.
Read about the Caravana.
Read more about Martha, and her visit to Ottawa this June as part of a delegation of Mexican women human rights defenders.