A Border Run Around the Planet

Ross Hernández

New solidarities on the Pan-American Highway.

On Sundays, Tapachula is the world’s city. In this town on the southeastern edge of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, migrants from nearly every continent, each uniquely desperate to flee the border town circumstances have built around them, keep out of the afternoon rain by huddling under the shallow awnings of downtown businesses. Central American, African, Indonesian, Cuban, and Chinese migrants dissolve into the crowd of locals in their Sunday best. The hair braiders pick up their carton chairs from the sidewalk, grab their bouquet of hair weaves, and rush out of the public square of Tapachula’s Central Park. The cellphone chip vendors lean against the walls, still doing a brisk business. A group of musicians helps the marimba player haul his instrument out of the rain and into a dry taqueria where the band plays a quick set and passes the hat for tips.

On this particular Sunday, in August of 2019, as the locals shuffled through Central Park and its shopping centers, buying necessities for another week of work and another year of school, with the passing rain came the first modest demonstration in what would be an escalating storm of protests by African migrants in Tapachula. A crowd had gathered in front of Siglo XXI, the detention center where many migrants were first held when they crossed the border. Now, outside of the front gates of the detention center, they were recording on smartphones personal testimony about their journey to Mexico: arriving by plane from Africa, they had walked from Ecuador through Colombia, crossing the perilous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, a sixty-mile stretch of jungle where, according to a recent article in The Nation, “drug traffickers . . . and criminal syndicates threaten all who enter,” and where many migrants have lost their lives this year. Those who made it then traversed Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala — the vast majority of the distance trod out on foot. Now, they were stuck in Mexico where, they said, the government was doing everything possible to make sure they would remain. Their message was clear, written in three languages: We are here to transit. Not to ask for asylum in Mexico.

I visited Tapachula, after a summer of work in Tijuana, with a team of academic researchers (four from the Autonomous University of Chiapas and two from the University of California, Davis) who decided to take our project and university resources to Mexico’s southern rather than northern border. To document people’s stories and do research on migration, but also to put food in mouths and find new ways to organize. What we had initially expected to learn about migration in the summer of 2019, however, turned into a lesson on protest and international solidarity in an age of mass displacement.

Camp outside Siglo XXI. Photo: Rosss Hernández.

On June 7, 2019, the United States and Mexico concluded a new and newly heavy-handed trade agreement. During talks between the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Donald Trump, the US threatened to impose a progressively escalating series of tariffs on Mexican exports (reaching 25 percent by October 2019) if the Mexican government did not meet the Trump administration’s demand that it prevent the formation of migrant caravans in southern Mexico, as had happened in years previous and in 2018 in particular. With little leverage in the negotiations, Mexico was strong-armed into becoming the US proxy on Mexico’s southern border. This imperial shakedown by Trump has succeeded in creating a bottleneck of migrants, trapped in Tapachula, and prevented by border police and the Mexican National Guard from continuing north.

As Todd Miller writes in Empire of Borders, Mexico has long acted as a proxy for US immigration policy, willing to “‘protect’ the U.S. border from 1,000 miles away.” As a result of these draconian immigration policies, Tapachula now functions as what Dr. Ernesto Zarco, a native Tapachultecan, calls a “prison city,” a space of confinement for migrants from all over the world who cross into Mexico from Central America. But whose prison is it, and who holds the keys?

One might look for answers in the US-style shopping center that occupies its outskirts, on the road to the beach and Puerto Chiapas: Starbucks, Walmart, a few fast fashion stores, a food court, a Holiday Inn. Passing out of the hotel lobby, a colleague and I note a score of gringos, young men, floating in the pool, drinking Coronas. The hotel concierge confirmed that this flotilla was US military. In the nearby conference room, UN affiliates held an event on the migration emergency in Tapachula. The day after the June 7 agreement was signed, Mexico deployed six thousand of its National Guard to the Guatemala border. Their advisors and trainers were bobbing in the pool.

“People do not want their voice to be heard. We are done talking. Take pictures and video of what’s going on here, so people can see for themselves what we are going through.”

In August 2019 there were an estimated three thousand Cameroonians living in Tapachula. Many of these migrants had been instructed by family members already in the US to bring money for two weeks in Mexico, to endure detention in Siglo XXI, wait for the processing of their application for a humanitarian visa, and buy a bus ticket to Tijuana where they could ask for political asylum in the United States.

None of this advice was helpful for migrants arriving in Tapachula after the trade agreement was signed, however, and few Cameroonian migrants could speak Spanish. One migrant, Adamo, met my colleague Brooke in a pharmacy near Central Park where he was struggling to communicate with a clerk and purchase an inhaler. They exchanged numbers and, later that week, Adamo asked Brooke if she would be willing to translate the letter he had received, rejecting his application for a humanitarian visa. As the Mexican government installs more military checkpoints on highways, in order to inspect the travel documents of transiting migrants, these visas have become indispensable. Without a visa, migrants are subject to imprisonment, deportation, or worse.

The letter Adamo received stated that the government rejected his application because the name on his passport and secondary ID did not match that written on his application, where Adamo’s first and last names were transposed and where, in another place, his middle name appeared as his last. An immigration official had filled out his forms for him at the Institución Nacional de Migración (INM) office, in Las Vegas, but done so incorrectly. As a result, Adamo would have to start the process — which can take up to sixty business days, according to the INM — all over again.

In the following week, Adamo and his Cameroonian comrades briefed us on the ongoing political crisis in Anglophone Cameroon. In 2016, Anglophone professionals, doctors and lawyers and teachers, went on strike to demand that their language and institutions be recognized by the Francophone government. The movement culminated in a massive demonstration in which Mancho Bibixy Tse, an Anglophone newscaster, and Felix Ngalim, a teacher and teachers’ union organizer, gave voice to the demands of the Anglophone minority. Tse professed that he was ready to die “while protesting against the social and economic marginalization of Anglophone persons in the hegemonic Francophone state.” These speeches were given in the streets of Bamenda, a major city in Cameroon’s Northwest Anglophone region, and accompanied by a symbolic coffin, underscoring the life and death urgency of their plight.

These protests eventually became a “Coffin Revolution,” involving a tactic named the “Ghost Town,” essentially a general strike which, through the withdrawal of all public activity, completely shut down the Anglophone economy for two days in January.

The Cameroonian government escalated its repressive response and, on September 21, 2017, a peaceful demonstration of Anglophone protesters carrying palm branches turned into a massacre when the police began firing on them. By October 1, police and the military had begun shooting protesters from helicopters. With protest no longer possible, Anglophone militants formed a secessionist army. The state has now burned more than 190 villages in the region the Anglophone secessionists now called Amazonia. In a familiar chain of events, what started as a struggle for self-determination and against internal colonialism turned into a civil war and resultant genocide from which tens of thousands of Cameroonians have been forced to flee. A significant portion of these Cameroonians have passed through Tapachula before attempting the final leg of their epic circumnavigation of half the globe.

There came a moment when I realized we were no longer recording stories. Jei, a member of our team, asked me to accompany a Cameroonian named Guyzo to the hospital. We had spent two weeks working in a shelter for migrants, teaching English to the adults and playing games with the children, and had often seen Guyzo lying in a bed in a dark corner. He would lean on the shoulder of one of his few friends in the shelter in order to pee on the ground outside, after which he would topple into a wheelchair like a great tree. Guyzo’s legs were completely incapacitated, limp stumps from which his swollen feet hung like latex gloves filled with air. When his flip flop fell off, I saw discolored sores on his pale soles.

Guyzo was a gigantic man who spoke with me in English and French, alternating between lucidity and hallucinatory rambling about a friend and compatriot named Cook. After the medical personnel drew blood from him, apparently to run some tests, they dumped him on a stretcher in a hallway at Tapachula General Hospital’s emergency room. We spent twelve hours in the hallway while other patients and the medical staff ogled the black migrant, making snide remarks and pointing: mira el morenito. During those hours Guyzo spent waiting for his test results, he was never once offered a bed, a blanket, a pillow, or a bite to eat. Everything was fought for or supplied by me and Jei ourselves. When the gringo (I) finally lost it, yelling at the entire hospital staff in alternating Spanish and English, a doctor with kind eyes assured us that the results from Guyzo’s bloodwork would be there soon. Jei and I should go home and get something to eat, he said. Get some rest. He assured us Guyzo would be given a bed for the night and another IV bag of saline for his dehydration and edema. Jei and I could come visit him in the morning, the doctor said, smiling.

As we went home, I imagined Guyzo in a bed, propped up with a pillow, eating yogurt and sending selfies to his friend Cook: Ha fa bro. I di fine. Jei and I ate tacos, made plans to return in the morning, and slept deeply. When I returned to Tapachula General in the morning, I checked every ward, every floor of pain and and misery, searching for Guyzo. When I couldn’t find him, a security guard stopped me in the hallway to show me his record book. El morenito ya se fue. According to the book, ten minutes after Jei and I had left the night before, the hospital staff had yanked the IV out of Guyzo’s arm, stuffed him in a taxi, and sent him back to the shelter.

African migrants confront open contempt like this everywhere in Tapachula, where overlapping layers of antiblack racism and discrimination against non-Spanish speakers turn their days into impossible labyrinths. Spanish-speaking black migrants from other parts of the Americas, it must be said, also face antiblack racism. As a result, black migrants have needed to create their own spaces to share food, listen to music, speak their languages, let down their guard, and escape the prison city for just a moment. One such place is called Papa Africa.

Part restaurant, part hotel, and part workshop, Papa Africa is an underground refuge for African migrants. Situated outside the throngs of Central Park, the walls are high and the gates shut tight. It is a space of relaxed improvisation: Cameroonian club music plays through Bluetooth speakers, black kinship expressed in Pidgin, delicious food.

After a while sitting in the shade of Papa Africa, cooling off from a long walk in Tapachula’s 90-degree humidity, the men at the table decided it was time to ask why I was there. I told them I was working with Adamo because there was an error on his documents.

“Same with him,” Adamo said, pointing to his friend across the table. “He has the same problem. Bureaucratic error. Denied because they wrote his name wrong. There are probably hundreds of us. Ask around.”

The man who shared Adamo’s predicament said something under his breath in Pidgin and everyone laughed, wiping their eyes. Seeing that I hadn’t understood, he translated: “I’ve been telling my family to stay and die in Cameroon. Better than dying waiting here in Mexico.”

The bureaucratic error we had seen in Adamo’s documents looked increasingly deliberate with each day, as we encountered more and more African migrants with misspelled or incorrectly ordered names on their documents. At the INM offices in Las Vegas, migrants lined up every day to make corrections to their applications. When given appointments, they were promised the aid of a translator, but when the time came no such services were available — the translator was late, was busy, was no longer employed at the office. At the end of these meetings, some migrants were told to go to another office called Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (COMAR) within ten days of receiving their denial letter. But the offices at COMAR only process asylum applications for Mexico, they were told. As the bureaucratic barricades piled up, it became clear we were witnessing something systematic, a machine doing exactly what it was supposed to do by breaking down and doing nothing. Bureaucratic inefficiency is, it turns out, a very efficient means of administering violence.

The first protests outside of Siglo XXI went by without much attention from the local or international press. The protesters worked up chants and signs into English and Spanish. They camped outside of the detention center in tents and talked to officials who exited the front gates. They demanded safe passage through Mexican territory in order to petition the United States for asylum, and swore not to stop their protest until their demand was granted. On the third day, the Mexican National Guard tried clearing the plaza around Siglo XXI. They dragged women around on the ground and pushed into the crowd with their riot shields.

After the frustration of the first week, the protesters devised a new set of tactics. On Monday, August 26, thousands of them arrived at Siglo XXI in the early morning to prevent detention center workers from entering for their shifts. INM workers had to climb ladders to get over the detention center walls, captured in pictures the protesters took and distributed. Migrants attempted the same tactic the next day but the National Guard showed up and teargassed the crowd. Videos surfaced of National Guardsmen boxing with defenseless migrants in the street and military beating black men over the head with shields.

At a press conference two days later, protesters announced that they had formed The Assembly of African Migrants, through which they would articulate their African solidarity in a set of common demands. The next day, August 30, thousands of migrantss marched through Tapachula’s main thoroughfares, blocking traffic and interrupting business as usual.

Our team watched the first phase of protests on Whatsapp. While we edited stories for the migration archive in a house outside of San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the Chiapas highlands, we helped disseminate the videos Adamo, Guyzo, Cook and members of the Assembly of African Migrants sent us. We contacted news organizations and NGOs, formal and informal organizing groups, everyone from the UN to a group of anarchists in the Bay Area. And yet, despite the flood of videos, images, and statements beamed to us by our Cameroonian comrades, we always had a sense that we did not know what was actually going on. It always seemed some urgency had been drained from the images, some injustice left unarticulated. These distances — these miles of social meaning — attenuate international solidarity by obscuring root causes and rendering invisible the interdependence of such struggles with ours, an interdependence that works through the obscure exchanges of political powers and corporations whose names we know but whose actions occur in the dark of history. As Eduardo Galeano noted in The Open Veins of Latin America, describing the same dynamic as he saw it in 1971, “the more freedom is extended to business, the more prisons have to be built for those who suffer from that business.” For every supply chain stretching round the world there is also an equal length of survival migration by any means available.

When I returned to Tapachula in September, Adamo and his group of Cameroonians were already on their way north. The US had won, because its forms of international action are faster than those of the antagonists to border, empire, and state, the links of its chains formed from steel and concrete not tarps and plywood. The US prevented the formation of a caravan in summer 2019 and many African migrants still remain trapped in Tapachula. Those with money were left no choice but to disband their groups and pay the guides called polleros to lead them through Mexico in private cars, where they are sure to be harassed and extorted at every turn by the police and military. Guyzo had begun walking again with the aid of a wooden staff. He too had hired a pollero and had chosen to risk the highway north rather than die in Tapachula. Cook was still around, and back at Papa Africa, we had a not-so-hypothetical discussion about which business to rob and how.

By September, the protest at Siglo XXI had turned into an encampment, an occupation by the African migrants with no place left to go. Some had been living there for a month. Mats, tents, towels, sleeping bags, and blankets were spread over the ground or hung to dry on the metal barricades that kept the encampment from blocking the front of the detention center. On a pillar at the entrance to the detention center someone had written Barrio Moreno (black neighborhood) in black spray paint. At Tapachula General Hospital a woman named Kudu from the Democratic Republic of Congo gave birth to a baby boy and named him after the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“Look, Mexico!” the residents of Barrio Moreno say. “Look at how you treat your president!”

Among residents, there were different ideas about what was needed. Henry, one of them, said they needed shelter. Valentine, another, said they needed lawyers. But surely they needed both, surely to attempt to order the many demands, the many oppressions, of this international of migrants in resistance, would be absurd. Francophone Cameroonian, Henry had fled because he was persecuted for being gay. “People do not want their voice to be heard,” Henry said. “We are done talking. Take pictures and video of what’s going on here, so people can see for themselves what we are going through.” The point is not just to tell their stories but to change them.