More than 100 immigrants from Central America arrive daily in a neighborhood near Mexico City
Stowaways on cargo trains heading north to the U.S., they stop at shelters along the way
In a neighborhood known as Lecheria, an immigrant shelter enrages residents
Local police fire gunshots into the air to break up a massive brawl
Neighbors on this tiny, sun-soaked street know each other’s names. They pray together at a church with stained-glass windows that they can see from their front steps.
But for years, they say, immigrants have been pushing their community apart.
Residents here say they stopped feeling safe when strangers started lingering on street corners and leering at locals. They created neighborhood watch patrols to keep crime in check.
“It’s not that we’re against immigrants,” Osvaldo Espinosa says. “We just want them to get rid of that house.”
It’s the kind of complaint heard often these days in small-town America or on blocks in big U.S. cities struggling with a flood of foreign residents.
But this house is in Mexico, where activists warn that fierce anti-immigrant sentiment in some places has become just as strong as it is north of the border.
More than 100 immigrants from Central America arrive daily in Lecheria, this working-class neighborhood outside the country’s capital. Most are Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans who don’t stay long; they are stowaways on cargo trains heading north to the United States.
But for more than three years, many of them have stopped on Espinosa’s street for warm meals and a few nights’ sleep at an immigrant shelter. It is one of dozens in Mexico run by the Roman Catholic Church.
Priests said the Casa del Migrante – the immigrant’s house – was a safe haven for vulnerable people on an increasingly perilous journey.
Residents told public officials, reporters and police that people living near the shelter were the ones who were in danger.
Black and white banners went up outside homes. “Residents of Lecheria demand the closing of the Casa del Migrante.”
Inside the shelter, words were painted on a wall beside a map of Mexico: “If the immigrant is not your brother, God is not your father.”
‘Almost everybody gets assaulted’
Juan Jose Arevalo Larios was barefoot when he walked through the Casa del Migrante’s door last September. Dried blood was caked on his toes.
“They stole my shoes from me,” the Honduran immigrant said, describing a robbery a week before that also left him without money and without his brother’s phone number, which he had tucked inside his wallet.
It’s a grim reality known by many of the stowaway passengers on the unforgiving train immigrants for decades have nicknamed “The Beast.”
“Almost everybody gets assaulted,” Arevalo said.
Attackers could be fellow immigrants, drug gang members or people in police uniforms, he said, worrying about what might happen if he is targeted again.
“If they kidnap someone and he doesn’t have money, they kill him,” he said.
Standing near Arevalo on a narrow patio outside the shelter, Ever Alexander Ramos nodded in agreement. To protect himself, the 29-year-old from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said he picks up rocks along the tracks before jumping on the train. Onboard, he always holds one in his hand, even while he sleeps.
A refuge from danger
Criminals regularly target thousands of migrants passing through Mexico, according to Amnesty International, which noted in a report last year that immigrants face “serious abuses from organized criminal gangs, including kidnappings, threats and assaults.”
Authorities found the bodies of 72 slain immigrants from Central and South America on an abandoned ranch near the Mexico-U.S. border in August 2010. That year, more than 11,000 immigrants were kidnapped nationwide, according to an investigation by Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights.
In May, police investigated another grisly discovery: 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies, dumped beside a highway less than 80 miles from the border. Authorities said they couldn’t rule out the possibility that the victims were immigrants. Officials from El Salvador searching for missing migrants asked for DNA samples from the victims to see if they matched up.
But despite the dangers, the flood of Central American immigrants traveling through Mexico is showing no sign of slowing.
“It increased a lot,” said Christian Alexander Rojas, the priest in charge of the shelter.
In a year’s time, the number of Central American immigrants coming to the shelter more than doubled to a daily average of 150, he said. About 90% hailed from Honduras, which faces widespread poverty and the world’s highest murder rate, according to the United Nations.
“Their government has washed its hands of them,” Rojas said.
Beaten, bruised and broke, they crammed into the Lecheria shelter.
Some came with broken bones. There are no passenger-friendly stations on this journey north. Often, immigrants – perched on top of the train and crammed between its cars – jump off while “The Beast” is still barreling down the tracks.
Even inside the shelter, the danger of the journey is impossible to forget.
“Here, yes, everything is very nice,” said Antonio Lazo, a 31-year-old carpenter from El Salvador. “But one has to go back into the street and face the reality. There’s nothing good about the train.”
A man hobbled by on crutches, his leg in a plaster cast. The man is lucky, said Lazo. “Many lose their feet, or the train kills them.”
Still, the promise of escaping poverty and sending his family money from the United States makes it worth the risk. At home in San Miguel, El Salvador, he has struggled to find work, and he has a wife and three young children to support.
“It’s part of the journey. When you walk out of your house, you know this is what’s coming,” he said.
On a weekday afternoon, dozens of immigrants stood in a circle, their heads bowed. Beside them were rows of brightly colored bunk beds and stacks of mattresses that almost reached the ceiling.
At night, the rectangular room with rules posted on the walls is where they slept. Before lunch, it is where they prayed.
A nun started off the session.
“We ask for them protection and health,” she said. “And that they can find another house to stay in.”
Residents chant, ‘Immigrants, get out’
Inside the shelter, immigrants got medical checkups, clean clothes donated by local church congregations, free phone calls to the United States, warm meals and a soft place to sleep.
But after their two-day stays were up, most immigrants took the beat-up backpacks they checked at the door and left without a trace.
Last August, a 19-year-old Guatemalan immigrant’s body was found beside the train tracks near the shelter, which he had left just a few days before. Bruises covered his face, indicating he had been stoned to death, witnesses said. Rumors and allegations flew about who was behind the attack.
Days later, dozens of angry neighbors blocked the door of the shelter in a six-hour standoff. Some threatened to burn down the building. Others chanted: “Immigrants, get out.”
When authorities wouldn’t shut down the shelter after months of complaints, the neighbors decided to take matters into their own hands
“We came to symbolically close the shelter,” said Jesus Mendez Morales, a 47-year-old construction worker who lives nearby. Neighbors blocked the door, preventing immigrants inside – who had planned a candlelight vigil in honor of the slain 19-year-old – from leaving.
“It coincided with an event they were planning,” Morales recalled. “How great, because this is exactly what they do to us.”
Martha Morales said that time and time again, immigrants have blocked her doorway, slept on the sidewalk and urinated in the street in front of her house.
“We are afraid now to go out at night. We are imprisoned in our own homes,” she said.
The neighborhood’s protests drew attention from human rights activists, who said xenophobic anti-immigrant fears were fueling their rage.
Residents said it was unfair to label them racists.
“There’s a lot of focus now on the immigrant. They don’t focus on us now, the Mexicans. What happened to our rights?” said Justino Espinoza, a 64-year-old retired boxer.
Signs of immigrants in the neighborhood are clear, said Mercedes Lopez Gonzalez. They litter the streets with clothes, plastic bags and cans of beans, she said, and crime is on the rise.
“There, they assaulted a woman,” said Lopez, pointing down the street from her food stand a few blocks from the shelter. “There, they tried to take a 15-year-old girl.”
It’s hard to know exactly who is behind the surge of violence in the neighborhood, she said.
“We don’t even know anymore if they’re from here or they’re immigrants. … There are some who come in good faith,” she acknowledged.
A man beside her chimed in: “There are others who come because they already killed people in their country.”
The end of an ‘oasis’
Last Saturday, local police fired gunshots into the air to break up a massive brawl.
Clashes started, church officials said, after trucks bringing food to the immigrants blocked the entrance to a resident’s house. Immigrants jeered when the resident complained. And a verbal altercation quickly spiraled into a physical fight. One truck driver clubbed a resident with an ax.
“It’s understandable that the neighbors didn’t stand there with their arms crossed. They also started to attack, throwing stones and sticks,” Rojas told reporters. “They threw a woman to the ground and kicked her.”
Two days later, Rojas and other church officials wrote signs with magic marker on neon poster board, and tacked them beside the cross at the shelter’s front entrance.
“Casa del Migrante ‘closed.’ Immigrant friend, continue your journey.”
The shuttering of the shelter drew widespread attention.
Immigrant rights advocates described it as a significant setback, warning that long-simmering xenophobia toward Central American immigrants in the area had reached a boiling point.
“They face racial discrimination and social exclusion,” Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission said in a statement.
“Mexico is repeating the immigration policy of the United States. If we don’t look at ourselves critically, we could fall into the same trap,” said Raul Vera Lopez, a Catholic bishop in the northern city of Saltillo, according to Mexico’s state-run Notimex news agency.
On Wednesday, Rojas described the shelter shutdown as “a momentary situation.” Church and government officials are searching for a new location, he said.
But authorities have provided no time frame for a new shelter to open, or details about where immigrants should go.
“In the end, this house was an oasis,” Rojas told reporters, “and they no longer have it.”
That same day, Rosalba Alvarez said she was sad to see the shelter close, and doesn’t agree with her neighbors.
“For one that did something bad, all the rest are paying for it,” she said as she swept the sidewalk in front of her house near the shelter. “There is no evidence that all of them (the immigrants) are that way, as they say, drunks, drug addicts, dirty and aggressive.”
Down the street, Justino Espinoza planted a white plastic lawn chair in front of his house. It was the first time in years, the 64-year-old said, that he had the chance to sunbathe without a Central American immigrant begging him for money or food.
A few blocks away, a group of immigrants took shelter in the shade beneath a tree. They napped beside the train tracks, on a bed of dirt and stones, preparing for the next leg of their journey.
CNNMexico.com’s Hanako Taniguchi contributed to this report.