Padre Alejandro Solalinde is one of the most passionate and vocal advocates for human rights in Mexico. He opened “Hermanos en el Camino” (OR Brothers on the Road) a shelter for Central American migrants in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, in 2007. Each year the shelter provides thousands of migrants with a safe place to rest, food, and medical attention. But in the five years since it opened, the shelter has become more than just a stopping-off point for migrants heading north for work; it has become a center for activism on their behalf.
Padre Alejandro works ceaselessly for migrant rights, constantly pressuring the Mexican government to provide migrants with better protection. This work has placed him in direct conflict with corrupt politicians and drug cartels, which abuse, exploit, and kidnap migrants. He has received many death threats over the years but in recent months the number and intensity of the threats have increased. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that the cartels and corrupt politicians have finally succeeded in driving Padre Alejandro out of Mexico, at least for now.
I met Padre Alejandro in February when I spent a week at “Hermanos en el Camino”. Padre Alejandro lives there, in a small second floor room. There are two dormitories for migrants, but many people sleep outside because of the heat and mosquitoes. Cold water is used for bathing and laundry. Meals are extremely simple—made with whatever food has been donated. Padre Alejandro takes his meals in the shelter’s large dining room, although it’s a wonder he’s able to find the time to eat anything since people are constantly coming to him with requests. Like everyone else on staff, he doesn’t get paid.
Padre Alejandro’s whole life has been dedicated to helping the most vulnerable and ignored. “I have always worked with people we in the Catholic Church only help a little because [priests] are celebrating Mass.” he says. “I see [migrants] as sheep without a pastor. Nobody helps them, they’re assaulted, many things are done to them and no one is concerned about them. I said…I have to concern myself about them. If other priests are dedicated to religious service, then at least I have to dedicate myself to helping [migrants].”
Migrants travel through Mexico on top of cargo trains. Most come from Guatemala, Honduras, and Salvador; a few from Nicaragua. Most hope to make it to the United States. Studies have shown that 80 percent of them will be assaulted somewhere along the way, and 60 percent of the women will be raped. Kidnapping is a huge business for drug gangs and local thugs: ransoms usually start at $1,500. Between April and September 2010, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission cited 210 mass kidnappings that took 11,333 people. Padre Alejandro impinges on the kidnappers’ lucrative business.
When we spoke in February, Padre Alejandro acknowledged the dangers of the work he does. “We are always receiving threats,” he said. “Always, always. Not just me. There are more than fifty shelters for migrants…. We are like a collective and are damaging the interests of drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and corrupt corporations. It is dangerous, yes.” It took some convincing, but he was finally persuaded to accept bodyguards. His driver, Reubén, is a former policeman. Four state police guarded the shelter when I visited, but Padre Alejandro knew he was not safe. “I don’t believe that the police can protect my life,” he said. “They can kill me right now if they want.”
Padre Alejandro is now in Europe talking to politicians and advocates about the continuing abuse of migrants in Mexico. The trip will give him a much need break from the stress of living under death threats. He also hopes the situation in Ixtepec may improve while he’s away. Whether or not it does, he plans to return to Mexico in early July to continue his work. “What is clear to me is that I have to fight,” he said. “Above all, I feel responsible to be with the most vulnerable, the people most excluded, the people most forgotten. It is my vocation to be with them.” So long as he follows that vocation, he will remain a threat to the drug cartels, corrupt politicians and all who abuse migrants. He will also remain at grave risk.
Learn more about the “Hermanos en el camino” migrant shelter at http://hermanosenelcamino.org/
© 2012 – 2016, Joseph Sorrentino. All rights reserved.