In the face of thousands of kidnappings and an inept government, Ruben Figueroa dedicates himself to finding disappeared Central American migrants in Mexico.
On February 14th, Ruben Figueroa helped connect Brigido Lopez Mateo, a 26-year-old Honduran Migrant, to his mother, who had in fact thought he had been disappeared 7 years ago; she had lost all contact with him when he was traveling through Veracruz, Mexico on his way to the United States.
Figueroa travels the vast Mexican territory following small tips in search of disappeared migrants after learning about their cases through conversations with mothers throughout Central America. He is a member of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement that defends the human rights of Central American migrants in Mexico, and Mexican migrants in the United States. This interview was conducted with Figueroa in the Port of Veracruz the day after he helped reunite Brigido Lopez with his family.
Ruben Figueroa: Yesterday, we arrived in the Port of Veracruz to continue to search for a disappeared migrant. We had not concluded the investigation of his whereabouts here in Veracruz when the Caravan of Central American Mothers passed through here last October. On the caravan, 38 Central American mothers had come to look for their children and the children of their compañeras in Central America.
We didn’t conclude the search for Brigido Mateo Lopez until this February when we continued to look for him and were successful. We had some clues regarding where we could find him; with these clues we were able to find someone who had lived with him for a few years and described where we could find him via his work as a construction worker. With the help of some local journalists we were able to find him at a construction site.
We have finished with the first stage of the search, which was locating him, and now the next stage is to connect him with his mom in October. We will do everything we can to help her participate in the next caravan with the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement in October to be reunited with him.
Andalusia Knoll: Is it common that migrants are disappeared while in route to the United States?
RF: We as the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement estimate that there have been between 70,000 and 80,000 disappeared people in the last 10 years. During the last six years during Felipe Calderón’s term the violence has increased and led to more disappearances and assassinations of migrants at the hands of organized crime.
AK: Is it common that when people are searching for their children who are disappeared while crossing through Mexico that they actually find them?
RF: The situation that migrants confront while crossing through Mexico is very complex and dangerous. It’s very difficult to locate disappeared migrants. Last year we were able to connect five Central American mothers with their children during the caravan, and this year we have helped connect one family. We hope to help connect at least ten more migrants with their families this year.
AK: Does the government help search for migrants who are disappeared?
RF: They definitely do not help search for disappeared migrants. Instead, the Mexican government implements policies that leads these young people to take these very dangerous routes, including the freight train, where they suffer from all these crimes such as kidnappings, torture, assassinations, rape and more. The government is not helping nor paying attention nor investigating the disappearances. We as civil organizations and people that are part of an organized community are doing the work of searching, and this year we have found one person. There are more than 1,000 other cases. We are now opening two cases to focus on, one in Jalisco and one in Chiapas.
AK: What is the response of the government when the Central American mothers pass through Mexico? Do they actually listen to their cases and investigate the disappearances?
RF: The government in Veracruz and their police authorities are complicit with organized crime groups who commit crimes against migrants. When we organize the caravans and denounce the disappearances we see a very strong indifference from them, including this case of a mother looking for her son. Sometimes they receive some of the complaints but they don’t do anything with them. There is not a commitment on behalf of the government to do searches. There has always been indifference and inefficiency.
AK: What are your primary demands for the Mexican government regarding the rights of migrants?
RF: Our principle focus is defending the right to free transit and we view the right to migrate as a basic right, not as a law to comply with. All human beings should have the right to migrate and travel freely in this world. Also, they should implement preventative policies so that migration is free of violence. If a Central American migrant suffers from a violent crime there should be some form of justice for them.
AK: Have there been other similar cases here in Veracruz?
RF: Last year in 2012 we helped locate a disappeared Nicaraguan migrant who had not seen his mother for 32 years. He was a Sandinista and had fled during the war in Nicaragua, and had suffered a lot when he entered Mexico; his family didn’t know his whereabouts. We looked and found him, Francisco Dioniso Cordero, and his mother was reunited with him during the most recent caravan.
AK: What inspired you to start doing this work?
I was a migrant in the United States in North Carolina and had the experience of being a migrant, living with migrants etc. I was there from age 16 to 21 and when I returned home, I started to do some humanitarian assistance with my mother and some friends. We got involved in local activism in our community in Tabasco to help migrants in whatever form we could and to denounce what was happening. Then we started hearing about different things, getting more involved in activism and became defenders of human rights. Then I met Elvira Arellano and Martha Sánchez and they invited me to participate in the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement.
AK: What gives you hope while doing this difficult work?
RF: The reason that I’m here is that there is a necessity. There is an urgency to defend human rights and to defend the life of these people in these cases. Often when these migrants are disappeared their mothers cannot come all the way to Mexico to look for them. We are the only bridge to do this work. We have to embody the hope that their mothers have and continue with the search.
There are very few of us that are part of this struggle and we come up against indifference, and also struggle against the government and the organized crime that commits these violent acts against migrants. We say that if we leave this struggle because of the persecution, threats and violence against us, there would be no one who would do it.
AK: Have you personally been threatened for the work you do?
RF: Here in Mexico all of us who defend human rights have been threatened, and been victims of harassment. We are victims of the same police authorities and organized crime groups. The necessity, our commitment and our passion allow us to continue in this struggle.
AK: Are there many journalists who are reporting on these issues concerning the rights of migrants?
RF: The actual work of being a journalist in the state of Veracruz is too dangerous. We believe that there is persecution and threats and assassinations of journalists. Just last year alone there were five journalists assassinated in this region. They are especially at risk if they cover delicate issues such as the kidnappings or disappearances of migrants. We are working together so that we can bring these issues to light and we try to help the journalists avoid being threatened. The government won’t guarantee their rights but we, as a civil organization, will back them up.
AK: To conclude, what should someone who is listening or reading this interview do, whether they are in the US or here in Mexico?
RF: We can’t be indifferent when faced with the pain suffered by others. It doesn’t matter if they are Central Americans, migrants, women, children, or homosexuals. We have to rise to the occasion and be responsible and conscious and always fight so that human rights are respected […] and try to make this world a just world. A world where there is neither discrimination nor violence against people, and demand that the government respects human rights for all the people who live in this world.
Listen here to the audio recording of this interview.
One week after this interview was conducted Figueroa traveled to Chiapas to search for Irene Rugama Escalante, a victim of human trafficking during a migration through Mexico. Escalante had lost contact with her family after losing all her belongings and contacts in a hurricane. Her mother had participated in the caravan in 2011 searching for her, and was finally able to make contact with her through Figueroa’s help.
A few weeks after this interview was conducted Ruben Figueroa received death threats at “Refugio-La 72” a migrant hospitality house in Tenosique, Tabasco after he identified a man who was charging migrants fees to board the freight train. On March 17th Figueroa was once again threatened along with Fray Tomás González, the director of the hospitality house. There is an urgent action and change.org petition calling for an investigation into these death threats, and for action to be taken against the people threatening Figueroa and other human rights defenders
Andalusia Knoll is a multimedia journalist based in Mexico City. She is a frequent contributor to Free Speech Radio News and The Real News Network and collaborates with various independent media collectives throughout Mexico. You can follow her in the twittasphere at @Andalalucha