SALTILLO, Mexico (Reuters) – Dozens of migrant refuges in Mexico have closed their doors or scaled back operations in recent weeks to curb the ravages of coronavirus, exposing people to greater peril just as migration from Central America to the United States is on the rise again.
Reuters spoke to people responsible for over 40 shelters that had offered refuge to thousands on a route where illegal immigrants often face assaults, robberies and kidnappings – before the pandemic forced them to shut or limit capacity.
The closures are a fresh headache for migrants already coping with reductions to the southern routes of a Mexican cargo train known as “La Bestia” (The Beast) that has long helped them get north.
Fewer shelters mean fewer safe places for Central Americans to take cover, even as many walk hundreds more miles than before, over a dozen migrants told Reuters.
When the main shelter in the northern city of Saltillo, a busy staging post on the road to Texas, shut before Christmas due to a COVID-19 outbreak that killed its founder, dozens of migrants were left to camp on the sidewalk outside.
Alarmed by the prospect of gangsters who often prey on migrants in the city, an important transit point for violent drug gangs, they organized their own night patrol.
“At night, suspicious cars park nearby or circle the area with two or three men inside,” said Honduran migrant Michael Castaneda, 27, who helped organize the sentry. “We know the gangs are watching us, and they know we’re watching them.”
A network of privately funded shelters provides food, legal and medical aid to tens of thousands of migrants traversing Mexico each year. Run by non-governmental agencies or religious organizations, they are subject to government rules, including health laws that have forced some to close in the pandemic.
Castaneda wants to reach the United States to work and send money back to his parents and three younger siblings to rebuild their family home, which was hammered by two devastating hurricanes that hit Central America in November.