Tijuana is no stranger to desperation. Vagrants, junkies, and deportees are ubiquitous in the streets. Stopping at traffic lights often means shooing away a sinewy street-twitch, scheming to wipe down your windshield with a filthy rag in hopes of a peso or two. The community of the have-nothings is so established that I’ve even seen a street vendor — a man of the street himself, mind you — catering specifically to this demographic with his peddled wares: a light bulb, blankets, old shoes. These unfortunates are embedded in the Tijuana urban landscape.
But the current migrant crisis has even the most hardened tijuanenses wringing their hands. Over the past few months, people have been streaming into Tijuana from all over the world, all hoping for a chance to achieve refugee status in the United States. Current estimates place the total at around 7500 people. That’s 7500 people without money or housing, filling the sidewalks and shelters to a capacity never before witnessed.
The volume of people alone is enough for pause, but there is also the fact that they are all obviously so far from their homes. Black men and women speaking French on the streets of TJ is not the kind of thing that blends into the homogeneous demographic tapestry. Even the local volunteers working closely with the migrants are fuzzy at best when it comes to their places of origin; rarely going into anything more specific than Haiti or Africa. Speaking with the migrants, I’ve found them to be predominantly from Western Africa — Guinea, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone — and Haiti.
The government and the local newspapers are clinging to the narrative that the majority of the migrants flooded to Brazil as hired labor to help prepare for the Olympics, and now, left with nothing but expired Brazilian visas and the occasional Brazilian-born baby, trudge north in search of more prospects. While this is certainly true of many of the Haitians, the Tijuana government’s proclamations should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. As recently as Monday, September 19, Carlos Mora Àlvarez, president of the Executive Council for Migrants, said that a migrant crisis does not exist — “No existe una crisis migratoria.”
Not everyone is strapping on the blinders, however. Local nonprofits such as José Maria “Chema” García Lara’s Movimiento Juventud 2000 — part of the coalition Alianza Migrante Tijuana — are doing everything in their limited power to provide food, safety, and shelter for as many of the migrants as they can. “They have nothing,” says Chema. “When they got to Tapachula,” — a city on the Guatemalan border — “the Mexican government gave them a ‘transit permit.’ Here in Tijuana, they received a stamp assigning them a date where they can enter the U.S. to have their asylum case reviewed. Until then, they are stuck here, waiting with nothing.”
And waiting is almost all that they can do, given that they have no money. During the day, they venture out from the various shelters in Zona Norte and Libertad to stroll around town, often returning to the shelters to seek respite from the sun during the hottest parts of the day. The strip of Segunda (Second Street) and Melchor Ocampo, by downtown Tijuana’s Smart & Final, is a hotbed of activity twice a day, where locals and volunteer organizations hand out food to the hundreds of migrants who flock there for food. Idle hands have some locals and authorities concerned, however, as they are concerned about Tijuana’s criminal element exploiting the situation. Indeed, migrants have loaded into pick-up trucks for a day of manual labor and scratched out deals with “friendly” locals to have money sent to them. Swindling has not been in short supply.
It was on Movimiento Juventud 2000’s back patio, in the heart of Zona Norte (Tijuana’s red-light district) that I met Amadou. He was seated in a plastic chair in the shade of a canopy, surrounded by colorful tents propped open atop bare mattresses. Leaning against a thick wooden support pillar — the creaking of which gave the odd sensation of being at sea — he was unhurriedly writing in a notebook I saw to be full to the margins with neat handwriting. As with all of the migrants to whom I spoke, Amadou was wary and distrustful of me at first. But once he discovered that I was only interested in hearing his story — apparently the first person in his long journey to make such a request — he warmed to me; though he still requested I not use his name, specific dates, or his country of origin. And so, over the yowling of the in-heat cat prowling around fruitlessly hunting pigeons and the fever-pitch fire-and-brimstone screeching of a sidewalk preacher, Amadou told me how he came to be in Tijuana.
“I was a French teacher and director of an elementary school in [a West African country],” he begins, carefully selecting each word and chewing on it a moment before speaking. “In the presidential elections in October 2015, my school was a place of voting, and because I was the director, I was placed in charge of the ballot box. Before the election, government officials made me swear to God that I would accurately report the results of the vote, no matter who won.”
We pause to clarify the translation of “ballot box.” Amadou only speaks French, and he and I are able to communicate solely through the sieve of my wife, Mael Vizcarra, whose French has not been dusted off for close to a decade. Despite this obstacle, nothing remains lost in translation for long. He was a French teacher, after all.
“When the election results came in,” he continues, “our district had chosen the opposition candidate by a large margin. The government officials came to me again, and this time they told me that it was my duty to my government and my country to lie and report that the sitting president had won. This violated my morals and the promise I had sworn to God, and so I reported the truth. Then I was arrested.
“They tortured me,” Amadou says through embarrassed tears. “They accused me of being a militant in opposition to the government, and they tortured me. After a month in jail, a group of us were able to escape. I had to leave in November 2015 and went to Bamako in Mali.”
As Mael relays his words to me, he stares into my eyes with such a vivid intensity that I can conjure the memory of it with little to no effort. I break from his gaze, and he notices my eyes drift to his wedding ring. “I have a wife and a four-year-old daughter. They are still there.” I don’t ask him anything more, and he says nothing else. He just wipes his eyes and continues with his story.
“In Mali, it was impossible for me to find work. My government had stripped me of my credentials, and every potential employer in Bamako was distrustful of an instructor from another country who was labeled as a militant. Nobody would hire me. I stayed in Bamako for five months, trying to find work and make money, but in May of this year, I flew to Quito, Ecuador, on a Turkish airline, because they do not require a visa.”
I ask him if his intention all along was to make his way to the United States, and he tells me that it was. When I ask him if France was ever an option, he tells me that he needs a visa to get to France, and with his credentials in turmoil, a visa is not available to him.
“From Quito, we had to walk through the wilderness of Colombia. We walked across mountains and through jungles. It was hard. All of us that were traveling formed into groups of 20, 40, even 60 people. Everyone was from all over. At first, there were only two of us from my country, but I met more along the way. Crossing into Panama, it was really bad. Many people died. Many, many people. In my group, only seven people died, but in some groups it was almost everyone. I know because we would come upon them. Whole groups of people dead in the jungle.”
At the Colombian-Panamanian border, he had his first encounter with locals preying on the desperate. Local versions of “coyotes” would guide them at five dollars a person, veer them off course, and set them to walking through more swampy jungle where more people would die, until they would come across another “coyote,” and the entire process would start over.
They ran into more trouble at the Nicaraguan border. “It was the worst part of the entire journey,” Amadou says. “The border was closed and the military was patrolling it. They would let none of us through. They were persecuting us. We were stuck there for three months, always being robbed with guns and machetes. Many more people died from exposure. We tried to cross twice but were beaten back each time. Finally we found someone we could pay, and they helped us cross.”
At Guatemala’s southern border, they paid $100 for a bus ride to Mexico. The man who took their money was never to be seen again. Determination somehow unfaltering, another bus was tracked down, and Amadou and 82 others rode through Guatemala to the northern border with Mexico. There, they were sharked yet again by the men pulling the tiny boats across the narrow river into Tapachula, Chiapas. One thousand five hundred Mexican pesos (about $75) and a four-day bus ride later, Amadou was in Tijuana. It was September 11, 2016; almost a full year since his arrest.
Now, he awaits the day when he will plead his case to the United States in the hopes of achieving refugee status. Amadou, like thousands of others, is stuck in Tijuana with no home, no food, and no money. All he has is time, his story, and the charity of those willing to offer any help that they can.
If you would like to offer assistance, Movimiento Juventud 2000 is accepting donations of food, money, clothing, tents, blankets, et cetera at Avenida Constitucion No 205, Zona Norte, Tijuana, BC. Email: [email protected]