Christ’s Path: The Story of Padre Alejandro Solalinde

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by Emiliano Ruiz Parra for Gatopardo Magazine

Translated by Marianna Manganiello, Kayla Kohlenberg, and Mayreni Heredia
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

See a PDF of the original Spanish article here.

Alejandro Solalinde purchases a thirty-cent cappuccino and leaves a fifty-cent tip. He washes and irons the five white, mandarin-collared shirts and two guayabera shirts that make up his wardrobe. He doesn’t own suits but the whiteness of his clothes is enough to transmit elegance and finery. His watch costs fifty pesos (a Casio illuminator), and has not joined the generation of Blackberry, iPhone, and iPad-using priests. He does, however, spend a small fortune on prepaid phonecards for his cellular phone used primarily to receive phone calls from the national and international press. He sleeps on a hammock inside a small bedroom clustered with clothes, backpacks, and books belonging to his collaborators but tends to render that space and instead, places a mattress in the yard where he spends his night accompanied by his bodyguards. If a migrant arrives at the shelter with his feet torn and aching, he immediately buys him a pair of shoes identical to his. He doesn’t have a desk, or a secretary, or an office.

He receives his guests in a small space beneath a palmtree-roof, and it is impossible to hold a conversation with him for more than two minutes before someone interrupts him to ask for a bar of soap, toilet paper, money, or a glass of water. He takes quick showers in a small bathroom that he shares with the shelter’s volunteers and uses a toilet that flushes only after manually dispensing bucket-fulls of water into them. If there is a watermelon in the Juchitan market’s donations he will eat it with a smile on his face regardless of its freshness. Four state police officers from the Oaxaca government look after him—which he only accepted after Margarita Zavalla, the president, Felipe Calderon’s wife personally insisted—but there are no vigilantes to follow him on his frequent crusades, so from the central bus terminal at the city of Ixtepec, a small village of twenty-five thousand habitants in the state of Oaxaca, southeast of Mexico, he once again becomes a sheep amongst wolves. He carries his clothes in a broken suitcase of poor quality that has lost its handles and wheels and which leaves his yellow towel an arm’s length away.

Solalinde is one of few people who reinvents themselves and does their best work after they turn 60. For years, he was no more than a village priest, with all of the sacrifice and conviction that such a position requires, but without much social, political or religious influence. In addition to his religious studies, Solalinde double majored in History and Psychology and completed a masters in family therapy. Solalinde is a generous administrator who prefers to give money before saving it. He takes a chance by opposing an industry in which the highest politics conspires with organized crime: the kidnapping of migrants. He will never be consecrated as bishop, as he speaks his mind to regarding his mother Church: a church he believes is not faithful to Jesus, but rather to power and money; a church that is misogynist and mistreats laypeople and women, and a church that is not the exclusive representation of Christ on Earth.

At age sixty-one, he decided to open a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, not only as a means to intervene in human rights violations against undocumented Central and South Americans, but also to prepare for his own retirement. Solalinde had tired of the disputes among priests in the diocese of Tehuantepec – situated in the Isthmus of the same name, on the Oaxacan coast of the Pacific Ocean. He took a two-year sabbatical to study psychology, against the counsel of his Bishop, who told him that it was useless, because at his age he wouldn’t be able to retain the knowledge — and definitively renounced administering a parish.

“Before starting this migrant shelter I was a simple person, common and ordinary, unknown. I chose to do the work that I do because it is a peaceful way to enjoy the last few years of my life, serving anonymously, peacefully, privately, a way in which I would like to retire,” stated Father Alejandro Solalinde on the 29th of June of last year, in the Casa de Lamm in Mexico City, where he inaugurated an art show. After visiting Ixtepec, Oaxaca in the beginning of June, Father Alejandro Solalinde continued his travels to Mexico City. On that occasion, he went to the presentation Rostros de la discriminación (Faces of discrimination), a show of fifty artists who, animated by Gabriel Macotela, donated their paintings to support the network of shelters that host and defend the human rights of Central American migrants in Mexico.

After only four years of coordinating the Hermanos en el Camino shelter, Solalinde has become one of the most notable figures, not only of the Catholic Church, but also of defenders of human rights. Thin, soft-spoken, and courteous, he is a magnet for controversy: he has been accused of being a smuggler of migrants by a delegate from the National Migration Institute (INM); municipal authorities wanted to burn him and his shelter with gasoline; he has seen repeated death threats, and has asked for pardon for the Zetas [Mexico’s most notorious gang], who he considers victims of a violent society. Risking his life, he sheds light on the holocaust suffered by the undocumented Central Americans in Mexico, who nobody cares about. In Central America, he became a legend to the point of being known as “the Mexican Romero” in reference to Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador murdered by the dictatorship.

In each migrant who arrives at his shelter, Solalinde sees the face of Jesus. “They have taught me that the Church is a pilgrim and I myself am a migrant. They have taught me great faith: the hope, the confidence, the ability to raise yourself up, remake yourself, and follow the path. It would be fantastic if as Catholics, we had the capacity of the migrants to rise from such falls, and continue walking on the path of Jesus Christ.”

The Accomplices (The Migratory Holocaust)

In Mexico, which has turned towards barbarity due to the dispute over drugs, there is no worse humanitarian tragedy than the exploitation of Central American migrants. They are the easiest money: the kidnapping of each one of them reports between one and five thousand dollars of profit, and thousands or tens of thousands are abducted per year. They do not vote in Mexico, therefore no political party cares about them. Their money does not remain in Mexico, therefore the government does not invest a penny to protect them. They are not a group with social clout or lobbying power; therefore, the press publishes their stories only sporadically and in an anecdotal manner. They do not leave alms in the churches of the country, therefore only a marginal part of the Catholic Church deals with them, under the indifference of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Óscar Martínez, a young Salvadoran reporter, wrote the memorable book, Los migrantes que no importan. En el camino con los centroamericanos indocumentados en México [The migrants who don’t matter. On the trail with undocumented Central Americans in Mexico], after spending three years on the migrant routes. Martínez documents how Mexico shifted from assaults perpetrated by small local bands in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Veracruz to the industry of mass kidnapping: from the thieves and the rapists with machetes and guns, to the commands of Zetas with rifles and the authorities as accomplices. The rise of kidnapping coincided with the presidency of Felipe Calderón and the militarization of the fight against drug trafficking.

The National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) is the only governmental entity making an effort to document the abuses against migrants. Between September 2008 and February 2009, it recorded 9,758 kidnappings; between April and September 2010, it recorded 11,333. It is very probable though that the figures are still short of the reality, as the great attraction of the business is that no one will be held accountable. No one looks for the disappeared migrants, and, those who suffered abduction hardly ever report it because of mistrust of the Mexican authorities and the urgency to continue the journey north.

The war against drug trafficking has led to the official narrative of a clash of the forces of order against the forces of crime. From the government’s side, there are good soldiers and policemen who protect society from evil lawbreakers that roam the streets. This hypothesis loses validity when it comes to the kidnappings and abuse of migrants. The authorities are often involved in the violations of human rights of the undocumented, whether it is the municipal police, the state, ministerial, or federal police, INM agents, or sometimes, elements of the Army.

In 2010, Amnesty International (AI) published the report Invisible Victims, in which the most recurrent adjective is “widespread”: kidnapping, rape, extortion, murder, disappearances, and the complicity of the authorities are all widespread, as widespread as the indifference of the different levels of government. Mexico is experiencing a “hidden epidemic” of abductions, above all on the borders and migrant passage routes: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Veracruz, and Tamaulipas. Perpetrators, he states, kidnap “more than a hundred migrants” at a time. Out of the 238 victims and witnesses who have given their testimony to the CNDH, “ninety-one stated that their abduction had been the direct responsibility of public officials, and another ninety-nine observed that the police were acting in conspiracy with the kidnappers during their captivity.”

Amnesty International: “According to some experts, the danger of rape is of such a magnitude that human traffickers often force women to be given a contraceptive injection before the trip, as a precaution against pregnancy resulting from rape.”

The Amnesty International (AI) report addresses not only the abuses of the Federal Police, the Federal Investigations Agency, and the army, but also the kafkaesque process, those to whom victims were subjected and dare to share that: months passed before they were subpoenaed to make a statement — meanwhile several witnesses and victims have gone to the United States or to their country of origin, but in the meantime they must live off the charity of the migrant shelters —, and when abusive police ask them to identify themselves, they present them with distorted photos that are unrecognizable.

One will observe the testimonies collected by Óscar Martinez, in the Amnesty International (AI) reports, and in the data I collected in the Hermanos en el Camino migrant shelter in Ixtepec when I met with the photographer Alex Dorfs-Man to write about this report, the stories of kidnappings are equally cruel, like that which Alberto, a Honduran who had stayed to work as a mason in the migrant shelter with hopes of raising $3,000 to pay his family back for having paid his ransom: migrants are kidnapped in groups and brought to ranches and safehouses. They request the telephone numbers of their families in Central America or the United States. Those who don’t provide the telephone numbers or who don’t have them are murdered immediately. Alberto was held for a week with nine others from his country, beat with boards (tablas) on their lower backs (this is where the verb “tablear” comes from, associated with the Zetas) He heard how two had been executed because their families didn’t pay their ransom. Two others never returned. Six survived and were freed but they left their families with a catastrophic debt.

The Zetas, says Óscar Martinez, don’t necessarily execute those who are kidnapped, but rather, they gather local gangs and put them to work for them. The same approach is taken with authorities of all levels. Criminal organizations co opt all levels of hierarchy: Central Americans who they allow to pass undocumented and who gain the trust of migrants to give them information about their families; local police, federal authorities, gangs, small drug dealers, taxi drivers and even vendors who they employ as guards. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Alejandro Solalinde — whose name is the most quoted in the Amnesty International (AI) report, ten times mentioned — compares the abuse of the migrants with the oil industry. The migrant shelter Hermanos en el Camino, says, it is a garden atop a rich deposit of oil that a political-criminal mafia wants to drill. He mentioned Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, former governor of the state of Oaxaca (2004-2010), as one of the bosses of this mafia.

“With [the administration of] Ulises Ruiz I make it clear that they want to create a large company with migrants: to make big money by extortion, kidnappings, human trafficking. The mafia, from the government down, municipal president, the judicial branch realized this was the jackpot, that here they had a captive audience”, he told me.

Ruiz Ortiz attacked the shelter. Gabino Guzman, Ixtepec’s municipal president (2008-2010) who accompanied the mob with intentions of burning it down, was one of the subordinate politicians. When Ruiz Ortiz was governor, Solalinde was asked to close the shelter by both the INM’s delegate, Mercedes Gomez and his bishop. In exchange, he was offered a piece of land three kilometers from the train tracks, too far of a distance for migrants to consider the risk and never go, “and where business wouldn’t be a burden to our supporting governor”.

“I told the bishop that I would happily accept because now I would have two shelters, and he clarified, ‘No, only one’”. The superior clergyman and Gomez Mont insisted. Solalinde resisted. The federal functionary was upset and Solalinde questioned his bishop: “Be careful not to be used against me by the powerful”. The priest made the statement to the Esquila Misional magazine (April 2011), of the “combonianos” missionaries, which is profusely distributed amongst the member of the Catholic Church.

The “Hermanos en El Camino” shelter belongs to a network of fifty other shelters, refuges, homes, and parochial of the Catholic Church (priests, seculars, and religiously-unaffiliated volunteers) who offer some type of assistance to the Central Americans. “The main support that migrants receive”, says AI. “Thanks to their efforts there are more migrants that do not succumb to the exhaustion, the dangers in exposure to the elements, and the hunger throughout the journey. At times, they play a major role in documenting violations of laws and abuse by state troopers and particular groups of people and encourage/empower migrants to seek justice. They also help combat the xenophobia that sometimes arises in local communities. Those who defend the irregular migrants are simultaneously, victims of frequent attacks”.

Solalinde argues that it is not a lucrative business in volume but rather, a political strategy to do the dirty work for the United States: Using fear as a tactic to regulate immigration in that country. “The Federal government—Felipe Calderon understands—has a government policy with the United States. The United States is their ally and is his friend, and so it is the friend who must make himself responsible and do the dirty work, guard its backyard, and if it has a government policy, it must have a government strategy, which is the migrant policy that it is implementing with the migrants. Mexico is embarrassed and doesn’t have the courage to build a wall and seal the border once-and-for-all, which would be the honest thing to do, because it knows that if it did it wouldn’t have the moral authority to demand the removal of the border with the North, so it has a government policy of omission, which is how they deal with kidnappings”, he told Carlos Martinez—Oscar’s brother—reporter of the digital, Salvadorian newspaper, Elfaro.net.

Behind the migratory topic lies a normative debate: Is migration a felony or a right? Until 2008, undocumented migration was punishable for up to ten years in prison by Mexican legislation. Mexico opted for a closed-doors policy to immigration but an open-doors policy for emigration. Eleven percent of the Mexican population fled to the United States, where irregular immigration is criminalized. In defense of it compatriots, Mexico turned into the “leader in protection of the emigrants”, as the chancellor, Patricia Espino, stated last October. But the abuse towards Central Americans embodied the Mexican hypocrisy.

For Solalinde, migration is a right. With that principle and alliance with other supporters of human rights he urged Mexican congress who, in the end, approved a Law of Migration promulgated by Calderon on June 25th. The law decriminalizes the irregular (illegal) immigration and grants a “transmigration visa” valid for one-hundred-and-eighty days, that permits immigrants, on the way to the United States, to travel safely and legally.

Even when amongst migration experts, it is often referred to as the “Solalinde Law”, the priest did not stop there. He insisted on information about the INM disappearance, which Solalinde classifies as irreparable corruption by the kidnapping mafias.

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