Outer Darkness in Coatzacoalcos: The Plight of Migrants in Mexico

This personal narrative offers testimony from one of the four Mexican cities in which 55% of migrant kidnappings take place. That’s more than half of the United Nation’s estimated 18,000 migrants who are annually kidnapped in Mexico. Scarcity or security on train lines, a plethora of Western Unions used to process ransoms, and the overwhelming involvement of drug cartels make these cities a center for the human trafficking and the direct reaping of corporate profit from the migrant markets in Mexico and the United States.

Sixteen men lie on the concrete floor slapping at mosquitoes. I’m on a foam pad when two figures approach and invite me behind the curtains to smoke. There’s no smoking inside the shelter, nor do I smoke, and yet I rise and follow the two figures behind the curtains, into the near pitch darkness. One of them gives me a cigarette, which I accept, and then he asks me what brand I smoke in the states. You’re from the States, right? he says. Yeah, I say. And, Marlboro, I say, which is a lie.

The two figures are brothers, ages 22 and 19, from Guatemala. The elder brother stands barefoot on the cement, occasionally smacking mosquitoes at his feet. I can’t see his face in the dark. He’s thin and has curly hair and the way he smacks his feet makes me think he’s strong, has thick fingers and a wild, dense sort of energy. I ask them how long they’ve been traveling. They calculate together, chucking out days of the week. A straight two weeks, the elder brother finally decides, and then he begins their story.

Neither of the brothers has made the trip before. They spent all of their money on busses and bribes (he doesn’t detail the bribes) arriving to the Mexican/Guatemalan border. They paid a hundred pesos each to cross the river, which is higher than I’ve heard (I’ve heard as low as ten pesos, or about eighty cents, to cross the Suchiate in a rudimentary raft) and then they’ve been riding trains and begging for food for the past ten days until arriving here, in Coatzacoalcos, a port town in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. The brothers’ plan is to go on chambeando (day-laboring) and hopping trains all the way to the United States. Where? I ask. Where in the States do you want to go?


What kind of work are you looking for?

Any kind of work.

The younger brother hardly speaks, just grunting and wheezing in accordance with his brother. The elder tells me about the first time in his life, just a about a week ago, that he had to beg for food. He and his brother hadn’t eaten anything for three days after jumping on a slow-moving train passing through the desolate mountains in Tabasco and Chiapas states in southern Mexico. He left his brother by the tracks in Palenque, Chiapas, to walk the streets and beg for food. It’s something, he tells me, that gives him shame. The word he uses is verguenza. He repeats the word again and again and each time the word seems to ring in my ears. Verguenza, I think, and I would end up spending what seemed like most of the mosquito driven night, lying on a blood-dotted foam pad, thinking of this shame, his verguenza.

I’m willing to clean, or help in a garden, or work whatever I need to work to earn my food, the elder brother says to me. I want to work, he says. And yet, though he offered to work for it, people just gave him food in Palenque, a few taquitos, un aguita (a flavored water) even a few pesos, and he took what they gave him and went back to share with his brother. And after eating they caught the next train they could to Coatzacoalcos, where we are both staying in the makeshift migrant shelter in the outskirts of the city.

Coatzacoalcos is an important port city on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, right in the lowest point of the dip before the land rises back north into the Yucatan Peninsula. The town is mostly working class and is fed by its busy, dirty port and its thriving petro-chemical factories. The word Coatzacoalcos, which at least three people defined for me during my stay (and it’s worth saying again) comes from the Nahuatl language and literally means: the place where the plumed serpent hides. A recent report by Rodolfo Casillas at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, as described on the 23rd of June in La Jornada, mentions that 55 percent of migrant kidnappings take place in the cities of Arriaga, Chiapas or Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. That’s 55% out of the United Nation’s estimated 18,000 migrants who are annually kidnapped in Mexico. Or, 9,900 kidnappings a year just in the two cities. Or, if we divide evenly between the two, 13 or 14 kidnappings a day in each city. The report explains that the staggering number of kidnappings in Coatza and Arriaga is due to scarce security on the train lines as well as the many Western Unions, which make it easy for the family members of the migrants to deliver ransom money to kidnappers and is yet another example of direct reaping of corporate profit from the migrant markets in Mexico and the United States. The report also confirms the overwhelming involvement of drug cartels, specifically Los Zetas, in “the trafficking of persons” and the “business of illegals.”

The neighborhood surrounding the shelter, Colonia Lopez Matteo, is made of mud roads, chicken-clucking weed patches, cinder block homes with barred-iron instead of glass windows, and a sky littered with knotted webs of electrical cables. The exception is the church’s pristinely new turf soccer field, replete with bleachers, nets, stadium lights and a groundskeeper to sweep up the litter and leaves. The morning after talking with the brothers, on a brief exploratory walk, I crossed a narrow concrete channel rushing with water and trash to climb up to the train tracks. This, as well as the bridge over Avenida Una, is where most migrants jump up or jump down from the cargo trains. Just as I stepped up to the tracks I saw the last of a few men and women jump on the back of a wagon as a train pulled into the distance. They were bound for Tierra Blanca, another hot zone for undocumented persons in Mexico. Every part of Coatzacoalcos that I saw in my brief stay, the humid, dilapidated center, the long pier peopled by sun-weathered fishermen, the smog-coughing industrial zone and the mudded roads of the outer neighborhoods, all seemed to be beating with a sort of tension. The whole city on edge. Migrants begging by the tracks. Private security guards with mismatching threadbare uniforms and new pistols. And the nearly constant clacking of shifting train cars. One of the daily crime newspapers, which costs a quarter and often has bloody photographs on the front page, ran a particularly gruesome photo the morning I left. The headline was La Bestia mató a dos más. The Beast (the train) Kills Two More, along with the image of a man’s shredded body lying by the side of the tracks. The woman who handed me the paper said, Poor man fell off the train. The migrant standing next to me commented, Or was pushed off.

But back to the previous night.

The older brother was still into his story, still slapping at his legs, smacking his bare feet onto the concrete. He was telling me about two days ago, when they first arrived in Coatza. Again, they hadn’t eaten or slept for days. The younger brother, after eating a few cookies a volunteer at the shelter gave him, passed out with exhaustion. The elder brother washed and went to look for work, to find something more to eat. He explained to me again that he doesn’t want to just ask people for money, that he’d rather work for his beans. But he overcame his verguenza and just asked directly. A man at a taco stand gave him a taco. He ate it. A little while later a man asked him if he wanted work. He said that he did.

And now, after flicking his cigarette out of the barred window and into the humid, dark green night, he explains to me, in detail, that you can’t trust somebody by their appearance, that there are good people and bad people everywhere. (The phrase, which I think is too forgiving, is one of the most common refrains I hear on the migrant trails, from the recently deported as well as those still on their way north, that though they suffer assault, kidnapping, beatings, humiliation, family separation, the death of loved ones, rape or the constant fear of and probability of coming violence, there are good people and bad people everywhere, and that you can’t blame all the people of Mexico, or of the United States, for the bad some of its citizens dole out to migrants, and the refrain gets repeated, that there are good and bad people everywhere.) And the brother goes on, You can’t tell by the way somebody dresses, by somebody’s face, or if they smile at you or not, if they’re good or bad.

And I think, Uh-oh, what happened to him?

But I needed to work, the brother continues, and so I went with the guy and we met up with another guy and he drove us out of the city and stopped in front of a house, and then we got out and the other two guys went in the house and said it was time to start working, but I only took a single step inside the house, stopping just inside the door, because you never know. You never know if somebody is good or if you can trust them, or if they’re bad and they’re going to do something bad to you, and then the little brother chimes in, laughing his wheezy laugh, and I am thinking the whole time, Uh-oh, and I think about how frequent kidnappings are in this town, and remember back to a story two Honduran boys told me just a half an hour earlier, also in the dark, also without being able to see their faces.

I was sitting on my foam pad with one of the Honduran boys while the other, rubbing his neck and face with his hands, shifted between sitting on the floor and squatting tailorwise. They were in Palenque, they were telling me, looking to find a coyote to take them north. Then the story, very quickly, got complicated. The two boys were interrupting, contradicting and repeating each other in fast succession. At one point there were fifteen migrants all together, they were broken into three groups of five, they were locked in a hotel room, the kidnappers called one of the boy’s (Omar was his name) sister in Dallas for ransom money. She wired a thousand dollars. In total the two boys lost over four thousand dollars. No that was before, the squatting one said. It was after. It was a thousand five hundred she wired. It was night. It was morning. We were running. We were already locked up. They were working for Los Zetas.

The story was fast, confusing, and awful. In short, the boys were threatened to be turned over to Los Zetas, they were locked in a hotel room, jumped out of a second floor window and then ran for it. Their third friend, who they met on the road a couple weeks earlier, did not escape. They have no idea where he is or how to contact him. They don’t even know his real name. At one point, while listening to this story, two other people sit down with us in the dark. One of the newcomers tells the boys that I can help them, that I can talk, as he said, to Human Rights people and help them get their money back. I tell them, trying to diffuse any hope that might have been ignited, that this is my first night in Veracruz, that I don’t know anybody, that I don’t have any idea how to get their money back, but that, if they want me to, I can talk to the priest if they already haven’t. (Everyone I’ve talked to in the shelter, or in the church that runs the shelter, has deferred to the priest for absolutely everything. The priest is a sweating and fat bespectacled old man who, the first evening I was in town, I heard give a Bible lesson on the place of women in society (“a woman without a husband or children back then [Biblical times] wasn’t a second class citizen, she was a 3rd, 4th, or 5th class citizen” he had said. And, “she doesn’t serve society”). I wasn’t happy deferring to the priest myself, but I didn’t know what else to say. I asked if they’d gone to the police. No, they said, and they said it in a way that I didn’t ask them to elaborate. According to a Mexican congressional report in 2011, more than one-fifth of all kidnappings in Mexico involve police officers or soldiers.

I head this whole story in the dark, after we had been locked into the shelter and before the brothers invited me behind the curtain to smoke. And so of course I am thinking about these two boys being kidnapped by Los Zetas, or Los Zetitas (their low-ranking conspirators) as they’re often called, in the moment when the older brother brings the story just a single step into the house on the outskirts of town for his “day work”, the house he was so hesitant to enter because you never know, he repeats, you never can tell if you should trust somebody by the way they look, or talk, or smile. And so I ask the brother, What happened?


Nothing? I ask.

Nothing, I worked the day and they paid me forty pesos.

Forty pesos?


That’s about three dollars for a day of work, sifting sand and mixing cement, which isn’t complicated but it’s tiring and heavy and forty pesos, I think, would hardly cover the food to pay for the lost calories working the shovel.

I thought, I say to the elder brother, from the way you were telling your story, that something bad was going to happen.

The younger brother wheezes in laughter. The older brother slaps his ankle.

No, gracias a Dios, hasta ahora nada mal nos pasó.

No, thank God, so far nothing bad had happened to us.

The night was long, sweating. As I write this I count 31 mosquito bites on the back of my left hand. There are even more on my right hand. I don’t think I fell completely asleep until dawn. I lay there, a handkerchief over my face, a sweatshirt on, my hands coiled into my sleeves to guard against the mosquitoes. But it was hot, my body wanting back into the air, into the flurry of mosquitoes. Just as I was lying down that night, at the very beginning of what would be such a long night, my neighbor yelped and jumped up.

A rat! he said. A rat just ran across my face!

A mouse? I said, hoping I had misheard him. In Spanish the words mouse and rat (ratón, rata) are more similar sounding than they are in English.

No, a rat, he said.

Another neighbor chimed in that he had seen it as well. A big one, he said, and he showed me how big it was with his hands. This big.

I watched as my neighbor, who had been run over by the rat, stood up and swiped again and again at his face, as if he could swipe off the rat germs. He leaned back down and spot-checked his small backpack, then pulled his foam pad another foot away from the wall, and then he walked to the dishwashing barrel and sink in the corner and wiped his face down with water, washing off the rat germs, and then took a drink from the common cup, and then came back to lie down on his pad.

A rat? I asked again.

A damn rat.

His name, he told me, was Luis. He’d grown up in San Pedro Sula, an industrial town in northern Honduras, and first migrated to the United States when he was thirteen years old. He traveled, back then, with his fifteen-year-old cousin, riding the trains north, walking three days through the Texas desert with a coyote and then getting a ride to San Antonio. He lived for more than three years in the States, in San Antonio, outside of Dallas, then in Durham, North Carolina. His English is still pretty good. He has a buzzed head, Obama ears, a genuinely-happy, frequently-flashing, slightly-crooked smile and I kept thinking he looked a little bit like John Turturro. He is 22.

After the rat incident Luis and I chatted for a bit and he mentioned that he was a soldier for three years in Honduras. I told him I’d heard from other migrants about how difficult Honduran Army training is, how tough Honduran soldiers are, and that I was surprised, I joked, that a little rat crawling across his face had spooked him. Luis laughed, but then fell silent. A few minutes later he started a story about living for a month in the jungle with his squad. They were outfitted, he said, with knives, guns, a mutt-dog named Perceval, and food for a week. A day or so after their food ran out, surviving on rats (big rodents called agouti, or tepeitscuintli, as they’re known in Honduras) birds and fruit, their captain called everyone’s attention, whistled to Perceval, and then killed the dog with a knife. Then, in front of everyone, he peeled away some of Perceval’s skin and started eating him raw.

Luis, as well as all the other soldiers, had thought that Perceval was a pet, brought along with them to keep guard, to keep alert for other animals or potential enemies. It’s what we all thought, Luis told me, and then our captain started eating him, and then he ordered us all to start eating him, and we did, crowding around Perceval’s body like vultures, eating his still warm, raw flesh. For the next three weeks, Luis told me, they ate all of their meat—tepeitscuintlis and birds—without cooking it. At first they were sick to their stomachs, vomiting and having bouts of diarrhea, but then they started getting used to it. They were being trained, he told me, for fighting guerillas, not to give away their position by the smoke of their fires. Some of the other training Luis described to me was getting used to eating soup with their hands tied behind their backs (in simulation of being kidnapped), being tear-gassed in a closed room, and getting pushed out of a boat while at sea and having to swim back to shore fully clothed and fully armed, which took hours.

After a while the pauses in Luis’ army stories started lengthening. Fewer figures were darting back behind the curtains to smoke. Someone lit the end of a tightly rolled piece of cardboard on the concrete floor, whose smoke, they hoped, would scare away the bugs. I covered my skin as best I could and spent the night responding in my head to the shapes and voices that had been telling me stories in the mosquito darkness, especially to the older of the two brothers who had invited me behind the curtain for a cigarette. I thought long about the verguenza he felt for having to beg for food in the street, and I thought of the courage it took not only to travel such a notoriously dangerous path north to look for work with his younger brother, but of the courage it took to beg for food on the street, and, I told him in my head while listening to the hot mosquito whine and the occasional frustrated sharp slap of another body in the room, we are the ones who should feel verguenza for not helping him—these brave young migrants—that we are the ones who should feel verguenza for casting shame on performing such an innately human act: that of moving, migrating.

For we are all migrants, I thought, we all have either migrated or we come from family who, at some point, has migrated. For moving from Ohio, where I grew up, to California, where I lived for a while (though I’m in Mexico City now) did take me across dangerous rivers, huge empty tracts of land, tall storming mountains, a nearly impenetrable desert, and yet by some undeserved luck by which I struck upon the privilege of my birthplace, there were not dangerous political borders I had to cross in my migration, and instead of walking, limping, train-hopping, hiding, sleeping on rat-crawling floors and dodging migration checkpoints and armed bandits, I drove a Penske truck and stopped at rest-stops to stretch my legs, mindlessly buy snacks and refill my water jug from a cold-spurting water fountain. My motivation, however frivolous seeming in the face of what motivates many migrants from Central America or Mexico, in that the kind of job/urban culture I wanted doesn’t exist in Ohio, the act and experience, however easy, of my own “migration” (or without the quotes, and just, migration) and that of many of my lucky peers, should inspire me all the more to honor, celebrate and support the migration of people like the elder brother who invited me behind the curtain and shared with me his feelings of nervousness, his fear, and his deep verguenza. And then I saw that the sky was lightening through the barred windows and, somehow, amidst the relentless bloodlust of the mosquitoes, I finally fell asleep.

All of those conversations—with the two kidnapped boys, with the brothers behind the curtain, with Luis, and then with all of them in my head while unable to sleep—took place in the dark (I had arrived to the shelter late, just before lockdown and lights-out) and so the next morning, a little after six with the air still (or already) hot and full of mosquitoes, I saw for the first time the faces matching up to the voices I had been listening to. I followed the barefoot line of men and boys past the curtains to splash my face and neck and chest with bucketwater, pissed in the corner of the room (the floor sloped toward the unflushed wall to drain the urine and bucketwater into the weedy yard) and then sat on the fenced-in front porch to watch the morning mature and wait for breakfast in the raw light of dawn.

At least three of the migrants, all of them from Central America and non-voters in Mexico, were wearing new Peña Nieto shirts or ballcaps (Peña Nieto is the disputed Mexican President-elect who is charged with both election fraud and buying votes).

After another half an hour—at least three of the migrants had already left to look for day work—I joined the breakfast line for the small bowl of protein powder, scrambled eggs and a scoop of beans. When the volunteer madre (everyone referred to all of the female volunteers as mother) handed me my coffee, she offered me cream. I declined (I drink my coffee black) but the fat, bare-shirted man from El Salvador with the deep scars on his face and head—which looked, a number of the other migrants commented, like machete scars, but were, so he explained, from getting badly electrocuted years earlier —asked for a little cremita for his coffee. The madre who had offered it to me consulted another madre who answered, loudly enough for us all to hear, that if you give cream to one, then you have to give it to all.

I, of course, was the exception. She was willing (just to clarify) to offer cream to me but not willing to give what I didn’t want to the man in line behind me. It’s not uncommon, that volunteers or reporters are given special treatment even when there are extremely limited resources, and yet I found the practice particularly ugly that morning.

Maybe it was the morning prayer, the religious overtones of the whole operation of the shelter, the disturbing Bible study I had walked into the night before about the place of women in society, that made the comment remind me of what I read as the most unsettling parable in all of the Gospels, the Parable of the Talents.

The Kingdom of Heaven, the story begins, is like a man traveling into a far country. Before leaving, the man calls his servants to him to give them his loot. To one servant he gives five talents, to another he gives two, and to a third he gives only one talent. The servant with five talents trades with them and earns five more. The servant with two talents does the same and earns himself two more. The servant, however, who had only been given one talent, buries it for safekeeping. Some years later the lord returns and calls his servants to reckon with them. The first two servants he praises for doing well with his money, and he promises to do well by them, making them rulers of a lot of people. When the third servant meets the lord, the servant explains that he knew the lord was tough, that he liked to reap “where he hath not sown,” and so he hid his single talent in the earth and now presents it back to him whole and good as new. But the lord is pissed. He reminds his servant of what he already knows, that he likes to reap where he hasn’t sown and gather where he hasn’t strawed, and that the servant should have at least given the talent to the bankers so he could have earned some interest on it, and then the lord calls him wicked and slothful and takes the servant’s single talent and gives it to the guy who already has ten of them. As if that humiliating story isn’t enough, it gets rubbed in with a lesson.

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

That’s to say, if you have a lot you’re going to be given even more. And if you hardly have anything, even what you have will be taken from you.

I can think of no more distasteful New Testament parable, and yet at the same time I can think of no better description of our current political praxis, and no better way to explain how we treat migrants in both Mexico and the United States. Because, howsoever anyone might exegetically explain or excuse it, the parable isn’t about work ethic. The servant was still a servant while his “lord” was off still traveling and being a lord. The Gospels don’t say anything about him working or not working. He probably did work, and work hard: cleaning stables, scrubbing floors, taking care of other peoples’ children, prepping food in the kitchen, even mixing cement, all those tasks resigned to those who are only given a single talent and then castigated for not having or making more.

And then the lord delivers one more punch to the servant. He not only takes his talent, but then he casts him into the “outer darkness.”

There will be weeping, the parable ends, and gnashing of teeth.

After breakfast the two brothers who had invited me behind the curtain to smoke left for a half-day of work to earn their expected 20 pesos (about a dollar and forty cents). The same afternoon they hopped on a train and headed for Tierra Blanca, the next stop on the migrant trail where two train routes merge, a city effectively controlled by Los Zetas and one of the main stops in the kidnapping gauntlet that migrants run in southern Mexico: part of the outer darkness into which we cast them.

My second night in town, after a sweaty hour of playing soccer and wallowing in the ringing warmth of the evening, a simple meal of rice and beans and the huddling cigarette chatter that followed, and after helping a few of the madres shred beef for the tamales they would make the next morning (not for the migrants, but for the thousands of youth ministers who had started arriving to Coatza for a weekend conference) we were finally locked again into the shelter for the night with the buzzing bugs and Luis’ scampering rat. One of the madres, seeing me scratching my bite-swollen hands throughout the day (and also hearing me, I admit it, complain) snuck me mosquito-repellent cream. Reluctantly and rather perfunctorily, because she hadn’t offered it to anyone else (though a number of the migrants clearly saw her give it to me) I rubbed some on my hands, arms, neck and face, and then retreated back into the dark towards my foam pad. A few minutes later, while I was brushing my teeth behind the curtains with a few other migrants, the same madre called to me again.

Mr. John, she called. She knew a few words of English and liked to use them.

Mr. John!

I spit in the corner (where everybody was spitting) and skipped through the aisle of bodies lying on foam pads, seeing that the madre was shaking something at me through the bars. At first I thought it was a package, but when I took it I quickly realized it was a neatly folded, flower-patterned bed sheet.

For the mosquitoes, she told me.

It was a kind gesture, and maybe it was even borne out of the (probably correct) idea that I was a wimp and couldn’t handle another night of bites. But it was also a gesture made in front of every single other migrant, nearly all of whom had witnessed it and probably noted that not a single one of them had been offered a sheet.

I started to say, No thanks, but then the sheet was already in my hands. Would it have been rude of me to turn it down? Perhaps, but only slightly. But I didn’t turn it down. I took it. And then the thought crossed my mind, right away, that I would offer it to Luis, or Ismael, or to anybody who wanted it. But, in the end, I didn’t offer it to anybody. Instead I walked without word back through the aisle of bodies lying on their pads. Omar, a migrant from El Salvador who had lived for years all over the United States, announced, Una sabanita para Mr. John.

A little sheet for Mr. John.

These men, I knew, every single one of them, would not only spend that night without a sheet, but would spend the next night and maybe the next many nights without a sheet, without a bed, or without privacy or security of any kind. I, however, would return to my apartment in Mexico City where I had not only a bed with sheets and a flushing toilet and running water within a few steps of my room, as well as a locking apartment door, but also a little refillable apparatus that I plug into the wall-outlet at night and works as a mosquito repellent. The gizmo costs about six bucks (two days of work for the elder brother from Guatemala) and lasts a month and a half or so. And yet I was the only one given the sheet. Maybe it was in part because I already had sheets, because I would return to sheets. That to he who has sheets will be given more sheets. And I thought of this, of my selfish acceptance of the gesture, and of what the men walking behind the curtains to smoke or brush their teeth and spit in the corner must think of me, covered completely by the soap-scented, flower-printed sheet while they would soon huddle under whatever extra clothing they had or simply, like the older man sleeping next to me, sleep open-mouthed on his back as if in complete offering to the bugs. I should have offered my sheet to him. I know I should have. But I didn’t, I admit it, it disturbs me, and I write this now in complete verguenza.

John Washington is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Mexico City, working on a novel about migration. More of his writing can be found on wordriot.orgpentales.com, pulsemedia.org, and thesmartset.com. He can be reached at JohnBWashington@hotmail.com.