|English | Español||December 11, 2017 | Issue #67|
The Making of “Danger: Journalists Crossing”
Migrants Defend Their Rights and Their Narrative, too, in the New NNTV Video
By Alex Mensing
Armando Medina, Narrator of Danger Migrants Crossing
Stories of struggle do exist, even though mainstream media is not telling them. Many of the actors in Danger: Journalists Crossing are living proof of this, including Armando, Wilson, Paola and Jorge from Honduras, Victor from El Salvador, Berfilio from Guatemala and Elvis from Nicaragua. They all went through a lot to get where they are, and this article can’t dwell on each of their stories. It aims, however, to provide some context for Danger: Journalists Crossing and to serve as an example of the kind of journalism that would make the “Shelter for Journalists in Rehabilitation” proud.
The idea for the latest NNTV video was born at the 2014 School of Authentic Journalism, a laboratory where new ideas are created at the intersection of journalism and social movements and where participants share experiences from movement leaders and media makers from across the globe. At the school, filmmaker Gregory Berger teaches how to use video as a tool for participation and social change in partnership with communities, and often uses comedy as a medium. A student who had worked with Central American migrants in Mexico began to wonder how someone could possibly make a comedy about such a dire humanitarian and refugee crisis. They both took the challenge as an opportunity and came up with the idea for a movie that would make mainstream media’s portrayal of the situation look ridiculous while highlighting migrants’ capacity to organize a social movement.
Not long after the 2014 School of Authentic Journalism, a group of nearly 500 Central American migrants left the “La 72” Home-Refuge for Migrants on the Mexico-Guatemala border and began walking north. Human rights defenders, journalists and Friar Tomás González, director of “La 72” accompanied them. González organizes an annual Viacrucis Migrante, a political action that uses a religious tradition – the Stations of the Cross – to draw attention to the structural violence that affecting Central American migration. The 2014 Viacrucis grew larger than ever before, reaching Mexico City with over 1,200 undocumented Central Americans, many of whom continued all the way to the US-Mexico border. Migrant leadership played a key role in decision-making during the Viacrucis, challenging the popular portrayal of migrants as victims and delinquents.
This negative portrayal is one of the key problems hindering change in Mexico, where public perception of Central American migrants is fraught with fearful and patronizing attitudes. Just last month a federal representative from Veracruz, Patricia Peña Recio, said that migrants “are dangerous because in the places where they stop they engage in prostitution, they kill people, and besides, they don’t deserve attention because they don’t vote.” Peña Recio happens to be the secretary of the South Southeast Border Affairs Committee in the Mexican Congress.
Looking for migrant tracks
Shortly after the 2014 Viacrucis and in the midst of the flood of dramatic media coverage of the “unaccompanied minors crisis” along the Texas border, a second caravan of migrants made its way to Mexico City. During this caravan, which left from the “Hermanos en el Camino” migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Gregory Berger and collaborators began to write a script and build a team to make the video that would become Danger: Journalists Crossing. The Central Americans who got involved in the project were not merely people who had lived the migrant experience; many of them had begun taking matters into their own hands by participating in humanitarian aid and political organizing. Their personal histories are tightly interwoven with the history of the international crisis they now seek to resolve.
In 2009 the Honduran military overthrew President Manuel Zelaya in a coup. Armando as well as Paola and Wilson – two other actors in Danger: Journalists Crossing – were in Honduras at the time, and both Paola and Wilson participated actively in demonstrations against the undemocratic military government. Zelaya was not reinstated and the country entered a period of extreme destabilization.
The power vacuum was filled by the “Mara,” a gang that originated among Salvadoran refugee communities in Los Angeles, California, and was subsequently exported to El Salvador by the US government via deportation. The Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs fight for territory in which they terrorize the population and charge protection money. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, post-coup Honduras currently has the highest homicide rate in the world.
Migrant organizer Paola Quiñones in a scene from the movie
In 2010 Armando, with five deportations from the USA under his belt, was working in Honduras when he witnessed ties between government officials and narcotrafficking groups. Armando refused bribes to remain silent, he says, because “due to my ethics and my education and what my family taught me, well, I couldn’t do that.” One week later he began to receive death threats, followed by repeated assassination attempts, one of which cost the life of one of his best friends. Finally, after escaping from a bank in an armored vehicle while gunmen awaited him outside, Armando managed to leave Honduras and head for Mexico.
When Armando had first migrated in 2001, his motives had more to do with family reunification and economics than with gang violence, which has become increasingly common. The journey through Mexico was also less treacherous in the early 2000s, says Armando. “You got on the train and nobody bothered you, except a few petty thieves, but they never did anything to me.” That’s not to say that Armando’s journey was free of danger or discomfort, but conditions have gotten much worse.
The US-backed “War on Drugs” virtually replaced the role of policemen with aggressive and heavily armed soldiers with no law-enforcement training, resulting in widespread violence and impunity. Undocumented Central Americans migrating across the country are particularly vulnerable, and an August 2014 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared that “the Mexican State’s response has been patently inadequate in terms of preventing, protecting, prosecuting, punishing, and redressing crimes and human rights violations committed against migrant persons.”
Elvis entered Mexico legally with a work visa and a Mexican wife, but when he refused to participate in his in-laws’ narcotrafficking activities, his wife took advantage of a lapse in his visa to turn him into immigration officials. When he entered the migrant detention center in Iztapalapa known as “El Agujero,” Elvis recounts that “a policeman welcomed me, saying ‘welcome to paradise.’ And that’s where my nightmare began.”
Inside the detention center Elvis realized that the whole facility was run jointly by its official director and a “Mara” gang leader. Large quantities of drugs and cash were moved through the premises and inmates were regularly abused. Like the other characters in this story, Elvis refused to remain silent in the face of injustice, and it cost him dearly.
“For never showing fear,” he says, “they raped me, they tortured me, they kept me in a four-by-four room where every day they soaked me with cold water, where every day they insulted me, they spat at me, they fed me spoiled food.” And yet Elvis found the will within him to survive, and after being deported he made his way back to Mexico—as an undocumented migrant riding La Bestia for the first time—and reached the “Hermanos en el Camino” migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca.
After fleeing Honduras, Armando spent a year volunteering at the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca while his request for refugee status crawled its way through the immigration offices. In early 2014 he moved to Mexico City to work, but remained politically active as part of a volunteer crew that supported the Viacrucis from Tenosique when it arrived in the Distrito Federal. He also returned to Ixtepec to participate in the Caravan for Dialogue that left the following month.
Migrant organizer Elvis Garay tries to capture a TV Azteca so he can be re-educated
From that day on, from the feeling that there was nobody to defend women, from feeling that I had that obligation, because many women came up to me in the shelter and told me their stories, from that feeling of rage and indignation, and from the desire to express myself, arose Paola Quiñonez the activist, and since that day I haven’t stopped.”
It was during the Caravan’s stay in Mexico City (which involved meetings with federal lawmakers, human rights groups, government agencies and the press) that Elvis joined the group and began to speak out publicly about the threats and abuse he had suffered in the Iztapalapa detention center.
The Caravan’s meetings had not yet ended when Paola decided to continue north in order to provide for her daughter, but she was kidnapped along the way together with Jorge, another Danger: Journalists Crossing participant. Led by Alberto Donis, coordinator of the “Hermanos en el Camino” shelter, the migrant rights organizations who had gotten to know Paola and Jorge through their participation in the Caravan pressured Mexican authorities to investigate. Donis spoke publicly of Paola’s case as the kidnapping of an activist, and soon afterwards she and Jorge were freed along with over 100 other migrants.
A few days after Paola and Jorge’s return to Mexico City, the first day of Danger: Journalists Crossing’s filming began with Elvis, Wilson and another member of the Caravan. This was the first time that the film and production team met with the migrants who had inspired the project. The session ended with everyone in high spirits, conversing excitedly over dinner in a Cuernavaca taquería.
In August 2014 a group of migrants undertook a week-long hunger strike and prayer action in Mexico City to demand justice for the 60,000 underage migrants being held in US detention centers. The group included Armando, Elvis, Wilson, Paola, Victor (a Salvadoran migrant who helps run a humanitarian aid kitchen) and Berfilio (a Guatemalan migrant who participated in the Caravan). They were accompanied by various migrant rights defenders, among them Irineo Mujica, who had provided nonviolence and community organizing training to the Ixtepec Caravan. Armando considers the hunger strike his debut in organizing, and Elvis says that it increased his dedication to his fellow migrants.
The week-long action left the group wanting to do more. “That was when we decided, along with Irineo Mujica, that we had to form a collective,” Armando says. “Because there was not one single organization [of migrant rights defense in Mexico] whose members were Central Americans, who were actually migrants like us.”
The group created an organization called Pueblos Sin Fronteras and decided to begin documenting human rights abuses in southern Mexico. A month earlier, in July 2014, the Mexican government had announced the implementation of a new border policy called the Programa Frontera Sur, or the Southern Border Program. According to the official government website, it is designed “to protect and safeguard the human rights of migrants who enter and cross Mexico, and to establish order at international crossings to increase development and security in the region.” In practice, however, the effects of the program could hardly be more different.
Thomas Trane warns of migrant threat
When Pueblos Sin Fronteras began documenting the situation along the migrant route between Arriaga, Chiapas and Ixtepec, Oaxaca, they realized that there was dire need for a humanitarian aid center between those two points. Migrants had been skirting traditional routes to avoid immigration agents—whose presence increased under the Southern Border Program—but alternative pathways led them into the hands of criminal groups who rob and assault them. Soon afterwards they opened a new shelter called the Humanitarian Aid Center for Migrants in Chahuites, Oaxaca.
Armando describes their activities, stating “we give legal assistance, we follow up on reports of attacks on migrants, and [immigration] regularization processes. So it’s a relief for the compas to make it to Chahuites, to have somewhere to shower, to rest and recover, to heal their wounds, to report abuses by organized crime and by state, federal and municipal police, the army and the marines.”
Not long after they opened the new shelter, the Danger: Journalists Crossing team spent a week filming in the “Hermanos en el Camino” migrant shelter. The recent exploits of the migrants-cum-organizers-cum-actors were the subject of animated conversation and discussion during the breaks between shoots. At the end of a week of hard work, during which many of the migrants staying at the shelter made the video possible with their collaboration, Paola, Victor, Elvis and Armando spoke about the work they were doing and encouraged those present to defend their rights. That scene appears in Danger: Journalists Crossing and is not merely a shot for the video. It documents a real moment when people who have discovered the power of organizing shared their experience with others like them.
Since then, the group has continued to organize and defend migrants’ rights. Elvis talks proudly and appreciatively of the medical aid trips he and others undertake north of Mexico City along the migrant route, as well as his participation in Danger: Journalists Crossing. “I never thought this experience would awake more interest in this passion that’s been born in me to work for the migrant brothers and sisters,” says Elvis.
In the meantime, Armando, Paola and other migrants have worked in Oaxaca to successfully pressure for the removal of corrupt and ineffective migration officials, the safe passage to Ixtepec of undocumented migrants who have filed official crime reports, and the continued operation of their shelter, all using nonviolent tactics. Footage of some of their activities is included in Danger: Journalists Crossing.
Sometimes the organization has also had to care for its own. In December of 2014, Armando decided to return to the USA to work with his family, but was kidnapped in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. When he failed to respond to messages, some of the human rights defenders and members of the Danger: Journalists Crossing team began looking for him. They managed to communicate with him and, as in the case of Paola and Jorge, pressured Mexican law enforcement to take action. “Personally,” says Armando, “I think that if I hadn’t belonged to an organization, or if I wasn’t involved in activism like I am, I wouldn’t be telling this story.”
Nonetheless, human rights abuses in southern Mexico have continued to rise since the implementation of the Southern Border Program. The Chahuites shelter alone has already registered over 300 cases since last year. In the face of this crisis, the team working in Oaxaca decided that something had to be done.
On March 24, 2015, a small group of migrants and organizers left Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas on the Mexico-Guatemala border. It was the beginning of their Viacrucis Migrante – the Stations of the Cross again – reenacting christ’s burden of the cross and symbolizing the suffering of migrants as they walk north. Armando, Paola, Wilson and Irineo played active roles in organizing the Viacrucis, which made its way north towards Ixtepec. Gregory Berger joined up in Chahuites and showed an early draft of Danger: Journalists Crossing which was well received by the migrants, who numbered nearly 200 by that point.
Collecting donations from migrants for journalists
Irineo, one of the Mexican organizers who played a key role in encouraging them to participate in the migrant rights movement, says that even for him it has been difficult to accept their leadership at times. He has worked hard to respect their work and see them as equals, “not as victims, not as the poor migrant, not as the migrant who one uses, but as the migrant who struggles, the migrant who works, the migrant who is responsible, the migrant who, in their own way, can contribute, can contribute in the biggest way possible, by defending their own people.”
On April 15 the caravan left Ixtepec despite police and immigration agents warnings and headed towards Juchitán, Oaxaca, where they planned to take buses to Mexico City. On the outskirts of the town of Espinal they were confronted by a barrier of over 300 federal policemen and immigration officials.
This daunting obstacle did not catch them off guard because they had not left unprepared—the organizing experience they had gained in the last year served them well. Armando isn’t just acting when he says in Danger: Journalists Crossing that “if we convince more migrants that there is power in organization, there is nothing we can’t do.” At his suggestion, everyone had already rehearsed their formation of linked arms to resist police repression nonviolently. Paola, Wilson and others had rehearsed a similar strategy a year before when they participated in the 2014 Ixtepec caravan. In addition to their own preparation, they were reinforced by the arrival of members of the politically active wing of the Mexican teachers union knows as the “Sección 22” and other Oaxaca organizations.
They consulted the group of migrants, who together decided to continue walking despite the chance of repression and deportation. The immigration officials had hoped that the migrants would react violently, giving them an excuse to arrest and deport them, but everyone stuck to the planned strategy. “When they saw that things were getting ugly,” says Armando, “and that the federales were throwing punches, the immigration officials stepped in. They started ordering the federales to step aside, step aside, step aside.” It took them ten minutes to make their way through the police blockade. Two days later, in the early hours of April 18th, they made it to Mexico City.
The making of Danger: Journalists Crossing has been an inspiring process, and hopefully the video itself serves to inspire many people to organize, to defend their rights, and to create and support journalism that accompanies social movements rather than the highest bidder. It seems appropriate that I mention the annoying “alternative journalist” who climbs onto the train to talk to migrants at the beginning of Danger: Journalists Crossing. I, the author of this article, play that role in the video. It has been an honor to be present during much of the video’s making as well as during many moments of the last two years of organizing and human rights’ defense by Armando, Wilson, Paola, Elvis and so many others who I can’t mention here.
At the Shelter for the Rehabilitsational reporting on migration
Among the long list of people who are absent from this article, though not from the story itself, are many human rights defenders, activists, volunteers, journalists and migrant persons who form part of the wider migrant defense movement. Some of them are members of organizations and some provide support as individuals, but all contribute to the struggle for social justice. Hopefully they can increase their effectiveness not only through greater coordination, evinced by the recent creation of the Migrant and Refugee Defenders Collective (CODEMIRE), but through greater participation of Central American migrants themselves.
Much thanks goes to this video’s contributors as well. Despite its shoestring budget, Danger: Journalists Crossing could not have been produced without the support of many generous friends, family members and others who believe in the power of organizing and responsible, committed storytelling.
Some who have read this article and seen Danger: Journalists Crossing may be wondering why the video completely omits all of the difficult experiences its actors have been gone through. It is important for journalists to document injustices, without question. But it is also important for those injustices to end. Community organizing can be a frustrating, daunting task, and people are only moved so much by horror stories. More often than not it is stories of success, of victory in the face of great odds, and of the power of organizing that motivate people to fight injustice.
And lastly, in defense of comedy, Paola reflected on the experience of making the movie with these words: “It’s helped me a lot because we smiled, we had fun, and the support among friends is the most important, expressing the true face of migration, but, well, in another way, you know?”
Directed by Greg “Gringoyo” Berger
Script by Gringoyo with Al Giordano
Based on an idea conceived at the School of Authentic Journalism
Camera and Audio:
Jose Manuel Mazon
Tsuki Rogue Lee
Production support by Eliana Godoy and Latino Social Innovation
Music from Panchi Maldonado and Atajo used with permission
Carnivale Intrigue by Kevin MacLeod used under creative commons license
Participants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Cuba:
Omar Josué Alvarez Perez
Carlos David Rodriguez Sanchez
Will Feliciano Lopez Mendión
Edgar Misael Montoya Alvar
Jorge Castro Pineda
Jose Vasquez Barrera
Michael David Hernandez
Santos Celestino Rodríguez
Marco Antonio Chahón
Vicente Hernandez Arecis
Eugenio de Jesús Marroquín
Alexander Morales Montero
Manuel Bautista Labrada
Osvel Mora Hidalgo
Josué Ralda Rodríguez
Lourde Cristina Grajeda
Héctor Armando Ocampo Fuentes
Oscar Alexander Perez Pineda
Felix Antonio Palma
Anner Misael Salgado
Alexi Alexander Martinez
Silvano Koman Cruz Sarati
Felipe Manuel Garcia Ortiz
Carlos Mario Reyes Benitez
Cesar Alexander Moreno
Jorge Humberto Tobar Aguilar
Carlos Alberto Hernandez Esquivel
Brian Omar Reyes
Edwin Hernandez Figueroa
Maria Maribel Barrera
Cristian Adonis Oriana Barrera
Giovanni Josué Sólito Martínez
Appear in original footage from the “Caravana por el Dialogo”:
Vilma, María, Roselia, Lidia, Andrik, Bessi, Lupe, Miguelito, Lorena, Doris, Jimy, and Benjamín
Special thanks to Jessica, Gisela, Lupita, Beto and Alejandro of the “Hermanos en el Camino” Migrant Shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism