On July 11, I found myself imprisoned in the infamous Siglo XXI “migration station” in Mexico in Tapachula – a town in the state of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala – specializing in the detention of migrants from America. Central and elsewhere to the United States.
Mine was a curious situation to say the least, for a citizen of the United States, free as we usually are from the fallout from the militarized border policies that make the world safe for American imperialism.
I had come to Tapachula for four days to write about migrants. When I attempted to board my return flight to Mexico City, I was apprehended for visa irregularities on my part and loaded into a van bound for Siglo XXI, which means “21st century” in Spanish.
According to the Associated Press, the detention center is the largest in Latin America and is a “secret place forbidden to public examination where … journalists are not allowed”.
The initial semi-enthusiasm I felt at the prospect of my impending exclusive view of the mechanisms of the US-dictated migrant detention regime quickly began to dissipate, however, when I was informed that I would be probably deported to the homeland – something I had given up 18 years earlier due to his general goosebumps and its damaging effects on my mental health.
Upon arrival at the facility, I was routinely stripped of all my belongings minus a change of underwear, a clean shirt, a bag of cranberries, and a handful of toiletries and other items.
An immigration officer barked threatening orders to turn off my cell phone and remove my bracelets, earrings, and laces from my tennis shoes. When I broke down in tears and begged her to pretend to be human for a second, she assured me it was for my own “safety” – although her tone softened as she did so. asked what was the capacity in gigabytes of my decrepit iPod.
Then my pen was also forcibly removed and I was admitted into the bowels of the damp and swarming detention center, where the feeling of suffocating claustrophobia was hardly helped by an almost complete lack of masks among inmates despite a pervasive cough. and other signs of discomfort.
For those who weren’t already sick, disease-causing meals were provided three times a day, forcing all inmates to queue first to wait to sign their names on a list before lining up to wait. to receive the meal – such is the nature of arbitrary and bureaucratic power, with its need to order dehumanized bodies.
Of course, waiting is the primary activity of bringing together life that occurs within the walls of Siglo XXI. In addition to the often endless wait for release – I have met women who had already been interned for a month in the establishment – there is also the wait in wait: for food, calls telephone, toilet paper, showers.
In the morning, there is the wait for the decision to unlock the door to the flea infested prison yard, whose highlights include a mango tree, a sports field with a single deflated balloon, and perennial police surveillance of beyond the imposing fence.
Answers to the mundane and existential questions – “When can I have a book to read?” “,” When will I know if I am deported or if I will be granted asylum in Mexico? – are never available, as immigration officials tend to prefer either the non-binding ‘más tarde’ (later) or the even simpler shrug.
And for the women who have just endured perilous journeys after escaping dangerous conditions in their own country – all in the hope of eventually being safe in the United States – the psychological torture of being sentenced to death. indefinite and criminalized limbo is not necessarily conducive to a desire for self-preservation.
In other words, now I understand why they confiscate the laces.
Inside Siglo XXI, I met a young woman who had fled Honduras after the murder of her two sisters; I met another Honduran whose father had been killed. I met Cubans who had crossed 14 countries to get to Mexico and who said they encountered crawling corpses belonging to former migrants while crossing the infamous Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia.
Certainly, each of these corpses served as a reminder of the very short distance between life and death for people marked as inherently inferior in value by an international capitalist hierarchy.
A Bangladeshi woman, who spoke no Spanish and had spent nine months traveling to Mexico with her husband – himself now imprisoned in the men’s section of Siglo XXI, which by all accounts was even more horribly overcrowded and submissive to more practical forms of torture. – cried, telling me that her mental anguish was only aggravated by the suffering she was causing her mother at home.
She was introduced to me by a group of Haitian women who had tried in vain to communicate with her and who had summoned me to tell me that they had found an English-speaking friend for me. When not slumped on a cement bench, gazing into oblivion, my new friend could be seen lying in a corner of the dining room, her blanket over her head.
As for my sleeping arrangements, I shared the floor mat with an upbeat and provocative Cuban girl who wouldn’t hear me placing my own floor mat directly in front of the toilet – the only remaining space available.
My bed mate wryly remarked, “If this is the 21st century, I would hate to see the 22nd. “
While the sense of hopelessness in Siglo XXI was overwhelming at times, there was also a collective refusal to allow humanity to be purged so easily by the powers that be. The women spontaneously began to sing, picked up mangoes, held hands, combed their hair. Two Cubans had pledged to teach critical Spanish vocabulary such as “shorts” to the only Chinese inmate. A Honduran university graduate who had studied nothing but human rights handed me her towel instead of a shower curtain.
As someone prone to panic attacks and spectacularly incapable of dealing with adversity in life, I have found it extremely heartwarming to have two Cuban feet in my face all night. I was also well aware that my visible frailty was less than endearing in a detention situation created in large part by my own nation – a situation from which, thanks to my passport privilege, I would inevitably be released with relatively minimal suffering.
While my fellow inmates couldn’t understand why the neurotic gringa resisted returning to the country they were risking their lives for, they charitably limited their reactions to hysterical laughter at the ironic prospect of being deported to the United States.
I would later learn that when my mother phoned the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, she was told that I would likely be detained at Siglo XXI for at least two weeks, and that the U.S. government could not intervene: “We can’t tell Mexico what to do. . “
And yet the operations at the detention center are pretty much an exact example of the United States telling Mexico what to do. Current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who initially promised a humane migration policy, quickly realized that doing the imperial dirty work offered greater rewards.
It should also be reiterated that American intervention in the affairs of others is largely responsible for migration patterns in the first place. In Central America, decades of American militarization and support for right-wing coups and massacres have forced countless thousands of civilians to flee landscapes of extreme violence and impunity.
In Haiti, meanwhile, perennial reporting on the “poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere” consistently neglects to mention the history of the United States of sponsoring the coups and chaos in said nation in the United States. interest in maintaining neoliberal poverty. Just look back in those days when the US State Department plotted to block an increase in the minimum wage – to 62 cents an hour! – for Haitian workers in assembly areas working on behalf of American clothing manufacturers.
And in Cuba, a crippling six-decade blockade – imposed by the United States to deter other countries from being infected with dangerous anti-capitalist notions like free health care and education – has produced predictable shortages. and a concomitant migration off the island.
As for me, my own Siglo XXI experience ended when I was miraculously released, without deportation, after 24 hours – not thanks to the efforts of my homeland but rather to a Mexican journalist friend and others who are intervened in my favor.
My personal belongings were returned to me – minus my pen, earplugs, tweezers and a compact mirror – and I was escorted to the Guatemalan border in an immigration vehicle to receive a set. new mexican visa. On the way, I told the female immigration official who was accompanying me that I would have plenty of things to write; she nodded with an encouraging smile, “Remember to say you cried!”
Ultimately, the Siglo XXI Migrant Prison in Mexico is rightly symbolic of a 21st century in which much of the world’s population is effectively trapped in political and economic nightmares inflicted by the United States.
If business continues as usual, I would indeed hate to see the 22.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.