Centroamérica / Migration

Matamoros: a Migrant Dumping Ground in the Midst of the Pandemic

Friday, May 29, 2020
Sergio Arauz

“They’re crossing over!”

We hear the shouts of a group of people splashing around in the Rio Bravo, the natural boundary between Mexico and the United States. From the Mexican shore, more than a dozen silent migrants watch three undocumented migrants swimming to the U.S. side. 

It’s Thursday, April 23, and we are under a bridge that crosses the Rio Bravo at the border between Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and Brownsville, at the far southern tip of Texas. This bridge is one of the busiest international trade routes between the United States and Mexico. Over $1.5 billion in merchandise passes through here every year, mainly electronic goods. The river bank below is a surreptitious crossing point for migrants. 

A group of migrants bathe in the Rio Bravo in Matamoros, near the camp. Above them is the international bridge to the United States, used by people with legal entry and exit permits. The undocumented must cross the Rio Bravo, but the coronavirus has not completely stopped migrants from trying. Photo from El Faro: Fred Ramos
A group of migrants bathe in the Rio Bravo in Matamoros, near the camp. Above them is the international bridge to the United States, used by people with legal entry and exit permits. The undocumented must cross the Rio Bravo, but the coronavirus has not completely stopped migrants from trying. Photo from El Faro: Fred Ramos

This 3,034-kilometer-long river traverses Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas, four of the six Mexican states that share a border with the United States, where it is known as the Rio Grande. The river is not called Bravo or Grande for nothing. It is a river of rivers, fed mainly by the Conchos and Pecos rivers, but also by the Alamo, Salado, Conejos, San Juan, and Chamos rivers. It is a river and an obstacle — a border wall made of water.

The three migrants have jumped into the water right under the bridge, under the noses of the Border Patrol officers watching on the other side, and 15 meters from a migrant camp that has become one of Mexico’s largest during these pandemic months. 

The camp looks like a dumping ground for undocumented immigrants. The United States has expelled a good portion of the almost 2,000 people from nine countries who are living in 484 overcrowded shacks. These people are waiting for the United States to call them for asylum hearings or for Central American borders, closed by the pandemic, to open up again so they can return home. All these people arrived here before the pandemic. But now their precarious situation has been further complicated by the pandemic. Many leave the camp daily to go work, many go out to beg for money. They are merely surviving here, crowded together and clinging to the remote possibility that the United States will grant them asylum. The city of Matamoros has reported the most coronavirus cases in the state of Tamaulipas (289 confirmed cases at the beginning of May). 

Although the makeshift migrant camp is in Mexico, it is a U.S. creation. Migrants began to amass along the river bank under the bridge in January 2019 when President Donald Trump initiated the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, better known as “Remain in Mexico”. 

The “Remain in Mexico” program created clusters of hundreds and sometimes thousands (as in Matamoros) of migrants in various Mexican border cities. The program’s main purpose is to have many of the people seeking humanitarian asylum in the United States relocated to Mexico to await a court decision. In other words, those petitioning to stay in the United States must wait for the answer in Mexico. This rapid deportation mechanism led to the arrival of 60,000 migrants on Mexican soil in 2020 alone, according to data from the Los Angeles Times. It is a bureaucratic wall that reinforces the wall represented by the river, and the steel wall that Trump vows to continue building. 

The three boys crossing the Rio Bravo chose this specific time of day, 4:00 pm, when there are more people along the river banks, more spectators.

The place they chose for their little adventure is an area along the river where people from the migrant camp go to escape the afternoon dust and heat. It is where many of the stranded families come to go for a dip in the river. If the current is not too strong, they swim to the middle of the river, or perhaps further. So they swim a bit in Mexico and a bit in the U.S. As long as they don’t kick to the opposite shore and start walking through the shrublands of Texas’ southern tip, the Border Patrol doesn’t pursue them. Splashing around in the Bravo is the equivalent of sticking half of your body through the bars of the border fence along Tijuana’s beach. It’s only a symbolic gesture. 

Unlike the others swimming in the river, the three boys don’t just splash around — they’re crossing the border. At this time of day, the famous river seems tame. The boys are wearing life jackets and have black plastic bags tied around their waists holding their clothes and shoes. 

They are crossing with the blessing of La Maña. 

La Maña exercises supervision and authority over this surreptitious border crossing. The criminal structure that controls Matamoros and part of the Gulf of Mexico region is represented here by a Mexican pickup truck. A few meters from the public latrines, right next to one of the enormous columns that support the commercial bridge, are two burly men who drove their state-of-the-art, off-road truck (without license plates) to this place along the Bravo. It’s an elevated position on the river bank and a perfect place to keep an eye on the boys crossing the river. But for the photographer and me, it’s a bad place to be to take pictures without the permission of the people in charge here. 

The men in the truck are discreetly watching the three boys. They are also discreetly watching the two journalists who arrived unexpectedly. No migrant calls them by name or says what they are doing there. They are very visible, but everyone ignores them, as if they didn’t exist. When we ask people here about the truck, they are elusive and change the subject or end the conversation. However, back at the camp, some people acknowledge in individual conversations that the vehicle was from La Maña, the name used in this area for the Gulf Cartel, an organization from Matamoros that profits from migrants, drug trafficking, and many other illegal activities. La Maña does not move very discreetly in Matamoros, at least not around the camp. It is common knowledge among migrants that anyone who wants to cross the border must first talk to them and pay a fee.

The fee for crossing the border with the intention of being caught on the other side is at least $500, according to three undocumented migrants who had already paid the fee. It’s more like buying a license than buying a service. You pay for La Maña to allow you to desperately swim across, not for ferrying you in a boat. The service to be guided across with no intention of being caught costs at least $6,000. The Trump administration and the coronavirus have pushed this fee to an all-time high. What cost $1,500 a decade ago, and $3,000 two years ago, now costs $6,000. 

A few meters away from the La Maña truck, a vehicle belonging to a subcontractor for the migrant camp is unloading the waste from about 30 portable toilets. When the wind kicks up, the stink wafts over the swimmers. They are unloading the excrement of 2,000 migrants into a tanker truck that will then take it who knows where. There are less than 100 latrines in the entire camp. 

Social distancing rules are a luxury that these 2,000 stranded migrants cannot afford. In fact, they are unable to comply with almost any of the pandemic containment slogans like social distancing or staying at home. They are huddled together and sharing latrines, thousands of miles from home, trapped in a country whose government has decided to go along with its northern neighbor’s anti-immigrant strategy. 

The three boys are already on the other side and they’re heading into the brush. The spectators, about 50 migrants scattered along the other side of the Bravo, watch their progress. The stench of the latrines saturates the scene. 

We walk along the river bank, following the migrants’ progress. They’re already in Brownsville, next to the wall of a university from which, before the virus, you could hear sports matches echoing throughout the crowded camp on this side of the river. The three boys are hiding in the brush. The spot where they’re hiding is a little more than a kilometer from where Oscar and his daughter Valeria drowned in the Rio Bravo. Their deaths were recorded in the public’s awareness thanks to a terrible image seen around the world of their bodies floating in the shallow water.

Above, the photograph taken on June 23, 2019 of the bodies of Oscar and Valeria in the Rio Bravo. Photo by AFP. Below, the place as it looks now where the bodies were found.
Above, the photograph taken on June 23, 2019 of the bodies of Oscar and Valeria in the Rio Bravo. Photo by AFP. Below, the place as it looks now where the bodies were found.

Matamoros has more than 100 kilometers of river front that constitute a natural border wall. There are sections with short fences and meandering streets with patrols to protect the border. The river flows into the Atlantic near Bagdad beach, where there is no fence or wall, but instead has flat scrublands controlled by organized crime. Unlike other border areas, the U.S. authorities here rely on the river. 

Matamoros is not a famous border city. It’s not as iconic as Tijuana or Ciudad Juárez, and not even as famous as Nuevo Laredo or Nogales. One could argue that more has been written about the little Sonoran town of Altar, midway along the border, than about Matamoros at the far end of the border. This is partly because Matamoros is one of the most difficult places for journalism in northern Mexico. Northern Mexico is one of the country’s most hostile areas for the profession — more journalists are murdered there than anywhere else in the world. Matamoros is one corner of a triangle formed by Reynosa, a center of human trafficking for sexual exploitation, and the small town of San Fernando, where 72 migrants were massacred by Los Zetas in August 2010.

The desperate swim of the three migrants happened when the border was even more closed than usual. 

From the other side comes the loud bellow of a horn, “awoo, awoo!” A Border Patrol van is approaching the area where the three boys are hidden. Sometimes the wall is just a wall, but there’s always technology. Even though some sections have no steel fence, motion sensors and cameras are placed all over the border, especially in areas across the river from cities like Matamoros.

In these latitudes, migrants go north — this has been a decades-long story. Right now, that destination has some striking characteristics. The United States is the world’s coronavirus epicenter: more than 1.6 million people infected and over 96,000 deaths as of May 25. It’s likely that things will get worse as the United States starts to open up its economy. On the other hand, Mexico has over 68,000 infected and over 7,000 deaths. These migrants are swimming to escape a place where there is less coronavirus than their destination — the Mecca of the pandemic. 

Some migrant journeys took a radical change in direction recently. News from the La 72 migrant shelter on Mexico’s southern border talk about some migrants arriving on immigration buses from camps in the north like this one. They have been only partially deported from the United States because the Central American borders are closed. So they are dropped on the edges of their homelands and encouraged to cross the border without permission. The migration journey is thus reversed. Guatemalan soldiers have turned back many of these migrants who end up in the hostel asking for shelter. 

However, the coronavirus didn’t end aspirations of reaching the north, it just diminished them. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported the detention of 4,200 migrants who crossed illegally into the U.S. in March. Before the pandemic, there were about 10,000 detentions per month. But less migration never means the end of migration. 

The three boys have travelled almost 600 meters through the Texas bush. After 40 minutes of paddling and walking, they’re in the United States, at least in its scrublands. Migrants continue to cross the river even though they will most likely end up in detention centers that have reported coronavirus contagions. 

For those who are determined to cross over, the coronavirus pandemic is not their most significant crisis.  

Three migrants attempted to cross the Rio Bravo into the United States by swimming across the river. They did not succeed because they were detected by several U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) border patrols, so they decided to go back to the Mexiccan side. The photo was taken discreetly, as members of the criminal group that controls part of Matamoros were watching the scene from a truck. Less than a mile from here is a commemorative cross by the river where the bodies of Salvadorans Oscar and Valeria, known around the world for drowning while crossing, were found. Photo from El Faro: Fred Ramos.
Three migrants attempted to cross the Rio Bravo into the United States by swimming across the river. They did not succeed because they were detected by several U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) border patrols, so they decided to go back to the Mexiccan side. The photo was taken discreetly, as members of the criminal group that controls part of Matamoros were watching the scene from a truck. Less than a mile from here is a commemorative cross by the river where the bodies of Salvadorans Oscar and Valeria, known around the world for drowning while crossing, were found. Photo from El Faro: Fred Ramos.

A fourth character enters the scene right when the boys see and hear the patrols. A dark-skinned man approaches them and says something in the ear of one of the migrants. Even though there are patrols on their heels, the three migrants huddle around the fourth man, who looks like a soccer coach explaining a play to his team. They then slip through the brush, jump back into the river, and start swimming towards Matamoros. People watch the show. The La Maña truck has also lost sight of them. It’s clear that the dark-skinned man is part of the strategy and has suddenly changed the play.

The three migrants arrive back on the Mexican shore. The dark-skinned man follows them back and disappears into the crowd of onlookers. The patrols leave. The crowd stops watching the river and people return to the camp. The boys head into a cluster of shacks in the migrant camp. “Don’t talk to them right now — it’s not a good time,” advises another migrant who watched it all. La Maña leaves. 

This is how our second day in one of the large border camps was spent during these strange times. There are migrants who have been here for 300 days and don’t intend to give up, not when they’re so close to the other side. There are others who do want to return home, especially the Central Americans, but the borders to the south are closed. The borders to the north are also closed, as they have always been. 

These are the people trapped in Mexico, a microcosm of a huge country turned into a quarantine center for those trying to make it to the United States. 

Miserable camp or protection program?

Matamoros is an industrious town. Some 150 maquiladora factories for U.S. brands operate here, producing electrical and electronic goods of all kinds, mainly auto parts for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It covers 4,000 square kilometers and generates $11 billion annually, almost half of El Salvador’s GDP. It’s an industrial town, but it is no metropolis with skyscrapers, museums, or recognizable tourist areas. Another prominent industry in Matamoros is organized crime, as it is home to one of today’s most famous and powerful cartels. But cartel wealth is not accounted for. 

The urban center of Matamoros has no large buildings and its streets are transited by a variety of trucks with tinted windows and no license plates. It is a flat city that’s grown horizontally. Because it’s a city that makes goods for export to the United States, it has not stopped producing during the pandemic. It is yet another place for the coronavirus to spread. In anticipation of this, Matamoros has already begun to dig 50 common graves in case the pandemic death toll soars and all the bodies cannot be handled by funeral services.

It’s 5:00 pm on Friday, April 24, and the line of people waiting to pick up their dinners is starting to grow. The food servers begin to queue the people at 5:00 pm when there is an afternoon breeze and the heat is less intense. 

Edison Sanchez, a bald, astute Venezuelan, organizes people at the food station in the camp center. “Please! Please!” he shouts in his Caribbean accent at a dour-faced Cuban who ignores the required five feet of distance between people in line. “On the white line, on the line,” he orders. 

When the coronavirus pandemic was officially declared in mid-March, the camp closed its dining hall, a giant tent where most migrants congregated to eat. During the five days that we visited the camp, the two daily meals distributed by two humanitarian organizations were handed to each migrant, who then ate the meals in their tents or outdoors. This is one change caused by the pandemic. 

One of the food distribution organizers is Edison, who, assisted by other camp dwellers, makes marks with quicklime every five feet on the dusty camp road. They want a safe social distance that is impossible to achieve. 

“Isn’t this silly, if they’re sleeping all crowded together at the end of the day?” I say to Edison. 

“Something has to be done, at least to eat, something is something,” he answers and laughs. 

The food is paid for by Angry Tías and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, a U.S. organization that has been distributing food since before the pandemic. These days, they hire a local soup kitchen to prepare daily breakfast and dinner for the nearly 2,000 people in the camp.  

To legally cross over the international bridge is now even more complicated, which makes it more difficult for people from these humanitarian organizations to justify crossing into Mexico for essential activities. But, there should be no question that feeding thousands of people is an essential activity. 

Little by little, the numbers of humanitarian aid workers have dropped, although it is still common to see people from the clinics run by Global Response Management or Doctors Without Borders. The latter organization also has a tent for conducting education sessions, and makes random temperature checks in the four zones of the camp. 

Edison from Venezuela is just one of several people that told me his tragic story. By the third day, almost everyone we spoke to agree to a recorded interview. His story is shocking, but not unique, as several others in this camp experienced the same thing. In December of last year, Edison was kidnapped and extorted in Reynosa by another criminal group, the Northeast Cartel, heir to Los Zetas. They are well-known for kidnapping migrants using minibuses that park where the U.S. buses drop deportees, but also for kidnapping migrants who are about to cross to the U.S. 

That was what happened to Edison — he was abducted before he went into the river. He then paid a ransom to the cartel and jumped into the river. Once he crossed over, he was detained by the Border Patrol. Edison, like many others in the camp, did not cross here, but 89 kilometers away in Reynosa. After a few days of detention, he was dumped in Matamoros.


“My journey lasted almost a year. I travelled from Panama all the way through Central America, crossing where there are no border checkpoints. I came to Mexico with my son and without using a coyote. I crossed the Suchiate River into Mexico, and from there I managed to get all the way to Reynosa in the north. That’s where I was kidnapped — they held me for more than 10 days. They wanted $10,000 in ransom, but I didn’t have it, and neither did my family. I agreed to pay them $4,000, which they accepted. Once they released me and my son, we crossed the river to the United States from the Reynosa side.

The international bridge at Matamoros. The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the busiest in the world. The U.S. government closed its borders with Mexico on March 20th. President Donald Trump said that “non-essential” travel with that country is prohibited in order to counteract the spread of the virus in the U.S. However, the United States continues to send migrants back to their home countries. A federally chartered flight to Guatemala transported 77 deportees; 44 of them tested positive for COVID-19. Photo from El Faro: Fred Ramos.
The international bridge at Matamoros. The U.S.-Mexico border is one of the busiest in the world. The U.S. government closed its borders with Mexico on March 20th. President Donald Trump said that “non-essential” travel with that country is prohibited in order to counteract the spread of the virus in the U.S. However, the United States continues to send migrants back to their home countries. A federally chartered flight to Guatemala transported 77 deportees; 44 of them tested positive for COVID-19. Photo from El Faro: Fred Ramos.

“When I got to the U.S., I gave myself up and asked for medical help, knowing that I was hurt and my son was malnourished. They denied me almost all help even though I had proof of political persecution (in Venezuela) and that I had been kidnapped (in Mexico). They returned me to Mexico, telling me that they weren’t interested and couldn’t help. They tricked me when they arrested me - they first checked my papers and then took them. They put me in isolation and then drove me unknowingly to a place here across from the parking lot of the National Institute of Immigration in Matamoros. 

They told me I was going to another shelter where I would be better off. But they tricked me and brought me here to Matamoros. They told me they were taking me to a place where they were going to provide protection, and then brought me here. It was a lie. I don’t know what to do.” 

Besides Edison, I talked to two other migrants who crossed the river at Reynosa. The U.S. sent them back to Mexico over the Matamoros Bridge. Edison was able to have his son to stay in the United States because his mother is there and, as a minor, he can wait in the U.S. for his asylum application to be processed. “He’s already with his mom — that’s enough,” he says. Edison is one of the stranded, one who has lost faith. “I don’t have any hope, I really don’t know what to do,” he says with watery eyes. He has been in the camp for more than 150 days. 

There are degrees of bad here, and the lesser evil is accepted with resignation: Edison thinks Matamoros is less dangerous than Reynosa. 

He languishes here, at the other end of the continent from his birthplace, stranded by a U.S. program carried out by Mexico, which has no budget to serve the needs of the thousands of migrants seeking asylum that end up crowded into these shacks. Food is provided by humanitarian organizations, as is medicine and medical care. The mayor of Matamoros installed some domed structures for eating areas, but the U.S. government has not paid a single peso. 

The Migrant Protection Protocols is Trump’s initiative to prevent all humanitarian asylum claims from being resolved within the U.S. The initiative has produced the expected results: thousands of people have amassed here in the camp since January 2019, when the MPP took effect. The program has turned Mexico’s major border cities into warehouses for asylum seekers asking the United States for protection. At first, there were only 200 migrants here, but by July 2019 the number had grown to 2,500. 

Several of the people I spoke to told me about a list of asylum seekers that was controlled by La Maña and Mexican immigration officials. That’s why they don’t want their names mentioned here. Someone who saw the paperwork and payments says it was “basic corruption of Mexican immigration officials collaborating with organized crime, charging $1,000 to $1,500 per migrant”. This is money paid only for hope, not for any sure thing. 

One person who helped create the famous list says that it was born out of the idea of getting migrants across the bridge for asylum appointments in Brownsville, Texas.  “Many Venezuelans and Cubans began to pay to be at the top of the list so they could go first — that created corruption,” said someone who has a copy of the list. This system seems to have been halted a couple of months ago. 

“If you’re at the top of the list, you cross over to the U.S. to start the asylum procedure,” a migrant defense lawyer explains. Most of those on the list went to their appointments, but then returned to this migrant dumping ground to wait for the next appointment. “I paid, so I’m in process — but I’ve been waiting five months like this,” confirmed a Central American who had met Oscar and Valeria, the father and daughter who drowned while crossing the Rio Bravo in June 2019. They had no money to pay for a place on the list.

Mixed together in this camp are migrants who arrived from the south months ago, migrants who were deported from the U.S., migrants who travelled to Matamoros in a caravan, and migrants who braved travelling through Mexico with coyotes or on their own. Since the pandemic surged in mid-March, migrants sent back from the United States have not entered the camp, with one exception. While we were there, we learned of a deported woman who came from a U.S. detention center and spent one night in the camp. Even so, many camp dwellers go out every day to beg for money or look for work. In Matamoros, the virus has infected hundreds. 

“I really can’t take it anymore. There are times when I just cry all day. You get depressed,” says Ana, a Salvadoran woman who crossed the border and was caught in the United States. She petitioned for asylum and is waiting for an answer on this side. 

All this is a political message: the United States does not want them there even while they are waiting. Every second seems to count. One second less that these people remain in the U.S. is a second gained for this administration. It is also a political message from Mexico — that it accepts the position of its northern neighbor. The United States is throwing people out; Mexico is receiving them.

Ana is in her twenties, but she looks older. She is almost always sweating because she is almost always near a wood fire on which she cooks whatever she can get: most of the time it is potatoes with something, eggs or beans. Ana begged me not to describe her physically or to photograph her. “I’m not giving you my real name because I want to go back, and I’m ashamed that my family will recognize me. I have an appointment at the end of May, and they say they’re going to postpone it again,” she tells me while standing next to her daughter outside her shack. 

She migrated with a coyote, although some of her neighbors claim that she came in a caravan. Ana migrated to improve her life. She wants her family to see her after she has achieved something from all this, not as she is now, helpless and living in this migrant shantytown on the banks of the Rio Bravo. 

I talked to 15 people of various nationalities. At least five Salvadorans that I tried to speak to told me that they did not want to talk to journalists from a Salvadoran media outlet, because they were afraid of being recognized by their relatives or by the gang members from whom they had fled. 

The pandemic didn’t stop death in Central America. Gangs continue to control their territories and rule the daily lives of tens of thousands of people. Since the virus alarms began to sound in the Americas in March, many migrants have continued to flee. After all, what’s the point of being healthy if you’re going to get killed. 

In this place, whoever does not succumb to desperation, whoever can endure in that cluster of shacks called a shelter, can look forward to a hearing with an American judge. These hearings are held in a room across the bridge in Brownsville. They can often last up to an hour, but crossing the bridge means going through plenty of bureaucratic red tape. “I get up at 4:00 am when I have a 9:00 am appointment,” says Hector, a Honduran who is going for his third appointment with a judge. After the meeting, the “lucky” migrant returns to Mexico until he gets a phone message for another appointment. 

Bureaucracy is part of Trump’s wall.

Hope is a judge’s face on a screen.

They wait for months enduring an ordeal of meetings with an American judge who communicates from his computer. They cross over to the U.S. side for just a little while and are ushered into a white room in a federal office. In the first meeting, the judge explains the process to them, nothing more, all on a little screen. Then months go by until the second appointment. Months until the third. Months... The U.S. asylum system is a very sluggish bureaucracy that services people in a very big hurry. 

“Most lawyers who offer free services to migrants do so for clients with strong cases, such as Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans who are requesting political asylum. Not all lawyers do this, but they tend to choose clients who have the highest chance of receiving asylum,” explains Stephanie Leutert, an academic expert who knows the field and works for a Central American and Mexican initiative at the University of Texas in Austin.  

Cases of Central American migrants fleeing gang violence have little chance of success, as the asylum system is oriented towards those fleeing political regimes. 

Dr. Rojas’s Camp

Dairon Elisondo Rojas is a doctor at the Matamoros migrant camp on the border between Mexico and the United States. Photo by El Faro: Fred Ramos.
Dairon Elisondo Rojas is a doctor at the Matamoros migrant camp on the border between Mexico and the United States. Photo by El Faro: Fred Ramos.

Dr. Dayron Elizondo Rojas meets all the requirements to obtain asylum. His case is already in process, but the coronavirus pandemic further slowed what was already moving at a snail’s pace. Dr. Rojas is a role model and an authority in the camp. He has been stranded in Matamoros since June 27 of last year, before the pandemic loomed.  He has never lived in the camp shacks, but he is trapped in Matamoros just like his patients. Dr. Rojas has been able to work in Mexico since his expertise in intensive care has provided some income to rent a room. 

“This situation has been growing little by little, a product of the same protocol of returning migrants to Mexico,” says Dr. Rojas. His story has been published in the New York Times and other prominent media outlets. He has fled two authoritarian regimes: Cuba and Venezuela. Rojas was sent from Cuba to Venezuela on one of the medical missions created by Venezuela’s former president, Hugo Chavez, and that continued under Maduro’s regime. He abandoned the medical mission because he claims he was forced to create fictitious patients, and because he fundamentally disagreed with the Venezuelan regime. He returned to Cuba, was barred from practicing his profession, and was harassed with threats of eviction from his home. “Just the fact of wanting to abandon the medical mission has consequences,” he says. He arrived in Mexico last year and was able to find work in a maquiladora, earning some money to rent a place to live.

Helen Perry, director of operations for Global Response Management (GRM), an organization that has provided medical aid to high-risk areas such as Iraq and Yemen, gave him a job as the doctor in charge of this camp. 

While he waits for his asylum appointment, Dr. Rojas works from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

There are four zones of shacks and tents in the camp. In the middle is Dr. Rojas’ clinic, established by GRM. This organization still provides humanitarian aid staff, and has set up a hospital to treat coronavirus cases. It even has an isolation tent. 

According to Dr. Rojas, there are 125 tents and 250 people in zone one of the camp. Stranded migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba and Ecuador live there. There are 100 tents with 700 people in zone two. This zone is very close to the center of the camp, where Matamoros’ mayor has erected two giant awnings to provide protection from the elements for those who managed to secure a spot there. Those who didn’t, had to put up their tents out in the open. 

Many of the camp’s shops are scattered around a basketball court. This is zone three, which has 199 tents in which about 1,000 people are huddled, according to Dr. Rojas. There are mainly Hondurans here, but also Colombians, Salvadorans and Guatemalans. 

In the camp center are bleacher seats where hundreds of migrants sit, looking at their phones, charging their batteries, or just to pass time. 

Zone four is for Mexicans only, and is only a few meters from the bathrooms. The stench from these bathrooms engulfs the river bank, just below the bridge where the three boys tried to cross. 

No one can escape the overcrowding. 

In this illusory sanctuary, Dr. Rojas is the main strategist confronting the pandemic. He warns that a single case of coronavirus would be a catastrophe and that’s why he’s devising a plan. “We are trying to close or avoid doors through which the virus could enter. One such door is patients who have been deported here from the United States, but I can’t say for sure if they are still doing this,” he explains. He recalls that they did this until the end of March, when the pandemic was already raging. 

Perla Vargas, a Nicaraguan who is fleeing from Daniel Ortega’s regime. She lives among a cluster of shacks in a tent with her family. She is hopeful that the United States will grant her asylum, as she says she has evidence supporting her case and a very dedicated lawyer. She is also in charge of the camp pharmacy. Photo from El Faro: Fred Ramos.
Perla Vargas, a Nicaraguan who is fleeing from Daniel Ortega’s regime. She lives among a cluster of shacks in a tent with her family. She is hopeful that the United States will grant her asylum, as she says she has evidence supporting her case and a very dedicated lawyer. She is also in charge of the camp pharmacy. Photo from El Faro: Fred Ramos.


The doctor’s words were confirmed by Karla, a migrant who was sent back on March 27. She arrived in Matamoros in one of “two big buses” carrying about 180 people. Although Karla did spend a night in the camp, she asserts that the rest of the 180 did not stay there. There are many more migrants somewhere outside this human dumping ground, trapped in the city, and living in anonymity and secrecy. 

Karla Peréz, a Salvadoran woman who crossed the Rio Bravo in March, is the only person who has stayed a night in the camp after being returned on a bus from the United States. This is the only case of an express deportation by bus that has been seen in Matamoros. Most deportations happen at other crossings along the United States’ southern border. Karla was deported to Mexico on March 27. She arrived in the midst of the pandemic on a crowded bus full of people who had been in a Brownsville detention center. “We were about 180 people; I was with my kids and I counted about 20 minors,” she says.

Many of these 180 deportees ended up in southern Mexico, abandoned by Mexican immigration authorities in Villahermosa or Tapachula. “I heard that they were going to be taken there.” Karla, however, was left on the street in front of the INM in Matamoros. “The immigration officials threatened me, and warned me not to go into the camp because of this virus,” she says. 

But, as she had nowhere to go, she entered the camp and slept that night in the tent where she had left her belongings. “Look, I just went to pick up my things and figure out where to go.  But when I got there, I saw that everything had been stolen.”  Karla is no longer stranded in the camp. She found an abandoned house outside Matamoros where she now lives. She wants to stay in Mexico. 

Karla hopes to stay and look for work in Matamoros. “It’s because in El Salvador they’re going to kill me, so please don’t publish any details about me or about my history there.” A Human Rights Watch report released on February 5  reveals that at least 138 people who were deported from the United States to El Salvador between 2013 and 2018 were killed, and another 70 people were subjected to everything from rape to torture in that country. 

Those deported and stranded outside the INM offices in Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa are also easy prey for kidnappers. 

The report that won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize this year is precisely about migrants who have been kidnapped by drug traffickers and deported by the United States under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program.  “The kidnapping of migrants in northern Mexico has been commonplace for a long time. Usually the cartels collaborate with the police and INM agents. For the cartels, this is a business supported by a powerful infrastructure. They focus on migrants who have family members in the United States to extort up to $6,000 in exchange for their release,” explains Emily Green, a journalist who documented the story of one such kidnapping.

The MPP program has turned Mexico into a limbo for those determined to pursue their asylum cases. It has also become a place where those who do not want to return to their countries even when their asylum cases have been abandoned or rejected, also languish. And the Mexican authorities contribute to this whole contemptible succession by deporting many people without asking if they want to seek asylum in Mexico. A study by the Institute for Migrant Women (Instituto para las Mujeres en Migración) confirms that people detained by the INM are often pressured to sign the voluntary repatriation form without any explanation of its meaning and implications. “75 percent of those detained were not informed of their right to apply for asylum,” the study concludes. 

All of the people that spoke to us about their tragedies and crises have very little chance of achieving a promising outcome from this illusory sanctuary. They’re determined to follow the procedure, to hang on. There are others who want to stay in Matamoros and make a living there, to work for a while and save money. Others are saving money to cross the Bravo and avoid being caught.  Others, mainly Central Americans, are waiting for an immigration bus to take them back home. 

If you want to stay in Mexico, there are only risky options for leaving Matamoros: one option is to take a bus or car along a huge, straight highway all the way to Monterrey. This route includes a federal highway that bulges around Reynosa for almost 70 kilometers. This is a stretch of road where there is an imminent risk of being kidnapped by narcos, and where there is an army checkpoint asking for papers at the end. 

Gladys Cañas, the migrant advocate who founded Ayudarle a Triunfar, says that road travel in and out of Matamoros is a flip of a coin. When we asked her advice on the best way to safely get to Matamoros, she said, “You can only put yourself in God’s hands. I’ll pray for you.”

The other option, which many choose, is to try to cross into Texas without being apprehended by the Border Patrol. There is one obstacle before one can even try this: La Maña makes sure no one crosses the border without their permission, which costs $6,000. 

An improbable possibility is to evade La Maña, the Border Patrol, the sensors, and sneak across the Rio Bravo. 

“There’s a shelter, I think you can do it if you go very late at night and know the way,” says Rodrigo (a pseudonym he asked me to use). He’s a Caribbean man who’s been in this camp for 10 months and is thinking of crossing over without paying the La Maña fee.  He says he knows the way — that the coyotes themselves have told him.

All of the stories we heard revealed a fantasy-like sense of hope. What is perhaps the largest and most unique migrant camp in these times of pandemic has gathered together a babel of reasons to migrate. Everyone here ended up in Matamoros because of a wall of bureaucracy, drug traffickers, a river, and an illusory sanctuary. Everything conspires to prevent them from crossing over, but they still believe they can do it. 


Perla Vargas, a Nicaraguan who is fleeing from Daniel Ortega’s regime, lives a few meters from the clinic. Perla reports that her cousin was killed, her daughter was harassed and a cross was painted on her door. “If I had stayed there, they would have tortured me or thrown me in jail,” says Perla, who was a civil servant at a public clinic.  She has everything documented and has already had four interviews with a U.S. judge. Unlike Edison, the Venezuelan, she is hopeful that she will be accepted. She also has a very dedicated lawyer. 

Perla is in charge of the clinic’s pharmacy and is a prime example of the almost 100 Nicaraguans here who have fled for political reasons or because of poverty. There are also about 50 Venezuelans here, some of whom claim to have been expelled from the country as opponents of the Maduro regime.

Perla also fits the profile of those who have been able to break through the wall of red tape and obtain asylum, less than 1 percent of all migrants. 

In other words, the wall of bureaucracy is effective in stopping almost 100 percent of the applicants for asylum. Of all the applicants under Trump’s MPP program, the first case of asylum wasn’t granted until August 2019, eight months into the program. This was the case of a 30-year-old Honduran national whose legal victory has been challenged by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This data is from a study directed by Stephanie Leutert and conducted by students from Stanford University, the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Bates College, and the University of Texas (Austin). 

It’s May 20 today, and there have already been a dozen suspected cases of the virus reported in the camp.

Dr. Rojas says he doesn’t have an exact number of coronavirus tests done, but estimates that it’s about 80. It’s the only migrant camp with a hospital and an isolation tent for suspected cases. Gladys Cañas, who attends to dozens of migrants in her office every day, says uncertainty is growing. She believes that more want to return home. On that day, it was officially announced that all May appointments (hearings with immigration judges) have been rescheduled again. The April hearings were pushed to May, and now the May hearings have been pushed to June. The border is more closed than ever. All of Trump’s walls have proven to be effective.


*Translated by John Turnure

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