In this June 1, 2019 photo, migrants mill around in the courtyards of the Siglo XXI migrant detention center in Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico. Located near the border with Guatemala, it's a secretive place off-limits to public scrutiny where cellphones are confiscated and journalists aren't allowed inside. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

According to the Human Rights Center, Haitian migrants are suffering with “limb paralysis, intestinal bleeding, epidemic problems, vomiting and dehydration, anxiety, stress, depression and thoughts of suicide” at XXI Century Migratory Station detention center in Tapachula, Mexico.

In this June 1, 2019 photo, migrants mill around in the courtyards of the Siglo XXI migrant detention center in Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico. Located near the border with Guatemala, it’s a secretive place off-limits to public scrutiny where cellphones are confiscated and journalists aren’t allowed inside. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

By Jonathan Greig

Human rights organizations based in Tapachula, Mexico said two Haitian refugees, including a pregnant woman, died tragically in migrant detention centers last month due to poor treatment.

“We have many cases of health issues and torture or sexual harrasment in detention centers here in Tapachula,” said Enrique Vidal, a coordinator for the Human Rights Center Fray Matias de Cordova. 

“But its not usual that we have two cases of people dying in detention centers.”

Vidal told The Haitian Times in an interview that in the case of the pregnant woman, Mexican authorities intentionally released her from custody when her conditioned worsened knowing she would die on her own. 

“Her pregnancy was in danger because of the conditions of the detention center and the Mexican Government decided to put her out on the street before she could die in the center,” he said.

“They only wanted to avoid direct responsibility for her death.”

Vidal said the woman, who was only identified as Maria, made it to Mexico while she was pregnant but was in good health when she arrived. When she crossed into the town of Hidalgo from Guatemala with her brother, she was arrested and held in a detention center for 50 days.

Maria was about seven months along in her pregnancy and complained about pain in her stomach throughout her stay in the detention center. The pain became unbearable and detention center authorities were forced to take her to a local clinic for medical help. 

“They did not have the facilities to figure out what was wrong, so they finally just decided to leave her and let her go,” Vidal said 

“But 15 days later she died in a room she rented in Tapachula. The baby died as well.”

The only way Vidal and the Human Rights Center knew about Maria was because her brother came to their office in Tapachula despondent about her tragic death. He was trying to get her ashes but was unsure of what to do or where to turn.

The Human Rights Center received another report in August of a Haitian man who died in a migrant detention center due to negligent treatment. 

According to Vidal and reports from the Human Rights Center, Maxime Andre entered Mexico in good health just like Maria. But Andre was detained in Tapachula and taken to XXI Century Migratory Station detention center where he was kept for three weeks. 

Other Haitian men at the facility told Vidal that Andre said he was having headaches, a fever and anxiety attacks. 

Andre began to complain about the pain to security guards at the center on Aug. 5, but instead of taking him to a hospital they moved him to a different cell away from the other Haitian men detained there. Witnesses at the detention center say guards brought in a doctor who injected Andre with an unknown substance.

Some of the 40 other Haitian men being held at the detention center later told Vidal that they listened to Andre’s screams throughout the night of Aug. 5. 

At 6 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 6, security guards found Andre dead in his cell and dragged his body away. 

“The government took out the body and never did any investigation into what happened. Three days after taking the body, the Mexican government said publicly that Maxime Andre suffered a heart attack and that it was unpredictable,” Vidal said in an interview with The Haitian Times. 

“But we know that he was sick for two weeks before he died. We are disputing that this death was natural. His death was preventable and the government is lying about the cause of death.”

Vidal was actually at the detention center himself on Aug. 6 doing a routine monitoring visit when Haitian men at the center told him what happened to Andre. 

Just by speaking to Vidal about what happened, some of these Haitian men were treated even worse in the migrant centers and later deported. 

“The Mexican government refused to give us any information after his death. The migration agents start to harass the other Haitian men in the other cells. The other people are very afraid to speak about this case,” he said. 

“They came to our office but they were really afraid to speak with us about the death of Maxime Andre. We know that it was a death that could have been prevented. The migration institution could have prevented it.”

Vidal added that like many migrants, most of the 40 Haitian men had either been deported or fled Tapachula. There were few options for Haitians in Tapachula and many wanted to avoid being trapped inside the XXI Century Migratory Station detention center, which is well known for its disastrous treatment of migrants. 

The report from the Human Rights Center says Haitian migrants are routinely harrassed with racist and xenophobic language from guards, who call them “dogs,” or “assholes,” in Spanish. The guards intentionally deny Haitians access to basic hygiene practices and give them rotten food.

The condition of the food at the facility was one of the reasons why Vidal said most of the Haitian migrants at the center complained of stomach issues and a litany of other ailments including skin infections and respiratory illnesses. 

The Human Rights Center added that they’ve seen Haitian migrants with “limb paralysis, intestinal bleeding, epidemic problems, vomiting and dehydration, anxiety, stress, depression and thoughts of suicide,” at XXI Century Migratory Station detention center.

But most importantly, the report highlights that the immigration status of all the Haitians at XXI Century Migratory Station detention center was under dispute. Many people were being held arbitrarily and indefinitely, with little information on why they were being held or when they would be released. 

Some people have had zero access to shelter application procedures and the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance. Even those who had filled out applications or had even received refugee status were being held in the facility against their will. In two disturbing instances, a mother-daughter pair were deported back to Haiti while the father was held in the detention center. 

Local organizations estimate that there are nearly 3,000 Haitians in Tapachula alone and another 6,000 Haitians farther north in Tijuana. 

While much of the media focus has been on Africans, Cubans, South Americans and Central Americans, little attention has been paid to Haitians, who are increasingly making up a bigger share of the migrant pie. 

“Within the Haitian community there is very little knowledge that this is taking place and that this is what people have been doing,” said April Mays, treasurer and board member of the Haitian Bridge Alliance.

“We know that’s it’s a tough time for the Haitian Government. There is a dire need for representation. There is no Haitian ambassador in Mexico right now. There is no consular representation.  People are bereft of documents and there’s no one to call home to and even if you had someone to call home to, where would they go? How would they help you? There’s nothing they can do. The state of Haiti at the moment is leaving people very, very vulnerable.”

The Haitian Bridge Alliance, led by co-founder Guerline Jozef, has been active in trying to help Haitians and other Black migrants along the Mexican border with the United States. Since 2016, they have been working on the ground in San Diego, Tijuana and other places to help the more than 19,000 Black migrants deal with increasingly cruel immigration policies. 

Mays said Haitians have been getting stuck in Tapachula for long periods of time because of stringent new rules passed by the United States making it almost impossible for non-Mexican migrants to apply for asylum.

President Donald Trump’s administration has said they will reject all asylum applications from non-Mexicans arriving at the southwest border unless they have already filed for it in one of the countries they passed through before getting to the United States. Migrants must show that they have been rejected in these countries before they can get the United States to consider their application.

“We are receiving reports that are making us worry about the future of the policy that Mexico has adopted given Trump’s pressures and the possibilities for Haitians as they continue to come into Mexico as migrants themselves,” Mays said.

In addition to that new rule, Trump has threatened Mexico with costly tariffs if they did not take a harder line against migrants. Earlier this year, the Mexican Government began relying on a new policy that forces migrants to stay in the state they initially entered and file paperwork for documents that allow you to travel through Mexico.

These documents — which are difficult for Haitians who often don’t speak Spanish and don’t have official papers with them — can take up to 30 days to acquire and give you just 20 days to get across the country. Those who try to leave the state without the documents are almost always caught at highway checkpoints and summarily deported.

Since the spring, 143 Haitians have been deported from Mexico back to Haiti.

Tapachula has become a hot spot because it is right on the border with Guatemala, a country many migrants pass through on their way to the United States. The city is in Chiapas state —  Mexico’s poorest state — and the new rule forces migrants to stay there for months.

There are now thousands of Haitians stranded in Tapachula looking for help. Vidal said more than one third of the Haitian migrants in Tapachula were children and families were forced to sleep outside with camping gear. The backlog of applications for asylum and documents allowing them to travel within Mexico now take months to approve.

Since the influx of migrants, rates to rent rooms have skyrocketed, leaving Haitian migrants no choice but to wait outside in the elements or take their chances with coyotes and secret caravans that left them vulnerable to human traffickers. 

“The other difficulty is that migrants are beginning to cross at other areas of the Mexico-Guatemala border. Other areas that are much more mountainous and much more difficult to cross,” Mays told The Haitian Times.  

“They’re trying to avoid the authorities and that raises concerns because people are going to disappear and you’re not gonna be able to find them again. The lack of knowledge about Haitians in this migration process also leaves them vulnerable because they’re just made invisible.”

Mays added that the Haitian diaspora needed to come together and help Haitians involved in these dangerous situations. In addition to general supplies, food and funding, Vidal said there was an urgent need for translators.

His organization and others like it were having difficulty translating documents from Spanish into Haitian Kreyole. They also needed translators for the asylum application interviews as well. 

But both Vidal and the Center For Human Rights said the two deaths were emblematic of a cruel system designed to humiliate migrants instead of help them. They called on Mexico to unilaterally close the detention center and completely rethink how they handled the issue of immigration.

“In short, and in order to avoid further serious human rights violations in the future, the Promotion Group against Migration Detention and Torture and the Human Rights Observation and Monitoring Collective in Southeast Mexico demand the dismantling of immigration detention centers in Mexico, and the adoption of public policies that address the issue from an approach that avoids xenophobia, the repression of migrants and refugees, and their detention,” they wrote in their report.

As Haiti continues to struggle with political issues, analysts expect migrant numbers to increase. But Vidal said the Mexican Government was making the situation worse through its new policies that were criminalizing a traumatized population. 

“We are living through a humanitarian crisis that was not created by a natural disaster but by the migration policies here in Mexico that have changed in the last few months,” Vidal said. 

“Before, it was easier for Haitians to travel through Mexico. This is all because the Mexican Government is buckling from Donald Trump’s pressure. But these decisions are having huge human costs.”

Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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