A Holy Nuisance

Protecting a vulnerable population

Padre Alejandro Solalinde is one of the most vocal advocates for human rights in Mexico. In 2007 he opened Hermanos en el Camino (“Brothers on the Road”), a shelter for Central American migrants in Ixtepec, Oaxaca. Each year the shelter provides thousands of migrants with food, medical attention, and a safe place to rest. But in the five years since it opened, the shelter has become more than just a stopping-off point for migrants heading north for work; it has become a center for activism on their behalf. Padre Alejandro works ceaselessly for migrant rights, constantly pressuring the Mexican government to provide migrants with better protection. This work has placed him in direct conflict with corrupt politicians and drug cartels, which exploit and kidnap migrants. He has received many death threats over the years, but in recent months the number of the threats has increased. The situation has gotten so bad that Padre Alejandro has decided to leave Mexico. But he intends to return.

I met him in February when I spent a week at Hermanos en el Camino. Padre Alejandro lives at the shelter, in a small and sparely furnished room. There are two dormitories, but many people sleep outside because of the heat and mosquitoes. Cold water is used for bathing and laundry. Meals are extremely simple—made with whatever food has been donated. Padre Alejandro takes his meals in the shelter’s large dining room, although it’s a wonder he’s able to find the time to eat since people are constantly coming to him with requests. Like everyone else on staff, he doesn’t get paid.

Padre Alejandro’s whole life has been dedicated to helping a vulnerable population that most of society—and much of the church—ignores. “I see [migrants] as sheep without a pastor. Nobody helps them, they’re assaulted, many things are done to them and no one is concerned about them. I said I have to concern myself about them. If other priests are dedicated to religious service, then at least I have to dedicate myself to helping [migrants].”

Migrants travel through Mexico on top of cargo trains. Many come from Guatemala, Honduras, and Salvador; a few from Nicaragua. Most hope to make it to the United States. Studies have shown that 80 percent of them are assaulted somewhere along the way, and that 60 percent of the women are raped. Kidnapping is a huge business for drug gangs and local thugs: ransoms start at $1,500. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission estimates that in the period between April and September 2010 there were more than 210 mass kidnappings of migrants, with more than 11,000 victims.

Padre Alejandro is a threat to the kidnappers’ lucrative business, and they’ve noticed. When we spoke in February, he acknowledged the dangers of the work he does. “We are always receiving threats,” he said. “Not just me. There are more than fifty shelters for migrants.... We are like a collective and are damaging the interests of drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and corrupt corporations.” It took some convincing, but Padre Alejandro finally accepted bodyguards; he also agreed to travel with a driver (a man named Reubén who is a former policeman). Four state police guarded the shelter while I was there, but Padre Alejandro knew he would never be completely safe as long as he continued his work. “I don’t believe that the police can protect my life,” he told me. 

Padre Alejandro is now in Europe talking to politicians and other human-rights activists about the continuing abuse of migrants in Mexico. The trip will give him a much needed break from the stress of living under death threats. He also hopes the situation in Ixtepec may improve while he’s away, but even if it doesn’t, he plans to return to Mexico in early July to continue his work. “What is clear to me is that I have to fight,” he said. “Above all, I feel responsible to be with the most vulnerable, the people most excluded, the people most forgotten. It is my vocation to be with them.” So long as he follows that vocation, he will remain a target to those who make money by preying on migrants.

About the Author

Joseph Sorrentino is a freelance writer and photographer.

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