War, amputation, refuge: A Salvadoran migrant’s story

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War, amputation, refuge: A Salvadoran migrant’s story

Tecun Uman, Guatemala & Tapachula, Mexico – The first time Jose de Eugenio Lopez fled El Salvador, he was a teenager. It was the outset of a brutal 12-year civil war and US-backed military forces were forcibly recruiting youth and massacring civilians.

The second time he left his country, he travelled up through Mexico on a freight train used by migrants. He fell off onto the tracks and the train severed his leg.

The third time Lopez fled, he joined thousands of Central Americans heading north last year in a collective exodus. Months later, he is still just partway into the journey, with no plans to turn back.

“In our country, crime makes it impossible to live. There are too many gangs. There are too many death squads,” said Lopez, now 53.

When Al Jazeera first met Lopez in January, he was sitting on a bridge that spans the Suchiate River and the international border between Guatemala and Mexico. The last time he was on the bridge, Mexican federal police fired tear gas and anti-barrier projectiles, killing a Honduran migrant.

This time was more peaceful. Lopez had been under consideration for asylum in Mexico since October, but because the outcome of cases was uncertain, some immigration officials recommended Lopez and others return to the border bridge in January while a new Mexican administration was offering humanitarian visas to migrants and refugees. 

Tens of thousands of Central American migrants and refugees have crossed into Mexico in recent months [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

Lopez rested in the shade of a canopy tent, his crutches beside him on the pavement. He was ahead of most of the more than 15,000 Central Americans who applied for humanitarian visas at the border in the second half of January, but there were still several lines on the bridge, all moving slowly.

When he first migrated north, Lopez was only 14. He left his village in the San Miguel department of El Salvador in 1980, fleeing a civil war between leftist guerrilla forces and military forces heavily funded by the US.

Between 1979 and 1992, around 75,000 Salvadorans, most of them civilians, were killed during the conflict. As part of a scorched earth campaign against the rebel fighters, the army massacred and bombed villages. The United Nations estimated state forces were responsible for 85 percent of civilians murdered.

The Salvadoran army also forcibly recruited youth, but Lopez was long gone. He made it all the way to the US and lived in California for a decade until 1990 when he decided to go back to El Salvador.

“I returned to be closer to my mother,” said Lopez.

The accident

By then, Lopez was in his mid-20s. He started a new life back home. But just over a decade later, he was struggling to get by. He decided to head north again in search of work, and set off up through Mexico, travelling with a handful of other migrants.

“In some parts of the country we were treated well, but in some places it was bad, because it was not just immigration [agents] who treated us badly, but also police, soldiers, all of them,” said Lopez, explaining that sometimes authorities would rob them or demand bribes in order to allow to keep going. 

“For more security, we travelled by train because we would run into fewer authorities,” he said.

A network of freight trains commonly referred to as La Bestia [The Beast] has long been used by migrants and refugees travelling north through Mexico. Riding atop freight cars and cargo containers, they switch lines along the way to arrive at points along the US border.

Lopez was riding atop a freight train heading up through the state of Veracruz on October 8, 2003.

“I fell asleep on the train and I fell off,” he said.

Lopez fell onto the tracks and the train amputated his left leg, severing it at the upper thigh. He also sustained severe injuries to his right leg. Someone found him, then rail line workers arrived and provided first aid while they waited for an ambulance.

The incident was far from one of a kind. Hundreds of migrants and refugees have lost limbs after falling from the freight trains in Mexico. Others have died.

Lopez needed multiple surgeries to repair damage to his right leg and to make a more even amputation of his left leg to accommodate a prosthetic. He does not use one, however, since it aggravates the lasting damage to his right leg more than using crutches does. Overall, Lopez was hospitalised in Mexico for nearly a year.

“When I was about to be released, the hospital contacted immigration, and I was deported,” he said.

‘Better to travel as a caravan’

El Salvador has legislation addressing the rights of people with disabilities, including prohibiting discrimination by employers. But it is seldom enforced, and even basic accommodations for accessibility in city streets, on transportation, and to buildings for people with physical disabilities are severely lacking.

Lopez settled back in El Salvador and had two daughters, now aged 12 and 13. But getting around and finding work to support his family was a constant challenge. When he heard about plans in October for collective group migration from El Salvador in a so-called migrant caravan, he decided to join.

“For safety, it is better to travel as a caravan, because if you enter Mexico alone, they quickly arrest and deport you,” Lopez said. 

Since mid-October, more than 25,000 Central American migrants and refugees have participated in the caravans, fleeing violence, poverty, persecution and unemployment. The overwhelming majority have been from Honduras, but thousands of Salvadorans have also been part of the exodus.

Thousands of Central Americans have made it up to Tijuana and other points along the US border in recent months. Many have crossed into the US to seek asylum, both at and between official ports of entry, while others have stayed in Mexico, chosen to return, or have been deported.

Lopez stay behind in Tapachula, just 35km from the border with Guatemala. He was issued a humanitarian visa after returning to the border to apply in January, but he stayed in Tapachula to await a resolution to his case from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR).

More than 15,000 Central Americans applied for Mexican humanitarian visas in the second half of January [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

Scraping by

When the first waves of the Central American exodus entered Mexico last October and November, most migrants and refugees crossed the Suchiate River and kept going, making their way up to Tijuana. But many stayed behind in southern Mexico.

More than 3,000 Central Americans remained in Tapachula for intake by both immigration authorities and COMAR. The 45-business-day refugee status consideration process was extended to 90 days, and caravan after caravan passed them while Lopez and thousands of others tried to scrape by on a stipend from the Mexican branch of Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“We have families in our countries that also need us to contribute. Sometimes we do not even have food for ourselves, much less a way to help our families,” said Lopez.

There has been no room in the shelters in Tapachula, job opportunities have been few and far between, and as the months passed, many began to despair. Like Lopez, many dropped down to the border when the Mexican government began issuing humanitarian visas. COMAR has been resolving cases this month, but not everyone waited.

“So many people who were in this process left with caravans heading north,” said Lopez.

Asylum seekers who have been in Tapachula since they fled Central America with the first waves of the exodus often congregate in the city’s central plaza to catch up and to greet the subsequent waves of people passing through.

A steady stream of migrants and refugees continues to flow through Tapachula, long after the closure of the two-week period for humanitarian visa applications. New arrivals often raft across the Suchiate River into Mexico, spend a night in the Tapachula plaza, then keep heading north, risking detention and deportation by Mexican authorities on the way to the US border where asylum seekers face a myriad of obstacles.  

Lopez was never tempted to join any of the groups flowing through Tapachula.He plans to stay in Mexico to work, and has received assistance to line up a job in a city in central Mexico, he told Al Jazeera in the Tapachula plaza last month.

Decades after he first fled war and four months after he sought refuge in Mexico upon entering with the mass exodus, Lopez can finally make concrete plans in peace. COMAR issued its decision in his case late last month, determining Lopez is in need of protection and granting him residency in Mexico.

A mural in Cinquera, a town bombed by the Salvadoran military in the 1980s, depicts elements of war and peace [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

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