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Mexican town stands up for South American immigrants

Sunday, October 26, 2008

RAFAEL LARA GRAJALES, Mexico -- The afternoon calm was broken by shouts from the small, mission-style house.

Bloodied hands punched through the windows. The glass shattered. Suddenly, dozens of people were clambering over the back wall and jumping onto the street below.

The men and women ran up to townsfolk and pleaded in their Central American accents: We were kidnapped. The local police are involved. Please help.

In an act that defied years of resignation in the face of immigrant abuse, the people of this small Mexican migrant town launched a challenge to a common practice of complaining about treatment of Mexican migrants in the United States, while treating Central American migrants at home worse.

Tens of thousands of Central American migrants pass through Mexico every year on their way to the U.S., but the journey is perilous. Only a handful reach the U.S. border without being robbed, beaten or raped, either by thieves or by Mexican officials.

Rafael Lara Grajales is a waystation on the route, a place to change trains and beg for food or spare change during the hourlong layover.

"They come by and ask for a bit of bread," said Luis Campos, 15. "They are very respectful. They ask for help and continue on their way."

The town's underlying sympathy for the migrants exploded into full-blown activism when people began spilling out of the house Oct. 12.

Many of the more than 60 people inside later said they had been picked up by police, who turned them over to kidnappers. They were then crammed into the house, robbed of their money and belongings and forced to strip off their clothes.

After being held for days while ransoms were sought from their families, the migrants turned on the two captors present.

After spilling over the walls, the migrants begged for help. A few residents ran to the main square, where they interrupted a Columbus Day celebration.

Police soon arrived. They arrested the two suspected kidnappers, who had been cornered in an empty lot. Police loaded the two women onto a van, then moved to put the migrants in with them, witnesses said. But the crowd feared police were involved in the kidnapping and were taking the migrants away to kill them, according to Elizabeth Bautista, who watched from a distance with her son.

A few people hurled rocks at the van, and the multitude began pushing against riot police. "Run! Get away!" people in the crowd shouted at the migrants. "You aren't safe!"

The migrants scattered through the streets and hid in houses. Some in the crowd set two patrol pickups aflame. Finally, federal police rolled in and began going door to door to look for the migrants.

In the end, they rounded up 21 migrants and took them into custody for deportation. Of those, 15 have been deported. Six others are being held and will serve as witnesses to the events of Oct. 12.

State prosecutor Rodolfo Igor Archundia said officials have cleared the five police officers on duty Oct. 12, but arrest warrants have been issued for four other officers who were off that day. They are accused of kidnapping and smuggling people.

For resident Mariana Solis, the town should serve as a model throughout Mexico and beyond. She said Americans who turn a blind eye to migrant abuse in the U.S. should take heed.

"We all have people in the U.S., and we don't want the same thing to happen to them," she said.


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