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A site for sore feet


The ICRC and the Mexican Red Cross work together to bring medical help to Central Americans on their way north. It’s one example of how the Movement reaches out to help migrants when they are at their most vulnerable.

One morning recently, Juan Carlos, a young, black-haired Honduran, rested under a tree that gave some shade from the hot sun. He had just crossed the wide, brown Suchiate River and Mexico’s southern border, and had settled for a moment near the small agricultural town of Tenosique. After four nights of walking through the Guatemalan hills and jungle to get here, he was one less border away from the United States — and exhausted.

Soon, the next phase of Juan Carlos’ journey would begin. With little warning, a freight train would move through Tenosique, along the rail tracks where Juan Carlos now rested. He would sprint and try to grab a freight wagon’s metal ladders, hoist himself aboard and head further north.

 Catching the train was one worry. But there was something more pressing. The soles of Juan Carlos’ shoes — the critical synthetic cushion separating his flesh from the rocky earth — were thinning. Blisters ready to burst signalled trouble.

 “I had a feeling this would happen,” he said. “I’m trying to ignore the pain. Not think about it.”

 So, Juan Carlos took notice when a white truck pulled up alongside the train tracks. Other migrants, those more experienced with this trek, quickly jumped to their feet and began lining up.
Basic needs
Operated by the Mexican Red Cross, recently in partnership with the ICRC, the truck was a mobile medical unit stocked with supplies needed to treat people bound for the United States.

Mostly, the needs are basic: treating lacerations caused by falls over rocks or barbed wire, intestinal infections from drinking river or lake water, dehydration and severe blistering. But such ailments can go untreated as migrants tend to remain underground during their trek and simple remedies, from bandages to aspirin, are often out of reach. By mid-journey, migrants like Juan Carlos, who asked that only his first name be used to protect his identity, usually have only a few pesos to spare if any at all.

 In April, a Pew Hispanic Center report showed the number of Mexicans migrating into the United States is slowing due to a weak American economy and a tighter border. But Central Americans continue to make the crossing. The economies in countries like Honduras and Guatemala remain very weak and violence is rampant. Although precise figures for the number of Central Americans moving through Mexico are not available, Mexican migration authorities last year deported some 40,000 Central Americans.

The number of church-supported migrants’ shelters set up throughout Mexico and along the routes used by Central Americans is also increasing. There are now more than 60 refuges to help satisfy the demand for food, clothing and safe haven.

 Juan Carlos waited for about 20 minutes until it was his turn to enter the medical trailer. When he stepped inside, Oswaldo Bello Lovato, the clinic’s 25-year-old doctor, asked basic questions: name, age and his country. He also asked how Juan Carlos felt.

 “Look,” Juan Carlos said, taking off his shoes to show a series of puffy sores on the bottom of his feet. His ankles were swollen from overheating and fluid retention.
 “How long have your feet been like that?” Bello asked.
 “Since yesterday,” said Juan Carlos.

 Bello handed him a tube of anti-blister cream. “Keep applying it for at least a week even if the blisters go away,” he said.

 “Anything else?” Bello asked. “How are you feeling today? Headaches? Fever?”

 Juan Carlos complained of stomach pains, although he wasn’t suffering from diarrhoea, a typical ailment among migrants triggered by drinking contaminated water.

 Bello handed him a few anti-parasitic tablets in case things worsened.

Unexpected attention
Juan Carlos took his medicine and stepped down from the trailer. He applied the blister cream and it was cool and soothing. His spirits seemed up.

 “I see their mental health improve with just the most basic consultation,” said Bello. “The idea that someone is willing to pay attention to them is unexpected.”

 That morning, Bello would see about 50 men like Juan Carlos. In the afternoon, more women and men would appear when the clinic arrived at a migrants’ shelter just up the road. Bello prescribed anti-rash and anti-diarrhoea medicine, offered adhesive bandages, aspirin and other medicine to lower fevers. Some migrants were sent to a small private room inside the trailer for antibiotic injections. Bello would also ask about conditions — diabetes, asthma and hypertension — that could flare up during the trip.
A dangerous road
María Canchola, working for ICRC’s migration project in Mexico, said that the migrants’ needs are enormous. “Right now, our focus is on treating those who may be sick,” she said. More extensive medical attention can include the need for artificial limbs for migrants left maimed after falling off a train. But although the ICRC’s mission in Mexico centres on immediate medical treatment, it also aims to address other humanitarian consequences of migration. The group supports coordinated work among forensic experts in both Mexico and Central America to identify human remains found in Mexico — a growing problem as migration becomes increasingly dangerous.

 The trip is no longer about sneaking past Mexican migration authorities or the US Border Patrol. Migrants face organized criminal groups who may kidnap them and demand ransoms from their relatives living in the United States. In 2010, and in what appeared to be a botched mass kidnapping, 72 Central American migrants were massacred in northern Mexico, near an area that Juan Carlos may have to travel through. Such killings are now routine in Mexico and it is common that bodies remain unidentified.

“Already been robbed”
Back at the clinic, a sense of calm surrounded the area. Although the migrants enter Mexico illegally, the Mexican government supports the Mexican Red Cross’s mission of responding to health-care needs without distinction of a person’s legal status. Local migration officials are not allowed to seize migrants drawn to the clinics.

 After his consultation, Juan Carlos chatted with some of his fellow travellers. As he moved north, Juan Carlos had met others like him. They felt some safety in numbers against the threat of gangs who rob them of their cash, cell phones and anything else considered valuable.

 But whatever calm he felt began to disappear as talk turned to the journey ahead. “Up there,” said Juan Carlos, pointing north along the tracks. “We’ve heard that there’s a spot where people will come out with guns to rob us. I’ve already been robbed though, in Guatemala. I gave all the money I had. I’m not sure what else they can get from me.”

A migrant jumps a moving freight train outside Tenosique, Mexico. Each year, thousands of US-bound illegal immigrants are hurt or killed as they head north through thick jungles controlled by violent drug gangs. Photo: ©REUTERS/Daniel LeClair, courtesy




















“We’ve heard that there’s a spot where people will come out with guns to rob us. I’ve already been robbed though, in Guatemala. I gave all the money I had. I’m not sure what else they can get from me.”
Juan Carlos,
Honduran migrant





By Monica Campbell
Monica Campbell is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.
This article first appeared in Intercross, the ICRC’s blog based in Washington DC (



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