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
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.
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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.”