As car­a­van moves on, a leader is left be­hind

Mu­jica says his goal is safer trek for mi­grants

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Daniel Gon­za­lez

TA­PACHULA, Mex­ico — As thou­sands of Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants trav­el­ing to­gether in a car­a­van inch closer to the U.S., Iri­neo Mu­jica is stuck in this small city wedged be­tween the Pa­cific Ocean and the Gu­atemalan border.

Per­haps no sin­gle per­son is more re­spon­si­ble for the huge car­a­vans of mi­grants headed for the United States than Mu­jica, a long­time ac­tivist who was born in Mex­ico, grew up in Phoenix and holds dual U.S-Mex­i­can cit­i­zen­ship.

Mu­jica be­gan co­or­di­nat­ing small mi­grant car­a­vans a decade ago. He wanted to pro­vide Cen­tral Amer­i­cans

a safer way to make the trek through Mex­ico, where mi­grants of­ten fall prey to crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions — and some­times Mex­i­can im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials and po­lice who de­mand bribes. He also sought to draw at­ten­tion to the in­creas­ing num­bers flee­ing con­di­tions in the re­gion, in­clud­ing some of the worst poverty in Latin Amer­ica, along with gang vi­o­lence, ex­tor­tion, po­lit­i­cal turmoil and gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion.

Then, last spring, Mu­jica and other vol­un­teers from the bi­na­tional group Pue­blo Sin Fron­teras co­or­di­nated a car­a­van that bal­looned to 1,500 peo­ple, far big­ger than the pre­vi­ous car­a­vans.

That car­a­van, which was on the road from late March un­til the end of April, drew in­tense me­dia at­ten­tion and likely helped in­spire the mas­sive ex­o­dus of mi­grants who on Oct. 14 left San Pe­dro Sula, Hon­duras, one of the most vi­o­lent cities in the world, and em­barked on a 2,000mile jour­ney to­ward the United States.

Mu­jica was ar­rested by Mex­i­can fed­eral po­lice Oct. 18 as he par­tic­i­pated in a march in­tended to wel­come the thou­sands of Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants gath­ered on the Gu­atemalan side of the river and pre­par­ing to cross into Mex­ico.

Two days later, the mi­grants crashed through a gate and stormed into Mex­ico across the in­ter­na­tional bridge from Gu­atemala, prompt­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to de­ploy thou­sands of ac­tive-duty troops to the U.S. border in a move crit­ics said was aimed more at rack­ing up votes in the Novem­ber midterm elec­tions than at ad­dress­ing any real threat. The Ari­zona Repub­lic tracked down Mu­jica in Ta­pachula, where he was meet­ing with a small group of Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants in the city’s main plaza. His black hair was cropped short, and his face and neck were deeply tanned from walk­ing with mi­grants in the blaz­ing sun.

Mu­jica, 48, was await­ing the out­come of a court hear­ing on Fri­day re­lated to his ar­rest on a mi­nor ob­struc­tion charge. While the charges are pend­ing, he is for­bid­den from leav­ing the state of Chi­a­pas. But the ar­rest has not stopped Mu­jica from con­tin­u­ing to co­or­di­nate mi­grant car­a­vans once they reach Mex­ico.

He and other vol­un­teers from Pue­blo Sin Fron­teras trav­eled with the mi­grant car­a­van in the sear­ing heat un­til it reached Ar­riaga, the last stop in Chi­a­pas be­fore cross­ing into the state of Oax­aca. From there, the car­a­van con­tin­ued on with­out Mu­jica, cross­ing the Isth­mus of Te­huan­te­pec into the states of Ver­acruz and Puebla be­fore reach­ing Mex­ico City — where, as of Thurs­day, the mi­grants were pre­par­ing for a fi­nal push to Ti­juana.

Mu­jica, how­ever, re­turned to Ta­pachula.

Dur­ing a 30-minute in­ter­view, Mu­jica de­scribed how he feared for his life fol­low­ing his ar­rest. He also re­sponded to claims that the car­a­vans are po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, and of­fered his thoughts on why the car­a­vans have grown so large — and what it will take to stem the flow of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans headed for the United States.

Mu­jica said he was born in the state of Mi­choa­can and is part of the Purepecha indige­nous group, na­tive to that part of Mex­ico.

He said he de­cided to come to the United States when he was 13 to work and save money to pay for his sis­ter’s quinceañera — 15th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion — be­cause his par­ents were too poor to pay for it them­selves.

After trav­el­ing to the border by bus, he said, he crossed the border il­le­gally near No­gales and headed for Phoenix, where an older brother lived.

Mu­jica said his par­ents later fol­lowed him to the United States and his fam­ily gained le­gal sta­tus through the 1986 amnesty be­cause he and his par­ents worked on farms, pick­ing crops.

He grad­u­ated from North High School and stud­ied mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Phoenix Col­lege be­fore be­com­ing a mi­grant ac­tivist, he said.

He runs a mi­grant shel­ter in Sonoyta, a border town in Sonora, across from Lukeville.

He said he doesn’t talk about his fam­ily out of fear they could be tar­geted be­cause of his work as an ac­tivist.

In 2017, Mu­jica helped search for a miss­ing mi­grant in the deso­late Or­gan Pipe Cac­tus Na­tional Mon­u­ment in south­ern Ari­zona. The search was doc­u­mented in The Ari­zona Repub­lic’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning se­ries ex­plor­ing the un­told sto­ries and un­in­tended con­se­quences of Trump’s plan to build a mas­sive wall on the border with Mex­ico.

Mu­jica said he is now based in Ti­juana. The city, across the border from San Diego, has be­come a stag­ing area for mi­grant car­a­vans hop­ing to ask U.S. au­thor­i­ties for asy­lum at the of­fi­cial border cross­ing.

Mu­jica trav­eled to south­ern Mex­ico after hear­ing a mi­grant car­a­van that started in Hon­duras had turned into a mass ex­o­dus and was mov­ing through Gu­atemala.

He said he was par­tic­i­pat­ing in a march in Ci­u­dad Hi­dalgo to demon­strate “sol­i­dar­ity” with the thou­sands of mi­grants mass­ing on the Gu­atemalan side of the river when he was ar­rested. Mu­jica said he was stand­ing in the mid­dle of the group of about 100 peo­ple when Mex­i­can fed­eral po­lice and of­fi­cials from Mex­ico’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Mi­gra­tion, which is in charge of en­forc­ing im­mi­gra­tion laws, rushed into the crowd and snatched only him.

Most in the crowd were Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants who had reached Mex­ico ahead of the car­a­van and were plan­ning to seek asy­lum in the United States, he said. “Their tar­get was not the car­a­van. It was me,” Mu­jica said.

Na­tional In­sti­tute of Mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials were con­duct­ing an im­mi­gra­tion op­er­a­tion when Mu­jica was ar­rested, the agency said in a state­ment. When of­fi­cials asked Mu­jica to show his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, he at­tacked mem­bers of the in­sti­tute, mu­nic­i­pal po­lice and fed­eral po­lice, the state­ment said.

Video posted on so­cial me­dia shows Mu­jica strug­gling as im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers in white uni­forms and fed­eral po­lice in blue uni­forms shove him into a van with Na­tional In­sti­tute of Mi­gra­tion mark­ings.

Mu­jica de­nied he at­tacked im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials or po­lice.

“At the end of the day, they didn’t have any­thing, so they said, ‘He in­ter­fered,’ by do­ing my work, by do­ing my chants and ev­ery­thing, ‘He is in­ter­fer­ing with the work of an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer,’ ” he said.

Mu­jica ac­cused po­lice of rough­ing him up. Mu­jica said that after he was ar­rested by fed­eral po­lice, he was turned over to mu­nic­i­pal po­lice, who held him in jail for 24 hours un­til he was told to sign a doc­u­ment declar­ing he had been re­leased from jail.

In­stead of re­leas­ing him, mu­nic­i­pal po­lice handed him back to fed­eral po­lice, Mu­jica said.

Mu­jica said he be­lieves the doc­u­ment was to pro­vide “cover” for lo­cal po­lice in case any­thing hap­pened to him while he was in cus­tody.

“When I got out of the jail, they said, ‘You are free,’ and I wasn’t free. I was just handed to an­other po­lice,” Mu­jica said. “So I thought, ‘Maybe this is it,’ you know.”

Mu­jica said fed­eral po­lice took him to Ta­pachula, about 45 min­utes away, where he was driven around for hours with his hands tied. Mu­jica said the of­fi­cers tried to “tor­ture” him psy­cho­log­i­cally by mak­ing com­ments in­sin­u­at­ing he was go­ing to die.

“They didn’t (di­rectly) say, ‘We are go­ing to kill you,’ ” Mu­jica said. Rather, they said things like, “Just make sure what hap­pens to him isn’t like what hap­pened to the other one that died.”

They were “try­ing to ter­ror­ize me. Try­ing to pur­posely make me think they were go­ing to kill me,” Mu­jica said.

Mu­jica also ac­cused im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials of threat­en­ing to de­port him to the United States.

“At the be­gin­ning, they said they were go­ing to de­port me, but I am a Mex­i­can cit­i­zen,” Mu­jica said. “Be­cause I have dual cit­i­zen­ship, they were try­ing to de­port me back. Ac­cord­ing to them, they had or­ders from Don­ald Trump — which I don’t know if it’s true or not — to send me back to the United States.”

Mu­jica be­lieves the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment tar­geted him to try to stop the car­a­van. Ten­sions be­tween Mex­ico and the United States had es­ca­lated over the car­a­van, and of­fi­cials know he has years of ex­pe­ri­ence co­or­di­nat­ing mi­grant car­a­vans.

He be­lieves the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment was pres­sured by the United States, per­haps di­rectly by Trump.

“They are un­der a lot of pres­sure from the United States, and ac­cord­ing to what I heard, they were try­ing to show Don­ald Trump, to make it pub­lic, that I was the scape­goat, like, ‘Here, we got one,’ ” Mu­jica said. “Be­cause Don­ald Trump knows my name. He won’t ad­mit it, but he knows my name, and he ac­tu­ally con­grat­u­lated the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment and the fed­eral po­lice for putting me in jail.”

Mu­jica called “ridicu­lous” the claims that the mi­grant car­a­van is funded by po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists, ei­ther from the left or the right.

Trump told re­porters he “wouldn’t be sur­prised” if the car­a­van was funded by Ge­orge Soros, a lib­eral bil­lion­aire and Jewish im­mi­grant whose foun­da­tion con­trib­utes to Demo­cratic causes. Trump’s com­ments spread the un­founded con­spir­acy the­ory that has con­tin­ued to fester on so­cial me­dia.

Mu­jica said “it’s ridicu­lous to think Democrats” would or­ches­trate the car­a­van, given the back­lash it gen­er­ated.

“If the Democrats did this, it’s like shoot­ing them­selves in the leg . ... They are (the ones) get­ting hurt,” he said. “No one is get­ting more po­lit­i­cal mileage out of this than Don­ald Trump and the Repub­li­cans.”

Mu­jica said in­creas­ing num­bers of mi­grants, among them par­ents with chil­dren, are choos­ing to travel in large groups for safety in hopes of reach­ing the United States and ask­ing for asy­lum to stay per­ma­nently. Along the way, they face many threats, in­clud­ing from crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions, that prey on mi­grants.

“They call it a trail of death . ... Out of 10 women, six are raped when they come to the United States,” he said. “It is hell go­ing through this (jour­ney). But there is some safety in num­bers . ... There is a lot of re­pres­sion; the po­lice are al­ways on top of you. You sleep in the mid­dle of nowhere. The heat. The el­e­ments. Kids have died. There are so many dan­gers.”

Iri­neo Mu­jica, a co­or­di­na­tor of the mi­grant car­a­van, re­mains stuck in Ta­pachula, a small city in south­ern Mex­ico, while thou­sands of Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants inch closer to the United States.

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