Hundreds of Africans tried to reach the United States. Now they're stuck in Mexico.
By MAYA AVERBUCH AND KEVIN SIEFF | The Washington Post | Published: April 20, 2019
TAPACHULA, Mexico – By the time Cédric De Jesus reached Mexico's southern border, he had already traveled 9,000 miles from his home in the Congo. He had crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat and come up through South America on foot and by bus.
The journey had taken him six months, leaving him only one more country to traverse. But just as he arrived in Mexico in March, President Donald Trump threatened to close the U.S. border, and the Mexican government was under pressure to stop migrants from passing through its territory.
So now De Jesus waits here in southern Mexico with thousands of fellow migrants.
While the vast majority of migrants transiting through Mexico on their way to the United States come from Central America, hundreds are from African countries such as Congo, Cameroon and Ethiopia.
Some are holed up in Tapachula, where they have camped outside a federal immigration office, demanding transit permits. Others have languished for months in shelters just south of the U.S. border, as Mexican officials have scrambled to handle the influx.
"It's a great challenge," said Tonatiullah Guillen, the head of Mexico's immigration agency. "These countries are very unusual for us."
The Mexican government says it does not have statistics on the number of African migrants who have crossed into the country in recent months, and such flows are not new. The country has for years been a transit point for asylum seekers and economic migrants from around the world, and it sees periodic surges in migration from countries in Africa and Asia.
But African migrants have rarely been as prominent in Mexico as they are now, gathered in large groups at both the country's southern and northern borders. By late March, hundreds were camping out in Tapachula.
After several weeks of waiting for the transit permits, Africans launched a protest outside the immigration office, yelling that Mexican officials were racist. Mexican television broadcast images of the migrants apparently scuffling with security guards in front of the building.
This week, they were still waiting. Officials have said the office will not open until next month.
"People from here don't want to give us the documents," said one Congolese man, who declined to give his name out of concern for his safety. "We're still here."
Many people fleeing sub-Saharan Africa pay smugglers to take them through Niger and Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Others apply through the United Nations to be resettled as refugees, often in the United States. But both of those options have become harder in recent years.
The Trump administration has sharply reduced refugee admissions. And Europe has pressured Libya's coast guard to turn around migrant boats in the Mediterranean.
"In Libya, I was told they kill black people now," De Jesus said. "They kill migrants. I was scared, so I chose to go to America."
De Jesus is from Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. He said his brother was killed by security forces loyal to Joseph Kabila, the country's former president, and soldiers had threatened him, too.
De Jesus and his mother took a boat from Angola to Peru and then traveled by land through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.
In Panama, he said, he lost track of his mother, only to be reunited with her weeks later – by luck – in southern Mexico.
Until recent months, many African migrants were able to get transit permits relatively easily. But Mexican immigration officials have been slower to process the permits, as the government has struggled to keep up with the thousands of Honduran and Guatemalan migrants hoping to transit through the country.
Trump has pressured Mexico to stop allowing migrants to transit through the country on their way to the U.S. border. In many cases, Mexican authorities have deported Central Americans and smaller numbers of Cubans, Haitians, Colombians and Ecuadorians back to their countries of origin. But the Africans pose a unique challenge, officials say, in part because they are harder to deport.
"These are countries without diplomatic representation here that can help resolve the situation for each nationality," said Guillen, the immigration chief.
Officials say there were so many arrivals from Africa and Asia that it created a backlog in the registration process.
Many of the migrants are asylum seekers fleeing political violence in their countries of origin, especially Congo and Cameroon. Many of the Congolese lived for years in Angola, where they learned enough Portuguese to get by in Spanish.
Angola last year expelled more than 300,000 Congolese refugees.
Atagwo Nesco, 27, came to Mexico from city of Bamenda in northwestern Cameroon. He imagined he would eventually be allowed through to seek asylum in the United States.
Like many English-speaking Cameroonians, Nesco was escaping persecution by the military. He said he had worked as a mechanic, but the military burned his shop down in 2017 as part of crackdowns against Anglophone Cameroonians.
Fearing for his life, he took his family into hiding in the countryside, aiming not to be shot.
"The day they burned my garage, the security forces were supposedly there to protect the population," he said. "But everyone was escaping. The military said it was because the civilians wanted to carry guns against them. They thought maybe I was one of them."
The family hid in a village in Cameroon.
"I was living in fear, because people come frequently to look for you," Nesco said. "You're preparing food, and you hear a gunshot. Since I am a youth, since I am a man, they will kill me."
He used the internet to make travel plans.
"For me, it is a good decision to leave," he said. "But I was afraid if I go to another man's land, that they would send me back."
He fled to Nigeria, then flew to Turkey, onward to Panama, down to Ecuador and up to Colombia. From there, he carried on by bus, spending seven days without almost any food in the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama.
It took him three months to reach southern Mexico, in late March. Throughout this time, he has been unable to call through to his wife and his 1-year-old daughter. His family has no idea where he is in Latin America.
At the Casa Del Migrante Amar, a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on the Texas border, more than 80 African migrants have gathered. Most are from Congo, Ethiopia or Eritrea. Some have been there for months, waiting to be called by U.S. immigration authorities to begin their asylum processes. U.S. immigration agents have said they do not have the capacity to process more than a few per day.
One of the men in the shelter is Danny, a 24-year-old from the Congo's restive Kasai province, where violence between local chiefs and representatives of the government devolved into a wider conflict between communities across a region the size of Germany.
The province is currently battling the second worst outbreak of Ebola – the Zaire strain – in history, with more than 600 dead so far.
Danny saw a way out.
"It's the only place where I heard there were human rights, where there was security – I thought about the United States," Danny said.
Averbuch reported from Tapachula, Mexico. Gabriela Martinez contributed from Mexico City.