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On July 11, I was imprisoned at Mexico’s infamous Siglo XXI “migration station” in Tapachula – a town in the state of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border – which specializes in detaining migrants traveling to the US from Central America and beyond.
Mine was a curious predicament to say the least for a citizen of the United States, as we are usually exempt from the effects of the border militarization policies that make the world safe from American imperialism.
I had come to Tapachula for four days to write about migrants. When I tried to board my return flight to Mexico City, I was stopped for my own visa irregularities and loaded into a van bound for Siglo XXI, which means “21st century” in Spanish.
According to the Associated Press, the detention center is said to be the largest in Latin America, and a “secret place not open to public scrutiny where … journalists are not allowed.”
However, the initial semi-enthusiasm I felt at the prospect of my looming exclusive view of the workings of the US-dictated migrant detention regime quickly faded when I was told I would likely be deported to my homeland — which I had left 18 years earlier due to the general creepiness and adverse effects on my mental health.
Upon arrival at the facility, I was systematically relieved of all belongings minus a change of underwear, a clean shirt, a bag of cranberries, and a few toiletries and other items.
A female immigration officer barked threatening orders to turn off my cell phone and remove my bracelets, earrings and the laces from my tennis shoes. When I burst into tears and begged her to pretend I was human for a moment, she assured me this was all for my own “safety”—though her tone softened as she inquired about the gigabyte capacity of my decrepit iPod.
Then, too, my pen was forcibly removed and I was taken into the bowels of the damp and teeming detention center, where the sense of suffocating claustrophobia was hardly helped by an almost complete lack of facemasks among the inmates despite pervasive coughing and other indications of malaise.
For those not yet ill, disease-inducing meals were provided three times a day, with all inmates having to queue first to sign their names on a list before queuing to wait for the meal – such as the nature of arbitrary and bureaucratic power, with the need to exercise order over dehumanized bodies.
Certainly, waiting is the primary activity of the approach to life that takes place within the walls of Siglo XXI. Besides the seemingly endless waiting for liberation – I met women who had been interned in the institution for a month – there is also the waiting inside: for food, phone calls, toilet paper, showers.
In the morning, it awaits the decision to open the door to the flea-infested courtyard, the highlights of which are a mango tree, a sports field with a single deflated ball and perpetual police surveillance from outside the towering fence.
Answers to both everyday and existential questions – “When can I have a book to read?”, “When will I know if I will be deported or given asylum in Mexico?” – never come up, as immigration officials prefer either the casual “más tarde” (later) or the even simpler shrug.
And for women who have just endured perilous journeys after escaping perilous conditions in their own countries — all in the hopes of eventually reaching perceived safety in the U.S. — the psychological torture of being sentenced to undetermined and criminalized uncertainty is not necessarily conducive to a desire for self-preservation.
In other words, I now understand why they confiscate shoelaces.
In Siglo XXI I met a young woman who had fled Honduras after her two sisters were murdered; I met another Honduran whose father had been murdered. I met Cubans who had crossed 14 countries to get to Mexico, who reported encountering rampant cadavers of previous migrants while crossing the infamous Darien Gorge between Panama and Colombia.
Certainly, each of these corpses served as a reminder of the very short distance between life and death for people deemed to be of intrinsically inferior worth by an international capitalist hierarchy.
A Bangladeshi woman, who spoke no Spanish and had traveled to Mexico with her husband for nine months – is now imprisoned in the men’s ward of Siglo XXI, which was probably even more horribly overcrowded and subjected to more practical forms of torture – cried as told me how her mental anguish was only exacerbated by the suffering she inflicted on her mother at home.
She was introduced to me by a group of Haitian women who had tried unsuccessfully to communicate with her and who had summoned me to say that they had found me an English-speaking friend. When she did not slump on a concrete bench staring into oblivion, you could see my new friend lying in a corner of the dining room, her blanket over her head.
As for my sleeping arrangements, I shared the floor mat from a defiantly cheerful Cuban girl who didn’t want to hear me put my own floor mat directly in front of the toilet – the only space left available.
My bedfellow commented wryly, “If this is the 21st century, I wouldn’t want to see the 22nd.”
While the sense of desperation in Siglo XXI was overwhelming at times, there was also a collective refusal to allow humanity to be so easily purified by the powers that be. Women spontaneously began to sing, collected mangoes, held hands, combed each other’s hair. Two Cubans had committed to teaching the lone Chinese detainee critical Spanish vocabulary, such as “shorts.” A Honduran university graduate who had studied nothing but human rights held up her towel for me instead of a shower curtain.
As someone prone to panic attacks and spectacularly inept at dealing with life’s setbacks, I found it immensely comforting to have two Cuban feet in my face all night. I was also well aware that my visible vulnerability was less than endearing in a detention situation largely created by my own country – one from which, thanks to my passport privilege, I would inevitably be released with relatively minimal suffering.
While my fellow inmates couldn’t fathom why the neurotic gringa resisted returning to the country they risked their lives to reach, they charitably limited their responses to hysterical laughter at the ironic prospect of being deported to the US.
I would later learn that when my mother called the US embassy in Mexico, she was told that I would probably be held in Siglo XXI for at least two weeks and that the US government could not intervene: “We cannot tell Mexico what to do.”
And yet operations in the detention facility are pretty much an exact example of the US telling Mexico what to do. Current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who initially promised a humane migration policy, soon realized that the Imperial’s dirty work brought greater rewards.
It’s also worth reiterating that US intervention in other people’s affairs is largely responsible for migration patterns in the first place. In Central America, decades of US militarization and support for right-wing coups and massacres have forced countless thousands of civilians to flee landscapes of extreme violence and impunity.
Meanwhile, in Haiti, perpetual news reports about the “poorest country in the western hemisphere” consistently fail to mention America’s history of sponsoring coups and chaos in that country in the interest of perpetuating neoliberal misery. Look no further than when the US State Department colluded to block an increase in the minimum wage — up to 62 cents an hour! – for Haitian workers in the assembly zone who toil on behalf of American clothing manufacturers.
And in Cuba, a six-decade crippling blockade — imposed by the US to deter other countries from being contaminated with dangerous anti-capitalist notions like free health care and education — has created predictable shortages and attendant migration from the island.
As for me, my own Siglo XXI experience came to an end when I was miraculously freed, without deportation, after 24 hours – not thanks to the efforts of my home country, but rather thanks to a Mexican journalist friend and others who intervened on my behalf.
My belongings were returned — minus my pen, earplugs, tweezers, and compact mirror — and I was escorted in an immigration vehicle to the Guatemalan border to receive a brand-new Mexican visa. On the way there, I told the female immigration officer who accompanied me that I would have enough to write about; she nodded with an encouraging smile: “Don’t forget to say you cried!”
Ultimately, Mexico’s Siglo XXI migrant prison is appropriately symbolic of a 21st century in which much of the world’s population is effectively trapped in US-induced political and economic nightmares.
Indeed, if things go on as usual, I wouldn’t like to see the 22nd.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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