Encounters of Violence and Care: Central American Transit Migration through Mexico

Poster hanging inside Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM), Mazatlán. Photo by Kristin Yarris.

A polarized emphasis on origin and destination in international migration studies has left the process of transit itself relatively under-theorized. Taking transit as a site of inquiry moves us as migration scholars beyond the binaries of push/pull factors and origin/destination countries. As medical anthropologists, we are interested in the analytical implications of studying zones of transit for the way we think about illegality, humanity, and encounters of care that sustain the possibilities of life itself for transnational migrants. Further, we view encounters in zones of transit as sites through which we can better understand human vulnerability, risk, and radical inequality, as well as relationality, solidarity, and care. Here, we explore these ideas by drawing on ethnographic vignettes from a recent field research trip in Mazatlán, a particularly precarious site for Central American transit through Mexico (the trip was co-organized by our colleagues at the Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa – UAS).

We define transit as the encounters, fleeting and permanent, that occur between migrants and the various material, bureaucratic, and social relations that structure transnational journeys and the possibilities of life itself for migrants en-route. Materially, for example, we consider the “bestia”, the Ferromex freight train to which migrants cling as they travel over the thousands of kilometers of tracks that form Mexico’s Ruta Pacífica north from Mexico City and Guadalajara through Sinaloa state towards Mexicali (see Map) and whose imposing steel wheels cut across the landscape (and often across migrant limbs). Bureaucratically, we analyze the structures of legal responsibility surrounding unauthorized migrants that attempt to regulate mobility within the logic of the nation-state. These represent encounters of rupture or disjunction, as when an undocumented migrant in need of urgent medical attention is transferred from a local public hospital to the Mexican National Migration Institute (INM), which then assumes the costs of medical care. At the level of communities, we are interested in how relations of care emerge nearly spontaneously between migrants and local residents who offer them shelter, food, phone calls, and showers. These offers of support are as fleeting and tenuous as migrants’ journeys through these communities, and the relations that form between migrants and community members are entrenched in risk for both.  

Map of train routes operated by Ferromex. Source:

Materiality of Encounters: Violence

Wendy Vogt has carefully documented how Central American migration through southern Mexico results from the intersection of political insecurity, economic instability, and violence (Vogt 2013). Given historical legacies of civil wars and contemporary realities of insecurity, she writes that, for Central American migrants, “[t]he violence of migration becomes relative to the violence of everyday life at home” (Vogt 2013:768). Besides Vogt’s work, transit migration through central and northern Mexico has received relatively little anthropological attention. In Mazatlán, we heard similar tales of violence, police brutality, and extortion from migrants and their advocates. This stretch of the Ruta Pacífica is, in fact, known to be one of the most dangerous, ironically because it is not controlled by organized criminal entities such as the infamous Zetas, but is rather uncontrolled and therefore ripe for attacks by local-level actors, such as neighborhood gangs, who prey on those journeying along the tracks. Migrants on trains have taken to carrying sticks in their attempts to defend themselves from predators, whether local criminals or police. One group of migrants we met in a Mazatlán colonia while they waited for a departing train told us of having been assaulted and robbed by federal police in La Lechería, an infamous train crossing area just outside Mexico City. According to the migrants, the federales had quite literally offered them food with one hand and robbed them of the little cash they carried with the other. Such encounters are violent reminders to migrants that they are not welcomed in Mexico permanently (El Universal, a Mexican daily newspaper, recently reported that of nearly 10,000 child migrants detained in Mexico in 2013, only 50 were offered asylum).

In fact, the risks of robbery and rape are ever-present and viscerally-felt for migrants in transit. We heard stories of sexual assault of both men and women; for instance, one young migrant was carrying his money inside his underpants and was raped, a theft of both his money and his bodily integrity. For women migrants, the risks of transit are heightened—many start their journeys north by taking a long-acting contraceptive because they view rape as an inevitable part of the process. We met women who formed partnerships with “husbands” or “compañeros”, temporary and strategic kin ties formed in transit that are attempts at mutual protection.  Men also benefit from such temporary kin formations because there are various encounters in transit in which travelling as a “family” reduces risk. For instance, we met a private security guard working at a Ferromex train yard who told us that he allowed families—but not single men—past his gated checkpoint (looking the other way while they passed), since it is safer for them to climb aboard the stopped trains before the wheels begin to churn forward along the tracks. These examples illustrate how, within the material violence of transit, fleeting moments of humanity emerge, a point to which we return below.

Bureaucratic Encounters: Structuring Transit

One of our encounters in Mazatlán was with the Sinaloa state branch of the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM). Our meeting with the INM director and two immigration agents had been arranged ahead of time by our UAS colleagues and was held in a formal conference room in the INM’s offices, which had been cleaned and prepared for our meeting with a white table cloth and water bottles. Clearly, we were guests of interest, and it was important to the migration officials to portray their work to these visiting academics in a positive light. During the meeting, INM agents attributed the current rise in Central American child migration to the recruiting tactics of coyotes who promise safe passage to the U.S. at the going rate of $7,000 upwards. In this narrative, also prominent in the U.S. media, central culprits in this migration stream of unaccompanied minors are human smugglers, who are portrayed as impersonal, criminal, and malevolent.  However, one of our previous field research projects in Nicaragua revealed that coyotes are often known by the families that contract their services; they are extended family, neighbors, friends of friends and their services are sought out by families desperate for ways to reunite with children abroad and confronting their effective exclusion from legal mechanisms for family reunification. This is not to say that there are not highly organized and armed actors involved in the transit of Central Americans through Mexico—there are, such as the Zetas and other cartels that control transit routes. However, there are also lower-level and less formal actors involved. In part, blaming human smugglers for child migration (especially by indiscriminately labeling them all “traffickers”) functions to shift responsibility away from both Mexican and U.S. immigration policies. For, as Wayne Cornelius has shown (2006), heightened securitization at the U.S./Mexican border has created more demand for these smugglers, who promise safe passage.  It also forces people into riskier passages, such as across the treacherous Sonoran desert north of Sinaloa, where the Border Patrol has recorded 5,595 deaths of assumed migrants between 1998 and 2012 (see: Furthermore, the increasing securitization focus of U.S. foreign policy in Mexico and Central America has included training and equipping entities who themselves are implicated in human rights violations against migrants (Vogt 2013: 771). Thus, U.S. policy directly contributes to the dangers of transit encounters.

Interestingly, a 2011 Mexican Immigration Reform Law has resulted in a significant discursive shift among Mexican immigration officials, who emphasize their role as administrative (even humanitarian) agents rather than border police. For instance, in our meeting, INM officials were careful to refer to migrants as “undocumented foreigners”, refusing to use the word “illegal”. When asked about this language, the officials stressed that their new approach is coming from higher up in the INM bureaucracy, and reinforced the idea that immigration officers are administrative agents charged with safeguarding migrants’ human rights by emphasizing that agents are unarmed. They also mentioned their difficulty keeping pace with the flow of migrants through Sinaloa, saying they focus limited resources on monitoring highway (bus and car) travel, rather than the train routes. INM presented themselves as following appropriate bureaucratic procedures with migrants they apprehend, including the evaluation of minors by DIF (Desarollo Integral de la Familia—the equivalent of Health and Human Services in the U.S.), and a series of communications between INM and country-of-origin consulates. Migrants apprehended by INM in Sinaloa are held on-site in the migration offices (which are not intended to serve as shelters), until official clearance is given by home country consulates for their deportation. Perhaps to emphasize the bureaucratic legitimacy of these transfers, at the end of our meeting, INM agents passed around folios of children they had detained and deported in recent months. It was as if these manila files, organized with headshots, dates, notarized stamps, and official signatures, were proof of the legality of forced return set against the illegality of transit migration. Bolstered by these bureaucractic procedures and the discourse of human rights, INM encounters with undocumented migrants are made to seem legitimate and rational even as they are steeped in the radical and irrational inequalities that ultimately determine migrants’ movements.

Beds in women’s dorm, Cáritas shelter, Mazatlán. Photo by Heide Castañeda.

Encounters of Solidarity and Care

While transit migration is shaped by vulnerability and violence, it is also comprised of very local, often fleeting, encounters of support, solidarity, and care. On one hand, migrants are assisted by formal non-governmental organizations, such as Cáritas, a relief and social service organization of the Catholic Church. In Mazatlán, Cáritas runs a shelter located about a kilometer from the train tracks. (Not all migrants are willing to risk the walk there, however, since they face attacks by local gang members or apprehension by local police in the neighborhoods through which they must pass.) The animated young social worker at Cáritas, “Ana”, told us she registers an average of 10-15 migrants every night, men and women (children are referred to DIF). Ana showed us the registry she keeps as an Excel spreadsheet; it was overwhelming to look down the names, ages and photographs of hundreds of migrants who had sought shelter since January 2014. Also notable was that a good number of these migrants were in their late 60s and 70s; while we don’t often hear about older-age migrants, they are certainly particularly vulnerable to the extremes of transit. At Cáritas, a volunteer physician attends to migrants’ health needs; on the afternoon of our visit, he described the politraumas of transit he encounters in his patients: injuries, loss of limbs, skin infections, foot wounds. However, even before medical care and a hot meal, migrants entering the Cáritas shelter seek showers. After weeks of travel, the ability to bathe and change into clean (donated) clothes reinvigorates and re-humanizes them.

Just as the INM officials have their own discursive way of framing transit migration, so do Cáritas workers. Motivated by their religious orientation towards social justice and service to the poor, all the staff we met at Cáritas referred to migrants as peregrinos. While this word can be generally defined as “someone moving from one place to another”, it has a more specific meaning within popular Catholicism as one on a pilgrimage, who “for devotion or belief seeks to visit a sanctuary”. In the shelter, men’s and women’s dorms, showers, a closet full of linens, and even bottles of hair gel were all labeled with this term, peregrinos. The framing here was one of equality and of service, and it shaped relations of care, such as the offer of a shower, clean clothes, and hot meals—all micro-encounters in transit zones that embody a shared humanity and enable life itself.

Where Cáritas is a formal humanitarian organization, we also encountered other, informal, local actors who offer support to migrants on their journey North. In a Mazatlán colonia situated alongside the train tracks, we met a woman who runs a small venta (store) who for years has been offering migrants bottles of water and a location to have money wire-transferred from relatives back home. In another neighborhood, we met “Eva”, who voluntarily runs a community kitchen (or comedor) several blocks from the train tracks where she cooks hot meals every single day. Word of mouth spreads as it is wont to do, and migrants find their way to her tables to have a meal and replenish their strength. Many of Eva’s neighbors don’t look fondly on what they see as her “attracting” migrants (and the violence that follows them) to their neighborhood. And yet, Eva has created a local network of completely informal care to support migrants—her kitchen is staffed by several neighborhood women volunteers and, nearby, she recruited another neighbor who generously offers her shower to migrants waiting for departing trains.

On one occasion, we visited the comedor to find that a group of migrants had missed a disembarking train. The migrants were at the neighbor’s house showering as they waited for the next departure and that is where we talked with them about their journey. The travelers were from El Salvador, and several stated they were family (husband, wife, 2 year old son; two female cousins). One young woman, “Silvia”, told us she had left El Salvador because the gang violence in her neighborhood had become so intolerable that she felt she had no choice. A female cousin of hers was recently assassinated by a gang, which threatened Silvia that she was next. She cried as she told of the two children, aged 1 and 4 years, that she had left behind in the care of her mother. Silvia was visibly racked with anxiety, her hands trembled as she told us of the danger she and her traveling companions had experienced, which included an attempted rape, several robberies, hunger, cold, heat, and exhaustion from trying to hold onto the trains for days on end without sleep. She seemed to be encouraging herself, however, when she told us that she believed the hardest part of her journey was behind her. We had not the heart to tell her that the next phase of her transit—north through Sonora’s desert and then into the border regions of Mexicali and Tijuana—could be much worse. Indeed, it is estimated that only 20% of all Central Americans who travel through Mexico make it across the border into the U.S. (even fewer actually arrive at their U.S. destinations). For days after our conversation with Silvia, we wondered if she would be among that statistic, or among the other, larger group whose dreams end in detention, deportation, or worse: death.

A Ferromex train departs from Mazatlán. Photo by Heide Castañeda.

Illegality, Violence, and Care in Transit Encounters

In Mexico, Central Americans face a triple liminality—unsafe in their country of origin, unaccepted in the country of transit, and marginalized in the destination country (that is, if they make it that far). While the notion of “illegality” does important work in shifting our conceptualization of the lives of (im)migrants, it doesn’t adequately capture the conditions of existence of those in transit. While unauthorized in Mexico, these migrants in transit don’t intend to stay, but are driven towards their hoped-for destination in the U.S. What motivates these journeys of risk is an even more “bare life” in Central America—a sense that even in the country of one’s birth, one’s existence is threatened. For this reason, in addition to thinking about migrants in transit existing in “liminal” or “illegal” spaces, we may borrow the framing of Cáritas and think of migrants in transit as “peregrinos” — “pilgrims”, travelers, those en route. And yet the English “pilgrim” lacks a sense of risk, danger, and vulnerability that the Spanish “peregrino” contains. Marginalized from power, work, and citizenship within contemporary global capitalism, these Central Americans risk life itself in search of life itself. Like the undocumented migrants in France that Ticktin writes about (2006), who are willing to risk HIV infection for the possibility of legal status, Central American transit migrants face rape, robbery, dismemberment and even death in exchange for the possibility of legality in the U.S.

In zones of transit, which are structured by national immigration laws and shaped by contemporary global capitalism, state power is manifest produced in everyday, local interactions (Aretxaga 2003). However, social relations of transit are not fully determined by laws nor politics, but by a sort of local antipolitics, which we are describing here as transit encounters. They are moments, interactions, and exchanges broadly structured by geopolitics of illegality, yet offering the possibility of humanity through gestures of care, however fleeting. Sarah Willen (2014) has used the concept of “inhabitable spaces of welcome” to describe social spaces crafted by unauthorized migrants in Israel in order to lessen the risks and burdens of illegality. Comparing the transit encounters we describe here to Willen’s spaces of welcome reveals important insights. First, we find transit encounters shaped by relations between local community members and migrants in transit—these encounters usually are forged by some gesture of humanity, act of solidarity, or expression of care by Mexicans towards Central Americans. Further, these encounters are less welcoming than they are life-sustaining, even in their impermanence. Transit encounters also involve significant risk and are fleeting. Cáritas shelter staff risk allegations they are aiding unauthorized movement through Mexican territory, the security guard risks his job by allowing migrant families into gated train yards, Eva risks her reputation among neighbors who criticize her for encouraging migrants—and the violence that may follow them—into their colonia, and migrants risk everything: material security, social ties, bodily integrity, and life itself. Finally, as analysts of these encounters, we face the challenge of how to write about them, how to interpret them in ways that don’t contribute to further illegalization of persons in transit nor stigmatization of those who come to their aid.

To conclude, we reflect on how our own encounter with transit migration has somewhat unexpectedly corresponded with heightened public discussion of Central American migration to the U.S. over the past several months. Not wanting to contribute to further misrepresentation of a highly-charged political issue, we find that our ethnographic encounters in Mazatlán have grounded us and informed our nascent thinking about encounters in zones of transit. While we certainly recognize the ways undocumented Central Americans clinging to trains in their transit hacia el Norte embody the vulnerability, violence, and inequalities inherent in contemporary geopolitics of migration, we are also drawn towards the encounters within transit, which are structured by violence but also embody a committed sense of care and common humanity. Recent scholarship on care in medical anthropology emphasizes relationships of obligation and commitment to the well-being of others while acknowledging that caregiving can reproduce social inequalities (for example, see Elana Buch 2013). The relations of care we observe in transit migration are transitory, not based on long-term relations of kinship and reciprocity; care within transit encounters is structured by the very same radical inequalities that shape transnational migration. Thinking about transit encounters is pushing us to rethink our notions of illegality, marginalization, and deservedness (ideas we have been working through elsewhere; see Yarris & Castañeda, in press). By studying zones of transit, we gain new insights into contemporary human relationships, shaped as they are by violence, inequality, and risk, but also by care, support, and solidarity.  

Kristin Yarris is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Studies at the University of Oregon. She has a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology (2011), an MPH in Community Health Sciences (2004) and an MA in Latin American Studies (2004) from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research areas include: transnational migration, intergenerational & informal caregiving, mental health and illness, and sociocultural determinants of health.

Heide Castañeda is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. She received a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Arizona (2007), MPH from the University of Texas (2002), and MA in Anthropology from the University of Texas at San Antonio (2000). Her primary research areas include migrant health, health policy, undocumented/unauthorized migration, and constructs of citizenship.


Works cited

Aretxaga, Begoña. 2003. Maddening States. Annual Review of Anthropology 32:393-410.

Buch, Elana D. 2013. Senses of Care: Embodying Inequality and Sustaining Personhood in the home care of older adults in Chicago. American Ethnologist 40(4):637-650.

Cornelius, Wayne A. 2006. Impacts of Border Enforcement on Unauthorized Mexican Migration to the United States. At:

Ticktin, Miriam. 2006. Where ethics and politics meet: The violence of humanitarianism in France. American Ethnologist 33(1): 33-49

Vogt, Wendy A. 2013. Crossing Mexico: Structural violence and the commodification of undocumented Central American migrants. American Ethnologist 40(4): 764-780.

Willen, Sarah S.  2014. Plotting a Moral Trajectory, Sans Papiers: Outlaw Motherhood as Inhabitable Space of Welcome. Ethos 42(1): 84-100.

Yarris, Kristin and Castañeda, Heide. In press. Introduction, Special Issue, Discourses of Displacement and Deservingness: Interrogating Distinctions between ‘Economic’ and ‘Forced’ Migration. International Migration.

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