CHICAGO – Members of the Catholic Theological Union community gathered earlier this month to hear a presentation from Ramon Marquez and Emelie Viklund on their work at the La 72 Migrant and Refugee Shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico. La 72 is a project that was started by the Franciscan Province of Southeast Mexico (San Felipe de Jesus Province) on April 25, 2011 as a response to the large number of refugees fleeing the violence in Central America. The shelter is built about 30 miles from the southern Mexican border, which is about a two- to three-day walk from Guatemala. Attendees of the Nov. 5 presentation learned about the initiative and the people using the shelter.
La 72 is named in honor of the 72 Central and South American migrants who were massacred by members of a Mexican drug cartel in northern Mexico in August 2010. The heart of the shelter campus is the chapel, which contains 72 crosses memorializing these slain individuals. The crosses are painted in the colors of the victims’ native countries, although there are also white crosses representing unidentified persons.
The first and only shelter in the region, La 72 has served approximately 100,000 migrants over the last eight years. While 90% of those served are from Central America, in recent years, the shelter has seen an increase of people from Cuba, Haiti, Africa, and Asia. During the past year, the facility has received a record flow of migrants seeking help, with a projected number of 17,000 by the end of 2019.
Levels of Support
In its first year of existence, the shelter’s original clients were mostly men who stowed away on freight trains known as La Bestia. After May 2014, when passengers were banned from these trains due to Mexico’s Southern Border Program, visitors to the shelter increasingly included women, unaccompanied children, and entire families.
While many of the refugees are fleeing violence, Marquez, during the presentation, was careful to point out that the large migration is a consequence of social ills. Political corruption, climate change impact, and economic instability in such industries as palm oil and tourism are pushing people into poverty. This worsening inequality leads to gang activity and organized crime, as the poor are exploited and abused. With no refuge or options in their native countries, thousands flee north to protect their families.
La 72 focuses on four levels of support in response to Pope Francis’s call of welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating. The shelter welcomes migrants and refugees when they first arrive, offering humanitarian assistance in the form of food, showers, beds, medical care, and phone calls. Many of these people stay at the shelter for months while awaiting word from Mexico on their amnesty pleas – which often go ignored because the asylum system is underfunded.
During the presentation, Viklund explained La 72’s human rights support program, which helps protect people arriving at the shelter. While the facility can only legally respond to crimes committed within Mexico, sadly there are many incidents of kidnapping and sexual violence – the latter especially against women – that occur during the three-day walk from Mexico’s southern border. Local crime groups take advantage of migrants because they know that these people become “invisible” as soon as they cross the border. People have lost all their money to border guards, and they are kidnapped and ransomed to their families for thousands of dollars. Local authorities turn a blind eye to the situation and only temporarily respond when La 72 reports crimes. For example, of 900 cases reported to the Mexican authorities, only seven made it to court.
Seeking Structural Change
La 72 also responds to Pope Francis’ call by advocating for structural change in unsafe countries that would end the stream of migrants and refugees. By ending violence and discrimination in these countries – and through the support of civil authorities – the goal is to make sure that unsafe countries are no longer places of fear. People are fleeing not because they want to leave home, but because they have no other choice if they want to protect their lives and their children. The shelter and its advocacy efforts are viewed with disdain by the Mexican authorities – and friars who attempt to help refugees have been accused of human trafficking. Staff members have even received death threats. The local community ignores the troubling situation, and neighboring parishes focus more on pastoral work at the expense of social outreach.
Lori Winther ended the discussion with an overview of the Franciscan Network on Migration. This network, which includes the Migrant Center on 31st Street in Manhattan, works to support migrants and refugees through networking, advocacy and responding to needs based on the talents of the local community. People can support La 72 by seeking out and volunteering with such local networks or by donating. They can also sponsor larger initiatives. For example, HNP student friar Luis Manuel Rosado, OFM, spent his summer internship helping La 72 renovate and expand its kitchen, among his other work at the shelter.
It was encouraging to learn about the work of La 72 in the midst of a difficult crisis. Marquez stressed that La 72 focuses on diversity and inclusion, and accepts and welcomes everyone who arrives at the shelter. Seeing Franciscans take the lead in establishing such a necessary ministry in their local community challenges me as a friar to be aware of the struggles of people I meet who are on the margins – and to humbly respond to their needs.
– John Neuffer, a student at Catholic Theological Union, lives at St. Joseph Friary in Chicago. He professed his first vows as a Franciscan friar in July. https://hnp.org/ten-men-profess-first-vows-as-franciscan-friars/
- “Experiencing the Migrants’ Challenge” — July 8, 2019, HNP Today
- “Voices of Hope in a Desert of Despair”– March 13, 2019, HNP Today
- “Three HNP Friars Attend OFM JPIC Course on Migration” — May 1, 2018, HNP Today
- “Post-novitiate Community Settles into Chicago” – Jan. 18, 2017, HNP Today