Sometime around Thanksgiving, before the biblical rains came, Jorge Alexander Ruiz Duban walked over the San Ysidro Bridge with his new best friend, another young Honduran named Jasson Ricardo Acuna Polanco.
The bridge, which spans the Rio Tijuana, leads to a long, fenced-in walkway that connects Mexico and the United States. It’s one of the many reminders of the purgatory young people like Jorge, known as Sarko, and Jasson find themselves in—dangling precariously between the hell from whence they came and deliverance to “the Nike” (rhymes with like), as the caravan teens call the U.S.
The two had become bonded by the common denominators of past misfortune and youthful optimism about their futures in the Nike. As they neared the end of the walkway, Sarko and Jasson stood up straight and smiled. Then, they informed the California Border Patrol Agents at the PedWest inspection facility of the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry that they were there to apply for asylum.
Sarko and Jasson were two of hundreds of unaccompanied Central American minors lingering in Tijuana for extended periods of time while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. Under the Trump administration’s “metering” policy they could spend a long time in TJ, a border town where homicidal narcomenudistas (low-level dealers) run the streets and 30 percent of the 2,518 people killed last year were buried anonymously in a public cemetery. Fifty-thousand unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the U.S. border in 2018, and some of them ended up in Tijuana. Still, Sarko and Jasson were hopeful.
By then, the situation at the caravan refugee camp where they’d been staying, Benito Juarez Sports Center on Cinco De Mayo Street in Tijuana, was getting increasingly untenable. After weeks of living in limbo while staring at the border, the teens were starting to think it was time to take matters into their own hands. The possibilities were limited; they could cross illegally or apply for asylum in the United States, or even Canada for that matter, and wait it out in Mexico. That or go back to Honduras.
Sarko and Jasson had arrived at this juncture like thousands of others in the migrant caravan that got so much attention last fall and winter, and became a sort of Rorschach test for our political and cultural divisions in the new era of refugee migration.
In 2011, when Sarko was 9, his father, a circus clown, died of a lung infection; several years earlier, his dad had survived an attack in which he was shot five times. It’s said he was pressured to join a gang, just as his son would be years later.
Like many other young Hondurans, Sarko was raised by his grandmother, Amalia Día. His mother, Strella Ruiz, wasn’t really in the picture.
On a warm September evening six years after his father’s death, Sarko started hoofing it on the well-worn migratory path to Tapachula, Chiapas, though that’s only one version of the story.
There, he strapped himself to the top of “La Bestia,” the notorious cargo train that transports countless migrants from Central America, who latch themselves and their hopes of el otro lado while Mexican officials turned a blind eye. Sarko’s eyes, like those of his mother and sister, changed colors like a mood ring. They were bright blue then, full of dreams of the Nike. He rode the train as far as he could and then walked and caught rides when possible. By October, Sarko had hooked up with the caravan proper somewhere Mexico City. He reconnected with his mother there and took temporary work as a security guard before moving on.
Jasson left Honduras in mid-October with his older sister, Ingrid Vanessa Rivera Polanco, and his 8-year-old niece, heading north, chasing freedom.
Like Sarko, he stood out among the many unaccompanied minors that flooded Tijuana in mid-November of last year as part of the caravan. The handsome17-year-old was a little taller than most; poised, he was an accomplished student and good soccer player who had a quiet magnetism that helped him forge quick friendships in the cauldron of the Benito Juarez Sports Center.
Jasson had arrived in Tijuana on a bus like one of the eight that took off from Navojoa, Sinaloa, as the sun set on November 12. The creaky, old transport threatened to bust an axle at every bump in the road as police escorts urged them on to Tijuana and the drivers seemed bent on setting land-speed records.
Each bus had its own character and Jasson was on the bus filled with young people. Onboard, music blared from the broken speakers, smoking was allowed, and the girls aged 14 and up gathered in the front. Bodies filled every space, crammed together in the aisles and on the floorboards between seats. But the mood was elevated. TJ was just three days away and everyone was hopeful. Gerson, a skinny 20-year-old in a Rasta cap with a tattoo of the Blessed Virgin on his shoulder, pulled a fuzzy, orange blanket over himself and his girlfriend and they got to it. The action drew the attention of the others guys, who watched attentively from a respectful distance, which was about three feet.
When the buses stopped for gas, everyone scrambled to get to the bathrooms. Women with big smiles and plastic bags filled with snacks and water bottles greeted the caravan. The food was free and so were the smiles.
In mid November, the last of the eight buses that took off that evening from Navojoa unloaded its passengers in front of the Benito Juarez Sports Center.
By now, the caravan has become part of the folklore of Trump’s farcical and tragic border war. But for all the coverage dedicated to last fall’s exodus of thousands of refugees from Central America fleeing violence and poverty to seek asylum at our doorsteps, little attention has been paid to the minors who ended up stranded on the mean streets of Tijuana. Some died, some disappeared, other’s trafficked and many of them remain, facing a future every bit as perilous as the past they fled.
Welcome to Tijuana
Mariachis greet the new arrivals as they step off the bus. Church groups, activists, locals and others who just want to help bring out food, clothing, blankets, tents, soap, toothpaste, and tampons. Tijuana puts its best foot forward. Still, this is Tijuana, a cartel-run border town. Lots of the supplies are snatched and put on the street for resale as fast as they come in. It’s a place where nobody’s shy about taking advantage of an opportunity, and the caravan brought more than a few with it. Even so, thousands of migrants who’ve already made it to TJ—Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans—light up the street with smiles as the latest members of the migrant diaspora arrive.
Sarko and Jasson snake between the news crews that have popped up everywhere like mildew in moisture and disappear into the open-air shelter, trying to stake out a spot of their own amid the steady flow of asylum seekers carrying their worldly belongings in bags and backpacks as they make their way into the Benito Juarez Sports Center. They can see “la línea,” a rusted steel barricade across the street at the end of the block so close they could almost spit on it. It’s just like in the pictures they’ve seen on Facebook.
Inside the complex, a few thousand people have already claimed the prime real estate along the concrete walkway that cuts through large areas of dirt and grass. Tents and tarps of all shapes and sizes have gone up on the soccer field and basketball courts, under the bleachers, and around every corner and down every path—women, boys, girls, toddlers, and infants occupy every space. But for now, the long ride is over and everyone’s having some fun. Children with runny noses find the little playground with a big plastic slide and swings. Soon a barber sets up shop on a milk crate and offers shaves and trims with a straight razor. A feral 14-year-old, who returned with his second caravan after being sent back to Honduras last year, runs a regular card game.
Sarko and Jasson feel like they they’d known each other forever. The two teens, who looked like adults, turned up the volume on each other. You’d bet on either and especially on both, even as the wolves started baying just outside the gates of the refuge camp at the Benito Juarez Sports Center.
Inside Benito Juarez Sports Center
On November 16, Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum Buenrostro tipped his “Make Tijuana Great Again” hat to the U.S. president and made a public statement, declaring, “Human rights are for only upstanding humans.” His words inspired a pint-sized, Sinaloa-transplant, who calls himself Camadante Cobra and is a vocal member of the nationalist group Autodefensas Internacionales, to rally fellow hatemongers to bring their guns to the Benito Juarez Sports Complex. A paid troll called Paloma for Trump showed up regularly to live stream racist vitriol, strutting boldly through the camp in short skirts and cheap heels.
Days later, on November 19, 500 Mexican nationalists assembled under the statue of Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc and marched toward the Benito Juarez Sports Center chanting, “Out Hondurans, we don’t want you here!” and “Long live Mexico!” Their signs read “Basta de migración” (Migration, enough already) and “Primero nuestra gente” (Our people first).
It was a well-organized piece of political theater covered by most of the mainstream media along with Breitbart, which pounced on every “invader” narrative tossed its way.
When former Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen misrepresented a DHS report by saying there were 500 criminals among the caravan, USA Today and other outlets ran with the story. After that, migrants leaving camp looking for work started tucking their orange ID bracelets under their sleeves. The DHS data actually reported that 95 percent of the asylum seekers traveling in the caravan did not have criminal histories.
Soon, there are 7,000 people at the Benito Juarez Sports Camp. The nights get cold. Formula grows scarce and even the small children don’t get enough food to eat. The filtered water tanks run dry and folks are left to drink the parasite-ridden water from the faucets. Public showers are exposed pipes in a cement wall at the far end of the soccer field, and the people working at the shelter have to tell the media to stop photographing women when they shower. Drug dealers move in on the caravan. People are trafficked in the street outside the shelter in plain view.
Cristian doesn’t seem to mind the chaos. The rail-thin, 20-year-old catracho (another word for Honduran) with freshly cornrowed hair and dreams of being a rapper in the Nike is usually bottled lightning, but on a day in November he pauses to share his lunch with new friends Sarko and Jasson. Quickly, he’s back to being his hyper-animated self, like he might ricochet off the tents. “My frien, my frien, my frien. My name is Cristian,” he says, practicing English for his new life.
He may not make it to the U.S., but one version of the American dream does come true when some rich girls from San Diego take him to the nice part of town, up near the soccer stadium where the money is and the catrachos aren’t. After a full week of love American style, he’s back at shelter a few pounds heaver. But that was a couple of weeks earlier and then he’s sick like everyone else, coughing up mouthfuls of milky, yellow phlegm between Marlboros.
A medical tent complete with a dentist drilling teeth is moved outside of the shelter for best media visibility. Everyone gets a course of Amoxicillin, but it doesn’t work on the viral infection. Hacking coughs rung throughout the complex like the echoes of Honduras’ collective grief. By late November, the porta potties at the far end of the soccer field are overflowing with feces and urine. The camp runs out of baby formula and other essentials like feminine hygiene products.
The Mexican Marines set up a mobile kitchen cooking two meals a day, and though the people says they really like the chicken and fish, it wasn’t enough to sustain them; they had to wait in line for hours to get to the food. People are going hungry.
On the bright side, on December 1, Mexico’s new president Manuel López Obrador takes office, promoting a new policy of inclusion, embracing the caravan and denouncing Tijuana’s mayor.
Meanwhile, migrants continue to show up with all their worldly belongs on their backs. The shelter reaches capacity, and refugees spill out onto the sidewalks and streets where they’re more vulnerable. Then the rain comes. It starts with a drizzle, then a light shower, and turns into a days-long deluge.
By day four of the rain, the camp is swamped. Kids jump in puddles while everyone’s ordered to drag their soggy blankets, clothes, and tents into the street to clear the space for the clean up inside. But after they cleanup, they’re locked out and left to pitch tents on the sidewalks and streets in front of the sports complex. It was already cold and wet, and then the rain starts again. In a tent at the far end of the block, people smoke and sell crystal meth. The cops watch, punching the clock.
Finally, some nice buses show up in front of the complex and an intimidating guy in a white shirt with a clipboard forcefully encourages folks to go to a new shelter in a former nightclub complex called El Barretal that looks like a ghost town. It’s situated 40 minutes away, in a bad neighborhood far from the border, and most people don’t want to go. The refugees don’t want to lose the connections and support systems they’ve scrabbled together here. The caravan is a community. Many decide to stay in the street rather than get on the bus.
Sarko, whose eyes have grown gray as the sky, succumbs to the pressure and boards the bus in wet clothes along with Jasson. Neither of them are smiling. El Barretal is like a prison. Within a week, some locals from the area commandeer an old men’s room as a distribution site to sell meth, recruiting youngsters as future narcomenudistas. Sarko and Jasson move to a youth center closer to the Benito Juarez Sports Complex and the border.
Pastor Albert Rivera looks exhausted. The streets in front of the Benito Juarez Sports Center are lined with tents on both sides and almost impassable. Rivera, in his late 40s and usually wearing a faded, flannel jacket, runs a non-profit migrant shelter called Agape Mission Mundial, located on the old Tijuana landfill. Though he’s not without a few scandals of his own, this is TJ and Rivera knows what’s up.
“Zona Norte, this area, is basically run by drug cartels,” he says. “They’re the ones that run things here. There’s human trafficking and everything.”
Meanwhile, just down the block, a brawny Mexican guy in a white car with Miami plates has three young men from the caravan in the back seat. A whiff of recognition among the crowd turns into a commotion as folks recognize the big guy isn’t just someone looking for day labor. People move to surround his car but he speeds away. He’s cartel and the guys have just been trafficked in broad daylight. They won’t be seen back at the shelter again.
“There is a very big problem with that here,” Albert says, “That’s why the federal police are here.”
Camera crews flank federal police commissioner Juan Carlos Moran as he walks through the streets, but it’s a show and his presence provides little comfort to the asylum seekers even though both ends of the block at Benito Juarez Sports Center are lined with municipal and federal police as well as military vehicles. Big trucks, some with soldiers in camouflage and armed machine gun turrets drive by regularly. Cops in riot gear seal the street behind barricades on both ends.
Cristian doesn’t seem to notice that either. He’s extra spring loaded today in a way that suggests that he might possibly be smoking more than Marlboros. “I’m gonna cross. I’m going to the Nike,” he says, squatting down to smoke a cigarette while consulting a cheap cell phone with a cracked screen. “Yes, my frien. It’s goood. You are my frien.”
Cristian has downloaded a free language app and he’s busy with it. “It’s gooood. It’s gooood. Nice to meet you. My name is Cristian. I eat brefast. It’s good,” he repeats.
It’s not good. There’s a massive pile of garbage in the street and the stench is omnipresent. A scrappy, little black dog is sent on its way by a bigger, mangy dog claiming digging rights on the trash dune. That dog is sent scurrying by a guy on a bike who comes to forage through the pile. Though the refugees are going to great lengths to keep the street clean, it’s a difficult task with no running water, regular waste disposal, food, or basic sanitary necessities.
A man quietly dies in the streets, surrounded by fellow migrants. Rumor is he was diabetic and didn’t have his meds, but it’s just a rumor. Everyone looks on as the life leaves his face while his eyes remain wide open. His journey ends in front of the garbage heap under police observation. Some folks cover him in a white sheet and take him away in a car.
A pick-up truck piled high with clothes pulls up in front of the complex and a small stampede ensues while a serious young boy and his father try to toss the clothes into the right hands.
Cristian isn’t daunted. He’s making good progress with his language App. “I eat brefast, lonch, and denner, my frien. It’s good. You’re my frien,” he says.
Where the street ends, close to the border, people are openly shooting up on the sidewalk. Local gangsters are occupying tents. The beefy guy from the car with Miami plates strolls in to pay a visit to one of the gangster tents.
But the second week of December arrives with good news. Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard announces a plan to invest $30 billion over five years to stabilize the economies in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But no one here is reading the news.
Things over at the YMCA youth shelter are a little better. Spaghetti for dinner, clean clothes, and a bunk bed with a warm blanket beat the hard ground at Barretal or a cold tent in the street at the Benito Juarez Sports Center. Sarko and Jasson are grateful but impatient. The Trump administration’s “metering” policy, which limits the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the U.S. each day, has slowed the process to a crawl, leaving the unaccompanied minors in a holding pattern. A few of the kids are cutting their arms with razor blades and posting the photos on Facebook in sort of emo sign of solidarity.
Baja California senator Jaime Bonilla Valdez shows up with his checkbook to rent an old warehouse a half block from the Benito Juarez camp not long after some 500 migrants—men, women, children—rushed the border on November 25 only to be repelled with tear gas and non-lethal projectiles.
The following Sunday, Trump closes the U.S. Border to pedestrians and vehicles at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego for hours, sending a chill down the spines of the thousand from whom crossing from Mexico to the U.S. weekly is part of their livelihoods.
Most of those left on the streets outside Benito Juarez move inside. The warehouse, with cement floors and only one door, doesn’t have electricity or running water, but it’s a paradise compared to the streets.
Pastor Albert says retaliatory politics are the problem now, that the mayor stopped the trash collection, blocked food donations, and has talked the governor into helping him declare a heath emergency and evict the people from the warehouse shelter.
In mid-December, a month after Sarko and Jasson crossed the San Ysidro Bridge and were turned away without explanation, they decided to take another tack. “They were gonna cross. They took their packs,” says Brendon, a serious 16-year-old who speaks without moving his jaw. It was late afternoon on a Saturday when they headed out.
Sarko, Jasson, and a third teen named Justin made their way through the streets of Central Tijuana. On their way to the Nike, they crossed paths with a young, bottle blond in a push-up bra named Keylin Esmeralda Garcia Carranza (aka La Pecosa). A few blocks away near a faded green apartment complex on a walkway behind an iron fence topped with concertina wire, her partner, Carlos Martinez (aka El Morral) and his associate Francisco Javier Zavala (a.k.a. “El Zanahorio”), waited for her call. The small house in the back had a black iron door, the kind of security you see everywhere in Tijuana where there might be something to steal. The place belonged to an old man who wasn’t home.
Keylin, who had run away at 16 and is now in her mid-20s, is a well-known narcomenudista. Her chest is tattooed with the names Karen and Nena. The boys were walking toward the Benito Juarez Sports Center for last looks and goodbyes when Keylin tried to lure them with fleshly possibilities. Robbery was most likely her intention, but the young catrachos weren’t biting.
Another young woman showed up, and she and Keylin tried to seduce them with drugs, but they weren’t interested in that either. So, Keylin told them that that there was a place she knew near by where wealthy women from Tijuana would pay good money to pass some time with handsome young men like themselves.
That sounded like an offer they couldn’t refuse, so Sarko, Jasson, and Justin followed the two women to the apartment in the house. Keylin locked the door behind them and called El Morral and El Zanahorio who soon showed up for the shakedown. The problem was, there was nothing to shake—donated clothes, cheap cell phones, and little else. The boys pleaded, telling their captors they’d get money from their families, but the kidnapping devolved into torture.
Sarko and Jasson were forced to strip and put on women’s underwear. They we’re strangled with wire and choked with a stick. Sarko was stabbed 37 times. His mother said his face was unrecognizable and that he had to have a closed-casket funeral, that he was decapitated. His carotid artery was cut with a sharp object according the death report.
When Keylin, El Morral, and El Zanahorio were done, they dumped the boys’ bodies under a graffiti wall in a Quintana Roo alley in Zona Centro in Tijuana in the late hours of December 15. Police found the bodies the next day near where a woman had reported a commotion.
Sarko and Jasson were two of 12 people murdered that day in Tijuana, a city with more than 2,000 murders a year. Uriel Gonzalez, the general coordinator of the youth shelter where about 30 unaccompanied minors from the caravan were staying, said that these kids were not ready for the streets of Tijuana: “Their crime was their naivety.”
The third teen, Justin, had escaped after running through the streets with Keylin in manic pursuit. He made it back to the shelter where he banged on the big metal gate, hysterical, he was sobbing in terror when Mynor, the supervisor who was on duty that night let him in. “He couldn’t talk. He had strangulation marks on his neck,” Mynor says. “All the other kids came out. To say that it was bad does not express what happened here that night.”
Keylin was walking the same streets looking for her next victim when the police picked her up on December 18, three days after the murders. She took police to the place where Sarko and Jasson were murdered. She and her accomplices were arrested and await trail.
According to Uriel Gonzales, Justin is now in the U.S. but had been detained in Mexico when Internal Foreign Affairs and the Honduran Consulate tried to force him to go back to Honduras. “They went to his house to put pressure on his mom to sign a document to make him come back to Honduras,” Gonzales says.
The murders left a mark on Sarko and Jasson’s young friends who remained in the shelter long after the news cameras rolled. “I don’t go out,” says Branden. “We don’t go out. Look what happens to us here. Look what could happen to us. I want to see my mother again some day. She’s in a detention center somewhere. So I don’t go out.”
Jasson’s father, Jose Acuna, traveled to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to identify the body from photographs, but he couldn’t make the match, so Jasson’s sister Ingrid stepped in to identify her brother. Gonzales says he was in denial. That photograph looked exactly like Jasson.
Acuna publically struggled to make sense of the loss. “The young person is not like the adult,” he says. “One thinks, analyzes. He maybe did not keep himself. He had to take care of himself. Because of the times and places where we are living is very dangerous.”
Sarko’s 93-year-old great-grandmother can’t sleep and his 63-year-old grandmother is having problems with her blood pressure.
Death by Metering
Jasson had applied for Canadian asylum. He and Sarko were both in the ORR (the Office of Refugee Resettlement) system waiting for their U.S. asylum cases to be processed, according to Gonzalez. Sarko, in a series of documentary interviews just before his death disclosed that his mother tried to sell him to traffickers when he was 3 years old.
He left Honduras because he wanted an education and the chance to survive. Members of his family who were gang affiliated threatened him and so he left. He hadn’t seen his mother in a while when connected with her in Mexico briefly on his way to Tijuana.
Sarko and Jasson were part of a vulnerable youth population exposed to dangerous elements in Mexico at the U.S. border for long periods of time as a result of metering. They were also targets of an ongoing media narrative that vilified migrants and made Tijuana a hostile, sometimes dangerous place for refugees.
Gonzalez sits at a small desk at the youth shelter in Tijuana, surrounded by supplies: clothes, food, soap, toothpaste, shampoo, backpacks, and blankets in small piles. The small office at the youth shelter is where the third teen, Justin recounted the lurid details to the police the night of the murders. “Yes, of course,” Gonzalez says flatly. “I connect this to the United States and hold Donald Trump and his administration responsible for these deaths.”
Meanwhile, in the street a few blocks from the border, Cristian has broken his cell phone and can’t use his language app. He looks a little scruffy and doesn’t seem to be getting much sleep. Crystal meth is cheaper than a taco here and it’s already claimed a bunch of catrachos lingering in Tijuana. The streets here are unforgiving, especially for the young and naive, and nobody really knows how many others refugees like Cristian have been left behind.
The next migrant caravan set off from San Pedro Sula in Honduras in early April. Another caravan will come after that with refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but the caravan that arrived in Tijuana in October of 2018 was the last caravan that will arrive expecting refuge.
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