Migrants' dreams of a better life gone awry

A Honduran human rights association is helping families find missing migrants.

Marítza Ortiz will never forget the image of her sister climbing on the bus that day. She set out, like millions before her, for the United States in hopes of trading the poverty of her Honduras home for the American Dream.

On a sweltering day last week, Ms. Ortiz was showing a 12-year-old photograph of her sister on the dusty streets of Tecun Uman, a Guatemalan border town hundreds of miles from home.

Speaking to everyone from market vendors to prostitutes, she hoped someone might recognize her sister, though she was only 17 in the photo, and offer clues to her whereabouts.

"If we knew she had died, we'd know we'd never see her again, and we'd have to accept it. But not knowing whether she is alive or dead and living with that uncertainty is what's so hard," says Ortiz, her eyes flooding with tears.

Each year, thousands of Central Americans attempt the same clandestine journey, and hundreds perish en route. Oftentimes, their unidentified bodies turn up along the way, and countless others simply lose contact with their anguishing families.

Because their journeys are unsanctioned, there are no records that would help government authorities track them down. But now, Ortiz and a group of Honduran families are taking the detective work into their own hands.

The Association of Relatives of Missing Migrants was formed in Progreso, Honduras, in 1999. The first of its kind in the region, the association now has 250 members representing 284 missing migrants, almost all from Progreso, a town of roughly 140,000 people.

The group's principal goal is to raise awareness about the plight of migrants, which they do through their weekly radio broadcast, "Without Borders." They hold press conferences, carry photos to marches and demonstrations, and lobby their government.

Last week, a group of association members set out on the trail north in search of their relatives - a considerable investment for most of them, who live on $1 a day. They hoped to learn more about the routes their family members may have taken and find traces of them, or others on their roster, along the way. Their trip took them through Tecun Uman, Guatemala, to Ciudad Hidalgo, and Tapachula, Mexico.

According to the Rev. Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Guatemala City Migrant House, a network of migrant safe houses in Central America and Mexico, some 600 migrants perished en route to the US last year.

Many were never identified. In the past month, more than 30 migrants were killed in boat accidents while trying to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border.

"Migrants used to take well-known routes that were not so dangerous. But US pressure to enact stricter migration controls has forced coyotes to take migrants on more and more dangerous routes to get to the US," says Mr. Verzeletti. Just this week, US Attorney General John Ashcroft called on governments in Latin America to tighten their borders even more in the wake of Sept. 11.

But not all migrants who disappear are dead. Many young women, who fail to make it to the US and find themselves without money on the Guatemala-Mexico border, wind up working in the area's many brothels, forbidden or too embarrassed to call home.

Migrants who have accidents and are hospitalized, and those who are arrested and jailed, often can't make contact with their families.

Many migrants who fail to make it to the US - especially those who have drained their families' savings or incurred debts to pay coyotes' fees - are often too ashamed to contact their families.

Through their work, the Progreso organization has located 40 of the missing migrants formerly on their roster.

Following the example of this group, two similar organizations have formed in other parts of Honduras. Activists hope to form a national network of such groups, and they are pressing the Honduran government to set up an investigating committee.

The Honduran foreign ministry has set up a phone line to take reports on the missing, and an Internet website where their photos are displayed.

"Our principal problem is a lack of resources, but we are doing everything we can to help," said Luz de Mejia, from the ministry's consular affairs office.

The not-so-savory itinerary of the recent excursion to the border was emotionally trying for the small number of association members who could raise the money to attend.

They visited a jail, a morgue, hospitals and clinics, and dozens of brothels. Many people recognized some of the missing from the photos, but following up on the leads proved challenging.

Many of the recognized migrants had since left places where they were recently spotted and, in some cases, owners of bars where some women were reported to work denied recognizing the women.

On the first trip the association made to the border last year, they located six missing migrants, all alive. This year they went home without finding any.

But they leave behind a number of strong leads and commitments from humanitarian organizations and authorities to cooperate in the search.

They feel confident that, as last year, that some of the missing will turn up within the months after the trip. And even if they don't, they say they are sure some good will come from their efforts.

"Maybe seeing us out here looking for our relatives will help migrants we've met along the way understand their families' needs. And perhaps they will decide to communicate with their family," says Rosa Ramirez, who went on the trip in the hope of finding her nephew who has been missing for a year. "That would be a big success, it doesn't have to be one of our relatives, but any migrant out there."

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