They threaten and intimidate him, but Father Alejandro Solalinde continues his mission, at the risk of his life.
Only a few hours after the 43 students, from a college near the town of Iguala in the southern state of Guerrero, had disappeared, Father Alejandro Solalinde, having consulted several trusted sources, was the first person to tell federal investigators for the nation’s attorney general that the students had been burned alive. He also informed authorities that he was able to locate the place where they were buried.”
Father Solalinde is not afraid to speak out against abuses and injustice. He says: “I have received numerous death threats.” The immigrant shelter, which he founded in Ixtepec, has been attacked more than once. The religious adds that, once, the municipal authorities threatened to set the centre on fire, if he would not close it within two days. But he was not scared and kept on running the shelter for migrants, even when he heard that a killer had been recruited to assassinate him.
Father Solalinde, 69, is a defender of human rights in Mexico, which holds records for the largest number of homicides: 50,000 over the last six years alone. The Catholic Church also has its own victims. Since 1993, the year of Cardinal Posadas Ocampo’s assassination, twenty-eight priests, three religious, a deacon and four sacristans have been murdered. Four priests and a seminarian were killed over last year alone.
Commitment to the migrants.
When asked why he decided to devote his life to migrants, he answered, “After 30 years of priesthood, I felt I was involved in this reality. So I asked my bishop not to make me work behind a desk, but at the foot of the Cross. I wanted to be close to the nearly 400,000 migrants who, every year, try to cross the Mexico-United States border without documents. I soon realised it would not be an easy task. Four hundred people asked for shelter, the first night we opened the centre, since then, the number has remained constant.”
Some people have protested against the establishment of the shelter, since they are annoyed by the presence of migrants and poor people in their area, but it has been even worse to find out that there is connivance between authorities, the police, local officials, and gangs involved in migrant, drug and organ trafficking. It is impossible to remain silent and to turn a blind eye: “They have accused me of having become a public figure, but I am just like any other, Jesus Christ is public. I have renounced a quiet life, I have overcome the fear of threats thanks to the words in John’s Gospel: “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone”.
When a woman who has been raped, or a boy robbed of his clothes, or a tired man who cannot even stand, exhausted from a long day of travel, knock at the door a Christian knows what he is supposed to do. Father Solalinde quotes Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me.”
Migrants can stop at the “Hermanos en el Camino” (Brothers on the way) shelter a few days on their way to the United States. The number of children trying to cross the border is increasing, since mothers want to take them away from endemic violence in Central America. More than 50,000 children reached the border with the United States, last year alone. President Barak Obama himself has defined the migrant issue “a human tragedy”.
Children and the other migrants pile on board the roof of the freight train, called “La Bestia” (the Beast). It drives immigrants from Mexico’s southern Chiapas state to Mexico City, passing by Ixpetec, where they will attempt to travel north to the U.S. border. The freight train is also called “the train of death”, since it sometimes happens that someone falls and gets injured or dies. One can see several mass graves along the route from Guatemala to the US border, where the victims of kidnap gangs are buried. Father Alejandro says: “Twenty thousand people are kidnapped every year. Kidnapping constitutes a criminal industry estimated to be worth $50 million per year. Kidnappers torture and rob their victims. They then demand the phone numbers of family members in the U.S. or back in Central America and ask for ransoms.”
Denouncing can cost someone his life. In 2011, Maria Elizabeth Castro’s mutilated body was found on a road near the city of Nuevo Laredo. A note found with the journalist’s body said she had been killed for reporting the activities of criminal groups. The journalist, 39, was a member of the Scalambrinian Lay Movement, and also worked in a shelter for migrants. Many operators linked to the Catholic Church have been threatened with death. “I would betray them, if I left”,” says Father Solalinde. “I am a pastor, I cannot run away when the wolf arrives”, quoting Monsignor Oscar Romero, the bishop of San Salvador killed in 1980 for speaking out against violence and abuses and for standing on the side of the poor.
Father Solalinde loves a Church that is poor, missionary and evangelizing as dreamed by Pope Francis, the Pope who urges priests to be shepherds who “smell like their sheep”. Like Jesus, who loved all people, but particularly the marginalized. The priest adds, “Standing near the Cross means drying the tears of those Central Americans who run after the American dream.”
There are weeping woman at the foot of the Cross, such as Martha from Salvador, when she phones her six year old daughter at home to remind her she must be obedient, must prepare herself for her First Holy Communion, and while she is speaking she realizes that her child has burst into tears. Another weeping woman is Jazmin from Nicaragua, mother of a little daughter. She has been sold to a Mexican brothel, and tried to commit suicide by swallowing drugs. Irma cannot stop her tears when she remembers her kidnapping on the route to the U.S. She had left home with the hope of working in the U.S. to pay a surgical operation for her father, but on her way towards the American dream she was kidnapped by criminals, who she defines “butchers” because they quartered migrants if families did not pay the ransom. “They smelled of gasoline, because they put their victims’ bodies in barrels and burn them.” The old mothers who do not have any news of their children, and come to Mexico to look for them, also weep quietly. They paste posters with the face of their sons to the crumbling walls of the city, they visit mass graves, they set candles afloat in baskets on the river waters which might hold the bodies of their children disappeared along the route.
Father Solalinde says: “As Christian ministers we are called to proclaim the Lord of Life also in death situations. People must feel that we stand by them announcing the Word of God and denouncing injustice. This is our mission. We must not betray them.” (P.M.)