Migrants from Another World: Part 4

The Fallen: Back in India with broken dreams after braving the migrant route through the Americas

Illustration Courtesy CLIP - OCCRP
09 September, 2020

On 4 July 2019, people across the United States celebrated Independence Day with fireworks, barbecues and star-spangled flags.

That same day, three young men in their teens and early twenties—Sanjiv, Raja and Manpreet—left their village in northern India in pursuit of their own American dream. 

They had paid thousands of dollars to smugglers to transport them thousands of kilometres across the world in the hope of making a better life in the United States. They then spent months travelling on foot or by plane, boat and bus, down rivers and through jungles, crossing a continent along the way.

But their dreams did not come true. The three migrants were caught and placed in a Mexican camp before they crossed the Rio Grande into the United States. Three months after they left home, Sanjiv and Raja were deported to India, where they are now struggling to make ends meet. 

Manpreet died at the age of 16 in a hospital near the camp, a 17-hour drive from Texas.

Manpreet left Punjab in 2019 at the age of 16. He never made it to the United States. Courtesy Confluence Media

A few months after they were deported, journalists from Confluence Media, working as part of an international consortium that includes the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, met with Sanjiv and Raja near their homes in the Indian state of Punjab. Sitting in a roadside diner on the outskirts of Dharamkot, a farming village of 15,000 people, they described their journey to the other side of the world and back again.

This is their tale, though we have changed their names to protect them from possible reprisals. 

No Jobs, No Money

Sanjiv and Raja, both in their early twenties, consider each other best friends. They have known each other since childhood and went to the same school. They both wear similar outfits: a sporty jacket or sweatshirt, jeans and flip-flops. They both also never seem to put down their cell phones. 

The pair say they left Punjab because they could not find work in their agricultural community. Sanjiv explains he did not want to join the army and there were no jobs available in the civil service. Raja said he could not even find a menial job to keep him going. 

They decided their best hope was to pay smugglers between $21,000 and $22,400 each to take them to the United States. They scrimped, saved and borrowed to find the money. Raja mortgaged his house for $7,000; Sanjiv sold his family’s home for about $10,000. Both were promised that in six weeks they would be on US soil.

“We sold a lot of things,” Raja said. “We were thinking that there are no jobs here. We looked for a long time and ended up spending a lot. I also asked my family for money.”

Both men went quiet and looked away when asked about the people who smuggled them. They declined to answer reporters’ questions, saying they did not want to jeopardize their chances of getting their money back.

Another migrant, however, told reporters the networks operate through local agents in Punjab, who recruit migrants and then pass them on to national smuggling networks. He said the trade is coordinated by Indians living in Tapachula, in southeast Mexico, who work with accomplices in the countries along the migrant route. 

This map shows the route the three young men took from northern India to Mexico. Courtesy OCCR

On US Independence Day last year, Raja, Sanjiv and their teenage friend Manpreet took a vehicle to the airport in Amritsar, in Punjab. From there, they flew to Dubai and finally to Armenia, where they waited for a month. Next, their journey took them to Moscow, where they connected to Havana and then on to Panama. 

They finally landed in Ecuador, where they could disembark without a visa, a few weeks later. But despite all their travels, thousands more kilometres still separated them from the US border. 

So, they began to travel in secret. First, they stopped in a city whose name they cannot remember, perhaps Quito. Then they travelled on to Cali in Colombia, and then, after a journey of hundreds of kilometres by road, arrived at Turbo on the Caribbean Sea. From there they crossed the Gulf of Urabá by boat and began the terrible trek on foot through the Darién jungles to Panama.

“It’s very hot in the jungle, and people actually die from that. So many people are dying that we didn’t even think we were going to survive,” Raja said, remembering how they had no water for the first two days of the trip. 

At one point, he said, he was drinking two Red Bulls a day to keep up his energy as he carried his pack through the sweltering heat. “Sometimes the mountains were too high and there we used to feel like we can’t continue,” he said. 

“But our courage didn’t fail us, we kept moving and moving, and finally we made it to the camp. And then we felt relief.”

Detained in Mexico

Things went wrong for the three young men from Punjab as soon as they set foot on Mexican soil. Despite travelling in different groups, they all ended up in the Acayucan migrant holding centre in Veracruz.

Acayucan is an imposing, walled building, guarded by white steel bars and armed federal police officers who stop anyone from entering except staff and busloads of migrants. The site is only meant to house 836 people, but more than three thousand men, women and children were crowded inside last July. By the time the trio arrived, that figure included over five hundred Indian migrants.

In the camp, people were kept in small cells measuring just six square meters, with concrete slabs to sleep on. Their only glimpse of the outside world from their rooms was through barred windows. The showers and bathrooms had no doors or curtains.

“In the camp there were no clothes, no bathing facilities. ... They only gave us food once or twice a day. It wasn’t good,” Raja said. 

Sanjiv remembers that there were mosquitoes, that it was cold and that the camp staff neglected people who were sick. 

The Acayucan migration camp, in Mexico’s Veracruz state, where Raja, Sanjiv and Manpreet were held. Felix Márquez

Their accounts are backed up by a 2017 report from the Mexico-based Institute for Security and Democracy, which found migrants in Acayucan were living in unsanitary conditions with bathrooms full of waste and mattresses infested with bedbugs. In the heat of the summer, the report warned, temperatures in the camp rose to more than thirty degrees Celsius. 

Mexico’s government announced last year it had spent 39 million Mexican pesos—$2 million at the time—improving the camp, but there have already been riots, escapes and protests by migrants over delays in processing them. 

An employee at the Coatzacoalcos hospital, where Manpreet died, holds his ashes. Felix Márquez

Mexico has held growing numbers of migrants in camps since June 2019, when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made a deal with the administration of US President Donald Trump to keep them inside the country in return for a free-trade agreement. US border patrols stopped almost nine thousand Indians in 2018, the largest group from any country outside Latin America. 

Raja and Sanjiv’s teenage friend Manpreet did not survive. He became sick at the camp and was sent away, ending up at a hospital in Veracruz. It is unclear exactly what happened, but the 16-year-old died days later of a brain infection, in November 2019. 

Manpreet’s body was cremated after a month but his ashes are still in Mexico. His family, who sold their house and borrowed money to send him to the United States, cannot afford to collect them. His father, Nirmal, said he has not even seen a picture of his son’s body. 

“They didn’t send any snap or his postmortem record or his pic, nothing,” he said. 

Manpreet died in this bed in Coatzacoalcos hospital, southern Mexico, in November 2019. He was 16 years old. Felix Márquez

A Surprise Return

Raja and Sanjiv were held for several weeks in Acayucan. They spent most of their time wandering around the yard, preparing for what they thought would be the final leg of their journey to the United States. 

But on 16 October 2019, they were loaded onto six buses along with hundreds of their compatriots, without any explanation, and driven for several hours until they reached an airport.

“They didn’t even tell us they were going to deport us. ... They took people in all these buses, they took us to the airport, an international airport ... and there they deported us,” Raja said.

The Boeing 747 left Toluca International Airport carrying 310 men and one woman, all from India, guarded by Mexican officers. On the plane, many of the would-be migrants exchanged their stories. For some, the prospect of returning was a relief after months on the move, eating badly and living out of their backpacks. 

After a 36-hour flight, including a stopover in Spain, the migrants landed in Delhi. Carrying little more than their passports, they found themselves back home. Many thought they would be imprisoned when they disembarked, but they were ultimately freed after being interviewed by authorities.

Nirmal, Manpreet’s father, cannot afford to collect his son’s ashes from the hospital where he died in Mexico. Courtesy Confluence Media

Raja is now about to lose his house. After mortgaging it to finance his trip, he cannot afford the monthly payments he owes of up to $500. Sanjiv, who sold his house to pay the smugglers, is now struggling to raise the $20 a month it costs to rent the apartment where he lives with his mother. 

Almost every day, they call the traffickers and beg for their money back. They were still waiting when they were interviewed.

“We had dreams too. Those dreams are broken. It happens sometimes,” Sanjiv said. 

The interactive elements were produced by the journalistic consortium behind Migrants from Another World.

The Caravan is serialising “Migrants from Another World.” The other parts of the series appear here.

Migrants from Another World is a transnational and collaborative investigation from the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP in Spanish), Occrp, Animal Político (Mexico) and Mexican regional media such as Chiapas Paralelo and Voz Alterna from Red Periodistas de a Pie; Univision Noticias Digital (United States), Revista Factum (El Salvador); La Voz de Guanacaste (Costa Rica); Profissão Réporter from TV Globo (Brazil); La Prensa (Panama); Revista Semana (Colombia); El Universo (Ecuador); Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela); and Anfibia/Cosecha Roja (Argentina). Also, Confluence Media (India), Record Nepal (Nepal), The Museba Project (Cameroon) and Bellingcat (United Kingdom). This project received special support from Fundación Avina and Seattle International Foundation.