Detained in Mexico
I have seen cities from the perspective of planes and cars but never have I seen them from behind bars. Until my first time in Guadalajara, Mexico. I had decided to leave my home in Mexico City and teach remotely for a few days so I could enjoy the long weekend. While I normally would fly, it was a last minute trip and bus tickets were the cheapest option. I hopped on the overnight bus and went to sleep expecting to wake up in Guadalajara.
I remember being woken up on the bus by an immigration officer early in the morning. He asked to see my papers and I sleepily showed him my passport and a picture of my residence visa (I do not carry the physical card as it was stolen last year and was costly to replace). He informed me that it was not enough to be traveling with and asked me to grab my belongings and get off the bus. I followed him and several other officers to a van. As they told me to get inside I began to ask them questions to settle my confusion. “Where are we?” I asked. “10 minutes outside of the city,” they responded. “How long will this take?” My first thought was work and whether this might conflict with my job. They told me they could not give me a time and to turn my phone off and give it to them. “Can I at least text my boss first?” I asked. No. I hesitantly turned off my cell and handed it over. They shut the door.
I shivered inside the cold van and observed my surroundings. We were at an immigration checkpoint. There were several cars pulled over along the edge of the highway. It was dark and around 5:20 am. The windows of the car were barred. The officers uniforms indicated immigration and federal police. I leaned back and told myself to be patient. This would be over soon. Over the span of the next 2 hours, these officers rounded up more individuals and placed them inside the van with me. 3 Colombians and another Mexican American. What did you do? We all asked each other. They were all traveling but did not have the slip of paper that immigration gives you upon arrival to Mexico. I could sense they were all annoyed like I was. At one point during the morning, an officer came back to the van and asked me which phone was mine. I pointed to my cell and he pulled it out of the glove compartment. “Text your boss quickly,” he said. Without much time to think, I texted my boss that I had been detained by immigration and that they would eventually verify my legal resident status. I wanted to let her know just in case I did not show up to work by 9:00 and that everything would be okay. I turned my phone off and returned it to the officer, wondering if that had been an act of sympathy and completely unaware of what was to come.
The officers eventually gathered outside the van and I tried to listen to their conversation. “Should we get two more?” One of the officers asked. There seemed to be disagreement amongst them but they ultimately dispersed and two of them got inside the van. I guess five humans was enough for that morning. They began to drive us toward the city. By now, the sun had risen. This was the first time I was seeing Guadalajara. I could never have imagined it would be from this perspective. Am I really inside of a van with barred windows? I asked myself. I was still unsure if I had done something wrong but the look that people in other cars gave me as we drove past made me feel like I had. Driving through the city, I began to try and memorize landmarks. Something inside me told me to pay attention to every little detail. We finally pulled up to an unmarked building.
“How many did you get today?” Asked the people waiting for us outside the building. Nothing about this feels right, I thought to myself. They opened the van and told us to go inside. I was first in line and was hoping to get in and out. They passed us on to individuals wearing uniforms with private security patches and told us to sit down at a table. One by one, they booked us. First, they asked me questions about my personal life and then made me sign paperwork. Second, they took my finger prints and a picture of my face. Third, they poured all my belongings from my backpack and suitcase onto a table and went through every single item. They put all the items of value in a separate bag and claimed it was so that they would not be responsible for anything that got lost or stolen. Very reassuring. Fourth, a man took me to the bathroom and strip searched me. I stood there in my underwear. “What did I do wrong? This has to be a huge misunderstanding. Who can I talk to?” I pleaded. “You can talk with the boss lady later,” he said. “Who is that?” I asked. No response. I had never felt more powerless. Nothing I said mattered. I was stripped of my rights. All I could do was obey their orders. Once they booked all of us, they told us it was time to go upstairs.
Upon arriving to the top of the stairs, I found myself looking into a small cell with 25 people staring back at me. We slowly walked inside uneasy about our new surroundings as the guard padlocked the gate behind us. You could not see the floor as it was covered with mats that the others were laying on. There was a bucket full of piss in the corner. I could see two small barred windows facing the courtyard. Inhumane conditions and nothing else. I did not know what to do with myself as I was uncomfortable and did not want to invade anyone’s space. An older Australian man approached us. “Alright guys, this is how things work around here. Breakfast is at 10:00, lunch is at 14:00 and dinner is at 18:00. The bathroom is in the corner. If you want a book, I know how to get them. We get 1 hour of outside time per week on Sundays. I have seen people beaten and electrocuted here. If you want to get on the guards’ good sides you need to find a way to talk to them privately. It is best you do not give any attitude to the guards because their mood will determine whether or not you get out of here. I know all of this because I have been in here for three months. This is a private facility that makes money off of keeping people detained so get comfortable.” My head was spinning. I felt like I was living in an actual nightmare.
I eventually sat down and tuned out the Australian who was clearly bored and lonely. I did not want to listen to anything he had to say because I did not want to believe that any of the information he was spewing out would be relevant to me. There was no way I would be in that cell for longer than a day… right? I had to convince myself. I began speaking with the other Mexican American. I asked him questions and tried to have a normal conversation to prevent my mind from going to dark places. We learned a bit about each other and began talking about our original plans for Guadalajara. We went back and forth asking questions in the past tense as if the plans were no longer happening and then got in the habit of correcting ourselves. What ARE you doing tonight? What WILL you be doing this weekend? It made both of us smile. Shortly after, breakfast was served.
Although I was hungry, I did not want to eat. Again, I did not want to do anything to get comfortable. But what if I did end up in here for a long time? I decided to eat anyways. We were served the nastiest beans and eggs I had ever had. I suppose I should not have been surprised. I forced it down. Afterwards, I sat there alone with my thoughts and observed my surroundings. By this point I was already late for work. What was my boss thinking? Are my students worried? How would my family find out? Does anyone have any idea where I am right now? I began staring at the sun’s shadow to gauge the time. It must have been close to 11:00. I became curious about the others in the cell with me. I learned that they were all from countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Haiti, and Yemen. I realized these were the people risking their lives to go to the United States. One of the guys from Ecuador approached me.
As I spoke with the Ecuadorian he told me you have to be strong in these situations. I knew I would never experience anything remotely close to what these guys had experienced leaving their homes so I felt as if I couldn’t lose my composure. He described his two month long journey from home and his destination of Queens, New York where he planned to reunite with his mom. He was worried because nobody knew that he had been detained. He told me he thought I would get out today since I was a gringo and asked if I could contact his mom once I got released. I agreed and memorized his mom’s number. It was the least I could have done. As we were speaking, the Colombians I was originally detained with got called downstairs. An hour passed and they did not return. I thought it was a good sign. Eventually, the Mexican American was called. Another positive sign. “I hope I never see you again,” I said. After that, all I wanted was for my name to be called before lunch was served. But one hour passed and I heard nothing. Two hours passed and they began to serve food. In my mind, my chances of getting released grew slimmer the closer it got to 17:00. What if the guards finished their shift, went home, and I had to stay overnight? I had to force that thought out of my mind. I began to doze off on the floor when I heard my name. I jumped up and waited for the guard to unlock the door. At last, I was brought to the boss lady.
Do not say anything to upset her, I kept telling myself as I entered her office. She looked me up and down and began asking me questions about why I was in Mexico and how long I had been there. I told her I have been in Mexico for almost three years and that I am a teacher. I also explained why I do not carry my residence card. She typed some things into her computer and then began to lecture me about why I need to travel with my residence card. I nodded and agreed to everything she said, even though I was fuming inside. Once she verified my legal status, she told me I would be getting released but that the person that needed to sign off on my paperwork was not there and that I would have to go back to the cell to wait.
Those that had been called down earlier in the morning never returned. However, I was the only person that got called down and sent back. The look on everyone’s face when I returned was that of stinging disappointment. “Don’t worry guys, I just need a signature and then I’m leaving.” I felt the need to make an announcement to everyone to reassure myself that I would actually be released. But what if this person was too busy and could not return until the morning? Would that mean I would have to stay overnight? There is no way I would be able to sleep. I sat back down and one of the guys from Yemen approached me. He was pacing back and forth curious about who I was and began asking me questions about my life. “So let me get this straight, every single person in this room is trying to go to the United States of America, the best country in the world. Even me, there is war in my country. I had no choice but to leave. But you, you are from the USA and you came to Mexico?” He could not comprehend what I was doing there. The irony of having that conversation with him in the cell rendered me speechless. About two hours later my name was called again.
As I signed more paperwork and my belongings were returned to me, the guards and staff had the gall to crack jokes. “How was your stay? Would you like to stay longer?” They asked. I fed them more lies wanting nothing more than to get out. When I was finally released, I walked outside and turned my phone back on. It was 17:00. 12 hours detained. The world came crashing down on me. Dozens of missed calls from my boss. Texts from my best friends and the American Embassy. Voicemails from my parents and the FBI. Word had spread only because I was able to send a quick text to my boss in the morning. Everyone was trying to reach out to me at the same time and make decisions for me. I knew they had good intentions but I could not think straight. My mind could not process reality.
I ended up staying in Guadalajara as I had intended. I did not want this experience to ruin my plans. There was a dark cloud hanging over me the entire weekend but it was important to feel what I did and to reflect on what happened. Since the incident, I have felt guilty, violated, disappointed, and anxious. I have also struggled to understand why I had to experience something like this. But there are lessons to be learned in all experiences.
One lesson I learned involves the many people who dropped what they were doing to ensure my safety. I originally felt guilty because the random text I sent to my boss early in the morning with little context led people to assume the worst. People thought I was kidnapped or killed. Even though this was not my fault, I hated that I was the cause of their grief. But I had a conversation with a coworker and they suggested that sometimes we have experiences to remind us how much people love us. As an independent person who does not like to ask for favors, that brought me a bit of solace. I am lucky and indebted to these people I call family and friends.
Another lesson I learned has allowed me to reframe how I was thinking about how things unfolded to how I handled the situation. It was an accident that I ended up detained. The way I handled it was not. From the way my parents raised me to pay attention to the details and to constantly be vigilant while I am traveling to keeping my composure throughout the entire day, I have to give myself more credit. This situation could have panned out in many different ways. But I walked away unharmed and with a crazy story to tell. I am very lucky.
To everyone that helped me during the incident and has been there for me since, thank you. It means the world to me. As I conclude this post, I can now affirm that this experience will no longer consume me.