A few days ago The New Yorker‘s Sarah Stillman wrote a blog post titled: “What We Want is the Head of the Friar.” It is a piece about a Franciscan friar named Tomás González Castillo, a man who has been running “a sanctuary for U.S.-bound migrants near the Guatemalan border, providing cots, meals, and a few days of safe haven to hundreds of young Central Americans venturing to the U.S. each week.” The journey for these mostly young women and men is often incredibly dangerous, as Stillman explains:
Mostly, these young men and women ride north atop commercial freight trains, facing robberies, rapes, and extortion as they go. Friar Tomás has begun demanding an end to such routinized crimes, calling out the criminal gangs—and, often, the Mexican police—who perpetrate them. The Seventy-Two takes its name from the body count of a massacre that occurred near the U.S. border several years ago; seventy-two migrants were kidnapped by the Zetas, squeezed for ransoms, and allegedly assassinated when they failed to follow orders.
Last week Brother Tomás and his colleagues at the shelter lodged formal complaints against the local gang members and this drew immediate and negative responses from those against whom the complaints had been placed. This has become a source of extortion and ransom for the cartels in Mexico, complicating an already dire situation in which poor women and men in Central America risk their lives to find jobs in the North.
The cartels’ targeting of migrants has become commonplace along the entire route through Mexico, with an estimated twenty thousand migrant kidnappings each year. Most of the time, the victims’ relatives in the U.S. are called upon to cough up ransoms. While the Mexican government has done little to address this crisis, and U.S. immigration policy has arguably fuelled it (by empowering rogue coyotes as a migrant’s best chance of traversing the militarized border), a fearless wing of the Catholic Church has established an underground railroad of sorts to offer migrants protection on their journey.
In an age when many people think that martyrdom is a relic of ancient Christianity, Brother Tomás reflects the conviction of Gospel values and faith in the face of the imminent risk to his very life. Along with colleagues that help run his social justice efforts and care for the marginalized migrants, Brother Tomás goes above and beyond for the sake of others. Stillman explains:
Friar Tomás is among the most vocal leaders of this movement. Day after day, he led the mothers into morgues, prisons, drug-rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and cemeteries. He stood beside them as they looked through photographs of the corpses of migrants in Saltillo, a dangerous Zeta stronghold, and as they ventured into the Zócalo in Mexico City to beg for help from a non-committal government. Most days, the friar wore a thin straw hat and a long brown robe. On the scorching-hot afternoons when I was sweating and tired and could barely keep up, broadsided by the magnitude of the violence and loss, Father Tomás barely paused for water—hiking alongside railroad tracks, knocking on the doors of shantytowns where suspected traffickers lived, showing photos to passersby and asking, “Have you seen her? Does she look familiar? She’s gone missing.”
Stillman ends her post with a striking narrative about how Brother Tomás celebrated Good Friday and what dangers inevitably lie ahead for him as he continues to do the work he feels God has called him to do.
This past Friday, I’m told, Friar Tomás and Rubén walked further into the fire. With hundreds of townspeople, they staged an enactment of the Stations of the Cross, with a migrant-crusaders’ twist. To play Jesus, they enlisted a sixteen-year-old Guatemalan boy named Kevin Barrientos, who had arrived at the shelter with empty pockets on his journey north, trying to make it alive to the U.S. with no parents but two friends. Costumed in a long white robe and turquoise sandals, the boy enacted the crucifixion on the train tracks. Friar Tomás told the Mexican press, “To assist the undocumented is not a crime, it is a grace.” Meanwhile, men believed to be spies for the cartels watched from afar, taking photographs from motorcycles.