Mexican photojournalist Claudia Guadarrama documents the trauma of migration

Svetlana Bachevanova – WNN Features

Migrants jump the trains to cross Mexico to the border region
Migrants jump what many call “The Death Train” to cross Mexico to reach the border region where they hope to enter the United States. Image: Claudia Guadarrama

(WNN) Mexico City, MEXICO: Claudia Guadarrama was born in 1976 in Mexico City. In 1999, she completed her political science studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In 1997, Claudia began her studies in photography. In 2001, she began photographing in depth essays on political and social issues in Mexico and Central America. Claudia has received several Mexican awards and grants. She received the Inge Morath Award in 2004 and won the Canon Female Photojournalist Award at the 2005 Visa Pour L’Image for her project “Before the Limit.” She lives in Mexico City.

This is an interview with Guadarrama about her experience shooting the project:

SB. Why did you choose to work on a project about migration from Mexico to United States?

CG. My project talks about the passage of undocumented migrants from Central America to Mexico, travelers bound for the United States on their way across Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala into the states of Tabasco and Chiapas.

When I started my project, information about what happened on Mexico’s southern border was scarce and not only on the migration issue but in general. It was the forgotten border because the people living in the country were focused entirely on the northern border.

I worked in a national newspaper and I realized that news stories were coming from the Southern border because of the large flow of migrants who crossed there daily. But there were no pictures and that’s what motivated me to travel there.

I went with almost no information, I investigated, talked to people and made contacts. I was greatly surprised when I discovered the violence, degradation and violation of rights to which Central American migrants were exposed by Mexican citizens. It was remarkable to see the impunity that the authorities operate with there. Meanwhile Mexicans are calling for respect for the Mexican immigrants crossing the northern border while, on the southern border, they are not victims but victimizers.

SB. Why did you title your project Before the Limit?

CG. Before the limit is where immigrants find themselves on their way to their final destination: the first steps on Mexican territory, the border where there are no alternatives, only helplessness, where the journey in search of a dream life is paid in struggle and leaves immigrants emotionally or physically marked forever.

SB. How exactly are migrants crossing the border and what dangers do they face?

CG. On the southern border there are no more than 10 official immigration crossings between Mexico and Guatemala but endless places to cross illegally. A migrant can cross clandestinely by land, sea or air.

Usually, undocumented Central Americans cross on foot, along hidden paths in the mountains and the jungle, exposed to animals, insects and people out to rob, kidnap and rape. After crossing the border, they walk for several days to avoid arrest and find transportation to go north, like a freight train. They can travel for free on a freight but they may become victims of organized gangs that rob and extort with the threat of death. Some migrants pay a guide, who knows the routes north, to guide them.

SB. Crossing the border illegally to enter another country is considered a crime. How are the rights of the migrants violated during their journey for better life?

CG. In Mexico there is a climate of impunity and violence in all spheres of society: crimes go unreported and unresolved. As a Mexican citizen you have rights and obligations that are often disregarded. Undocumented migrants barely exist and don’t matter to most people. In many parts of Mexico migrants are victims of theft, extortion, kidnapping and rape.

On the southern border it is common to find police, public officials, immigration officers and their families, among others, who live to steal, kidnap and extort from migrants. Migrants do not report crime because they know they will not get resolution. Reporting a crime will only waste their time and get them deported. They just want to continue on their path to the United States. So we know about few of the crimes and there are no accurate figures on crime against migrants. The crimes only exist in the memories of those who suffered them and escaped alive.

SB. While working on the project you discovered that authorities on the border often takes advantage of immigrant’s fragile situation to extort from them, rob them and violently assault them. Can you describe what you witnessed?

CG. I never directly witnessed beatings or robberies by the authorities. The police and immigration officials were always careful, at the detention center and during operations, when I was around. Out of fear of reprisal, only a few migrants were willing to talk to me about what they had experienced and none wanted to speak out publicly about it. They described insults and beatings and the routine robbing of money and belongings by police and immigration officer.

SB. How did you approach your subjects and connect with them to develop the trust that allowed you to photograph and record their stories?

CG. In my project, stories unfold in different ways. The story of people traveling on the train was different to that of the people found in shelters. All the people I photographed had already suffered a mishap while traveling. They were angry and scared and did not trust anyone. I always approached them straightforwardly, conscious of their situation and treating them with respect. I never took pictures without their consent. In the case of migrants who were wounded and maimed, having fallen from the train, I spent many days and sometimes weeks before to take a picture. They were in difficult emotional condition and I did not want to make them feel bad.

Migrants detention room in Mexico
Migrants detention room in Mexico. Photo: Claudia Guadarrama

SB. In Mexico, killing journalists who deal with the issues of drug and human trafficking is common. Were you afraid?

CG. I was always afraid. I think the fear motivated me to move forward with my project never placing blame but just focusing on the victims. Also, at the time, the level of violence in the country was lower. For this project I always traveled along. Now, I would not.

SB. Did you travel on the freight trains with them and what kind of stories did you hear?

CG. Traveling by freight train involves great danger. Because the station is guarded by railroad company security guards and local police, migrants have to catch the train outside the station, while it is moving. They have to run and, with great agility, grab on to some steps of a car and pull themselves up. Sometimes they do not make, slide down and one or both legs are cut by the wheels.

The train ride is very long, with many hours between each stop because the rail infrastructure is very old. When migrants travel between cars they often attach ropes or a belt to keep from falling, when fatigue and sleep overcomes them. If, for some reason, their feet dangle into the junction between cars when the train slows down, their feet are compressed with such force that the severity of the injury is likely to end in amputation, even if they can reach a hospital.

If you travel on the roof of the cars, after several hours the cold air numbs the body and burns the skin. Riders also have to look for the branches of the trees that might knock them off the train. And, in the middle of the night, when the train unexpectedly begins to stop, it is necessary to jump from the train and find cover as rapidly and as far away as possibly because it is most likely an immigration operation or criminals preparing to assault and rob migrants.

SB. What do you want to accomplish with your project Before the Limit? Did you ever try to publish the project in Mexico and what kind of response did you receive?

CG. My project has not been published in full in Mexico. Parts have been published, like a story about a woman who has a shelter dedicated to care for and support migrants who have been injured on the train. That story produce results because the Government of Mexico awarded her financial support to could continue this charitable work.

SB. As a photographer seeking social justice, what is your message and to whom did you address it? Has anything changed since your work found recognition in US?

CG. With my work, I look to bring into people’s daily lives the story of those who are ignored and forgotten by society. I look to make people aware of the problems that exist and to have them take a position about them.


A DESPERATE JOURNEY – They call it the ‘Train of Death.’ Smuggling migrants across Mexico on their way to the United States is a 6.6 billion dollar industry. Head of Immigration Office in Chiapas State Ms. Mercedes Gomez Mont outlines the grueling process that many illegal migrants take to reach the United States. “A Guatemalan may pay from $5oo up to $3,000 but an Indian or Chinese is ready to pay up to $30,000,” says Gomez. This video has been produced by Marcelo A Salinas for McClatchy Newspapers Mexico Bureau with additional photography by Ofredo Avilla and the Chiapas State Attorney General’s Office. Music by


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Bulgarian photojournalist for WNN and National Geographic (Bulgaria) award winning photographer, Svetlana Bachevanova, has exhibited her work in Europe and the United States in galleries and museums and has been published by numerous major newspapers, agencies and magazines including the l’Humanitie, Soar, Biography, Reuters, National Geographic and Associated Press. Bachevanova is also the publisher of Fotoevidence, which has been founded to continue the tradition of using photography to draw attention to human rights violations, injustice, oppression and assaults on sovereignty or human dignity wherever they may occur. Every year the FotoEvidence Book Award will recognize a photo project documenting evidence of a violation of human rights.


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