Drowning of leader at Mexican migrant camp spurs ‘silence and tears’

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Rats, mosquitoes and poisonous snakes making some 'desperate' to leave encampment following recent hurricane

Matamoros police patrol the fenced-in encampment in northern Mexico on Jan. 28, 2020, where about 1,100 migrants live as they wait for their U.S. asylum hearings. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

HARLINGEN, TEXAS (Border Report) — The drowning death Tuesday of a 20-year-old “Guatemalan leader” of a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, has spurred peaceful commemoration ceremonies and much sadness among camp members, many of which have lived across the banks of the Rio Grande from South Texas for over a year, a Catholic nun who oversees volunteer efforts told Border Report on Wednesday.

Edwin Rodrigo, a Guatemalan national who was among the 1,100 asylum-seekers living at the tent encampment, left behind a pregnant wife and young baby after he drowned Tuesday night.

“He apparently was trying to help some pregnant women that were trying to cross the Rio Grande and he couldn’t swim”, said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande via phone from the camp on Wednesday.

“He was concerned that some of the pregnant women — who are desperate from so many months of waiting — were trying to attempt to cross over to the U.S. He noticed that one was screaming and he leaned over to see and nobody is saying what happened,” said Pimentel.

Pimentel said his body was found floating a short while later after a massive search effort in the camp.

“He was one of the leaders here at the camp who was very well-known and liked by everybody. He was always very cooperative and helpful,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel added officials are not giving them answers as to what happened. “Nobody is saying anything,” she said. “All they understand is that he fell into the river.”

On a Facebook post on Tuesday night, she expressed the shock and sadness that swept the camp following Rodrigo’s death.

“Everyone asks ‘what happened? Was he trying to cross the river?’ But he wasn’t. Everyone knew he can’t swim. He got close to see some pregnant women who were attempting to cross the river & he heard one scream and thought she needed help. then suddenly he is gone. He fell into the river? All there is, is silence & tears,” Pimentel wrote on Facebook.

The man was “the Guatemalan leader” of the camp representing his home country, and other Guatemalans on camp issues. “The leader are selected by the people who live in the camp and they select them so they can be represented in any issues or concerns or camp needs so whenever something is happening they all come together to talk and discuss,” Pimentel said.

Most in the camp have been there for weeks, months and some are in their second year as part of the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, which requires them to remain in Mexico during their U.S. asylum proceedings.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, file photo, migrants live in a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. One by one, asylum-seekers from El Salvador and Honduras who are waiting in Mexico for court hearings in the United States. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Since the March 20 closure of the Southwest border to travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, and with U.S. immigration courts remained suspended, Pimentel says many are tired of waiting and frantic to get to the United States.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee and who represents South Texas from the towns of Laredo to Mission, said in a call with media on Wednesday afternoon there has been an increase in people trying to cross the river and that has brought an uptick in drowning deaths.

“We’ve seen people drown, husbands and fathers,” Cuellar said.

“They say ‘please get me out of here. I can’t take it anymore.’ These families are at a breaking point and it’s terrible to be in these conditions,” Pimentel said.

Catholic nun Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, is seen on Jan. 28, 2020, helps migrant families who live at a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, while they await U.S. asylum hearings. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

These families are at a breaking point and it’s terrible to be in these conditions.”

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley

Hurricane Hanna last month brought inches of rain onto the camp and caused the river to swell to unprecedented levels. There had been fear that the camp would be swamped, but then the river began to go down. But the high waters brought giant rats, poisonous snakes and swarms of mosquitoes, Pimentel said.

“The river brought a lot of rats so many of them. The families say they are everywhere and they are huge. They go underneath the tents. They bite the plastic and get into the tents and it’s a terrible problem when you wake up and see this giant rat on top of you,” she said.

Catholic Charities along with other NGO organizations that are helping the asylum-seekers paid for a local fumigator to repeatedly fog the camp to help with the mosquitoes, which Pimentel said is beginning to work. But, the rats and snakes continue to come in droves.

What’s not coming, however, are new migrants. She said Mexican authorities have closed the camp off to any new asylum-seekers out of fear they will bring COVID-19. There are about 1,100 migrants in the camp, give or take, she said. This is substantially down from the 3,000 to 4,000 who lived there in late 2019.

Most of those who remain knew Rodrigo and were mourning his death on Wednesday. Pimentel said many gathered to remember him and they were planning another memorial service, possibly for Wednesday evening. There had been talk of the migrants leaving the confines of the encampment to gather in the downtown plaza, but they selected not to. Mexican officials weeks ago erected a fence around the encampment and the migrants may not leave and visitors may not enter to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the camp.

“Everybody was hurting bad and they came together as a way of healing service,” she said. “They chose not to go outside and stay here in a section of a camp for safety reasons.”

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