TAPACHULA, Mexico — Santos del Socorro Rojas knew that one day she would find her son, Jorge Alberto Reyes. She just wasn't sure how.
He had gone north, as do many who flee poverty in Nicaragua, but after a few weeks they had lost touch. The years went by and her anguish grew, until one day someone from Jesuit Refugee Service knocked on her door and asked if she would like help finding Jorge.
That knock led Rojas to join a caravan of 45 Central Americans, mostly mothers looking for their disappeared children, who traveled to Mexico at the beginning of December. Rojas was one of the lucky ones. On Dec. 16, church workers took her to a small shack where her son lived in Tapachula, a sprawling border city in the southern state of Chiapas. After nine years of separation, she once again embraced Jorge.
"I always had faith. I knew the Lord would send me angels to help me find my child," she told Catholic News Service.
One of those angels was Olga Sanchez, director of Jesus the Good Shepherd of the Poor and Migrant Shelter in Tapachula. When Rojas and the other women in the caravan visited the shelter, which provides care for migrants who've been injured or fallen ill on their way north, someone recognized the photo of her son that Rojas wore around her neck. They remembered that he once worked at a local car wash.
Sanchez took Rojas in the shelter's truck and set off to follow the lead. The carwash had since closed, but someone at a nearby carwash recognized the image and said he lived near a certain bar. The group went there and found that Jorge had moved two years ago, but a man there knew someone at a bicycle repair shop who had helped Jorge move his belongings.
Sanchez and Rojas tracked down that man who, after questioning the women about their intentions, finally agreed to lead them to Jorge. Sanchez gave him money to add fuel to his motorcycle, and they followed him deep into one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
"He got off his motorcycle and disappeared into a warren of shacks, then reappeared and told us to wait a moment," Sanchez said. "After a minute or so, Jorge came out, and he was a dead ringer for his mother. It was him! I thought his mother's heart would burst through her chest with joy."
The emotional encounter was one of 12 such moments on the 17-day caravan, when members either located a family member or discovered someone else's lost relative. The women carried hundreds of photos that they laid out on the ground in village plazas and other settings, asking everyone who passed by if they recognized anyone. It was the ninth such caravan and produced more re-encounters than any of the previous ones.
At times the result was not good news. In Puerto Madero, a fishing village on the Pacific coast west of Tapachula, a resident recognized one young woman's photo. Caravan members traced the information to a neighborhood where residents said she had died four years ago. They said she was buried in a nearby cemetery, but much of that burial ground, including the woman's grave, had washed out to sea during a storm two years ago.
After the caravan concluded with a Dec. 18 demonstration along the Mexico-Guatemala border, most participants returned home with neither good nor bad news, just more unanswered questions.
Yet Iris Yaconda, a psychologist with Jesuit Refugee Service in Nicaragua, said the participants no longer feel isolated.
"These are women who live in constant grief, not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Their stages of grieving have no end. They suffer sleepless nights and depression. But in the caravan they found other women who are living through the same experience," said Yaconda, who provided emotional support for caravan participants.
"Despite not finding their disappeared loved ones, they push themselves to keep struggling, to claim their right to hope. They aren't just victims. Their pain pushes them forward, not back into retreat. And knowing they have friends in so many places, other families and priests and shelters that care for the migrants, they know they aren't alone. Their struggle will continue."
Yaconda said the caravan also turned up clues that may yield future re-encounters. An informal network of human rights groups and church-run shelters in Mexico will continue the search.
"The bus of mothers is just part of the process, and the mothers have inspired others to redouble their efforts," she said.
Throughout the tour, which took the group to 14 Mexican states, participants demanded better treatment for migrants, including the implementation of transit visas, a measure that would allow migrants to abandon dangerous travel on freight trains and make them less vulnerable to abuse by criminal gangs and police.
According to a Nov. 28 statement from 13 Catholic bishops on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, the situation is getting worse as "a new flow of migrants from all social and economic classes" flees instability and violence in Central America. Particularly worrisome, the bishops reported, is the "dramatic increase" in the number of unaccompanied children and adolescents heading north.
"We have a deep concern that this relatively new population of young migrants is particularly vulnerable to the abuse and exploitation of human traffickers," the bishops stated.
A Mexican priest who works with migrants said anti-immigrant attitudes contribute to making Mexico more dangerous.
"Discrimination and xenophobia have increased in recent years. ... Migrants are blamed for everything. If a migrant does something illicit, it's big news in the media. But when they suffer assassinations, kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and beatings, no one says anything. If a migrant dies, no one says anything," said Father Heyman Vazquez Medina, who runs the St. Francis of Assisi migrant shelter in Huixtla.
He said the Mexican government is not interested in changing things.
"There's collusion between the authorities and organized crime. The delinquents can charge migrants $100 to ride the train north, or they can kidnap migrants, and the government doesn't do a thing. It's really a policy of extermination," he said.
Father Vazquez said the caravan, which attracted extensive media attention inside Mexico, should help persuade Mexican society that migrants are normal people.
"They come from families, families that suffer when the migrant leaves home. And they leave home not because they are delinquents, but because they're looking for a better life for their families," he said.