Healing survivors of torture along Mexico’s migration route

“I was in the deepest, darkest place, but I made it out."

El cuerpo tiene memoria

Mexico 2023 © Yesika Ocampo/MSF

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has offered medical and humanitarian care to people affected by violence in Mexico since 2012, including for migrants on the move in different areas of the country. Since then, our teams have observed an evolution in the levels of violence suffered by migrants both in their countries of origin and throughout the migration route. 

“According to the testimony of the people assisted by our teams, the violence they face is mainly related to exposure to organized crime. They have suffered acts categorized as torture; cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment; as well as sexual violence, assaults, kidnappings, and other acts,” said Gemma Domínguez, MSF Head of Mission in Mexico.  

“People who have serious physical and mental disorders that compromise their functioning arrive at our points of care, a free, interdisciplinary health response that is difficult for them to access in Mexico,” she added. 

Comprehensive care for survivors of torture 

Since 2017, MSF has provided comprehensive care for 602 survivors of torture and other cruel treatment at the Comprehensive Care Center (CAI) in Mexico City through a care model that involves doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, physical therapists, and social workers, among other health professionals, and contributes to the therapeutic process, improving survivors’ functionality and restoring their dignity. 

“The CAI is [also] a space where we coordinate other services such as shelter, legal support, protection, school and job placement in partnership with other actors in Mexico City. We can say that the CAI is a more specialized center for torture survivors,” said Domínguez. 

At the end of 2021, MSF began a comprehensive strategy adapted to the Mexican context to care for and reach survivors of torture where we offer health services to migrants. Since then, MSF teams have provided cared for 809 survivors of torture in Tapachula, Palenque, Coatzacoalcos, Nuevo Laredo and Piedras Negras. Comprehensive and interdisciplinary care is also offered in these places, where services are available. 

El Centro de Atención Integral de Médicos Sin Fronteras
The Comprehensive Care Center (CAI) is an MSF space in Mexico City that provides interdisciplinary care including medical, psychiatric, psychological, physical therapy, occupational therapy and social work to people who have been victims of extreme violence, torture, and inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment. Mexico 2021 © Yesika Ocampo/MSF

The traumas of migration  

Maynor* is a 30-year-old Honduran who was assisted by MSF in Tapachula, Chiapas. He left Honduras due to threats. He suffered torture and violence in his home country, along the route, and in a detention center in the United States before he was deported under Title 42 with his six-year-old son two years ago. This time he is also traveling with his wife and two other children.  

“We were crying when they put us on the plane to take us back to Honduras. Nobody wanted to go back,” said Maynor. He added, “here in Mexico we are struggling, suffering a lot. Psychological problems are always there, not being able to sleep, having depression and anxiety. All my children have gotten sick. Getting medical attention is not easy. They discriminate against us a lot.” 

The psychological effects of torture can make it difficult for survivors to make decisions in their daily lives. The spectrum of symptoms they present includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress, which are aggravated by grief from migration or having lost a family member.  

Another MSF patient, Pedro, who belongs to an indigenous population in Honduras and is an environmental defender, was shot in the head during an attack in which a member of his family was murdered. He managed to survive and fled with his family. “Many [migrants] have dedicated themselves to planting drugs because there are no other options,” he explained. “There are girls who are sexually abused, mothers and fathers who sell their children to the highest bidder. I opposed all of that, which is why I took a bullet to the head. My nervous system is affected, but here I am, alive. I need to safeguard my family and take care of my physical and mental health.” 

The physical consequences of torture and extreme violence are often very serious. Survivors usually require surgical procedures and physical rehabilitation therapy. Many of the survivors are left with long-term injuries in their limbs or organs.  

“Fortunately I escaped from my captor and the terrible torture I endured,” said Carolina, a Mexican survivor of attempted femicide. “The effects on me are both physical and emotional. I have multiple injuries that affect my mobility, PTSD, and recurring nightmares. I was able to get a bit of justice by having my attacker put in jail, but all my health issues have caused a lot of family problems for me. I need to get well. For those of us who have suffered extreme violence and torture, in Mexico there are no places that can really care for our health in a comprehensive way like MSF does. For the first time, I felt that I was treated as a human being without being retraumatized.” 

In 2022, CAI provided specialized care to 100 people, of whom 78.6 percent came from Central America, 15.71 percent from Mexico and 5.6 from South America. More than half (52.8 percent) were women, 37.7 percent were men, and 9.4 percent were people with other gender identities. 

On the way to Mexico, Gustavo suffered extortion and an attempted rape after fleeing gang threats in Honduras. "It has been very difficult for me to adapt. I think it's more difficult for me because I'm from the LGBTQI+ community. I have been discriminated against because I'm gay and because I'm a migrant," he said. 

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Through healing, life continues 

"Comprehensive care and support services need to be provided to all survivors,” said Domínguez. “Throughout these years, our teams have accompanied these people in their recovery processes so that they can continue their lives.” 

The consequences of torture are difficult to heal, but with proper care it is possible. “During these five years our teams have not only witnessed the cruelty experienced in migrants’ countries of origin and on the migration route, but also the enormous challenges survivors face in accessing comprehensive treatment, as well as the long road to recovery.” 

José Luis is a young Mexican torture survivor who has successfully completed his treatment with MSF. “After what happened to me I started to feel like I was immersed in the ocean. I felt like I was going under and things got more complicated. I was in the deepest, darkest place, but I made it out. As in life, there are bad and good stages. In the end, everything ends. I felt like I was in hell and now I'm here talking to you. I'm the voice of someone who managed to get out.”