Mexico: “Talking about our experience humanizes us”

Survivors of torture and extreme violence share their stories.

Mexico 2022 © Jordi Ruiz Cirera/MSF

The Comprehensive Care Center in Mexico City, Mexico, provides specialized care to people who have experienced torture or extreme violence, including sexual violence. The center, known by its Spanish acronym, El CAI, can be a sanctuary for people who have been through horrific journeys. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been running El CAI since July 2017.  

MSF's teams in Mexico have documented high levels of violence, abuse, and mistreatment against migrants and refugees in their countries of origin, along the migration route, and in various places in Mexico severely affected by violence. Staff at El CAI often say that the level of violence patients have experienced is similar to what they have witnessed in war zones. It is a widespread problem with serious consequences that are often left unaddressed.  

MSF provides medical and mental health care—often over the long term—to help people increase their independence, overcome trauma, and to instill hope. Our team works with other partners that help patients with protection issues, nutrition, accommodation, and other social needs. Our teams also refer patients that need surgical care to a network of health facilities in Mexico. Here, several patients at El CAI talk about their experiences and their hopes for the future.  

Gustavo was forced to flee El Salvador in 2021. At various points along the migration route, he has been discriminated against for being gay and for being a migrant.
Mexico 2022 © Jordi Ruiz Cirera

Gustavo*: “The most important thing is that I saved my life

I had to leave [El Salvador] because I saw something that I shouldn't have seen. Someone warned me that I had five minutes to leave my house. I walked through the mountains until I was able to reach a safe point where my brothers picked me up to take me closer to the border. I found out that my house was attacked about 15 or 20 minutes after I left. They destroyed everything there—they left bullet holes in the walls. They were going to kill me.  

When I came to Guatemala, I was extorted by the border authorities. When I entered Mexico, I was extorted by the police. I slept on the street. I didn't eat. Someone tried to rape me. I went to UNHCR [the United Nations Refugee Agency]. They saw my situation and sent me to a shelter in Tapachula. When I was there, they told me about El CAI. 

I have lost my family and the life I made [in El Salvador]. I had a job—I love cooking and that's what I used to do. Now I think that in the end it doesn't matter anymore. The most important thing is that I saved my life. But [it] hurts to know that even though my mom and siblings know I'm alive, I can't be with them.  

It is a year since I left home. 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. I have been working. I know about construction. I would like to start a home-remodeling business, be an event planner, or work in the kitchen again. 

Rosa and Freddy witnessed the deaths of three of their relatives and fled with their two daughters because their lives were in danger. Their hope is to resettle and have a normal life.
Mexico 2022 © Jordi Ruiz Cirera

Rosa*: “On the day of the attack my daughters were playing”

I'm a farmer and I lived in a village. Three members of my family were killed in front of me. We decided to flee so that the same thing that happened to them would not happen to us. The only family I've got is traveling with me: my husband and my two daughters. That day my daughters were playing about 20 meters away from where the attack happened. I thought they had also been killed. Hours went by without hearing from them. I suffered so much thinking they were dead. My husband, Freddy, and I managed to survive because we hid and escaped. We lived in hiding for a while until we decided to leave.

We took my daughter's cat with us. Immigration wouldn't let the cat go through. I told them to please let it go through otherwise my daughter would die of sadness. I said that the only thing she brought was her cat and I asked them for a little compassion. A man in Ciudad Hidalgo gave us a carrier. He said to my daughter: "Look, I've got this little box so they let you take it on the bus." She told him that she didn't have any money and the man told her that he was giving it to her as a gift.

I don't know where my relatives are buried. I only carry images of them in my mind. I try not to think about the last time I saw them when they were calling out for help and begging not to be killed. That memory haunts me. I went without help for a long time. I knew I needed help and treatment.

Alejandro's priority is to get ahead after all he has suffered. When he finishes his treatment at El CAI, he hopes to pursue his passion for music which has helped him recover.
Mexico 2022 © Jordi Ruiz Cirera

Alejandro*: “I wish I could get it all out of my head”

I'm 23 years old. Because of extortion and violence, I had to leave Peru. They forced me to do things I didn't want to do. I had to travel through a lot of countries to get here: Ecuador, Colombia, and I crossed the jungle to get to Panama. That's something I would never go through again in my life. It's called the Darién Gap. It was seven days of torture. I went hungry, had falls, I saw dead people, people who didn't make it along the way. I [almost lost] my life on three occasions. The first time I fell from a mountain. I was rolling down for a few seconds. I thought I was going to die, but a person from Haiti saved my life. On another occasion I thought I was going to starve. I went days without eating anything at all. I was very weak, and the river almost carried me away. Thank God I once again came across some Haitians who rescued me.

I find it very difficult to sleep. I'm always thinking about so many things. I get distressed very easily. I would like to feel calm, feel good about myself, stop being fearful and worried; get everything I've been through out of my head, but I haven't been able to do it. I'm afraid of people who talk to me loudly. I'm scared of being alone, I'm scared of the dark. I'm scared to go out onto the street and do what I need to do and look after myself. As much as I want to erase them, those thoughts live with me. A lady at immigration treated me very badly. She yelled at me. It wasn't just me, she was treating us all badly, but I felt terrible. I almost started crying because it reminded me of a lot of things I've been through. 

My priority now is to feel good about myself, to feel that I am worth something, to become independent and to be able make a living from music. It's my passion and I think it's what has helped me carry on. I'm just waiting for them to give me a resident card to stay in Mexico. I need papers to try to make a life and have a future. I miss my country—I'm not going to lie—my people, my food, the way of speaking, but if I go back, they'll kill me. 

Fabiola is an architect from Mexico. In 2019, her partner tried to kill her. In 95 percent of cases of femicide in Mexico, the perpetrators are known to the victims.
Mexico 2022 © Jordi Ruiz Cirera

Fabiola*: "I hope this message reaches the world" 

I'm Mexican. I was born in Mexico City and I'm an architect. In 2019 I was the victim of an attempted femicide at the hands of the person who was my partner at the time. Without a doubt this has been the hardest situation I have had to cope with in my life, along with everything that it triggered: revictimization by the authorities, institutional abuse, at certain times they make you think that you're crazy, that it didn't happen or that, if it did happen, you were to blame. I had to deal with the institutions that I thought were going to protect me, and in the end, they turned out to be useless and corrupt.

At El CAI I've regained a lot. The two most important things are faith in humanity and the joy of living. Now I can look to the future with hope and get back some of my dreams, like being a mother and dedicating myself to art. Hopefully this message reaches the world so that people know that it is possible to repair and rebuild broken bodies, minds, and hearts.

*Names have been changed.