Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Searching for hope in a smuggling town

Melly has spent her life assembling goods on the Mexican border. Will her son find a way out, or will he suffer as she has?

4 May 2022, 6.00am

Fernando Loera. All rights reserved


I left home at 15. It was one of those crazy situations where I just had to get out. I first found a job in a fabric store and for a little while lived with an aunt. Then, at 16, I moved to Juárez and entered the maquiladora (assembly factory). Back then you could get a factory job with just a primary school diploma and a birth certificate.

I started out in the warehouse of a plastic lens factory. We packed the lenses up and sent them off to China, where the frames were added. It was light, office-like work. I liked it. Since then I’ve worked in a lot of different maquiladoras, always maquiladoras. The pandemic changed that. At first they made me take unpaid leave. Then they asked me to work but didn’t pay the full amount – sometimes half, sometimes even less. Finally I quit.

I now work at DHIA, an NGO working with children who have been caught crossing the border to the US. My son Omar is one of them. I was at work the day he tried. I came home and couldn’t find him. At about midnight a neighbour told me, ‘He left with a boy. They were going to jump the border.’

The guy he left with was my daughter’s ex-husband, who had wanted to leave very badly. Omar had admired him greatly for some reason. They did a lot of crazy things together – drugs, drinking, etc. I think he made my son feel free. So when he decided to leave, Omar went with him. My son was 16 at the time. A little boy from the neighbourhood showed them the way apparently; didn’t even charge them because they knew each other. A couple other kids tagged along as well. Only one managed to stay in Texas. The rest were sent back.

You are going to work all your life.

I was up all night, but it wasn’t until the next afternoon that I got the call to go pick him up. God, I was angry – mainly because he hadn’t told me anything. If he had told me, ‘Mommy, I want to go over the border,’ maybe I would have said yes. It made me sad that he didn’t trust me. And I did feel anger. But I was also glad that he was fine. For him it was all over pretty quick, but my former son-in-law was put in jail because he’d been caught crossing several times before. They just recently released him.

Omar was a very rebellious kid, but recently he’s become calmer. I’ve asked him if he’s going to leave again and he says he’s not. But who knows. He has older brothers who’ve made it to Texas and they tell him it’s very nice over there.

Read the same story, told this time by Omar

I would like him to finish school. He says he wants to learn how to fix home appliances, and I hope he does. It won’t give him a great career, but he’s good with his hands and it will help him get a job in a maquiladora. Somebody who understands electronics earns more than an operator on the line. An ordinary operator barely earns enough to survive.

His dad died when he was eight, and since then I’ve worked seven days a week. Why? Because I didn’t study. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t have the opportunity. I somehow managed to provide for my children on the salary of an ordinary operator. But I ask him if he really wants to be like me. Study, I say, so you have the chance to earn a little more. He’s a first-rate slacker, so I also make sure he understands the facts. ‘Some women get a break by marrying someone,’ I say, ‘But you are a man. You are going to work all your life.’

This story is part of a series of testimonies from children and mothers living in Ciudad Juárez, on the US-Mexico border. The children were all caught crossing into the US, either to pursue personal aspirations or to smuggle people, and are now receiving restorative justice services from the NGO Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción. The testimonies were prepared alongside DHIA's advocates and have been edited for clarity. The illustration of the speaker is a fictitious rendering produced by Carys Boughton (All rights reserved). The speaker's name has also been changed.

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