A Little Girl Named Nohemi: Martyr of Migration

On February 4, the grandparents of Jocelyn Nohemi Alvarez Quillay reluctantly saw the girl off from the family home in the province of Canar, Ecuador. Nohemi was embarking on a journey of thousands of miles to reunite with her parents, Jose Segundo Alvarez and Martha Violeta Quillay, who were reportedly living and working in New York City without papers.

By early March, Nohemi was sitting on the border of New Mexico within a stone’s throw of the United States.  Only a few days later, on March 11, she was found hanging in a bathroom of a Ciudad Juarez children’s shelter.

Nohemi was 12 years old.

The still-unexplained death of an Ecuadoran child who was traveling across continents without the supervision of adult relatives has stirred public opinion while recasting scrutiny on a state justice system officials say has been reformed.

Moreover,  Nohemi’s tragic death has renewed questions about the reach and penetration of human trafficking networks, the treatment of unaccompanied minors on the long migrant routes between south and north and the fairness of U.S. immigration policies that encourage desperate attempts by families to reunite.

Ruffling diplomatic feathers between Ecuador and Mexico, Nohemi’s death could also lead to the involvement of international institutions, according to an Ecuadoran diplomat.

“The United Nations has a human rights committee, which could be the agency,” said Francisco Torres Bueno, Ecuadoran counsel in Monterrey, Mexico.

Despite three parallel investigations by Mexican government agencies, as well as three virtually unprecedented, separate autopsies conducted by the same agencies, Torres said he was in the dark about why Nohemi died.

“They haven’t told me anything. That’s why they are doing an investigation, in order to determine from the three clinical autopsies what happened,” Torres said.
The Ecuadoran counsel’s remarks came last week during a visit he made to Ciudad Juarez to wrap up the legalities necessary for the transfer of Nohemi’s body back to her native country.   A Ciudad Juarez mortician contracted by the Ecuadoran government said he was waiting on paperwork from the Chihuahua state government to ship Nohemi’s corpse home.

Nohemi’s story begins in the indigenous, Quechua-speaking province of Canar, an impoverished entity with a tradition of migration to the United States since the 1950s, especially to New York City.
Like their Mohawk brethren from the United States’ northern border with Canada, Ecuadoran migrants have excelled in the dangerous construction and maintenance jobs of the Big Apple’s skyscrapers. And like many rural towns of Mexico and other Latin American nations, migration is now practically viewed as a rite of passage in Canar.  Broken families and a shaky dependence on remittances shape the social landscape, which rises and falls depending on the migrant economy.

“Migration is now not only for the older people, but for the children as well,” said Canar resident Manuela Pinguil. “The parents want to take the children and there is nothing to say about it.”

Growing up in Canar, Nohemi, who would have turned 13 on May 28, had what appeared to be a promising future, according to one journalistic account.  Former classmates described a top-notch student who was destined to become the standard bearer of El Colegio Nacional El Tambo if she had stayed at home.

Nohemi’s grandfather, Jesus Guaman, said the child did not want to go north,  but the parents insisted she rejoin them in the United States.

Last July, in a first attempt to reach New York, Nohemi was detained in Panama and held for some months before being deported back to Ecuador, Guaman said.

“I said instead of spending $15,000, spend $8,000 so she could leave school as a good student,” said Guaman, who prefers to speak Quechua.

Differing accounts report that Nohemi’s parents paid immigrant smugglers between $13,000 and $15,000 to transport the girl to New York.  A young cousin of Nohemi’s reportedly made the same trip successfully.

Until now, it’s unclear why Nohemi’s arrival in Ciudad Juarez took about one month after the time of her departure, where she stayed on the road and what happened to her along the way.  Nohemi’s grandparents said they had no contact with the child after she left Ecuador. And prior to her death, Nohemi’s parents contacted the Ecuadoran Consulate in New York to report the disappearance of their daughter. Suspicions exist that Nohemi was raped at some point before her death.

What is known is that Nohemi fell into the custody of Chihuahua state police officers the first week of March. Subsequently, Nohemi’s disposition was apparently shuffled among the Ciudad Juarez municipal police, the federal attorney general’s office, the federal court system, and the city’s Integral Family Development (DIF) shelter before the girl was delivered to Casa Hogar Esperanza in downtown Ciudad Juarez, a privately-operated shelter used by government officials to house children.

Wilfrido Campbell, director of the National Migration Institute (INM) for Ciudad Juarez, acknowledged that his office received an order from Judge Jesus Alberto Avila Caravilo to take custody of Nohemi, but declined to do so because it was believed the minor was from Durango, Mexico, which took her out of the purview of the INM. The little girl, Campbell insisted, told officials she was from Durango.

On March 11, in an event that was quickly explained as a suicide, Nohemi was found hanging by a shower curtain in the ironically-named Casa Hogar Esperanza, which means House of Hope in English.

The next day, Nohemi’s parents in New York reportedly received two calls from a strange woman. In the first call, the parents were told that Nohemi was safely in El Paso.  In the second communication, they were abruptly informed that their daughter had died in Ciudad Juarez.

Ecuadoran Consul Francisco Torres said the emotionally devastated couple was given psychological assistance through his country’s diplomatic mission in New York.

An unidentified spokesperson for Casa Hogar Esperanza denied responsibility in Nohemi’s death. The Ecuadoran girl was playing with other children when she suddenly entered the bathroom, locked the door and hanged herself, the spokesperson told a local reporter. Casa Hogar Esperanza, the unnamed person insisted, had done its duty by providing psychological help to the child in the little time she was at the shelter.

A story in the Ecuadoran press stated that Nohemi spent two days at Casa Hogar Esperanza crying and in a state of depression. But the story also said the distraught girl was seen by a psychologist at the shelter.

Disputed versions of Nohemi’s detention by Chihuahua state police officers surfaced in the local press. According to the official version, Nohemi fell into the custody of officers when she was discovered in the company of a presumed “pollero,” or immigrant smuggler, who was arrested while urinating outside his vehicle on March 7.

The alleged smuggler, and his wife, tell a far different story.

Interviewed separately, 52-year-old Domingo Fermas Uves and Maria Isabel Padilla Garcia said that it was either on the evening of March 5 or 7, when agents assigned to the State Unified Police (PEU), a newer law enforcement agency established as part of Chihuahua’s reform process, burst into their home in the Anapra section of Ciudad Juarez without a warrant demanding to know where the girl was.

Overlooking Sunland Park, New Mexico, Anapra is a notorious staging ground for immigrant smuggling.

Amid shoving and hitting, the agents, who included at least one woman officer, hustled Fermas and Nohemi out the door.  In the process, the police officers took a truck and a cell phone and also demanded to know where the cocaine was, Fermas charged.

Accused of immigrant smuggling, Fermas was initially held for 72 hours but released by Judge Avila for lack of evidence. Fermas said he then was re-arrested by the municipal police, who also beat him, and jailed for an additional 48 hours before being released.

Fermas denied he was an immigrant smuggler and was only taking care of Nohemi at the request of a friend and until another person picked her up. “My mistake was to take the girl,” Fermas said, claiming that he was not paid any money to watch over Nohemi.

Fermas’ wife said Nohemi arrived to the family home without a change of clothing, no coat and no documents. The girl spoke little, barely ate, bit her nails, and refused an offer to take a bath, according to Padilla. A daughter saw the young Ecuadoran crying for her parents, she added.  “I say she was afraid,” Padilla said.

Fermas and Padilla’s version is supported by their children and some neighbors. But Alejandro Ruvalcaba, PEU spokesman, countered that booking photos show that Fermas did not have physical injuries. Ruvalcaba urged the couple to file a formal complaint if there was proof of wrongdoing by the officers. So far, no such complaint has been reported.

The strange circumstances of Nohemi’s death, the irregularities surrounding her detention and the unanswered questions about the whole episode prompted several non-governmental organizations and academic personalities to speak out on the burgeoning scandal.

Father Oscar Enriquez, director of the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, said Casa Hogar Esperanza should have detected Nohemi’s psychological condition and taken appropriate actions. Ciudad Juarez migrant researcher Rodolfo Rubio Salas contended that Ecuador and Mexico share co-responsibility in the tragedy, with each nation obligated to fully investigate the network that shuffled Nohemi from South America to the Mexico-U.S. border.  The child’s parents also bear responsibility, according to Rubio.

“How is it that a child of 12 years old is put in the hands of a smuggler in order to travel to and enter Mexico?” Rubio questioned. “This is an unnecessary risk for which the parents have responsibility.”

Hernan Ortiz, Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez professor of social sciences and director of the non-governmental organization Citizens for a Better Public Administration, questioned how a girl who weighed more than 80 pounds could hang herself from a one-inch diameter pole on which the shower curtain was presumably draped.

Jose Luis Flores Cervantes, local coordinator of the Children’s Rights Network, blamed the social assistance agency of the Chihuahua state government for the tragic passing of Nohemi, since a change in state policy two years ago transferred responsibility for assisting minors in transit from the DIF to the state government.

“It’s evident that the state government did not apply the mechanisms for protecting the life of Nohemi, as it corresponds in the case of children in transit,” Flores charged.

Until the investigations are complete, Ecuadoran Counsel Torres is not passing final judgment on the cause of Nohemi’s death. But he speculated that the 12-year-old could have taken her own life after undergoing severe emotional trauma from a long, grueling trip and another truncated attempt to reach her parents.

The diplomat took Mexican authorities to task for not allowing the child to make a phone call and putting her in a “private home where supposedly nothing had happened in 20 years.” “If only they would have allowed her to make a phone call…,” Torres lamented.

He also criticized Judge Avila for releasing Domingo Fermas, even as evidence of human trafficking was on the table.

Vowing that Nohemi’s death would not go unpunished, Torres said the Ecuadoran government intended to make Nohemi a “martyr of migration,” so similar tragedies don’t befall others.  He also urged the U.S. to adopt a more flexible immigration policy so families could reunite.

“Migration is not illegal in Ecuador, and to the degree that we don’t ask visas of anybody entering the country. Migration is not an illegal act. It’s a right we have as humans to travel the globe, but there are limitations in the U.S.,” Torres said. “It would be better for the (U.S.) immigration law to permit the legalization of those who have years living in that country, Mexicans as well as Central Americans and Ecuadorans.”

Many potential Nohemis are on the migrant trail. According to the INM, 370 underage foreign nationals were detained in 14 Mexican states between March 17 and March 24. Of the detained minors, 163 of them were traveling alone after being charged between $3,000 and $5,000 by smugglers and then abandoned, sometimes in remote places, such as in the case of 9 children between 9 and 14 years of age who were recently found in the mountains of Veracruz.

“The majority of the minors showed signs of extreme fatigue, foot injuries, dehydration and disorientation due to not knowing the place where they were abandoned,” the INM said.

Investigators from the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office, federal attorney general’s office and the official National Human Rights Commission all continue with probes into the death of Nohemi Alvarez Quillay.

Many questions remain in the affair. Why didn’t any officials pick up from Nohemi’s accent and appearance that she was not from Mexico? Who is lying? The PEU?  Domingo Fermas and Maria Isabel Padilla? All of them?  If Casa Hogar Esperanza has no responsibility in Nohemi’s death, why is the shelter not showing its public relations face? Have any protocols or policies changed in order to prevent tragedies like the one that took the life of a bright, 12-year-old girl whose life ended so rudely on the Mexico-U.S. border?

Sources:  La Jornada, April 5, 2014. Article by Ruben Villalpando. El Semanario de Nuevo Mexico/EFE, April 3, 2014.  Arrobajuarez.com, March 25, 2014. Article by Hernan Oritz.
Norte, March 20, 21, 23, 25, 27, 28, 2014; April 3, 4 and 5, 2014. Articles by Miguel Vargas and Luis Villagrana. El Diario de Juarez/El Telegrafo de Ecuador, March 21, 2014. Article by Luz del Carmen Sosa and Diana Vera.  El Diario de Juarez, March 20, 22, 23, 25, 2014; April 4 and 5, 2014. Articles by Luz del Carmen Sosa, Aracely Castanon, Francisco Chavez, and editorial staff. Eltelegrafo.com.ec, March 22,2014.

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