This story was originally published on PRI’s The World on October 27, 2014 · 12:15 PM EDT. Listen to it HERE.
BY JENNIFER COLLINS
Zahit Salazar rises extra early on the days she goes to market. It used to take the 78-year-old a few hours to get from her house in
Now, it can take all day — because of the checkpoints. She has to pass through at least 10 of them from five different government agencies.
“You waste more time on the freeway,” Salazar says. “More time is lost.”
Over the past few years, Mexico has ramped up its efforts to slow illegal activity — drug trafficking and unauthorized migration — along its 541-mile southern border with Guatemala. With help from the US government, Mexico has set up checkpoints near the border. It has also set up checkpoints on the highway stretching more than 100 miles north of the border, which has given rise to reports of endless commutes and extortion by corrupt officials. Salazar and other locals say Mexican officials use the checkpoints to line their own pockets.
“They are the criminals,” she said. “They say they’re ending corruption but they’re the corrupt ones.”
Salazar has had personal experience with that corruption. About a year ago, she was returning from the market with a bag of clothes to resell to her neighbors. The proceeds would pay her gas and electric bills. Salazar said she never crossed into Guatemala on the trip, but she still had to pass through a customs checkpoint on the way home. She said customs officials saw her bag of merchandise and demanded that she get off the bus.
“They emptied my bag and told me if I didn’t pay $20, they wouldn’t let me keep the merchandise,” she said.
Salazar had a receipt, but it wasn’t official enough.
“They kept saying it was foreign merchandise,” she said.
Salazar had spent every last peso on the purchase and bus fare. Instead of paying the bribe, she had to let the clothing go — but not without shooting off a few choice words at the customs official. Salazar had to beg a passing bus driver to give her a lift home.
Since then, she has joined the Tonaltec Civic Front, a group of other disgruntled residents who, among other activities, are trying to get the government to limit the checkpoints and stop the extortion.
“The people who are just traveling along the freeway, the officers make them get out of their cars,” said Nataniel Hernandez, a local human rights activist, who is helping to organize the residents. “They search them as if they were criminals. It’s a violation of their basic rights.”
Credit: Jennifer Collins A sign for a military checkpoint along the highway in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. This one sits more than a 100 miles north of the border with Guatemala.
No national Mexican officials would go on the record for this story, but Manuel de Jesus Narcia Coutiño, mayor of Tonala, where Hernandez and Salazar live, said he was happy about the checkpoints.
“Because they protect us,” Narcia Coutiño said. “There need to be more [checkpoints]. Every day there are more people, more criminals.”
“I think it’s really clear to us that anything that comes across Mexico’s southern border has a very good chance of someone attempting to bring it across their northern border,” said Annie Pforzheimer, who directs the US State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs in Mexico City. She’s charged with implementing US-Mexico security partnerships.
Over the years, the US has funneled about $2 billion through the Merida Initiative to help Mexico fight drug trafficking and violence within its borders. Some of that money has paid for more equipment and checkpoints on Mexican freeways. According to Pforzheimer, the US government is also supporting efforts to help Mexicans report rights violations that arise at the checkpoints.
“It’s extremely important that there not be an association between a stepped up enforcement and corruption,” she said.
But locals like Zahit Salazar say corruption is a big problem at the checkpoints. Salazar said she was given a stack of papers detailing the clothing that officials confiscated. Some of her family members later tried to get it back, but officials told them it was gone.
“You know that a poor person like me, I’m fighting to survive and here comes this son of a gun and confiscates my stuff,” Salazar said. “They are getting rich off of the poor — because they’re not just confiscating my stuff. How many people are having things taken away?”
After losing everything at the checkpoint that day, Salazar didn’t want to risk it again. These days, to make money, she grinds corn by hand. It’s back-breaking work. She makes tamales and sells them to her neighbors.
It doesn’t really cover the bills, but at least no checkpoints are involved.
This story was produced in association withRound Earth Media. Manuel Ureste contributed to the reporting.
CASABLANCA, MOROCCO – With his fair complexion and auburn hair, 21-year-old Samir is often mistaken for a foreigner. But Samir is a native Moroccan, and he is also gay and HIV-positive – something many of his friends still know nothing about.
“This sickness makes us live in humiliation,” said Samir, whose name has been changed. “But you say thanks to Allah and accept your suffering.”
Samir is not alone. HIV is gradually increasing in North Africa and the Middle East – more than any other region in the world – according to the 2013 Global Report on AIDS. Conservative Islamic sexual standards and the virtual absence of sex education are sometimes blamed for the spread of AIDS in the region.
According to Fatiha Rhoufrani, director of the Rabat branch of the Association Against AIDS, an organization that supports people living with HIV, the AIDS prevalence rate in the Middle East and North Africa increased by 37 percent while HIV cases more than doubled from 2008 to 2013.
“In these regions, there are countries in denial of this disease. They say they are Muslim countries and can’t have HIV. If we don’t accept the problem, we can’t find a solution,” said Rhoufrani.
Morocco was one of the first African countries to introduce free HIV treatment in 2003. But only about 20 percent of the 30,000 Moroccans thought to be infected with HIV know that they carry the virus, according to the Moroccan Ministry of Health, which reports that diagnosed cases of HIV are doubling every four years, which is taxing the health system, according to officials.
Samir says he discovered his illness when he decided to take an HIV test at a parked truck offering the service. “If it wasn’t for that truck, I wouldn’t have known about my condition until I was in a coma,” he said.
Abdessamad Dialmy, a founding member of the Arab Sociological Association and a consultant for Morocco’s Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization and USAID, said Moroccans would rather retain their social standing than acknowledge the possibility of having HIV.
“Moroccans prefer not to know,” Dialmy said. “When you know you are HIV-positive, you start to die socially and you refuse to die socially, so you prefer not to know at all.”
Samir has paid that price. His family rejected him when they found out. “My poor mom, she broke down,” Samir said. “My brother took a knife and wanted to kill me. He kicked me out and I came to Casablanca.”
Left homeless and without resources, Samir said he had no choice but to become a sex worker. He insists his clients wear condoms. “They don’t want to, but I tell them to,” he said. “I don’t tell them I have HIV. They would kill me if they knew. My life is hell. I’m going crazy. I’ve thought about suicide.”
Samir is not yet on anti-retroviral drugs. He explained that his CD4 white blood cell count is not low enough, and funding in Morocco does not provide people who are not sick enough with free medication.
Lack of education
Spending on anti-retroviral drugs in MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) countries is the lowest in the world, sitting at under $10m regionally, according to the 2013 Global Report on AIDS.The Moroccan Ministry of Health reported that domestic funding for HIV/AIDS is set to increase by approximately $3.5m, while international funding in Morocco will jump by approximately $600,000 by 2016.
Still, Othman Mellouk, the regional advocacy coordinator for International Treatment Preparedness Coalition-North Africa, said there is not enough international attention given to HIV in middle-income MENA countries like Morocco, posing dangers for the future.
“The problem we face is that there is little interest from the international community and international donors. Today, the United States is the biggest HIV donor in the world through their President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program. It is billions of dollars. There is no money coming to Morocco from PEPFAR,” Mellouk said. “We can control the epidemic. We should not wait to create another sub-Saharan Africa in another part of the world,” he added.
Mellouk said stemming the spread of HIV in countries like Morocco requires more than just money; countries must respect the human right to sex, provide medication and treatment, raise awareness and acknowledge the reality of HIV and AIDS.
“Our country has condemned us to be this way,” said Fatima, the president of Annahar, a Casablanca-based group managed by people with HIV, for people with HIV – the only organization of its kind in the country.
“If the sickness was presented appropriately in the first place we wouldn’t have to hide,” said Fatima, who wouldn’t give her last name for privacy reasons. “We wouldn’t have to go out with masks.”
Mark Minton spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media www.RoundEarthMedia.org. Salma Idrais contributed reporting.
NextGen Marlon Bishop reports back from Honduras: “Day 2 and already this is an amazing and fruitful trip. My partners are brilliant, brave, and easy-going, and Radio Progreso is a truly remarkable operation, doing so much with few resources.”
NextGen Marlon Bishop and partner Iolany Perez from Radio Progreso in El Progreso Honduras.
“This is the box we use; we put the gold inside and add some chemicals. It gets rid of the impurities inside the gold and gives you the pure gold,” says 27-year-old Abu Quarm, a worker at a small gold mine in Prestea.
Mercury is the chemical used by Quarm and other small scale gold miners in extracting the gold small miners sell to prospective buyers who intend trade the precious mineral to gold companies.
Mercury may be an efficient chemical in the gold mining process but it is also lethal, according to Michael Ali, principal programmes officer of the mining department of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
He says the effect of mercury is long-term.
“It has to bio-accumulate for a longer time before you can get the symptoms of contamination and the effect on the human beings.Research didn’ t reveal instant reaction to mercury but we know it is a slow killer,” Ali says.
The government has not regulated the use of mercury by small scale miners, but Ali claims the EPA is on the ground educating miners on the harmful effects of mercury on their health.
A miner holding gold dust
He says the government has subsidized an alternative method of extracting gold, which is called “mercury retort,” in which miners use mercury without being directly exposed to the chemical.
Moreover, the University of Mines and Technology is conducting research to try and identify alternative ways of extracting gold without using mercury, according to Ali.
Dr. Mohammed Mbenway, medical superintendent in charge of the Prestea government hospital, is one of the few medical officers who have seen the devastating effect of the small-scale mining on the health of the people.
He adds that the mercury is also having a harmful effect on the entire community as it gets into the ecosystem.
Small scale miners handle mercury with their bare hands and they inhale the fumes from the burnt mercury and dust from the crushing machines continuously into their bodies making them prone to mercury poisoning.
He says most of the miners come complaining of coloured skin itching, insomnia and hypertension all symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Dr. Mbenway however says the hospital which serves over forty communities in addition to Prestea, doesn’t have the equipment to undertake mercury tests or treat mercury poisoning.
“Only emergencies bring them to the hospital when it is near-death. Then they are carried to the hospital,” Dr. Mbenway says.
Dr. Mohammed Mbenway
Quarm says he is aware the burning of mercury in the extraction of gold can be harmful to his health but seems helpless at what alternative means to use.
“This is what we have been using since I came here to do the mining work,” he says. Quarm says the job is risky for workers, including children, who often die from mysterious illnesses. “I have so many friends who have died without knowing what caused their death,” he says. A lot of the dead miners, Quarm says, lost their appetite, became lean, and suffered from severe coughing and numbness. “Recently one of the miners, Francis Andor, a brother of the owner of the mine died suddenly,” he notes.
Most deaths are attributed to superstitious beliefs like witchcraft, says Hannah Korantang, Associate Executive Director of the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM), a human rights and environmental mining advocacy organization that works with mining communities to develop the capacity of affected people.
“So there is a whole mystery about why people are dying. It has not been proven scientifically that the mercury is the cause of the deaths in the community,” says Korantang.
EPA has not conducted any studies on the effect of the lethal substance on residents of the mining communities since 2001 when, according to Ali, large concentrations of mercury were found in the sample areas of small mining communities.
At the time, Ali says those communities were educated about the harmful effects of mercury but not much has been done since then.
Dr. Mbenway says the government should strengthen the education of small scale miners on the use of substances like mercury in extracting gold.
He also advocates for the legalization of small scale mining which is mostly done illegally so their activities can be monitored and controlled.
“There’s one thing that’s sure: the government cannot stop the small-scale mining because unemployment has skyrocketed,” he says.
Quarm has been living in the small gold mining town in the gold-rich Western Region for almost a decade, working at the mine located on the peripheral of the town.
Miners do not only have to go deep down the surface of the earth to get the gold-specked stones but also have to spend long hours at the extraction point, grinding the stones into powder, mixing it with water, straining it (using their locally manufactured method) to add mercury, and then burning it to get the pure gold.
He explains that the process of removing the precious mineral through their amateur method is tedious.
The water in the mine
“The mercury has been mixed with the gold already. After we burn it, it turns to yellow, and then we add palm oil to shine the gold and make it very yellowish,” Quarm says, as he points to the dusty equipment in the ‘kitchen’.
All of this is done without protective clothing, according to Korantang.
“Because of fear of being robbed, some of them store the gold under their tongues and it has an effect on their health,” she says.
Koranteng believes importers of mercury should indicate what the substance is going to be used for so the authorities in charge can regulate the use of the mercury especially in the mines.
“If they allow people to import quantities of mercury, they should show what they use it for. Why should people have access to mercury in the community? That is my question, and that is the responsibility of government,” she adds.
Maddy Crowell contributed reporting.This story and pictures was produced in association with Round Earth Media,www.roundearthmedia.org a nonprofit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists.
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This story originally appeared in The Riveter magazine. Click HERE to read it there.
WOMEN IN MOROCCO TURN TO WITCHES, OR SHAWAFAS, FOR LOVE AND THERAPY.
article and photos by Ailsa Sachdev
top illustration by Lora Hlavsa
The first time Salma consulted a shawafa, or witch, she went with friends on a lark, solely for entertainment. When the shawafa predicted that she would never get married, an outrageous thought for a Moroccan woman in her twenties, Salma brushed it off.
“At that time, when we left the shawafa, we laughed and we didn’t trust her,” said Salma, who didn’t believe in witchcraft or magic.
Twenty years later, the 42-year-old Salma has never married, and she has visited more than 100 shawafas in an effort to lift what she believes is a curse preventing her from getting married.
In a country where 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Salma is one of many Moroccans who cannot afford counseling or mental health therapy. Instead, they turn to the mystical, seeking advice from shawafas who say they can tell the future, even though the practice of witchcraft is illegal and considered anti-Islamic in Morocco. This is because the Quran says that nobody can tell the future, except for God.
Some women ask shawafas for luck and wealth for their families. Others want to exorcise a spirit or contact a dead loved one. Most women, however, go to find love, to retain love or to forget the person they love.
In 2012, Colleen Daley, an American studying intercultural communications at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Chefchaouen, a historical Moroccan city, in search of a shawafa.
At the time, she was working for Moroccan Exchange, an organization that brings American students studying in Spain to Morocco. She was taking a group of students from the Syracuse University Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion to observe different health services, both traditional and medicinal, in Morocco.
She wandered along the cobbled streets past the sky-blue walls of the medina, or old city, asking people in her broken Arabic where she could find a shawafa.
“I heard so much about shawafas before, as evil women who do black magic, who girls will go to get a man to fall in love with,” Daley said.
But when she finally found a shawafa, Daley was surprised by how ordinary the woman looked.
“Less than a full mouth of teeth, white cloth tied on her head, pajamas stained with food from cooking, and a light cloth hastily thrown over her head at the sound of male visitors,” Daley wrote in her blog.
Daley did not want her future told, even though it was a mere 20 dirhams, or two dollars. She just sat there, quietly listening as her translator recounted the shawafa’s story about using her gift to heal people and to earn money for her daughters, ever since the death of her husband.
The shawafa “had a real light about her and a real happiness, a kind of aura,” Daley said in an interview with her. “And I’m Christian; I believe in God. I really felt the presence of God in that room at that time.”
Moroccan women turn to shawafas in times of need. Bouchra Saaidi, 32, wanted to forget her cheating ex-boyfriend. She told me her story when we met at a bar in Rabat.
In 2007, Saaidi’s cousin took her to a shawafa after Saaidi admitted to having suicidal thoughts. The shawafa predicted Saaidi’s future by studying the motion of melting lead in water. Eventually, she decided to help Saaidi forget her boyfriend. Saaidi paid the shawafa 600 dirhams, or 70 dollars, hoping that all her worries would go away. The shawafa instructed her to buy trinkets and wear a dress that would allow smoke to flow up the skirt, a practice that, shawafas say, opens up sexual energy. Then the shawafa asked her to tap her ex-boyfriend’s shoulder at noon on Friday. Saaidi was told this action would complete the spell and afterward, she would have no more feelings for her ex-boyfriend.
As the shawafa instructed, Saaidi tapped her ex-boyfriend’s shoulder and ran away before he had the time to react. She then washed herself with water provided by the shawafa. The shawafa also used Kobol, a substance used to attract people and render them in awe of you, to bless Saaidi and to make her the woman everyone looks at when she enters a room. Saaidi then walked the main avenues of Rabat and found a new man that very day.
“One man helps you forget another,” Saaidi said. “That’s the truth of life, for me anyway.”
Though Saaidi believes in shawafas and their abilities, she also admitted that the effects could be purely psychological.
“When you go to a shawafa and she says you’re going to meet a guy in three days, it stays in your head and you keep thinking, ‘Oh I’m going to meet a guy in three days,’” Saaidi said. “It ends up affecting the reality.”
However, placebo effects, like the vitamin pill Airborne, also occur in western medicine and therapy, which makes it almost impossible to deem one better or more effective than the other. How important is the means if the ends are just as, if not more, successful?
In addition, this process can have an impact on a woman’s judgment in a society where there is a lot of pressure to get married. Women who are unable to find a husband resort to spiritual consultation to solve their problems or simply act as an emotional outlet.
How important are the means if the ends are just as, if not more, successful?
Some people go to shawafas who practice witchcraft “because they do not have money to solve their problems” through therapy, said Ali Chaabani, professor of sociology at University of Mohammed V-Aghdal in Rabat.
A single 50-minute therapy session in Rabat is approximately 300 Dirhams, or 35 dollars, which is cheaper than a lot of options in the US. However, when Saaidi went to the shawafa, it cost about 600 Dirhams or 70 dollars, to talk, have her future told, engage in a spell to forget her ex-boyfriend and eventually find a new man. If you add up the several sessions it can take to solve your problem, it actually costs less, in the long term, to go to a shawafa and fix the problem in one go. For a lot of Moroccan women, it’s a no-brainer: You visit a shawafa, pay less and have your problem solved by supernatural forces in two sessions.
Salma, whose real name is being withheld because she fears social stigma, believes that her lover’s mother, who did not want Salma to marry her son, has put a curse on Salma to prevent her from getting married. Even though shawafas have been unable to help her, Salma continues going to them.
You visit a shawafa, pay less and have your problem solved by supernatural forces in two sessions.
“If I go sad, she tells me some very nice words and I go back and I am a little happy,” Salma said. “It’s like if I go to a psychotherapy session.”
Some women in Rabat visit a marriage well that is hidden in the Oudayas Castle near the beach. Idrissi Saleh, the marriage well keeper, said the water from the well mixed with rose water changes a woman’s luck and helps in the search for a husband. Then, a woman can light a candle for the Djinn, spirits in Muslim legends, which prevent her from getting married. The women leave old underwear behind as a symbolic change in sexual fortune.
The marriage well also has a shrine dedicated to a dead saint, Sidi Abouri. Women use the saint’s tomb as an intermediary through which to ask God to change their luck, despite religious taboos.
Acts like these, including the abandoned underwear, are common occurrences in shrines dealing with fertility issues in Morocco, despite the fact that explicitly leaving something behind as sexual as underwear is often looked down upon by Morocco’s conservative society. However, since shrines are already a controversial space, these women desperately engage in this act in hopes that it will make their problems go away.
“Even though the saint is dead, it’s like he’s sleeping,” said the keeper’s son, Mohammed. “He solves all problems.”
Kobol is the stony substance that shawafas use to help their clients attract people.
The marriage well-keeper Shareef Idrissi Saleh and his son Mohammed pour the special water in a bucket
The well is 20 kilometers deep and located in an isolated room on the beach. Rose water is combined with the well water to amplify its effectiveness.
The saint’s grave is said to help women find a man to marry.
Religion, however, is controversial for shawafas and shawafa-goers alike. Sunni Islam, the predominant sect of Islam practiced by 99.9% of Muslims in Morocco, a Muslim-majority country, forbids intermediaries between God and people – like shawafas and saints. Moreover, the Quran states that nobody but the prophet Mohammed can view the future, said Dr. Khalid Saqi, associate director of the Islamic School Dar Al Hadith Al Hassina.
“Nobody in the heavens and on earth can tell you about the unseen things except God,” Saqi said.
Under Islamic law, it is illegal to practice witchcraft in Morocco and shawafas can be heavily fined by the government under the charges of sorcery. Still, shawafas are ubiquitous in Moroccan society. Many Moroccans visit them in secret to solve personal issues. This is because some Moroccans are only Muslim by culture and don’t follow the religious laws, Chaabani said.
“A large percentage of the community is illiterate, so they don’t know what Islam says about witchcraft,” Chaabani said.
In fact, 32.9% of Moroccans are illiterate and therefore, religion is taught through word of mouth in some communities.
Despite the illegality of her craft, a 22-year-old shawafa named Miriam said that she didn’t receive trouble from the police and that she even sometimes helps male officers with their personal problems. However, shawafas’ male clients are less frequent and often come to them for assistance with issues like employment and wealth.
Miriam has no choice but to follow her craft because she believes somebody cast a spell on her when she was nine years old. Since then, Djinns have possessed her and forced her to become a practicing shawafa.
Fatima stores her witchcraft material in these cabinets.
Miriam’s trunk contains different stones, grains, jewelry and instruments that she uses to help people.
At these markets, shawafas buy their products including animal hide.
Another shawafa named Fatima also suddenly became haunted by Djinns, except she absorbed the spirits by washing her dead aunt’s clothes. I heard about her through a friend of a friend, so I decided to pay her a visit.
In Tiflet, a small town in northwestern Morocco, Fatima fiddles with the beads between her fingertips as she tells the customer her future in a secluded room located in the corner of her house. She wears bright pink pajamas concealed by a flimsy old cloth to connect with the Djinn that haunts her. Everything around her, from the tablecloth to the Islamic tapestry behind her, is green.
There is a teal lace-like fabric hanging over the entrance that you have to lift above your head to get past. Inside, the walls are white like alabaster, but almost everything else has a leafy hue. There are pine green candles and a repugnant henna concoction spread out across a table covered by a harlequin green cover, couches covered in a dim emerald cloth, green glass rose water bottles, a deep olive Islamic tapestry and other green Koranic posters.
According to Fatima, green is the favorite color of the specific Djinns that connect with her. Though witchcraft is prohibited, Fatima says she enjoys helping people. Nevertheless, Fatima and Miriam asked that their real names not be revealed because of social and legal implications of being a shawafa in Morocco.
Later, I was reading through the translator’s notes of my conversation with Fatima. I’d asked her about skeptics, of course, in which she has answered confidently: “I want them to live as I am living and live this daily suffering that I live so they understand I practice that work without my control.”
Ailsa Sachdev spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a non-profit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Amal Guenine contributed reporting.
Lora Hlavsa is The Riveter’s resident graphic artist. She’s a graduate of Macalester College, where she majored in geography and art, and currently lives in Minneapolis. You can follow her on Twitter@loramariehlavsa and on Instagram @coloraco.
This story originally appeared on PRI’s The World. Click HERE to hear it.
More than 50,000 underage migrants, mostly from Central America, have been caught trying to cross the US southern border since the fall of 2013.
They face tremendous risks, just getting to that point. Some jump onto a freight train known as “The Beast,” where one wrong move could mean a lost limb — or worse. Some are kidnapped by drug cartels. So why, given all the risks, would any parent put their children through the journey?
Jose and Ester, who asked that their last name be withheld to protect their identity, are just such parents. They have two boys — the oldest is 11, the youngest is 9.
“They’ve been strong,”Ester said, referring to her boys as “my little bugs.” But she has been very worried about them.
“It’s not the same to say ‘Son, I love you’ from far away,” Ester said.
Mexico Uncovered, Untold Stories from the Mexico You Don't Know
The United States and Mexico share deep personal, economic, geographic and cultural connections, but understanding – on both sides of the border – is often limited by stereotype and media exaggeration. Round Earth Media is out to change that. We launched in 2005, with a bounty of stories from Mexico, supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Now, in a groundbreaking new collaboration we call Mexico Uncovered, Round Earth Media is pairing young American and Mexican journalists, to produce powerful, untold stories from Mexico, stories rich in place and humanity. These stories, broadcast and published in top-tier media, are reaching huge audiences in both countries. This project is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.