Mexican authorities prepare to close main migrant shelter in Tijuana

Every available space is used to hang laundry at the El Barretal migrant shelter in Tijuana.
Every available space is used to hang laundry at the El Barretal migrant shelter in Tijuana.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / UT)

Mexican authorities are preparing to close the largest Central American migrant shelter, known as El Barretal, in Tijuana.

The closure of the shelter on the eastern outskirts of town signals a somewhat bittersweet end to the migrant caravan of 2018 that became a national obsession with effects still untold.

The closure, scheduled for this week, is happening just as another caravan of thousands plans to leave Honduras for Mexico.

Life inside El Barretal has settled into comfortable daily and weekly rhythms for the 700 or so remaining Central American migrants who arrived in Tijuana in November as part of a caravan of about 6,000.

Children go to school. Men wake before dawn and catch buses for work in construction or other odd jobs throughout Tijuana. Women wash laundry by hand and hang it to dry on the far-right side of the facility.


One day last week, bachata music blasted from a stereo into a large courtyard, the heartbeat of the sprawling event space and concert hall where more than 3,000 Central Americans once took shelter in pitched tents and on cots.

El Barretal, with a capacity for 7,000, was opened when the original shelter in Tijuana’s Zona Norte neighborhood near the U.S.-Mexico border became overcrowded and flooded in deplorable conditions.

Since those early, difficult days, many have moved on and gotten jobs and apartments in Tijuana. The number of migrants at the shelter is decreasing every day, volunteers said.

“The temporary shelter has worked and accomplished what we set out to do, and now we are winding down operations as these last remaining people find more permanent places,” said Leonardo Neri, a federal volunteer and shelter coordinator.

Volunteers said they expect to close the shelter on Tuesday.

Several families said they pray their number is called to present their asylum case to U.S. immigration authorities before the shelter closes. Beyond that, they said, they don’t know where else they may go.

“We are getting very close,” Victoria Rodriguez said. “We think maybe Monday our number will come up. We are packed and ready to go.”

Rodriguez has two young children, both battling respiratory infections and coughs. She said she has considered no other options besides her number getting called.

The El Barretal courtyard became like a town plaza — home to dance nights, painting lessons and religious ceremonies. Its perimeter is lined with migrant-run businesses such as cigarette vendors and barbershops.

“We’ve become a community,” said Christian Lara from Honduras. “We’re always going to be friends with the people of the caravan. Look at what we’ve done. The truth is we will always talk with each other and keep in touch how we can.”

Two boys goofed off giving each other rides through the courtyard on a gurney used to bring supplies into the shelter.

“We’re actually going to miss it here in El Barretal,” one said, laughing.

A man playing the music on a boombox collects coins in El Barretal and at bus stops throughout Tijuana. He also sings, and he said he plays music that reminds people of home.

“I make a little money for food. I don’t know about all these people or what they’re going to do,” said Jose Gonzalez from Nicaragua, who was leaving the shelter in search of a cheap room to rent. “I have no idea because I have nowhere to go after here.”

San Diegan Leticia Guzman of the Border Angels group has been bringing donations such as tents, sleeping bags, shoes and clothing to El Barretal every week. She has also been trying to persuade the federal agency running the shelter not to close it while families are still without a place to go.

“There are children still in El Barretal whose families have no other place,” she said. “Where are they going to go? It’s going to be an issue for the residents of Tijuana, for nearby businesses, for everyone, if these families are not at least placed in another shelter.”

Last week, authorities closed Contra Viento y Marea, a warehouse shelter closer to the border. They relocated about 40 migrants to a church shelter in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana, near the beach.

Jose Alexander Cherris said he was on his way to Padre Chava, another migrant shelter in Tijuana where he hoped to secure a place for himself and his 4-year-old son once El Barretal closed.

“I think they have room for us there,” he said.

Cherris was among a group that tried to breach the border Jan. 1, but he said he and his son stayed farther back among the crowd and retreated at the first sign of tear gas.

He said he still holds out hope of one day getting into the United States.

“I have faith. Besides, we’ve made it this far,” he said.

“We are thankful for however they have been able to help us so far,” he said of those who have been running El Barretal.

Wendy Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.