For more than a decade, Father Alejandro Solalinde has been renowned for his staunch defense of Central American migrants living in Mexico illegally.
He accompanied groups on their journeys through the country, going so far as to ride with them on the perilous freight train known as La Bestia. He established a shelter for migrants along train tracks in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. He raised the cry about kidnappings and extortion of migrants. He faced death threats from human traffickers.
But lately, the Catholic priest seems to have changed his tune. Last week, the National Guard forcibly turned back migrants, mostly Hondurans, trying to enter Mexico from Guatemala. Troops in riot gear blocked their way and fired tear gas canisters. Many migrants were detained; others were put on planes and buses back to their home country.
Solalinde said the National Guard was simply fulfilling a “security mission.” Had it happened under previous governments, he said, “there would have been fatalities.”
The priest’s shifting position has infuriated erstwhile supporters. On Twitter, left-wing politician Fernando Belaunzarán called Solalinde a “Judas” responsible for “betrayal,” and Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, proposed a new verb, “to Solalinde,” meaning to “sacrifice one’s moral conscience on the altar of political loyalty.”
Father Solalinde, 74, is a close friend of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist who took office in December 2018. Critics say he has altered his position because his friend is now in power.
There’s no doubt that Solalinde was far tougher on López Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto.
“Donald Trump snaps his fingers and his servile Mexican government hounds launch their persecution of migrants,” Solalinde wrote in April 2018.
Donald Trump truena los dedos y sus sirvientes sabuesos del gobierno mexicano lanzan a la persecución de migrantes. Pero ni el INM, ni Peña Nieto, ni Trump, detendrán el éxodo migratorio provocado por el sistema capitalista. Exijo respeto a los DH de las personas migrantes.— Alejandro Solalinde (@padresolalinde) April 3, 2018
In that tweet, Solalinde blamed “the capitalist system” for the exodus of migrants. In an hourlong phone interview this week, he denied backpedaling.
“I’m not justifying the National Guard,” Solalinde said, adding, “But, unlike in other countries, it must be noted that the Guard does not persecute or kill migrants.”
At a news conference after the recent crackdowns on migrants, López Obrador made a similar point.
“Our adversaries, the conservatives,” he said, would like nothing more than a “photo of the National Guard hitting a migrant child.” But they won’t get one, said López Obrador, “because we’re not the same.”
Still, he acknowledged that there were “a few cases” of excessive force among members of the National Guard, including officers who tackled migrants to impede their escape and taunted migrants with tear gas. There were also reports that the National Migration Institute had blocked human rights groups from visiting migrant detention centers.
“I condemn that,” Solalinde told The Times. “I condemn it completely, along with any other violent or aggressive action taken by the National Guard against migrants. Along with any abuse of power.”
“Human rights,” he said, “are above all else.”
Solalinde has also come under fire for an interview with the newspaper El Universal in which he said that migrants in recent caravans “don’t want to go to the United States,” but, rather, “aim to split the new government for geopolitical reasons.”
In the interview with The Times, Solalinde insisted that his “love for migrants” has not changed.
“I will never betray them, because I love them,” he said. “I’ve never stopped being by their side. I’ve never ceased to defend them.”
What has changed, said Solalinde, is that Mexico “finally has an honest president.” And while it’s true that some of López Obrador’s subordinates “have faltered,” he added, “I feel proud to have a president who is not interested in money.”
Rubén Hernández-León, a professor of sociology at UCLA, said of Solalinde’s rhetoric: “More than a change of heart, this is about a change of political context.”
Like López Obrador, Solalinde is sensitive to U.S. power and Mexico’s reliance on its more powerful neighbor, Hernández-León said.
“It’s sad that a moral voice, an important moral voice, has been essentially lost,” he said. “People are mourning the loss of an ally.”
His stance on caravans, Solalinde said, was born out of his concerns for migrants’ safety. He said he ceased guiding migrants from Mexico’s southern border to the nation’s capital in 2014, largely because he worried that images of migrants traveling en masse would become fodder for xenophobic or right-wing propagandists and policymakers in both Mexico and the United States.
President Trump, Solalinde told The Times, points to the caravans to “justify the need for emergency measures at the border when, in reality, apprehensions of undocumented people in your country are at historical lows.”
Some of the groups that organized the recent caravans, he added, have been accused of charging migrants money to participate. “That is unethical,” Solalinde said. “That is human trafficking.”
Solalinde also disapproved of groups that place women and children at the forefront of the caravans and then deliberately lead migrants into confrontations with law enforcement.
“I find it cowardly to use little boys and girls to confront the National Guard,” he said. “The National Guard, of course, is not going to beat them. But having them at the forefront makes for a stronger photo, and that’s precisely the kind of press they’re after.”
At times, Solalinde’s rhetoric veers into pretty dark territory. He wondered aloud whether some of the migrant caravan organizers were secretly doing Trump’s bidding by manipulating the news cycle in advance of the U.S. election this fall.
“What these groups don’t get is that López Obrador is between a rock and a hard place,” he said, pointing to the Trump administration’s threats to slap tariffs on Mexican imports.
“If I could give the migrants some advice, I’d tell them: ‘My child, you have every right in the world to migrate, do as you please. But, at this moment, I’d recommend you wait it out. Just let the last months of 2020 go by,’” he said.
“Why? Because they are going to expose themselves, risk their lives and probably get deported anyway,” Solalinde said. “Plus, Mexico does not want any more problems with a president who is as imbalanced and difficult as Donald Trump.”
When he finished talking about politics, Solalinde let out a deep sigh. Ultimately, he said, the problem is that migrants across the Americas are “seen as no more than merchandise.”
“People everywhere profit off of them in every way you can imagine,” he said. “People make money off of migrants whether they’re dead or alive. Whole or in pieces.”
Is his stance on caravans not akin to using migrants as pawns?
“No,” said Solalinde. In addition to helping migrants from Central America and Haiti, he said, his work now also involves helping Mexican deportees from the United States get back on their feet.
“To me, migrants are not objects in need of attention. They are subjects, they are people who are capable, in whom I have a lot of faith.”
Leisy Abrego, a Salvadoran-born scholar who teaches at UCLA and has twice met Solalinde at conferences, is skeptical.
“It has been a true shock to see his stance change so drastically under the AMLO presidency,” she said. “For advocates of human rights and migrant rights, his current stance has been difficult and painful to witness. In a moment when Central American migrants are especially targeted by the Trump administration, one of their loudest and most prominent supporters in Mexico has turned against them. From afar, it is difficult to reconcile the Solalinde whom I heard speak passionately for human rights in 2011 and 2012 with the Solalinde of today.”
Cecilia Sánchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.