December 2008 • Issue 9
The United States has twice the HIV prevalence of Mexico, so it isn’t surprising that the need to cross the border for work has increased Mexican communities’ vulnerability to HIV. But the reasons for HIV’s increase in some places in Mexico – indigenous, rural communities far from the border – may not be so obvious. “The state of Oaxaca has the highest HIV rate in Southeastern Mexico,” Oaxacan queer activist Leonardo Tlahui says. “One of the primary factors is immigration. The Mixteco people [one of Oaxaca’s largest indigenous groups] have a high population of immigrants to the United States.” He explains that migrating to a country with double the HIV rate makes immigrants more vulnerable to HIV, and that increased vulnerability is then shared with their home communities since most of the immigrants return home to Oaxaca.
Half a million indigenous people from Oaxaca (roughly one-seventh of the state’s total population) live in the United States, according to Rufino Dominguez, a founder of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB) in Oaxaca. Interviewed by David Bacon for a Truthout.org article called “The Right to Stay Home,” Dominquez said, “There are no jobs here, and NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] made the price of corn so low that it’s not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our product at home. There’s no alternative.”
Treaties and Lovers
Two years after the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched its 1994 offensive in the state of Chiapas as NAFTA was implemented, the EZLN won a potential victory for indigenous land rights with the San Andres Accords, an agreement it negotiated with the Mexican government. But in 2002, the government gutted the accords, and now, indigenous activists say that large corporations are buying their peoples’ land. As more young people come to the U.S. to work and send money home, families are separated for years at a time, and individuals far from their partners become vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
For a new study called “Migration and ruralization of AIDS: reports on vulnerability of indigenous communities in Mexico” [“Migración y ruralización del SIDA: relatos de vulnerabilidad en comunidades indígenas de México”], researchers from Mexico City and California interviewed migrant workers and indigenous women in poor rural areas. Before a young man leaves as a teenager, the researchers report, he often partners with a girl who is also too young for legal marriage and hopes for pregnancy so that she will remain faithful while he is away. Some of the women said that, although they understand the likelihood that migrants have other sexual partners, it is very difficult to ask the men to use condoms when they return. It doesn’t help that Oaxaca’s archbishop condemns the use of condoms [“Condena el arzobispo de Oaxaca el uso del condón”] to prevent HIV.
One Zapoteca indigenous woman in Oaxaca, age 23, told the researchers, “I am here with my in-laws while my husband is in the United States, and he sees that somewhere they pick up other women. Now it is long that my husband hasn’t come, like five years. He already entered [the U.S.] for six years [once before]… When he returns, he always comes looking for another pregnancy.”
In a 2008 poster presentation at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) about HIV risk behaviors of Mexican migrant workers, Melissa Sanchez and other researchers reported that migrants, often struggling with unsafe working and living conditions, generally had more sex partners while in the U.S., and had more sex while using drugs or alcohol. A related study found that migrant men in California were 13 times more likely to have sex with another man than they were before leaving Mexico. Condom use increased while away from home, but migrants were unlikely to get tested for HIV for fear of deportation.
Sanchez also told TheBody.com that young men are being targeted for sex work at day-labor pick-up sites where they wait for construction work. “There are actually Web sites developed now where they give tips to people who want to approach Mexican-migrant, job-pick-up-site workers and actually recruit them,” Sanchez said. “They are told, ‘Go after three o’clock, when there is a clear indication that there is no work coming for the day.’ They target young, young men, thinking, ‘Well, they’re going to be more naïve, they’re perhaps more desperate to make some money given that they’re not going to get a landscape job during the day.'”
Corruption and Repression in Oaxaca
|“It was agreed I would sign a document with the government promising…to cease activities concerning HIV/AIDS in Oaxaca.”
In 2001, the Frente Común Contra el SIDA (Common Front Against AIDS), a community organization in Oaxaca, began buying bus tickets for people living with HIV in the countryside to see their doctors at the clinic of COESIDA, the state AIDS council, in Oaxaca City. While meeting this need, activists got to know the people they were serving. The stories they heard – many of the people weren’t getting their medication regularly, were told to come back next month for medicine, or were given only one or two antiretrovirals rather than the standard combination of three – shocked the activists. According to the Frente’s website, this revelation set in motion a clash with COESIDA that culminated in the Frente’s closure amid threats and violence by government thugs in 2006. Continue reading