Leaving Valadares A Dangerous Journey for Brazil's Illegal Migrants

In spite of the upswing in their country's fortunes under President Lula da Silva, many Brazilians continue to leave their home in search of a better life in the United States. Yet Mexico's drug war represents a dangerous hurdle in the path of many illegal migrants.


Juliard Aires Fernandes had been warned. His friends had told him he could easily die while attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States unaided. Acquaintances who had recently returned said it was no longer even worth the journey. The dollar wasn't worth anything any longer. His father, 66-year-old Alirio Aires, distinctly remembers their words: "They urged him to stay in Brazil. 'Here at least you have a future,' they said."

But 19-year-old Juliard, who was born and grew up in the village of Sardoa near the city of Governador Valardares in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, refused to listen to the warnings. The US was his dream, his father recalls: "Nothing could stop him."

Juliard's mother had died of a heart attack eight months earlier. Two of his brothers live near Boston. His father is a bricklayer and earns 15 Brazilian reals (about €6.50 or $8) a day. Juliard was a cheerful, strong boy who played the guitar and rode a motorbike. He wanted to buy his father a new house, and fulfill his own greatest wish: To own a car.

To achieve that dream Juliard set off with his friend, 24-year-old Herminio Cardoso dos Santos, to attempt a "travessia" -- gaining illegal entry to the US. Herminio had already traveled to Italy on a false passport once before, and had worked illegally on a construction site until he was caught and sent back home. Many of the young men in Governador Valadares aspire to go to the supposed paradise in the north.

Crisis Forces Many to Return

It is quite possible that no other city in Brazil has seen so many of its people become illegal immigrants in the United States. Most of the almost 300,000 inhabitants of Valadares have relatives in the US. For many years the fortunes of this hot, dusty city at the foot of the Ibituruna Massif have risen and fallen in line with the value of the dollar.

But now the emigrants are returning. The US is currently experiencing the most serious crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, while the Brazilian economy is booming. Few currencies have gained in value to quite the same extent as the real in recent years. More than 400,000 Brazilian migrant workers have returned home over the past two years from countries around the globe. Even the US has had a net exodus of some 40,000 illegal Brazilian immigrants since 2007.

"It isn't worth emigrating anymore," says 47-year-old truck driver Rivaldo Godoy. Ten years ago the stocky Brazilian entered the US on a fake passport. He began working as a kitchen helper in New Hampshire, and within a few years he had saved enough money to buy himself a truck. The work paid well -- at least, until the financial crisis, when his contracts started drying up. He was eventually picked up by the US Immigration Service.

A year ago he moved back to Valadares where he is building a new life with the $250,000 he had managed to save. He has bought a house and a truck, and says nothing would make him want to go back to the US. "I earn just as much in Brazil," Godoy says.

The return of the migrants marks the end of an era for Governador Valadares. It also serves as a lesson about globalization; about the opportunities it creates, and the tragedies it sometimes leads to.

The Land of Opportunity

The Brazilian dream of making a better life in the colder north arose in the 1940s when the mining company Vale do Rio Doce built a railway line to the coast with US assistance. The American engineers working on the project furnished their houses in the style they knew from home. They imported fridges and stereos, and paid their maids, gardeners and cleaners in dollars.

The sons of the farmers and shopkeepers of Valadares marveled at the American Way of Life. When the Americans left, many Brazilians followed them to the US, bringing their families over a few years later. All those who returned enthused about the Land of Opportunity, in which you could earn in a single year what it would take a decade to make in Brazil.

In the 1980s, hyperinflation and economic crisis persuaded hundreds of thousands of Brazilians to flee to the US. Governador Valadares became the capital of the nouveau-riche and the document forgers. In the back rooms of the city's travel agencies, counterfeiters copied passports, visas and birth certificates. Eventually US consulates were automatically suspicious of anyone who came from Valadares.

It was primarily middle-class people who moved to the US. Doctors worked as laborers, engineers as gardeners, teachers as maids or cleaning ladies. Most of them went to the northern US, where they could earn more than in the south. Several hundred thousand Brazilians now live in and around Boston, for example.

"Remessas" -- money orders sent back home to Brazil -- helped support their families, build houses and found businesses. The influx of dollars made the city flourish. "The worse the situation is in Brazil, the better things are in Valadares," says sociologist Sueli Siqueira, the author of a study on Brazilian migrants.

The city witnessed its last big upswing shortly before former union boss Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won his first presidential election in 2002. At the time, finance experts and businessmen feared that Brazil was on the path to socialism. Many investors pulled their money out of the country, and the real slumped to almost 25 cents. The migrants were jubilant. The dollars they were transferring home were worth more and more.

But the fears about President Lula have proved unfounded. Instead, Brazil has blossomed under his stewardship, which will draw to a close three months after this weekend's presidential election.

Returning Without a Penny in their Pockets

Meanwhile, as the real went from strength to strength, the financial system in the US began to crumble. Many immigrants lost their homes in the US when interest-rate hikes caught them unawares and they were unable to repay their mortgages. In many cases, they barely had enough money left for their return ticket. Bizarrely enough, many Brazilian families began sending money to the US to help their relatives there. "Most migrants return without a single penny in their pocket," says sociologist Siqueira.

Today most of Brazil is faring extremely well -- while the immigrants from Valadares are doing badly. The drama of the returnees has turned the former boomtown into a crisis zone. As a result of the halt in immigrants' remittances, the city's economic activity has declined by 40 percent. Whereas the rest of Brazil is notching up strong growth rates, the only thing growing in Valadares is the unemployment figure. There is little industry and the municipal authority is the largest employer. "We're becoming the poor man of Brazil," Mayor Elisa Costa complains.

Costa is a member of President Lula's center-left Workers' Party (PT) and she relies on money from the central government to finance the welfare payments to the needy and programs to reintegrate returnees. But most of the former emigrants don't have any vocational skills. What's more, many of them have been left drained by their work in the US. "Only the poorest of the poor still believe life is better in the US," Costa says.

Juliard and his friend Herminio were among these poorest of Brazil's people. They hadn't benefited from the country's economic upswing, and their families receive no welfare assistance. Juliard sold his motorbike, Herminio borrowed money from his sister in Italy and cousins chipped in money for their trip. Herminio gave an illegal tour operator $13,000 for airline tickets, bribes for the Mexican police, and fees for the "coyote," the people-trafficker who would help sneak them over the border. Juliard and Herminio promised to call their families as soon as the reached American soil.

On Aug. 3, the two young men said goodbye to their families. Herminio told his mother, "I won't come back until I can build you a house." Both he and Juliard wanted to go to Boston. Juliard had with him a bag containing three pairs of pants and some shirts. On the day they left, he was wearing sneakers, jeans and a black T-shirt. His passport and 600 real were tucked into his underpants.

The friends flew from Sao Paolo to Guatemala. Under pressure from the US authorities, Mexico had introduced a visa system for Brazilians. But Brazilians can still get into Guatemala with just their passports. From there a coyote took Herminio and Juliard to Mexico.

'They Just Wanted a Better Life'

They crossed the entire country, and in late August they finally reached San Fernando near the US border, where they joined a group of other Central and South American migrants. Another coyote -- this time a Mexican -- was supposed to lead the illegals to Texas.

But that never happened. Instead the group was picked up by a drug cartel, which drove them to a farm near the border and gave them a choice: Either they agreed to smuggle cocaine into the US or they would never reach the country of their dreams. The young men refused. They didn't want to get involved in drugs.

Cartel henchmen then mowed the migrant workers down with submachine guns. Many were executed with a shot to the neck. 72 people died. Only three survived.

Julliard's father recognized his son's body on the evening news on Brazilian television. The boy was still wearing the black T-shirt he had on when he left. The next day the Foreign Ministry called. The police had found Juliard's passport next to his body. Herminio's father, Antonio Ramos dos Santos, gave a saliva sample and his son was identified using DNA testing.

At the end of next week, the bodies of the two friends are to be returned to Brazil. The bureaucratic to-and-fro with the Mexican authorities has taken that long.

The families want to bury Juliard and Hermínio in Sardoa cemetery. Juliard's father put up black flags and the Brazilian flag in front of his house. "They weren't drug dealers," he says. "They just wanted a better life." And he cries.

A guitar and a passport photo are now all that remains of his youngest son.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt


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