What Happened To Hugo Castro, In His Own Words
Migrant rights activist Hugo Castro is still recovering from injuries he received last month after disappearing for five days in Mexico, but despite his physical setback, has resumed advocating for people who face the threat of deportation.
“No human being is illegal,” he wrote on his Facebook page, expressing solidarity with migrant workers on International Workers’ Day and lamenting his inability to attend an event in San Ysidro on Monday.
Castro, a U.S. citizen, went missing in Mexico after pleading for help on Facebook Live on April 13. He was on his way to help refugees in southern Mexico on behalf of the San Diego-based advocacy group Border Angels.
He spoke to KPBS from his recovery bed in the presence of his sister as well as Border Angels founder Enrique Morones late last week. Castro said he recalls very little of what transpired between April 13 and April 18, when he was found with bruises all over his body, a fractured foot and multiple head wounds that caused brain swelling. He said he does recall that he was assaulted twice sometime after posting his video.
KPBS could not independently verify his claims because Mexico’s Attorney General, the U.S. Embassy and the doctors involved in Castro’s case have declined to comment without the family’s permission. Castro’s family has also declined to release official documents and any details beyond Castro’s own account.
The following interview has been translated from Spanish.
Q: What can you say about what happened to you?
A: The precise dates and times, I don’t recall, but what I do remember is I was beaten by various people — and severely. I don’t know who they were. I only remember it was somewhere on the path from Tamaulipas toward my intended destination, which was Tapachula, Chiapas. I was beaten up on that path. I was beaten on a bus. I think it was an inner-city bus, it wasn’t a bus that goes from city to city, it was an inner-city bus, a public transport bus, and I was beaten up … I was bleeding a lot from my nose, from my head as well. I think that’s also the place where my leg was badly hurt. And on another occasion I was badly beaten up by a uniformed group, I don’t know if they were private security or municipal police or centralized police, but I was beaten by officials.
Q: You told your family that you asked police for help repeatedly while you were injured and were turned away. Can you elaborate?
A: I asked for help, I identified myself as a defender of migrant rights with my name, my valid California license … I was also wearing my Border Angels shirt underneath. They simply ignored me.
Q: How do you feel now?
A: I am extremely grateful to God, to the people who have helped me, in the search, in pressuring, in spreading the word about what was happening because in the moment I felt so alone, I said to myself, these people who are doing this to me and there’s not a single person who can tell them to stop beating me. Personally, the moment that I see someone beating someone up, I try to intervene, I say, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ … In the moment … I felt so, how can I say — like a very alternate reality, very, yes. I, at least, would not let anyone do this to someone else. Truly I felt that way, but with an immense faith … I said to myself, I’m in an extremely vulnerable situation, the same as thousands of people who are deported … who are suddenly beaten and nobody does anything, or someone who is displaced and is trying to escape Veracruz, Guerrero, Michoacán … they don’t know the route and they would like help, but they’re only – as if invisible, ignored, they end up disappeared, or just another statistic of more murders, and in the press the only thing that is published is that he was an alcoholic, or he was a drug addict, or he was an ex-criminal, or he was a homeless person because he’s crazy, he’s crazy, I mean it’s so easy to dismiss reality, in other words to ignore the reality that is lived: of extreme violence, of apathy, of impunity.
Castro said he had received death threats in the past for his work to protect migrants, a group that is often exploited by criminal organizations and corrupt police south of the border. He is an outspoken defender of vulnerable groups, often questioning the actions of authorities in person. In 2013, Castro filmed himself confronting police as they arrested homeless migrants "for being poor."
KPBS asked Border Angels founder Morones if he plans to change strategy in response to Castro’s incident. He said his nonprofit is going to “continue to be cautious” with work south of the border.
Castro’s family has been raising money to cover his medical costs on GoFundMe, stating: “Hugo appears to have been the victim of a serious and violent crime. He has sustained severe injuries and remains in critical condition.”
In Mexico, "La Opinión" newspaper published a story on April 17, suggesting Castro ended up in a vulnerable position in central Mexico due to a pre-existing mental health condition. The piece quoted Gaba Cortes, Castro's partner and the mother of his child, saying that Castro was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 17. She has since denied making those claims.
Cortes told KPBS that in the four years of living with Castro, "he never had symptoms of anything, no unusual behavior, I have no experience of this type." Castro's other relatives, along with Border Angels founder Enrique Morones, have declined to respond to those concerns, which have also been expressed by some activists in the San Diego-Tijuana community and in other press reports.
Castro's sister Angie Velásquez said: "He was the victim of a crime, and instead of people asking 'who did this?' or 'what are the authorities doing to solve this crime?' we are questioning his mental health?"