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Dangerous journey: Migration through the transit country Mexico

Trique migrant from Oaxaca in the south of Mexico; photographed in Ensenada, Baja California, the most northern of the Mexican states, hundreds of kilometers from her home. Photo: Fernando Rosales. License: CC BY-NC 2.0. Original: flickr.

January 20, 2012
Jennifer Dresel
The discovery of 72 killed migrants in the northern state of Tamaulipas in August 2011 was a tragic event that accelerated and enhanced public awareness for the problem of severe human rights violations toward migrants in Mexico. Since then, new cases are continually coming out in the open. The majority of the migrants killed in Mexico are never identified and remain nameless. In Mexico, more people die every year in the attempt to come to the “promised land” United States than in all of the 28 years of the Iron Curtain put together.

The migration stream going through Mexico and heading toward the US constitutes the largest in the world. Mexico is a transit as well as target country for migrants from Central America, in addition to itself being a source country of emigrants. Networks of “coyotes,” i.e., people smugglers, were already in operation before Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared the war on drugs and organized crime in 2006. It is also commonplace for migrants to be blackmailed, robbed, and physically attacked by corrupt police and migration officials. In the meantime, the violence has proliferated even more with kidnappings, torture, and murders committed by armed criminal gangs. Many of these atrocities are carried out in collaboration with the local authorities.

Violent crime has also soared with the increasing participation of the drug cartels in people smuggling, which in recent years has proven to be a particularly lucrative and less risky source of income than the drug trade. According to the report “The Globalization of Crime” of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, transnational criminal alliances such as Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, or the youth gang La Línea are strongly involved in migrant smuggling.

Mexico’s Secretariat of Governance (SEGOB) estimates that approximately 150,000 people cross the southern border into Mexico without papers every year, while civil society organizations estimate that number at 400,000. The majority come from Central America, in particular from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Moreover, between 2005 and 2010 over one million Mexicans emigrated, 90 percent of them to the US.

The culprits are poverty and a lack of future prospects due to insufficient investment in education and job creation. Young people especially are affected by the high levels of unemployment and underemployment. A further main driving force of emigration are the so-called migrant networks of family members or neighbors who already work or have worked in the US and whose economic situation has visibly improved as a result, for example by them owning a bigger car or house. It should be noted, however, that the number of immigrants, mostly Mexican, to the US has decreased in recent years, mainly due to the more stringent security measures at the US-Mexican border and the economic crisis in the US.

Human rights violations against refugees

Since the ascension to office of Felipe Calderón, an estimated 100,000 Central American and Mexican migrants have disappeared in Mexico. These migrants are systematically kidnapped and blackmailed by criminal gangs, often in collaboration with Mexican government officials. Their status as “undocumented migrants” makes them particularly vulnerable. Mexico’s national migration office, the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM), has had to fire approximately 350 officials – nearly 15 percent of its personnel – since 2007 due to suspected connections with organized crime and other offences, such as human trafficking.

According to Amnesty International, numerous refugees who were formerly in the hands of criminal gangs have reported that the gangs regularly smuggle large groups of more than 100 people at once. The gangs usually force their victims to work for them or to give them contact information on relatives in Central America or the United States, from whom the gangs then demand ransom. Migrants who fail to cooperate or for whom the ransom has not been paid on time are tortured or killed. Indeed, mass graves with corpses of migrants have been discovered fairly frequently of late in Mexico. There is at present no reliable count of the total number of victims; however, the Mexican NGO Sin Fronteras estimates that over the last 10 years at least 60,000 Salvadorians have disappeared who had been in contact with their family for the last time on Mexican soil.

Violence against migrants

Approximately 25 percent of those who transit through Mexico are women. They generally try to select routes that are more clandestine than those taken by men. The freight trains (known as La Bestia), for example, are a more preferred option for men, whereas women usually try to get false papers from a ‘coyote’ and use overland buses or trucks. An estimated 65 percent of migrants pay a ‘coyote’ to get to the US through Mexico.

In addition to the risk of being robbed, kidnapped, and blackmailed, women are continually in danger of becoming a victim of rape or forced prostitution. Most of them are aware of this danger when they embark on their journey to the US. However, as the poverty in their homeland is so severe, they see no other choice.

Sexual violence against migrants is not a new phenomenon. Women who travel alone are at even greater risk of sexual assaults, not only from members of the criminal gangs but also from other migrants. According to former UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Gabriela Rodríguez, over the last ten years women increasingly report having been raped by migration officers, policemen, or security agents of trains in exchange for not being deported. Several human rights organizations estimate that on average two-thirds of women and girls are sexually abused on their journey through Mexico. This is evidenced by expert findings showing that human traffickers often force women to get contraceptive injections prior to beginning their journey in order to prevent pregnancies.

However, very rarely do the rape victims file charges – not only due to the low prospect of success, but also because they fear deportation if they report the assault or seek medical treatment. As a result, they are alone in dealing with the social stigma and the psychological trauma of rape.

The largest danger zones on the way to the US

The long path to the US leads through many danger zones. The danger of assaults is particularly high at Mexico’s southern and northern borders as well as along the freight train routes. The border region between Guatemala and Mexico is difficult to access, making it a preferred zone of operation for drugs and arms smuggling as well as human trafficking and kidnapping. In a recently published study, Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública) identified 25 danger zones along the four railway routes in which migrants are regularly assaulted, blackmailed, kidnapped, and even thrown from moving trains. These zones pass through the states Tabasco, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Estado de México, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí, and Coahuila.

Once the migrants have made it to the north of Mexico, they face yet another obstacle: passing the border into the US. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration ordered the building of border fences along the main border crossings Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez and federal officials were assigned to ensure a tighter border control. These measures have been continued by the governments of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In response thereto, the costs of a ‘coyote’ have risen from roughly 700 USD in the late 1980’s to nearly 2,000 USD ten years later, a trend likely to persist, according to a study by the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. In addition, the main illegal border crossings for Mexican migrants have had to be relocated to the more dangerous desert regions near Sonora on the Mexican side and Arizona on the US side, where countless lives have been lost.

Most Central Americans opt for the shortest path through Mexico and transit the US border at an illegal crossing leading to Texas, which is also where most of the cocaine is smuggled to the US. That area is controlled by the Gulf Cartel. While exact figures are unavailable, many migrants are forced to smuggle drugs in exchange for being allowed to use the cartel’s routes. At the border city Ciudad Juárez – currently fought over by the Juárez Cartel, the Gulf Cartel cooperating with the Pacific Cartel, and Los Zetas – the pressure on migrants to smuggle drugs for the different cartels is particularly strong.

The legal framework

Over the last years, the Mexican government has repeatedly demanded that the US recognize the human rights of Mexican migrants coming into the country, especially with regard to non-discrimination and equality before the law. However, in its own country, the Mexican state and its corrupt institutions do very little to protect the human rights of Central American migrants. For example, in recent years only a few, insufficient measures have been implemented to reduce the violence committed by Mexican state officials against migrants.
Since 2008, undocumented persons may no longer be given prison sentences, at least in theory. Mexico’s new migration law, which came into effect in April 2011, took this a step further, declaring that immigration into Mexico without papers no longer constitutes a crime. This law is highly controversial among representatives from human rights organizations.

For example, organizations such as Amnesty International Mexico do not view the new migration act as the problem and consider the legal framework as “sufficient.” Instead, they decry the lack of protection for victims, which is attributed mainly to Mexico’s inefficient police and legal apparatus that fails to pursue and prosecute crimes committed against migrants.

However, in a joint press release from May 2011, numerous other human rights organizations criticized the new act and demanded a reform on the grounds that the act continues to view migration as a matter of national security. This means that the INM is required to inform the state police or military about each activity of migrants that could pose a potential threat to the national security, for example on the grounds of suspected ties to terrorism or organized crime. In addition, the police continue to be authorized to perform checks on people’s migration status. The act even allows that homes with suspected hide-outs can be searched without the order of a judge. Finally, the permitted duration of imprisonment of migrants has become longer.
Since 2007, migrants without papers who have been the victim or witness of a crime were entitled to apply for a temporary visa in order to be able to remain in the country until the end of the trial. However, according to Amnesty International, these visas are granted almost exclusively to people who receive support from human rights organizations. In Mexico, only a small fraction of all crimes are actually solved, and usually the investigations take months or years. Thus, while this problem is general and not specific to migrant issues, it nevertheless means that most visas expire while investigations or trials are still underway.

The agents from the migration office are legally obliged to inform migrants about the general procedure, access to their respective consulates, refugee conditions, and their right to press criminal charges. However, Amnesty International reports that most imprisoned migrants are not given even the most basic information. The only right they are being read is their right to voluntary repatriation and return. After their imprisonment, they are detained in detention centers until they are deported.

Centro de DDHH del Migrante, a human rights center for migrants in Ciudad Juárez, likens these detention centers, which are operated by the INM, to prisons. All the while, confinement in detention centers has no legal grounds, as migration through Mexico without a visa is not a crime. The Centro also criticizes that the migrants are not being read their rights. Moreover, the centers fail to provide psychological support, a service that is nevertheless much needed, as the detainees there experience extreme stress, with most having been victims of assaults. In many cases they have invested their entire savings and belongings in these journeys and worry about their families back home, who are dependent on remittances from them.

No end in sight of the humiliating and dangerous situation

Resentment and anger on the part of the Mexican population against migrants is also building. On August 7, 2011 the 19-year-old Guatemalan Julio Fernando Cardona Agustín was killed in the residential district Lechería, in the north of Mexico City. Witnesses report that the murder was carried out by youths from the community as a revenge for an assault they claimed the victim had committed against them. Evidently, the youths paid officials from the municipal police force 500 pesos – approximately 30 euros – to turn the migrant over to them. Several days later, approximately 30 residents from Lechería demonstrated in front of the town’s immigrant lodging house San Juan Diego and demanded yet again that the house be closed down. According to them, since the opening of the house in 2009 many problems have surfaced which they blame on the migrants: littering of the residential district, safety problems, and the presence of drugs and drug dealers.

An end of the humiliating and dangerous situation for migrants is not in sight. On the contrary, violence in Mexico continues to escalate. To date, all efforts have failed to crush the drug cartels and therewith their “dirty work” with the migrants. Mexican state institutions are either corrupt or else so weak that they are unable to offer the migrants physical or legal security. The problems of Central American migrants are compounded by the precarious situation in their countries of origin. There, extreme poverty and severe security problems, caused largely by local youth gangs, the so-called pandillas, force people to migrate in spite of the dangers they face in their journey through Mexico.

To counter this violence, many human rights organizations are demanding from the Mexican state that people who use Mexico as a transit country are given a migration status that entitles them to pass through the country legally.

The Mexican human rights commission Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos México is also demanding a restructuring of the INM, an effective protection of migrants through special units, as well as criminal sanctions against abuse of position, corruption, and blackmailing by state officials and employees of migration authorities. A further indispensible measure is the rigorous fight against the prevailing impunity. This involves in particular the punishment, at national, state-wide, and communal levels, of policemen who participate in human rights violations against migrants. To achieve these goals, conditions must be created that make it possible to press legal charges against these crimes.


Jennifer Dresel

Jennifer Dresel was an Inwent intern at the regional office of the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation in Mexico City until the end of September 2011.