Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, North America, Population

MIGRATION-LATIN AMERICA: Unmarked Graves Across the U.S. Border

Diego Cevallos*

MEXICO CITY, Feb 23 2006 (IPS) - Sex: male. Age and nationality: unknown. Cause of death: drowning. Place and date: U.S. southern border, October 2005. This is the stark record left behind by a Latin American migrant who now lies in an unmarked grave, like thousands of others who have died without reaching their goal.

The victim is on a list of 280 recorded in the U.S. state of Arizona by the Human Rights Coalition/Indigenous Alliance Without Borders in 2004-2005.

More than 3,800 people have died in the U.S.-Mexican border region since 1993. Some 1,000 of them are buried in unmarked graves.

Thousands of people from Latin America and the Caribbean die in the attempt to reach the United States or other destinations by the most varied means imaginable and trying to outwit ever stricter border controls. Some get lost or die of exposure in inhospitable desert areas, others are shipwrecked on the high seas, murdered, or suffocate in shipping containers, boxcars or trucks.

Nobody knows for sure how many deaths there have been, but the numbers continue to mount.

“We now know there are even some (Arizona county) authorities who have the bodies of unidentified immigrants cremated, because they are running out of room in the cemeteries,” the coordinator of the non-governmental Human Rights Coalition/Indigenous Alliance Without Borders, Katarina Rodríguez, told IPS by telephone from Arizona.


In one of the latest incidents, 25 Haitians suffocated while travelling to neighbouring Dominican Republic concealed in an unventilated truck last January.

Cubans, Ecuadoreans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Hondurans, Mexicans and Salvadorans are the main victims of the regional migration phenomenon, according to studies.

At least 15 out of every 100 Cubans who try to reach the United States by sea die, and in most cases their remains are never found.

Last year, 31 Cubans disappeared when the boat they were travelling in sank.

In one extraordinary case, a young Cuban woman was granted political asylum in the United States, having arrived there in a crate sent by the DHL cargo company from the Bahamas.

Since 2005, the Mexican Foreign Ministry has distributed leaflets in border areas and airports, warning about the dangers of travelling to the United States without documents and in the company of human traffickers, or “coyotes”.

One of these, the “Guide for the Mexican Migrant,” points out the travel risks, provides safety tips, and explains the consular rights of people who are detained. It also includes recommendations about how to act while living in the United States without a residence permit.

Ecuador has been doing something similar since January, by broadcasting messages over the media. The aim is to make “people aware of the dangers of illegal emigration, and of trusting human traffickers,” says a government communiqué.

But the warnings and the dangers do not deter potential migrants.

Raúl, a 26-year old Mexican, is adamant that he will keep trying to go to the United States. “I’ve already been sent back once by the ‘migra’ (U.S. border patrol), and another time the coyotes stole everything I had, but I’ll soon try again,” he said.

A 32-year-old Cuban who preferred to remain anonymous said something similar. “I have tried to (reach the United States from Cuba illegally) seven times, and something always goes wrong. But I won’t give up till I get there,” he told IPS.

He said he had been intercepted at sea by the U.S. coast guard and by Cuban authorities, and that he had also experienced trouble on a homemade boat.

On Feb. 20, 98 Ecuadoreans heading to Central America in a fishing boat were intercepted and sent home. They had planned to reach the United States overland from Central America. The group also included 24 Peruvians, one Dominican and three Asians.

Last August, 94 Ecuadoreans drowned when their boat, also sailing towards Central America, sank. There were 103 emigrants on board the craft, which was designed to carry a total of 15 people.

“Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico are the initial destinations, and sometimes migrants die there or are abandoned before reaching the United States, their final destination,” Iván Granda, spokesman for the Public Defenders Office in Ecuador, told IPS.

Ecuador’s Dirección Nacional de Migrantes, the national migration office, reports that hundreds of thousands of Ecuadoreans have emigrated to the United States and Europe since the mid-1990s. IPS was told that from 2002-2005, the bodies of 496 emigrants were repatriated.

“The situation is getting steadily worse, every year there are more dead migrants, and they are very difficult to identify, as sometimes only their bones are found,” Rodríguez said, describing conditions in the most inhospitable desert areas in the U.S. border state of Arizona.

Identification of the victim’s origin, name and nationality is often difficult, which means many of the migrants end up in unmarked graves. Some are cremated, thus foreclosing any opportunity for their families to find out what happened to them.

In order to deal with this problem, in late 2004 the Mexican government implemented a System for Identifying Remains and Locating Individuals – a computer programme which logs information about and photographs of the dead, and of persons reported missing along the frontier with the United States.

Around 11,000 Mexican families have already filled in forms with a large amount of information, to start searching the system. They have also checked the files containing 299 photographs of bodies that have been found. Among these, there are 44 where the sex of the deceased could not be established because of the advanced state of decomposition when the bodies were found.

In order to avoid detention, many people attempting to make it into the United States swim across rivers, walk across deserts in extreme temperatures, or hide in sealed compartments on trains or trucks.

But many migrants find the greatest obstacles in their journey towards the United States in Mexico.

Mexico deported 235,297 undocumented migrants last year, most of whom were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Mexican authorities reported that 200 bodies of migrants were found in this country in 2005. In addition, the governmental National Commission for Human Rights reported at the end of 2005 that foreigners from Central America suffer “a high degree of social exclusion and poor treatment” in Mexico.

Most Latin American immigrants in the United States are Mexican. Mexico is also a transit route for migrants of all nationalities to enter the United States.

In 2005, more than 400,000 immigrants entered the United States without a visa, and around one million people were detained and deported in the attempt, according to Mexican government reports.

* With additional reporting by Dalia Acosta in Cuba and Juan Carlos Frías in Ecuador.

 
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