Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees


Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Feb 26 2009 (IPS) - Ana Celaya from El Salvador has been desperately searching for her son Rafael since he went missing in Mexico in May 2002, as he was trying to make it to the United States.

But Rafael is just one of hundreds of Central Americans who have disappeared in Mexico on their journey north.

"Could he be in jail? Is he alive? I haven’t had any news of Rafael for seven years, and no one will give me any clear information," Celaya told IPS by telephone from the southern state of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest, on the border with Guatemala.

Two of Celaya’s other three children are living in the United States and one is back home in El Salvador.

Celaya is one of 26 Salvadoran women who took part this month in the Caravan of Hope in southern Mexico, a mission aimed at demanding information on their missing loved ones.

"We have seen that our migrants are mistreated in this country, that they are attacked, robbed and tortured by both the authorities and criminals," another member of the Caravan of Hope, Lucy de Acevedo, told IPS over the phone. "It seems to me that the laws here only exist on paper."

Her 19-year-old brother, José Salomón, was killed in Mexico in July 2000 by a group of criminals.

De Acevedo is secretary of the Salvadoran Committee of Families of the Dead and Disappeared. "I got involved in this organisation out of courage and solidarity," she said.

The Committee has files on 238 Salvadorans who have gone missing in Mexico since 1997.

The Caravan of Hope held a five-day march earlier this month, with economic support from two U.S.-based organisations: the Central American Resource Centre (CARECEN), which provides assistance to migrants, and the Catholic group Nuestros Lazos de Sangre.

The members of the Caravan of Hope met with officials from the federal police and the National Migration Institute (INM) in Tapachula, the capital of Chiapas.

The officials promised to meet with the activists again on Mar. 10, to present them with a list containing all of the available information on Central Americans who have been arrested or killed, or who have gone missing, in Mexico, as well as any new developments in the cases documented by the women.

"Although there are laws, and the authorities have pledged to respect them, we see with pain that our young people are assaulted or go missing here in Mexico and that our women are raped – it is not fair," said Celaya.

"We hope that what they told us are not just empty words," said Celaya. "If they live up to their promises, there will be some hope of finding my son," whose disappearance she reported to the police over six years ago.

Mexico, a traditional gateway to the United States for immigrants from Central and South America, and to a lesser degree for people from Asia and the Middle East, is a dangerous hurdle for migrants, who face the risk of abuses of all kinds at the hands of criminals as well as the police and other authorities, according to human rights groups like Mexicans without Borders and the All Rights for All coalition.

Like his predecessors, conservative President Felipe Calderón, in office since late 2006, has promised to take steps to improve treatment of migrants in Mexico. But the abuses have not been curbed, as periodic reports of shootings of foreign nationals by members of the police or military demonstrate.

At the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review on Mexico in Geneva this month, Mexican officials heard criticism of persistent human rights violations against immigrants, from the delegates of dozens of countries.

The National Human Rights Commission has described as "tragic" the conditions faced by Central Americans in Mexico.

The Commission complained that although only INM agents have the authority to detain undocumented migrants, they are in practice seized by the police, soldiers and even private security guards, generally for the purposes of extortion.

Abuses are also committed by criminal gangs linked to "coyotes" or people smugglers.

Celaya said that a few days after she lost contact with 23-year-old Rafael, her son in the United States received several phone calls from supposed coyotes demanding 3,500 dollars to free the young man.

Rafael’s brother "was able to scrape together 1,800 dollars, but in the end I asked him not to send any money until they put Rafael on the phone, which never happened. That was the last we heard of him," she said.

Celaya did not give up. Shortly after the phone calls, she travelled to Mexico, just as her son had done before her: without legal documents and with very little money. But she got lost in Chiapas and failed to come up with any useful information. She finally decided to return and continue her search, and to go public with her struggle, from her home country.

To reach the "American dream," escape poverty and send remittances back home to their families, Central Americans must get past increasingly strict border controls, not only in the United States but in Mexico as well.

For that reason they try to cross the borders in the most remote, poorly monitored areas, which are also the most dangerous, and where they are exposed to crime and abuses, according to reports by Mexicans without Borders and the National Human Rights Commission.

Women are especially vulnerable. "Imagine our young girls travelling without papers, amidst all the dangers, and being raped and abused," said de Acevedo.

In the past, she said, the great majority of migrants were men, but that has changed as families have broken down and needs have increased, and growing numbers of young women are undertaking the hazardous journey.

Celaya said her only daughter, who lives in the United States after making it through Mexico as an undocumented migrant, "left because at home she had many problems with her husband. Although I miss her, it was for the best."

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