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MEXICO: Kidnapping – A Growing Risk for Central American Migrants

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Mar 19 2010 (IPS) - The increase in kidnappings of Central American migrants crossing Mexico on their way to the United States will be brought up at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) current session next Monday.

“We are experiencing a humanitarian disaster that the authorities want to cover up at all costs,” Alejandro Solalinde, a priest who heads the Catholic Pastoral Care Centre for Migrants in Ciudad Ixtepec, in the southern state of Oaxaca, told IPS.

Solalinde, who has been defending the rights of undocumented Central American migrants since 2005, is flying to Washington to describe the situation on the ground to the IACHR, which is holding its 138th period of sessions Mar. 15-26, along with representatives of other civil society groups.

Although the priest has been the target of death threats from people traffickers and kidnappers, he was denied police protection.

In January 2007, Solalinde, who also set up a shelter to provide food and medical attention to migrants next to the railway lines that they ride on their long trek north, helped a group of Central Americans escape their captors in Oaxaca.

He has also spoken up against police brutality, and even filed legal action against local police officers and authorities. But the lawsuit is merely gathering dust.

Thousands of Central Americans, mainly from the impoverished countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are detained and deported every year by the police in Mexico as they attempt to reach the United States.

However, they don’t only face a risk of being seized and deported by the police, but are also vulnerable to harassment, sexual abuse, extortion, robbery and kidnapping by immigration agents and police, while they are assaulted, raped, held up, kidnapped and sometimes killed by gang-members and thieves.

From September 2008 to February 2009, 9,758 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico, according to a special report by the governmental National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).

“The kidnapping of migrants in Mexico is on the rise,” Maureen Meyer, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Associate for Mexico and Central America, told IPS.

However, “this number (9,758) is by no means the full extent of the phenomenon, as given the vulnerability of migrants in Mexico, many cases go unreported.”

WOLA is backing the Mexican activists who will appear before the IACHR in the U.S. capital, where they will ask the Commission to recommend that the government provide protection to migrants, fight kidnappings and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Mexican immigration authorities have arrested 4,164 Central Americans so far this year, according to official figures.

The IACHR session will also be attended by Raúl Vera, Catholic bishop of Saltillo, a city north of the capital; Pedro Pantoja, a priest who runs the Belen migrants shelter and the Borders with Justice project in Saltillo; and representatives of Mexican non-governmental organisations that provide protection to undocumented Central American migrants.

In the southern state of Veracruz, 13 municipal police have been prohibited from leaving the country, because they are under suspicion of kidnapping and extorting Central American migrants.

The kidnappings are planned in Oaxaca and carried out in Veracruz, with the collusion of public employees and municipal and state agents, according to Solalinde.

In March 2008, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Jorge Bustamante, reported that corrupt federal and local police were increasingly kidnapping migrants. “They kidnap migrants, ask them for information, relatives’ phone numbers; then they extort money from the families,” he said

Solalinde, who is calling for the creation of a special prosecutors’ office to protect migrants, will ask the IACHR for precautionary measures for his coworkers and himself because of the harassment and threats they face – protection they have failed to receive from the Mexican authorities.

According to the CNDH report, the ransom payments demanded from the victims’ families in the United States or their countries of origin range from 1,500 to 5,000 dollars, making kidnapping a lucrative business for criminal groups.

The report says the authorities’ response does not “correspond with the seriousness and frequency of the crime, which have gotten worse as a result of impunity, among other factors.”

Because of the numerous reports of abuses, the government of El Salvador opened a consulate in Oaxaca in January to provide attention to Salvadoran citizens.

But not even the diplomatic mission has escaped harassment: less than a month after it opened, armed men who claimed to be federal police but did not identify themselves forced their way into the consulate without authorisation, supposedly as part of an investigation.

Salvadoran ambassador to Mexico Hugo Carrillo has asked President Felipe Calderón to take effective action against the police involved in the incident.

“It would appear that kidnapping has become another source of income for organised criminal groups operating in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border…(which are) already involved in drug trafficking, pirated goods, extortion, etc.,” said Meyer.

She added that some reports indicate that along the border “and even in the U.S. itself, groups involved in human smuggling are now earning more money from holding some of their ‘clients’ for ransom, than from the fees they already charge to make the crossing.”

She also said the kidnappings in Mexico are often carried out “with the support and collusion of officials from all levels of the government.”

Most of the migrants do not file an official complaint, out of fear of being deported, or because the legal formalities are too complex.

“It has been really hard work to get people to understand us. But there are groups that try to turn people against us, using the pretext that migrants supposedly commit crimes,” said Solalinde.

The Mexican Congress is studying an anti-kidnapping bill that would also be aimed at protecting undocumented migrants.

“The IACHR hearing will highlight the ways in which Mexican laws and policies make migrants more vulnerable and may prevent their access to justice as well as how Mexican authorities directly collaborate in this practice, “Meyer said.

“The request is that the Commission take the kidnappings of migrants into consideration in its human rights work in Mexico and recommend that the Mexican government take actions to allow migrants access to justice and to prosecute the kidnappings,” she added.

During its current period of sessions, the IACHR will also hear testimony on attacks on journalists in Mexico and lack of access to health services by indigenous people in the southern state of Chiapas, one of the country’s poorest areas.

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