Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees

MEXICO: Central American Migrants Preyed on By Organised Crime, Police

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Jul 20 2011 (IPS) - Miguel, a 32-year-old Nicaraguan, and his wife have spent several days at a shelter for migrants in the southwest Mexican state of Oaxaca, where they fled after being robbed, extorted and threatened by corrupt municipal police and youth gang members.

Mexican authorities checking migrants' papers. Credit: Courtesy Instituto Nacional de Migración

Mexican authorities checking migrants' papers. Credit: Courtesy Instituto Nacional de Migración

“The police robbed me and the gang members are demanding 2,000 dollars for each of us, to let us continue on our way, and if we don’t pay they say they’ll keep my wife and only let me go,” Miguel (not his real name), who is from the central Nicaraguan city of Matagalpa, told IPS by phone from the town of Ixtepec.

On their way to Nicaragua to get Miguel’s birth certificate, passport and other documents, he and his 20-year-old Honduran wife were robbed of their belongings by municipal police in the towns of Orizaba and Mendoza, in the southeastern state of Veracruz.

When they made it to Ixtepec, they were threatened by members of the Mara Salvatrucha, one of the main youth gangs terrorising Central America, southern Mexico and the United States, and sought refuge in the “Hermanos en el Camino” shelter for migrants.

Stories like this have become run-of-the-mill among Central American migrants making the dangerous trek northwards through Mexico to try to cross the U.S. border.

And this is the grim outlook that Felipe González, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families, will be informed of when he reaches Mexico for a Jul. 25-Aug. 2 fact-finding visit.

“We are going to bring up a number of issues that we have identified as the most pressing concerns,” Fabienne Venet, director of the Institute of Dissemination of Studies on Migration (INEDIM), told IPS.

These include “the securitisation of migration, the lack of coordination between federal and local security forces, and human rights violations,” she added.

González, a Chilean IACHR commissioner, will meet with Mexican authorities and representatives of international bodies and civil society. He also plans to visit the states of Tamaulipas in the northeast and Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas in the south.

Some 500,000 undocumented migrants from Central and South America cross Mexico every year in their attempt to reach the United States, according to estimates from experts and NGOs. Along the way, they face the risk of arbitrary arrest, extortion, theft, assault, rape, kidnapping and murder at the hands of the police and criminal organisations.

Undocumented migrants cross the porous border between Mexico and Guatemala and ride what is known as the “train of death” from southern to northeast Mexico, through the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Tamaulipas. The Mexican government has identified 25 municipalities that are particularly dangerous for migrants along the way.

There are only two million legal immigrants in this country of 112 million people, according to official figures. Of that total, only 24,000 are Central Americans, who mainly use the country as a transit point or work here illegally.

Between January and May, 27,410 Central Americans – mainly Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans – were deported from Mexico, according to the National Migration Institute.

A group of organisations that work on behalf of migrants’ rights will deliver a report to González, protesting the aggressive treatment that undocumented migrants receive at the hands of the Mexican government and its agents, the vulnerability of the defenders of their rights, and the impunity enjoyed by those who prey on the undocumented.

“We want to denounce the harassment and violence of which we, like the migrants themselves, are victims because of our work providing assistance to migrants,” Leticia Gutiérrez, a nun who heads the Mexican Catholic bishops’ human mobility ministry, told IPS.

The ministry runs 54 shelters and soup kitchens that cater to undocumented migrants in Mexico.

The ministry’s staff and shelters have received death threats from both organised crime and the authorities, and have reported that their electric generators have been sabotaged, their electricity cut off, and their windows broken.

The shelters at greatest risk are in Ixtepec, the southeastern town of Tenosique, on the border with Guatemala, and the northern towns of Saltillo and Piedras Negras, on the U.S. border.

Since 2010, kidnappings of undocumented migrants have soared, with dire consequences. In August of that year, the bodies of 72 migrants, most of them Central Americans, were found near a ranch in Tamaulipas state, where they had been murdered by members of Los Zetas, a drug cartel that is heavily involved in the kidnapping for ransom racket.

In December, another 40 undocumented persons were kidnapped in Oaxaca, and disappeared without a trace. Another group of at least 80 mostly Central American migrants were kidnapped in late June in Veracruz; again, their location is unknown.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) says 20,000 migrants were kidnapped in 2010. Ransom demands were between 1,500 and 5,000 dollars per person, according to the Commission.

This year there have been at least seven cases of attacks on defenders of migrants’ rights, compared to two documented between October 2009 and October 2010, according to human rights groups.

“The situation is complicated. The police are in cahoots with organised crime. We are waiting to see what happens; I have no idea how we’re going to get out of here,” said Miguel, who has asked the Nicaraguan embassy in Mexico for help.

The migrant rights organisations are calling for the creation of a centralised data bank on missing people and unidentified bodies; a system for states to share information; and access by victims’ families to this information.

They are also calling for a programme to address the lack of investigation of crimes against migrants and the impunity surrounding such crimes, and they want the IACHR Tapporteur on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families to play an active role in following up on the Mexican government’s compliance with recommendations made by the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

“The blame cannot only be put on organised crime, and the Mexican government should assume responsibility in the context of its international commitments to protect migrants and guarantee their rights,” said Venet. “We are going to ask (the rapporteur) to push for a new approach, focused on the safety of migrants.”

“We are caught in the crossfire, between organised crime and the government, and trying not to make them our enemies. We want the government to have instruments to address migration issues in terms of development and to recognise the efforts of those of us who work day to day with migrants,” said Gutiérrez.

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