Dangers Rising for Central American Migrants in Mexico


By Kraig Cook, Seattle CISPES

Abuses and dangers for migrantscrossing the Mexico-US border in search of economic opportunity are well-known.  Far fewer people are aware of the dangers that migrants from Central and SouthAmerica face on the way to the border – from organized crime rings, Mexican lawenforcement and the failed US efforts to fight the “War on Drugs” in Mexico.Even before reaching the militarized and patrolled US-Mexico border wall, migrantsface kidnapping, sexual assault, extortion and murder from those seeking toprofit from this vulnerable transient population. Mexican authorities frequently take no action against the perpetrators, or worse, governmentauthorities are implicated in human rights abuses against migrants .

The government of El Salvador, under the guidance of the country’s first leftist head of state Mauricio Funes along with the Frente Farabundo Martí para laLiberación Nacional (FMLN) party have begun taking steps to create protections for migrants traveling through Mexico in search of the “American Dream”.                 

In a recent incident highlighting the terrible risk associated with the journeynorth, 50 Central American migrants were kidnapped in the southern Mexicanstate of Oaxaca last December. These migrants were taken from a freight trainwhile attempting to traverse the country to the US border. Witnesses claim thatthe powerful “Los Zetas” drug cartel carried out the mass kidnapping. Themigrants were reportedly being ransomed back to their families for $10,000 per person. This particular train had already been stopped by Mexicanimmigration authorities, raising questions about collusion between theseauthorities and the kidnappers.

Last August, another terrifying attack occurred when 72 Central American migrantswere massacred in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which borders theUS. A survivor of the massacre has alleged that these killings were alsoperpetrated by Los Zetas, after the migrants refused to pay or work for thecartel. To date, the Mexican government has not made any arrests in connectionto the massacre.

The Los Zetas cartel is a startling consequence of the US regional “War on Drugs”.The cartel was founded by former Mexican military agents trained incounter-insurgency and anti-narcotrafficking at the School of Americas in Ft.Benning, Georgia. Today, the same kind of training and US-cooperation that gaveLos Zetas an edge as a violent organized crime syndicate continues to flow throughMexico and Central America through the Mérida Initiative (“Plan Mexico”) – a$1.3 billion dollar anti-narcotrafficking package paid for by US taxpayers totrain and arm Mexico’s military and police. Latin America’s economic refugees are book-ended by failed US policies: the US-sponsored free trade agreements and neoliberal programs that exacerbatepoverty and unemployment in their home countries and the violence spawned by the militarized US border and the terrifying consequences of the “War on Drugs.”

The numbers of kidnappings and other crimes against migrants are shocking: in 2009, Mexico’s Human Rights Commission estimated that nearly 10,000 undocumentedimmigrants had been kidnapped in the six months prior to February 2009. Womenface particular danger on the journey; human rights groups estimate that up to6 out of 10 females attempting to cross through Mexico are sexually assaulted.

Migrants in Mexico are reluctant to report their crimes for fear of detention ordeportation due to a law that requires all foreign nationals to presentevidence of legal status to federal, state and municipal authorities whenrequesting assistance, who are required by law to report undocumented personsto immigration authorities. The Mexican government does have a system oftemporary visas for migrants who have witnessed or been victims of crime.However, few migrants are informed of this option and not all Mexicanauthorities adhere to it.

Human rights groups have further accused Mexican law enforcement bodies of participatingin the violence and crimes against migrants, having been  implicated in using excessive force,including the killing of three migrants when Chiapas state police opened fireon a truck carrying migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador andChina in 2009. In this case, the migrants from Central America were immediately repatriated to their own countries, precluding their involvement in anycriminal investigation against the police.                   

In response to the escalation of violence against migrants in Mexico, ElSalvador’s FMLN party signed a cooperation agreement with Mexico’s two leftistpolitical parties, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and the WorkersParty (PT). The agreement recognizes the ineffectiveness of the Mexican authoritiesto stem the violence and crime faced by migrants, and pledges future efforts todevelop laws protecting the human rights of migrants in El Salvador and Mexico.  Additionally, El Salvador’s legislative Foreign Affairs Commission is workingon national legislation to define concrete procedures and governmental bodiescharged to protect undocumented migrants and their families. Legislators hopeto pass the law before President Obama’s visit in March to send a clear signalthat caring for migrants is the Assembly’s highest foreign policy priority.

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