Mexico: Abuses Against U.S. Bound Migrant Workers

Kurt Birson

If not for the testimony of 18-year-old Ecuadorian migrant Freddy Lala, who narrowly escaped death at the hands of professional kidnappers, the August 26 massacre of 72 migrants may have remained out of the eye of the mainstream media and chalked up as another example of the violent turf war fought by Mexico's organized crime syndicates. However, the events point to another serious and common issue in Mexico, the chronic human rights violations of migrant workers as they pass through the country in transit to the United States. Every year, according to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), around 20,000 migrants are kidnapped, and thousands more are subjected to sexual assault, robberies, extortion, murder, beatings, and humiliation from gangs, cartels, and government authorities before they reach the United States.

In 2009 the CNDH published its “Special Report on the Kidnapping of Migrants,” which reviews in detail the hardship endured by migrants as they head north, and examines the aforementioned dangers as an alarming pattern of human rights violations. The report also highlights the increased vulnerability of women migrants, who are subject to sexual assault and forced prostitution.

The Tamaulipas massacre is the third of its kind within the last six months in Mexico, with 55 killed in an incident in May, and 51 in another in July.

Since 2001 there have been predictions that these types of abuses would increase, when Mexico began a U.S.-sponsored plan to harden its border enforcement strategy. That year Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Immigrant Support Center in Guatemala City, told the World Press Review that “Militarizing the anti-immigration effort in Mexico may result in a major increase in violations of the human rights of immigrants.” As hard-line policies have forced immigrants to take more dangerous and vulnerable routes through Mexico, his prediction has thus far proved true.

In just the six-month period between September 2008 and February 2009, the CNDH recorded 198 instances of kidnappings of migrant workers in Mexico.

Earlier this year a report from Amnesty International, observed that a "[p]ersistent failure by the authorities to tackle abuses carried out against irregular migrants has made their journey through Mexico one of the most dangerous in the world."

But despite the known risks associated with the journey, migrant workers consider the rewards greater than the dangers, and continue to emigrate in large numbers.

These risks represent a growing, systematic phenomenon of abuse in an environment of ambivalence, indecision, and inaction by the Mexican government when it comes to protecting migrants. Ironically, for the leaders of a country that sees 600,000 of its own citizens trying to cross into the United States every year, Mexican authorities seem curiously indifferent to the fate of migrants coming from Central and South American countries. Columnist Miguel Ángel Granados Chapa, wrote in the newspaper Reforma that, "[Mexico is] wounded and scandalized by the conduct of U.S. institutions and some of its people against our citizens up north . . . But a similar or worse mistreatment happens here to Central and South Americans." Corruption remains rampant among Federal Police forces – especially those posted at the southern borders with Guatemala and Belize.

With little protection from the authorities and few resources, migrant workers are extremely vulnerable to abuse, often turning to people-trafficking coyotes to smuggle them across borders. Migrant smuggling is reported to be a $6.6 billion a year industry in Mexico, making the business attractive to organized crime. Cartels and gangs then prey on the desperate migrants trying to get into the United States and kidnap them for ransom. Those who refuse or are unable to pay ransoms of $1,500 to $5,000, like the 72 in Tamaulipas, are considered worthless and killed. Worse yet for the undocumented migrants, they cannot turn to police because of their less-than-legal status. Many of these incidents are brought to the attention of the authorities, but just as many go unreported.

In 2001, Mexico implemented Plan Sur (Southern Plan), a program supported by the United States that was designed to step up border security at Mexico's southern borders. The plan implemented extra measures to prevent passage to Mexico from the south, including increased military checkpoints and heavier enforcement. In a statement about the proposed aims of the plan, Felipe de Jesus Preciado Coronado, then-commissioner of Mexico's National Migration Institute overseeing Plan Sur, explained that “we're trying to catch [undocumented migrants] because its good for Mexico... but I also know very well that our efforts are of great benefit to the US.”

Guatemala followed suit with its own sister operation to Plan Sur called Venceremos 2001, using similar enforcement strategies along the border shared with Mexico. The plan was reported to have reduced the number of migrants crossing through Mexican borders by 30%, but migrants themselves have reported that it just forced them to take riskier routes.

From the U.S. perspective, Mexico's status as a transit country for U.S.-bound migrants, makes enforcement along these southern borders key to its own deterrence strategy.

The United States’ own hard stance against immigrants has included building a wall at the border with Mexico, and an increased concentration of Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops in the region. This approach has tended to further punish migrant workers while the more sophisticated organized criminals are able to evade — or buy their way — past border checkpoints.

In August the U.S. border-enforcement law HR 6080, which will commit $600 million in personnel, vehicles (including unmanned drones), and equipment towards tighter border security, went into effect. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said the new funding would produce “significantly more deportations.” And, she might have added, more kidnapping victims for Mexico’s organized criminals.


Kurt Birson is a NACLA Research Associate.

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