In a video released by the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) last month, viewers learn the story of “Gabriela.” Forced by a Honduran gang to work in a brothel, the 14-year-old says in her video that after she refused to date one of the gang’s leaders, she was shot twice. Shortly thereafter, fearing for her life, she decided to make the journey to the United States to reunite with her mother.
The young girl explains that in Mexico she was stopped by armed men who identified themselves as authorities. These men killed many of the migrants in her group, Gabriela says. She escaped, but only to be detained by Mexico’s National Migration Institute, the institution in charge of migration enforcement operations. The immigration officers did not offer to help Gabriela reunite with her mother in the United States; instead, they told her she could remain in “state custody” until she turned 18. Gabriela chose to return to her native Honduras.
Gabriela’s video is one of several released in conjunction with a new report, titled A Trail of Impunity, detailing how Mexico is failing to adequately screen migrants who are seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Further, as the video notes, “Mexico and the United States lack mechanisms to address cases like Gabriela’s, in which youths might qualify for protection in Mexico but have family in the United States.”
Instead of providing those seeking safety with needed resources and support, both nations have focused on increasing border enforcement, exposing migrants like Gabriela—from the Northern Triangle countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—to further violence.
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How Enforcement Policies Put Migrants at Risk
In 2011, Mexico amended its Constitution to acknowledge the human right to seek and receive asylum, in an effort to improve the asylum process and other forms of protection in Mexico. But it hasn’t improved, according to WOLA’s new report, which suggests granting asylum hasn’t become a priority for the country.
This may be due to a focus on controlling the flow of migrants, especially the number of migrants entering the United States, through detainment and deportation. Mexican officials announced the Southern Border Program in July 2014, during the Central American refugee crisis that President Obama called an “urgent humanitarian situation.” In response to the thousands of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum, the United States purportedly “outsourced” the problem to Mexico. As the New York Times reported, “The United States has given Mexico tens of millions of dollars for the fiscal year  that ended Sept. 30 to stop these migrants from reaching the United States border to claim asylum.”
“From our view, there was a specific ask [made to the Mexican government] from the United States: ‘You need to help us stop as many Central American migrants as possible from reaching our borders and coming through Mexico.’ Mexico took that on,” said Maureen Meyer, WOLA’s senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights and co-author of the report.
According to a WOLA report from last year, there has been an increase in detention and deportation of those seeking asylum in Mexico. “Between July 2014 and June 2015, migrant apprehensions rose 73 percent compared to the same period for the previous year; from July 2013 to June 2014, 97,245 migrants were detained, while between July 2014 and June 2015, 168,280 migrants were detained,” the report notes.
A Trail of Impunity details the concerns that have arisen for Central American migrants after the implementation of the Southern Border Program. The program’s stated objective was “to bring order to migration in Mexico’s southern region while protecting the human rights of migrants who enter and travel through the country.” The effect has been anything but that, according to immigrants’ rights advocates.
For example, the increase in migration enforcement operations, including mobile checkpoints, has forced some migrants to take more dangerous routes than they might have previously. “Taking more unsafe routes means an increase in deaths, but it also means an increase in organized criminal groups [from Mexico] who engage in smuggling, which we see a lot,” Meyer told Rewire.
The Mexican government is not able to “fully secure” its southern border because it’s part river and part jungle. As a result, there isn’t a way for the government to have a complete presence there, so its solution has been to create “corridors of security,” mostly checkpoints in southern Mexico that stop cars and buses. The Mexican government is also conducting raids on shelters migrants are known to stay at, and hindering a once popular form of travel: riding atop trains.
For several years, Central American migrants made their way across Mexico, often with the ultimate goal of reaching the United States, atop freight trains they called La Bestia, or The Beast. But now that the Mexican government is regularly conducting raids of trains, migrants have been forced to find other ways to travel.
“All of this has really pushed migrants to very remote areas or forced them to walk through dangerous zones as a way to avoid checkpoints, basically putting them in the hands of criminal groups,” Meyer said. “There are parts of Southern Mexico where it’s very widely known migrants get off of a bus or a vehicle and walk to avoid certain checkpoints, and there are criminal gangs waiting there to rob them, rape women, kidnap women, all sorts of horrible things.”
“Just as we have seen in the United States, when you have increased border enforcement, you put migrants at more risk,” she said.
The report also outlines various due process concerns of migrants during the screening process. One “huge oversight,” said Meyer, is the issue of immigration officials allegedly failing to ask Central American migrants if they have fears around returning to their country. Meyer explained that “legally and technically,” when you detain someone and put them in a processing center, a series of questions should be asked, including one that would detect whether protections from Mexico are needed. Mexican officials are not doing this, even though Mexico’s refugee laws have broader definitions than those in the United States, she said. For example, Mexico’s asylum law specifically protects those fleeing gender-based violence, while the United States does not have a gender category.
Addressing Crimes Against Migrants
A Trail of Impunity also outlines how Mexico’s Southern Border Program “has increased human rights violations and crimes against migrants during migration operations” and migrant shelters throughout the country “continue to document kidnappings, extortions, robberies, and other abuses, many at the hands of corrupt officials.”
In a different video produced by WOLA in conjunction with the new report, a young Central American man shares that he was attacked shortly after crossing the border into Mexico. “I am a victim of Mexico,” he says. Another migrant from the Northern Triangle shares that in Veracruz, Mexico, the notorious and murderous gang Los Zetas—comprised of former Mexican army commandos and responsible for mass kidnappings and mass murders—grabbed a member of the group he was traveling with and “cut him in half with a chainsaw.”
Mexican authorities have only recently adopted measures within Mexico’s attorney general office to address crimes against migrants, including the Unit for the Investigation of Crimes for Migrants and the Mechanism for Mexican Foreign Support in the Search and Investigation. A Trail of Impunity notes that the latter program aims to provide access to the Mexican justice system for victims who are not in Mexico, which is particularly important for the family members of migrants who were kidnapped or disappeared in Mexico.
While these seem like promising advances, resources have been an issue. WOLA explains in its report that the Unit is in dire need of staff and resources to investigate the 129 cases it’s recently received. As of this month, Unit only has five prosecutors and two investigative police officers, meaning each prosecutor is responsible for the investigation of 25 cases and each investigative police officer has 64 cases. More dire, both Unit and Mechanism have operational guidelines, but neither were developed with any input from victims and “the criteria used to classify crimes is not clear, nor it is clear why the Unit is not investigating cases of disappeared migrants,” according to the report.
As a result of these shortcomings, the report’s authors note that migrant shelters have become “the first line of defense for vulnerable migrants.” Not only do they provide food, clothing, and medical care, but shelter workers document crimes and human rights violations against migrants. The latter puts shelter workers in danger because so often the crimes they are documenting were said to have been committed by Mexican authorities.
Despite being relatively disappointing thus far, Meyer said that the implementation of the Unit and the Mechanism are a good start.
“No one can say that systems weren’t needed to address crimes against migrants, especially when it has become so clear that Central American migrants in particular are targets for kidnapping, exhortation, and sexual violence,” Meyer said. “But they need to continue building capacity for the prosecution and investigation in these types of cases. Honestly, I don’t think the Mexican government has prioritized this. Over the last decade, we’ve seen mass kidnappings, sexual assaults, mass graves, yet no prosecution in these cases. We see the Mexican government taking small steps to address this, but they’re nowhere near where they need to be.”
Mexico’s Detention System
In Mexico, Central American migrants don’t just fear being victims of violent crime; being detained is also becoming increasingly common. With conditions similar to those of prisons, many asylum seekers agree to be deported just to get out of detention, according to the WOLA report.
As is often the case in the United States, migrants in Mexico are detained while their asylum cases are pending. There are primarily two types of detention centers: those that are very short-term, intended to hold migrants for just a few days before they’re sent to a different location or are deported back to their country of origin; and larger centers in major cities, like Mexico City, that detain people who are requesting asylum or migrants from countries where it is difficult to deport them back to. For example, Meyer said those from Haiti, which is experiencing a migrant crisis of its own, require specific paperwork and their country’s consulate to recognize who they are, which takes time.
According to WOLA’s report, Mexican authorities detained 425,058 migrants between 2014 and July 2016. During this same period, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados or COMAR), the agency responsible for screening and processing refugee claims, only resolved 6,933 asylum applications. From these, COMAR granted just 2,982 cases asylum status.
COMAR’s budget has not increased while the National Migration Institute’s has. Rather than bolstering the systems in place to screen asylum seekers for protection, Mexico has prioritized enforcement to address the Central American refugee crisis.
Meyer told Rewire that COMAR currently only has 15 officers, so if an asylum seeker is detained in a location that doesn’t have a COMAR office, a video conference is required. And each agent only has a short amount of time to make a decision on the case, because 15 officers are handling the nearly 3,000 requests for asylum that have been received so far this year, she said.
“To really do the due diligence and investigate their country’s conditions and to give asylum seekers clear guidelines about what kind of information they need—that all takes time,” Meyer said. “In the U.S., migrants who don’t have legal support are less likely to win their cases, and it’s the same in Mexico. It’s usually only once a case is declined that people realize they could have asked for assistance in other ways.”
Migrant detention is the sole responsibility of the National Migration Institute, though NMI doesn’t actually call them “detention centers.” Meyer said they are referred to as “migration stations,” with Mexico claiming they don’t detain people, but rather “hold them administratively.”
“The biggest issue for asylum seekers in detention is that if you are detained and decide to seek asylum protection, you will be detained the whole time,” Meyer told Rewire. This would have been the case for Gabriela, the young girl featured in WOLA’s video series, had she chosen to stay in Mexico.
“It’s a horrible situation, it’s like being in jail,” the WOLA senior associate told Rewire. “A lot of migrants just end up dismissing their own claims because they don’t want to be locked up indefinitely.”
WOLA’s video series aims to educate the public on the limited options available to those fleeing violent conditions. However, as Meyer explained, an uncomfortable fact remains: There is a hesitancy by the Mexican population to view migrants crossing the border as part of their society. Until Mexican citizens come to understand what is happening, and voice their support of refugees and Central Americans, chances are little will change in terms of how this vulnerable population is treated.
“The severity of the crisis in Central America hasn’t gotten into the Mexican population’s consciousness,” the senior associate said. “We really hope people come to understand that these migrants are not just people going to the U.S. or Mexico in search of work; these are people fleeing for their lives and seeking protection. Mexico hasn’t really fully assumed the role it needs to take in all of this, it’s still very much a work in progress. In the meantime, vulnerable people are suffering.”