Central American migrants face perilous journey

Ploughshares Forced Displacement and Migration, Ploughshares Monitor

Irregular migration through Mexico to the United States has occurred for decades. However, the growing number of Central American migrants (mainly from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) crossing Mexico and the evolution of border controls and enforcement require further scrutiny. The hard security policies implemented at the U.S.-Mexico border are diligently being enforced throughout Mexico and are extending to the southern Mexican border with Guatemala. This extension of U.S. border politics into Mexico benefits the United States, with Mexico acting as an extra U.S. border enforcer. The results for migrants have been dangerous journeys and heightened risks of human-rights violations.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 3 Autumn 2018 by Carla Angulo-Pasel

Irregular migration through Mexico

According to the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM), approximately 80,500 irregular migrants from Central America were detained in Mexico in 2017. Although official statistics cannot account for all irregular migrants, given their clandestine nature, these numbers help to highlight the violence in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, which, according to Amnesty International, has resulted in “one of the world’s most invisible refugee crises.”

Most irregular migrants are fleeing palpable violence in their countries of origin and seek asylum in either Mexico or the United States. They must travel approximately 1,500 kilometres to reach Texas (the shortest route to the United States) and close to 3,500 kilometres to arrive in California. During their arduous journeys through Mexico, they face more violence, with extortion, kidnapping, physical and sexual assault, and human trafficking all potential realities.

Those irregular migrants from lower socioeconomic strata, who do not have sufficient funds to travel via more conventional modes of transportation, board a network of cargo freight trains, known as ‘La Bestia.’ Migrants travel on top of these trains; many fall off, dying or losing limbs. Others travelling on ‘La Bestia’ are targeted by criminal gangs, who board the trains and charge travellers a $U.S.100 “fee.” Migrants who do not pay can be beaten and/or thrown off the train and left for dead. With corruption common among authorities and train operators, these gangs operate with impunity.

The dangers for migrants, especially women

Because they need to remain hidden to avoid apprehension and detention, migrants tend to travel in more secluded, wooded areas, avoiding authorities and/or checkpoints. These areas are typically also targeted by criminal elements that can subject migrants to physical violence, which can be combined with rape, kidnapping. and human trafficking.

Migrants who are kidnapped are taken to “safe houses” and typically held for ransom. Migrant women, who are taken for human trafficking, are used for prostitution, typically in the border zones with Guatemala and the United States. The state of Chiapas, especially Tapachula, is well known for its brothels and bars in which prostitution takes place.

Exploitation combined with sexual violence is too often becoming a norm for migrant women. Although official statistics are inaccurate, as few crimes are reported by migrants, members of civil society groups estimate that approximately 80 per cent of women transiting through Mexico will experience sexual violence. Sexual violence is so prevalent that women take contraceptives in preparation for the journey.

The role of Mexico and the United States

In the summer of 2014, the Mexican government implemented Programa Frontera Sur (Southern Border Plan). This policy, on paper, seeks to regulate the flow of Central American migrants, guarantee their human rights, and protect the region’s security. In reality, it has increased human-rights violations and the vulnerability of those seeking to move to the United States.

Implementation of this policy was at least partly a response to political pressure by the Obama administration, which was attempting to resolve the “border crisis” created when thousands of unaccompanied minors overwhelmed the U.S. Border Patrol along the southern U.S. border. On the ground in Mexico, however, this policy justified the securitization of key internal migration corridors (train routes and highways), increasing police and military raids and adding checkpoints. It also prompted the escalation of abuse and the detention of hundreds of thousands of migrants. According to the INM, the number of irregular migrants from Central America detained in 2014 was 119,714, an increase of approximately 67 per cent from the previous year (80,757).

Not only did abuses by government authorities intensify, but migrants were more easily targeted by criminal gangs, because migration routes and patterns had to change to avoid authorities. These changes took migrants away from established routes, often away from migrant shelters that intentionally operate along these corridors.

Evidence of heightened danger can be seen in the increase in the number of Humanitarian Visas that have been granted since 2014 (see chart). The Humanitarian Visa grants a foreigner temporary status for one year if that foreigner suffers a crime while on Mexican territory.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the human rights violations that resulted after Programa Frontera Sur was implemented and urged the Mexican government to adhere to international standards regarding the use of force in immigration enforcement operations.

2014 2015 2016 2017
Humanitarian Visas granted  








Source: Secretaría de Gobernación

How does the future look?

The future of irregular migrants travelling through Mexico remains dangerous and uncertain.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has made it abundantly clear that the United States is not interested in providing asylum to Central American migrants, despite its responsibilities under international conventions.

The U.S. Department of Justice has recently created further barriers to accessing legal claims of refugee status by prohibiting the use of gang violence and gender-based violence as grounds for such claims.

The U.S. government has even proposed the negotiation of a bilateral agreement with Mexico that would designate Mexico as a “safe” country. This option would be like the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States. But designating Mexico as a “safe” country for migrants clearly does not consider the severe human-rights violations taking place throughout Mexico. Such a measure would be very controversial.

We can’t be sure how the newly elected Mexican president, Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador, will handle irregular migration. Although he is a leftist politician, he is also considered a nationalist who is primarily interested in governing for the benefit of Mexicans, not foreigners. His comments on Twitter and various media reports indicate that he will aim to lower immigration and improve security. In other words, more of the same can be expected.

Dr. Carla Angulo-Pasel has a PhD in Global Governance from the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario. She can be reached at cangulo-pasel [at] balsillieschool.ca.

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