Mexico: Migrants’ massacre result of bad policy

Undocumented migrants and Mexican citizens rally against the massacre, August 28.

In late August, Mexican authorities found the bodies of 72 migrants from Central and South America. They had been kidnapped on their way to the United States, brutally shot and left to die in a remote, abandoned ranch near a small town in northeastern Mexico.

Eighteen-year-old Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla was one of two survivors of the massacre who managed to escape and lead authorities to the crime scene. He claimed he and his fellow US-bound migrants were kidnapped by the Zetas drug cartel and told they would either have to pay a ransom or work as drug couriers and hit men.

When most refused, they were “blindfolded, ordered to lie down and shot”, the said on August 29.

Escalated violence has made it harder to carry out a swift and thorough investigation. On August 26, two bombs exploded near the morgue where the bodies of the 72 migrant victims were being kept, AFP said on August 28.

An August 27 article said the Mexican detective heading the investigation, along with another officer, was found dead near the massacre site. The mayor of Hidalgo, a town not far from where the migrants’ were found, was killed by gunmen on August 29, the Associated Press said that day.

Many in the international community have pointed fingers at Mexico and criticised its inability to protect the basic human rights of the migrants who pass through it. But the massacre also highlights the desperate need for immigration reform in the US.

The scale of the massacre was unprecedented. However, its sad and horrific details are not uncommon. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission estimates about 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year in Mexico.

Other experts believe about 60,000 migrants have disappeared in Mexico on their way to the US over the past five years. Stories abound of migrants being killed by organised crime gangs and “hacked up, dissolved in acid or buried in unmarked paupers’ graves”.

The kidnapping and extortion of poor migrants reaps in about US$3 million a year for organised crime. Despite a decrease in immigration to the US, border deaths on the US side of the border, most of them heat-related, are close to reaching a record-breaking high, the August 24 Los Angeles Times said.

For those who survive the journey, few arrive unscathed. Migrants are forced to “walk through remote jungles, sleep outside, and ride atop dangerous trains to avoid immigration checkpoints”, the August 27 Wall Street Journal said. Along the way, gangs and thugs, as well as local police, taxi drivers and government officials, demand bribes.

A 2010 Amnesty International report said as many as six in 10 women end up becoming victims of sexual violence during the trip. Throughout their journey, migrants are treated as exploitable cargo by their smugglers.

If and when they make it to the US, they are viewed as cheap labour or trespassing “criminals”, depending on who you ask. Nonetheless, they continue coming.

The April 27 Guardian reported that Leticia Gutierrez, a nun who works with shelters across Mexico explained: “The poverty they are running from is so desperate they are willing to risk everything.”

The August 27 LA Times wrote: “The Tamaulipas massacre underscores the failure of the Mexican government to provide vulnerable migrants with the protection and due process required by international law and the Mexican Constitution.”

In 2008, the Mexican Congress “acknowledged that the current harsh penalties weakened Mexico’s position in arguing for better treatment of its own migrants in the United States” and voted unanimously to decriminalise undocumented immigration to Mexico.

However, Mexican immigration reform is a work in progress. Article 67 of Mexico’s immigration law still requires law enforcement to demand that foreigners prove their legal presence in the country, and as a result, most migrants don’t report abuses to Mexican authorities out of fear that they will be deported if they complain.

The Mexican interior department has been working to repeal Article 67, an August 28 article said, “so that no one can deny or restrict foreigners’ access to justice and human rights, whatever their migratory status”.

However, though President Felipe Calderon’s administration has pledged that the massacre will not go unpunished, few have bothered to make the connection this past week between Article 67 and the horrific crimes that are taking place.

Nor has there been any talk of rethinking Calderon’s militarised drug war, which even his administration admits has made criminal gangs “desperate and forced them increasingly into other businesses, such as extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking”.

Experts say the single-minded focus on border security in the absence of immigration reform has caused the rise in migrant deaths and disappearances. Just as the “insatiable demand” for illicit drugs in the US fuels the bloody drug war in Latin America, heavy demand for and a steady supply of immigrant workers together with an outdated visa system that shuts most migrants out of the US has fueled the profitable and violent human smuggling business.

Though increased border security has made it increasingly difficult for migrants to enter the US illegally, it hasn’t stopped them from coming. Instead, it has increased the profitability of the human smuggling business and strengthened its ties with organised crime.

In 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle reported: “As U.S. border security has tightened, Mexican drug cartels have moved in ... the traffickers now use their expertise in gathering intelligence on border patrols, logistics and communication devices to get around ever tighter controls.”

The article quoted Carlos Velez-Ibanez, professor at Arizona State University, who explained: “Now, because of the so-called security needs of the border, what’s been created is this structure of smuggling in the hands of really nasty people who only treat the migrant as a commodity.”

Fortunately, for the most part, violence in Mexico has not spilled over, and AP reported on June 3 the US border was “safer than ever”. However, that has not stopped opportunistic lawmakers from exploiting the massacre to argue for more border security at the expense of immigration reform.

The old visa quotas should be replaced with a system that would devastate the lucrative human smuggling business by allowing more economic migrants to enter the US legally, rather than paying someone to smuggle them through.

In the meantime, while lawmakers block practical solutions to score cheap political points, thousands of migrants are dying and disappearing in search of the increasingly elusive American Dream.

[Abridged from]