Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Wall of Violence" on Mexico's Southern Border

Calderon’s “two-faced” policy combines police, the military, gangs, and Los Zetas to fulfill US mandate to deter Central American migration

“Humberto” is a Honduran subsistence farmer. He grows his beans and vegetables without pesticides and herbicides. “The chemicals they put in food these days ruin the taste,” he says. Humberto has a patch of land, a house, a wife, and five children—three of whom still live at home.

Like many small farmers, Humberto has a lot of debt. The bank is going to take his home if he doesn’t come up with the approximately USD$17,000 he owes. So Humberto packed some clothes, kissed the wife and kids goodbye, and headed north to the United States. He told them he’d be back as soon as he’d paid off the debt; it wouldn’t take long.

Humberto had planned to take the route most undocumented Central Americans take north: he took buses, combis (vans), and hitched rides towards Mexico’s southern border. He crossed the Suchiate River that divides Guatemala’s Tecún Umán from Ciudad Hidalgo in Chiapas, Mexico. He took the combis north to Arriaga, Chiapas, where he planned to hop on a freight train, perched precariously on its roof as it headed towards Oaxaca. In Oaxaca he’d hop a different train to Veracruz; from Veracruz he’d hop a train to Mexico state, and from there he’d get on a train headed to one of five crossing areas on the Mexico-US border. He’d figure out how to cross into the US when he got there.

But Humberto’s plans were put on hold in Arriaga. As Humberto waited for the train in Arriaga—it leaves every three days—he made friends with some fellow train-hoppers who said they were Guatemalan. They chatted, shared a couple of kilos of tortillas and a can of sardines that Humberto had scared up (“Woo! We ate rich that day,” he remembers), and dozed on the train tracks. At some point—Humberto doesn’t remember exactly when—the Guatemalans disappeared. He looked around, wondering where they went, and saw why they’d fled so fast: a police patrol was headed his way. An unidentified man dressed in plainclothes accompanied them.

Humberto ran. The police and the man ran faster. The man in plainclothes caught Humberto first. He hit Humberto in the ankle with a club. Humberto’s ankle shattered and he crumpled to the ground. Their job done, police and the man started to leave. They had no interest in arresting Humberto.

“Hey!” Humberto shouted. “You guys can’t just break my foot and leave me here! Take me to a hospital!”

The police and the mysterious man heeded Humberto’s cries. They radioed for an ambulance. The plainclothes man—Humberto doesn’t know if he was police or paramilitary—supported Humberto on his right side. A police officer put Humberto’s left arm around his shoulder and together they helped him to the road and waited until the ambulance came to pick him up.

When the hospital discharged Humberto, he went to the Catholic Church’s Casa del Migrante “El Hogar de la Misericordia” (“House of Mercy”), a shelter for migrants that provides them with food and a roof over their heads. Even though migrants are only allowed to stay for three days while they wait for the train to leave, Father Heyman Vazquez and his humanitarian team let migrants stay longer if the need arises. With his leg in a cast and multiple pins in his ankle, Humberto will be incapacitated for months. The Casa del Migrante will let Humberto stay until he recovers. The shelter has an agreement with the local hospital, which treats shelter residents for free.

Humberto says he’ll continue north when he recovers. He has to pay off that debt or he won’t have a house to go home to.

I ponder Humberto’s bravery in the face of such brutality, more of which is certainly awaiting him further north.

“Did you pay a coyote?” I ask him. Coyotes charge a high price for trafficking migrants through Mexico and across the US border. Their financial agreements with government agents (both US and Mexican) provide their clients with a certain degree of security.

“No, I didn’t,” Humberto replies. “I’m on my own.”

Part of the Price

Humberto’s story is repeated throughout El Hogar de la Misericordia and its sister Casas del Migrante in Oaxaca and Veracruz. The actors often change—sometimes the attackers are gang members, or police, or soldiers, or drug cartel members, or immigration agents. Too often, as in Humberto’s case, they seem to be a combination of several of the above. Together they take advantage of the impunity provided by the government to rob and abuse migrants, forming what several immigration activists have referred to as a “Wall of Violence” that discourages migrants from ever wanting to set foot on Mexican soil.

The “Wall of Violence” is fierce: El Hogar de la Misericordia estimates that 80% of all migrants who pass through Chiapas have been assaulted during their travels. Approximately 30% of the women who come to El Hogar de la Misericordia report being sexually assaulted in la Arrocera, Chiapas, which is only one of many stops along the migrants’ route. Fermina Rodriguez of the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center, which monitors human rights on Mexico’s southern border, says, “When you talk to women, they consider rape to be part of the price they pay to migrate.”


“Two-faced”

The “Wall of Violence” shouldn’t exist in Mexico. In mid-2007, Mexico decriminalized undocumented migrants. It did away with the ten-year prison sentences the law used to allow and now refers to foreigners who enter the country illegally as “administrative irregularities.” Police and soldiers shouldn’t be carrying out operations—be they official or clandestine—against undocumented migrants. But they do.

On October 15, 2008, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon met with Salvadoran President Elías Antonio Saca to call on the United States government to decriminalize immigrants in the US. Calderon also agreed to reform regulations that apply to undocumented Salvadorans in Mexico. One promised reform will allow undocumented Salvadorans to enter a Mexican program to earn a bachelor’s degree in English. In announcing the pact between the two nations, Calderon stated that it was necessary to “protect the dignity of people who are in Mexican territory, regardless of their migration situation.”

In August 2008, Calderon had a similar meeting with Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. There, the two leaders called immigration “a human right.” Calderon promised his Honduran counterpart that his country would respect migrants’ human rights in Mexico, and he “reiterated our readiness to prevent cases of abuse and human rights violations that can happen on our southern border.”

However, Central American presidents aren’t the only leaders with a vested interest in how Mexico treats migrants passing through its territory.

Mexico is a participant in the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a North American initiative that aims to pick up where the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) left off. It aims to “harmonize” laws, regulations, and procedures related to migration, security, energy, health, trade, the environment, and agriculture. Thomas Shannon, Sub-Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the US State Department, summed up the SPP in one simple sentence: “To a certain extent, we’re armoring NAFTA.”

The SPP is able to succeed where NAFTA fell short because, unlike NAFTA, SPP initiatives do not need to be ratified by Congress. The North American Competitiveness Council (NACC), a group of thirty business leaders from Mexico, Canada, and the US, issues recommendations under the SPP, and the three countries’ executive branches commit to carry out the recommendations. In this sense, while NAFTA is a treaty, the SPP is more of a handshake agreement.

The SPP specifically deals with the nations’ borders. It aims to facilitate the flow of cargo, money, and “legitimate” people across borders. In its “Prosperity Agenda,” the SPP vows to “identify measures to facilitate further the movement of business persons within North America” [emphasis added] by developing a “trusted traveler program.” At the same time, the NACC recommends that leaders “enhance the use of biometrics in screening travelers destined to North America with a view to developing compatible biometric border and immigration systems.” Biometrics utilize unique biological identifiers such as fingerprints and DNA. The NACC also promised the presidents and prime minister, “We will develop standards for lower-cost secure proof of status and nationality documents.”

Globalization’s double standard under the SPP and free trade agreements such as NAFTA isn’t lost on Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, the southern coordinator of the Catholic Church’s Human Mobility Mission Migrants program: “The globalized economy has been, above all, machiavellian and immoral. The markets cross borders freely. Money crosses freely. The volatile speculative market, financial capital, even poultry magnates cross freely. But the migrant population isn’t given the same treatment.” While the SPP opens North American borders to capital and capitalists, it’s closing them to capitalism’s victims.

The SPP’s border recommendations are already being implemented through one of the SPP’s hundreds of programs and agreements: the Merida Initiative, aka Plan Mexico. While Plan Mexico’s aim is to combat organized crime, the US government snuck the SPP’s biometric equipment into the aid package for Mexico’s military and police. This past November 17, US Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza helped the Mexican government inaugurate the first of its sixty Plan Mexico-funded laboratories designed to determine the authenticity of immigration documents. While the head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Cecilia Romero, says the labs will combat human, drug, and arms trafficking, it’s unclear how they will fulfill all but the first goal. After all, illegal drugs and guns don’t carry immigration papers, and, as the Burro Hall blog points out, “On the list of antisocial activities committed by the cartels, sneaking into the country on false papers is pretty far down the list.”

Calderon’s desire to pander to both his Central American counterparts and the US government leaves Mexico with what a Contralinea editorial cartoon referred to as a “two-faced” immigration policy on the southern border: one on paper and another completely different one in reality. Solalinde argues, “If the Mexican government really wants to demonstrate that it respects human rights, it can’t just sign documents. It has to be consistent in all of its actions through all of its institutions and personnel in order to respect human rights. If it doesn’t do that, it leaves the impression that everything that’s happening on the southern border is state policy. The Mexican government doesn’t have the guts to put up a wall on the southern border. But in a lot of ways it’s putting up a de facto wall, because it’s causing a lot of people to die; it’s making a lot of people turn around and go back. There’s the suspicion that this is a state policy that’s coordinated with and financed by the United States so that migrants aren’t allowed to cross.”


Wall of Violence

“Migrants don’t have rights in Mexico,” says Father Heyman Vazquez Medina, founder of El Hogar de la Misericordia. “It’s ok to beat them, extort money from them, rob them, sexually abuse them, murder them, and nothing happens. Central American migrants’ legal security guarantees appear to be repeatedly and permanently violated by individuals and groups of people who rely on the protection, consent, tolerance, or acquiescence of the State and who have the power of weapons, money, police protection, corruption, and impunity. They have put a price on the head of each migrant.”

Migrant shelter staffers say those who abuse migrants operate with absolute impunity. Most migrants don’t report crimes because they don’t have the time or resources to stay in the town where the crime occurred in order to work on their cases. Others are so traumatized by their experiences that they just want to leave Mexico as soon as possible. Solalinde recalls one case where a woman was kidnapped from one of the shelters he oversees. Solalinde remained in contact with her family throughout the ordeal. When she finally turned up in the United States, she said that the group that kidnapped her forced her to make several pornographies. When they finally brought her to the US-Mexico border, they made her family pay thousands of dollars in ransom. Solalinde offered to fly her back south and pay all of her expenses if she filed a complaint with the government. The woman refused, saying she never wanted to set foot in Mexico ever again.

Even when migrants or human rights organizations do file complaints, they almost never result in arrests or convictions. Solalinde says that almost every time he calls the police because migrants have identified and located their attackers, he can’t find a police force that will arrest the suspects. They all say they don’t have jurisdiction in immigration affairs.

Vazquez says El Hogar de la Misericordia no longer bothers to file complains with Mexico’s official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH in its Spanish initials) when Mexican security forces abuse migrants. Even though he has provided the CNDH with photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony to police and military abuses, the CNDH generally says there is not enough evidence to issue a non-binding recommendation (the only “power” it has).

Migrants’ exploitation in Mexico begins the moment they attempt to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border. Mercedes Osuna of La Semilla del Sur, a Chiapas-based organization that works primarily on indigenous issues, recently followed the migration route from Guatemala to southern Mexico. She explains that a Guatemalan-Mexican “union” of raft owners traffics people and goods across the Suchiate River between Tecún Umán, Guatemala, and Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, in full view of an immigration office located next to the river. The rafts that ferry cheaper Mexican goods to Guatemala cost MX$10 (about 75 cents) per ride. Slightly further down the river, the same “union” uses the same rafts to ferry migrants from Guatemala to Mexico. Migrants pay USD$300. Faced with this steep price and barred from the 10-peso rafts, many migrants choose to wade or swim across. “The river is filthy and it stinks,” Osuna says.

After crossing the river into Ciudad Hidalgo, migrants walk or catch combis north to Arriaga. However, on the route between Ciudad Hidalgo and Arriaga, there is a Mexican immigration office. Osuna explains that to avoid passing this office, undocumented migrants must walk a roundabout route through an area called la Arrocera. La Arrocera is teeming with violent criminals who mug migrants as they pass through. Osuna spoke with some migrants who recently passed through la Arrocera. They told her that in la Arrocera they saw uniformed Chiapas state police in marked vehicles pick up and drop off people who mugged migrants. In la Arrocera, the muggers are painfully thorough: migrants complained to Osuna of being stripped searched. The assailants even checked their victims’ anuses and vaginas for hidden valuables.

Police don’t just offer rides to assailants; they often are the assailants. While immigration violations do not fall within the jurisdiction of the state police, police use migrants’ fear to their own advantage. Osuna explains that while police can’t legally ask migrants for identification (only immigration police can), they do so anyway in order to extort money from them.

Bricks in the Wall

There is, of course, a slightly safer way to migrate: pay a coyote, also known as a pollero. Coyotes charge migrants a hefty fee to shuttle them through unknown lands. Carlos Solis, coordinator of Arriaga’s El Hogar de la Misericordia, says that the coyotes’ price for passage between Arriaga and Ixtepec, Oaxaca, is a thousand pesos (about USD$75).

In Chiapas, the coyotes pay the train machinists to guarantee their clients’ passage. Osuna says that at some popular hop-on points, machinists will slow down the train if coyotes pay them to. On the other hand, if the train is approaching a group of migrants waiting to hop on, but a coyote hasn’t paid, the machinist will speed up the train, increasing the likeliness of injury as desperate immigrants attempt to jump on.

Coyotes also pay machinists for information on when the next train will leave. Osuna witnessed obvious machinist-coyote complicity in Arriaga during her visit there. On the day a freight train was rumored to leave, about 150-200 migrants waited by the train tracks. A train with only four cars began to move, but most of the migrants believed that the train wouldn’t leave with so few cars—engines move around the train yard to pick up cargo and cars, but the trains don’t leave the yard for good until dozens of cars are attached to the engine.

That day, however, the train left the Arriaga station with only four cars. Ten migrants who were accompanied by their pollero knew that the train was leaving and were able to get on. When other migrants saw the pollero’s clients get on, they realized what was happening and chased the train. About thirty of them managed to get on, but over 100 would have to wait three more days for the next train.

Gangs and Los Zetas also enforce the coyote system. Father Solalinde says that a few months ago in Veracruz, a group of people allegedly working for Los Zetas boarded a train full of migrants. The men had lists of the names of migrants who had paid coyotes. They asked each migrant for his or her name and checked the name against the list. If the migrant’s name did not appear on the list, the man with the list told him or her, “You haven’t paid your pollero.” Solalinde recounts, “And if the migrant refused to pay, he was thrown from the train. Several migrants lost limbs that way. And the pollero who doesn’t pay Los Zetas gets it even worse.”

The gangs and Los Zetas have financial incentive to make sure the migrants pay their polleros: Los Zetas, former Mexican soldiers from an elite US-trained Special Forces team who deserted to work in the more lucrative drug trade, charge coyotes a fee to operate in their territory.

Los Zetas don’t stop at taking money from migrants through their coyotes; they also rob and kidnap migrants. This past October, 32 Central American migrants escaped from Los Zetas’ custody in the Mexican state of Puebla. Los Zetas and municipal police had kidnapped the Central Americans and demanded USD$2,500 from each migrant’s family in the United States. Father Vazquez says mass kidnappings of migrants, even women and children, are common.

Solis says that a Chiapas state police commander told him that Los Zetas are also infiltrating El Hogar de la Misericordia. About five or six months ago, Los Zetas were first detected in and around Arriaga. They pose as migrants and enter El Hogar de la Misericordia to gather intelligence on the residents. The Zetas find out who doesn’t have a coyote, which migrants have money, and who is planning to receive wire transfers. They report this information to their colleagues, who later rob the migrants.

Zetas have also been seen photographing migrants on trains. Solis says they even take his picture sometimes.

Criminal Organizations Unite Across Borders

While Los Zetas started out as the Gulf cartel’s private army, they appear to be diversifying their operations. The DEA reported this year that it believes Los Zetas are attempting to break free from the Gulf cartel to form their own cartel. Furthermore, Los Zetas are reportedly purchasing land along the Guatemala-Mexico border to store and traffic drugs. The News’ Malcolm Beith reports that Zetas kill bus drivers and business owners in Tecún Umán if they don’t pay the fees the criminal organization demands.

Los Zetas have entered the immigration industry in southern Mexico with relative ease and little resistance from other more established Mexican cartels. Solis says this is due to their links with other southern criminal organizations.

This month FBI director Robert Mueller reported that Los Zetas have “periodic contact” with the notorious M-18 and MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) gangs in El Salvador, the birthplace and stronghold of Central American gangs. Solis says these gangs work together with Los Zetas in Honduras, as well.

Further north, Los Zetas have found natural allies in a Guatemalan group called kaibiles. Kaibiles, much like Los Zetas, were Guatemalan Special Forces soldiers trained by the US during Guatemala’s dirty war. They committed some of the worst atrocities during that country’s brutal civil war, and then they deserted to work in drug trafficking. The working relationship between Los Zetas and the kaibiles dates back to at least 2005, when the US Department of Homeland Security notified the Border Patrol that kaibiles were training Los Zetas in a McAllen, Texas, ranch.


“Did you pay your coyote?”

Carlos is on his twelfth attempt to reach the United States. He says there’s just too much poverty in his native Honduras.

Carlos arranged for his sister to wire him money along the way so that he didn’t have to travel with a lot of cash. When he reached Arriaga, she wired him USD$300. On his way back to El Hogar de la Misericordia, a group of men jumped him. Some of them were Mexican, and some were Central American. They stole his $300 and everything else he was carrying. Then they brutally beat him. Carlos has a concussion, lost hearing in his left ear, and has bruises and wounds all over his body. He can barely walk and suffers excruciating headaches. Even though the attack happened days ago, Carlos still has blood all over his shirt.

“Are you going to file a complaint?” I ask.

“No, they don’t do anything,” Carlos replies.

“Did you pay a coyote?”

“No, I’m on my own.”


This article originally appeared in Narco News.
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