Monthly Archives: September 2009

Stories of abuse from Mexico’s ‘forgotten border’

Mexico City – Claudia Lopez was lucky. When Mexican immigration officials pulled her off of the bus, they beat her 15-year-old brother, not her. She was shouted at and thrown in a van, but not abused. And she only spent three days in a crowded jail cell before being sent back across the border.

Lopez, 16, is one of hundreds of Guatemalan minors deported by the Mexican government this year. They arrive back in Guatemala alone, with nothing but stories of violence and abuse suffered on the trip north. 

Often, they claim either Mexican authorities or coyotes _ smugglers hired to sneak them across the border _ stole their money and personal belongings. Sometimes their stories include rape or sexual abuse.

“They treated us so badly,” Lopez said from a shelter for deported children in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, about an hour from the Mexican border. 

“My brother was with me when they grabbed us and they began hitting him. He resisted so they hit him some more,” Lopez said three days after her deportation. “I swore to them that we weren’t Guatemalans, that they shouldn’t treat us like that.”

An agreement reached in July between Mexico and its Central American neighbors promises to better protect children like Claudia caught entering Mexico illegally. But critics argue that Mexico has yet to fully protect the tens of thousands of immigrants who cross its southern border, especially unaccompanied minors who are at highest risk of abuse and exploitation.

“Anything can happen to them on the road”

They arrive morning, day and night: prepubescent boys and girls without money, food or parents in the run-down border city of Tecun Uman.

Most of them are Guatemalans, just deported from Mexico by immigration officials scouring the cities of Tuxtla Gutierrez or Tapachula in the poor southern state of Chiapas. Many of them wander the streets until they find either a bar or a shelter in which to spend the night.

“Some of them turn themselves in to the police, only to be brought here” to Tecun Uman, said Father Ademar Barilli, who runs a halfway house for migrants.

But neglect by Mexican authorities is the least of the children’s worries, Barilli said. Some are bought and sold by child traffickers; the girls forced into sex work.  Others are double-crossed by coyotes or attacked by thieves while trying to walk across the border. They arrive to the shelters with welts and bruises.

“Anything can happen to them on the road, not least of all by immigration officials,” Barilli said. Abuse by Mexican authorities is a common allegation among migrant shelters in Guatemala, but few of the shelters have the resources or legal authority to investigate such reports.

Besides, Barilli said, “there’s so much fear and xenophobia, so many threats, that they don’t want to discuss any of it.”

After years of relatively little attention, Mexico’s treatment of Guatemalan immigrants has come under recent criticism.

A survey by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission released in June shows that thousands of mainly Central American migrants are kidnapped for ransom each year as they cross Mexico. 

Nearly 10,000 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico between September and February, mainly by drug gangs and occasionally with the involvement of authorities, according to the commission’s interviews with migrants.

Meanwhile, a June report by the U.S. State Department said the Mexican government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

“In a new trend, unaccompanied Central American minors, traveling through Mexico to meet family members in the United States, increasingly fall victim to human traffickers, particularly near the Guatemalan border,” the report found.

“The forgotten border”

According to the Guatemalan government officials, roughly 800 Guatemalan minors have been deported from Mexico so far in 2009, more than 700 of them without their parents. 

This is at odds with numbers from the Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, whose website says only 71 unaccompanied minors were deported last year from Mexico to any other country.

The discrepancy is evidence of how easily migrant children fall through the cracks along what is often called Mexico’s “forgotten border.”

Migrant children often lie about their age to Mexican officials in the hope of being released, said Jose Villagran, director of Guatemala’s Social Risk Program, which runs shelters for deported children.  

“Some children have complained of abuse by Mexican officials,” he said, “but their experience is relatively good.” Most, like Claudia, are transported from Tapachula, Mexico, toQuetzaltenango in a safe bus with food and bathrooms.

But many social workers and church officials who take care of the children disagree.

“Lots of minors are released only to be in more danger, or they’re turned over to be people who claim to be their parents, not necessarily their mom or dad,” said Barilli, the priest in charge of the migrant shelter in Tecun Uman.

In the past year, the Mexican government has made efforts to improve its treatment of immigrants. During the XIV Regional Conference on Migration in July, Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries approved new guidelines for the safe treatment and deportation of unaccompanied minors.

Mexico’s National Institute for Migration (INM) refused repeated requests for an interview. However, a statement released shortly after the conference said, “the INM shares the National Human Rights Commission’s concern for the growing problems that confront migrants entering and traveling through the country.”

The statement also announced the assignment of special border officers to protect unaccompanied minors, who it called “one of the most vulnerable migrant groups.”

Mexico recently decriminalized undocumented immigration, a move meant to protect immigrants from abuse.

Yet doubts still remain as to whether Mexico is doing enough to protect the tens of thousands of Central American immigrants that pour across its southern border every year.

At least 30 Guatemalan children deported so far this year were allegedly victims of human trafficking, according to Villagran, the Guatemalan government official.

Meanwhile, many social workers doubt that the recent agreement or added border officers will translate into better treatment or safer passage for Central American migrants.

“They are always making changes, but we aren’t seeing any migration policies that are really changing the situation here… or make these children any safer,” Barilli said.

But for Claudia Lopez, not the days in jail, not the $400 dollars lost to the coyote, not even seeing her younger brother beaten before her eyes could change her plans to sneak back into Mexico.

“I think I’ll try again,” she said shortly before her parents arrived to sign for her release. “Once you have the dream of helping your parents out of poverty, out of their years of suffering, you can’t quit.”


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