Saturday, September 04, 2010

72 Migrants Massacred in Northern Mexico

The scale of last week's event was unprecedented, however, its sad and horrific details are not uncommon.
Last week, Mexican authorities discovered the bodies of 72 migrants from Central and South America who were kidnapped on their way to the United States and 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, one of two survivors of the massacre who managed to escape and lead authorities to the crime scene, claims that he and his fellow U.S.-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 reportedly "blindfolded, ordered to lie down and shot." Meanwhile, escalated violence has made it harder to carry out a swift and thorough investigation. This week, two bombs exploded near the morgue where the bodies of the 72 migrant victims were being kept. It has also been confirmed that the Mexican detective heading the investigation, along with another officer, was found dead near the massacre site. The mayor of the Hidalgo, a town not far from where the bodies of 72 migrants were found, was killed on Sunday by gunmen. While many in the international community have pointed fingers at Mexico and criticized the country's inability to protect the basic human rights of the migrants who pass through it, the massacre also highlights the desperate need for immigration reform in the U.S.

A MIGRANT'S PLIGHT: The scale of last week's event was unprecedented, however, its sad and horrific details are not uncommon. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission estimates that about 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year in Mexico. Other experts believe around 60,000 migrants have disappeared in Mexico on their way to the U.S. over the past five years. Stories abound of migrants being killed by organized crime gangs and "hacked up, dissolved in acid or buried in unmarked paupers graves." The kidnapping and extortion of poor migrants reaps in about $3 million a year for organized crime. Meanwhile, despite a decrease in immigration to the U.S., border deaths on the American side of the border, most of them heat-related, are close to reaching a record-breaking high. For those who actually 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." Along the way, gangs and thugs, in addition to local police, taxi drivers and government officials, demand bribes. Amnesty International reports that as many as six in 10 women end up becoming victims of sexual violence during the trip. The problem of rape is so bad that women are advised to take birth control and some Mexican guides have started handing out condoms to women so they can ask their attackers to use them. Throughout their journey, migrants are treated as exploitable cargo by their smugglers. If and when they make it to the U.S., they are viewed as cheap labor or trespassing "criminals," depending on who you ask. Nonetheless, they continue coming. Leticia Gutierrez, a nun who works with shelters across Mexico explains, "[t]he poverty they are running from is so desperate they are willing to risk everything."

The massacre has unleashed a wave of outrage and criticism towards Mexico. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has urged Mexican President Felipe Calderón to undertake greater efforts to protect migrants who pass through Mexico. Honduras, meanwhile, is threatening to sue and hold Mexico responsible for the damages incurred by the victims' families.The Los Angeles Times writes, "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 Congresses "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 decriminalize 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 out of fear that they will be deported if they complain to Mexican authorities. The Mexican Interior Department has been reportedly working to repeal Article 67 "so that no one can deny or restrict foreigners' access to justice and human rights, whatever their migratory status." However, though Calderón'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 Calderón's militarized 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."

U.S. SHARES THE BLAME: Experts argue that 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 U.S. 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 U.S. has fueled the profitable and violent human smuggling business. Though increased border security has made it increasingly difficult for migrants to enter the U.S. illegally, it hasn't stopped them from coming. Instead, it has increased the profitability of the human smuggling business and strengthened its ties with organized crime. In 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "As U.S. border security has tightened, Mexican drug cartels have moved in on coyotes...the traffickers now use their expertise in gathering intelligence on border patrols, logistics and communication devices to get around ever tighter controls." Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, professor at Arizona State University, explains, "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 the U.S. border is reportedly "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. Replacing old visa quotas with a system that responds to economic supply and demand would devastate the lucrative human smuggling business by allowing more economic migrants to enter the U.S. 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.

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