Mexican immigrant advocates and their supporters are ramping up demands for changes in the country’s immigration policies. For starters, 50 civil society organizations are calling for the dismissal of National Migration Institute (INM) Commissioner Ardelio Vargas Fosado, the new head of the federal agency responsible for enforcing Mexican immigration law.
Citing Vargas’ long career in the national security field, critics contend the official and his top subordinates represent the imposition of a “policing profile and criminalization” in migration policy under the new Pena Nieto administration.
Pro-migrant activists including Father Alejandro Solalinde, the internationally-recognized director of a Catholic Church-supported migrant shelter in Oaxaca who spent two months in forced exile last year due to threats, point to Vargas’ participation in the 2006 repression of the rebellious town of San Salvador Atenco in Mexico state, an incident in which at least 27 female detainees alleged they were sexually assaulted by police officers, as well as the suppression of the Oaxaca teachers’ strike and popular rebellion in the same year.
In 2006 Vargas was a high-ranking official with the old Federal Preventative Police, which played a key role in both the Atenco and Oaxaca crackdowns.
>From 1994 to 2005, Vargas was the delegate for the national intelligence agency CISEN in Chiapas and Oaxaca. His assignments in the southern states coincided with armed revolts organized by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and Popular Revolutionary Army, the rise of government-supported paramilitary organizations, the deportation of foreigners sympathetic to the EZLN, and the killings and/or forced disappearances of hundreds of people.
After the Fox administration ended in 2006, Vargas served as a federal congressman for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) before taking the post as head of state public safety in Puebla under the administration of Gov. Rafael Moreno Valle.
A rancher and lawyer by trade, Vargas was the municipal president of Xicotepec, Puebla, from 1987 to 1990.
In an appeal issued earlier this month, Solalinde and other migrant advocates urged the replacement of Vargas and other high INM officials possessing police backgrounds with “functionaries that have ample moral solvency, a professional profile appropriate to the post and legitimacy in the eyes of society…”
Just prior to the Holy Week-Easter vacation, Vargas’ critics got a boost in the Mexican Congress when Senator Layda Sansores of the Citizen Movement party presented a resolution demanding that President Pena Nieto fire Vargas because of the latter’s alleged history as a repressive official.
Sansores called for a thorough revamping of the INM. “It does not function for what it was created to do,” the senator from Campeche insisted. “It’s punctured everywhere by ineptness, and because it criminalizes migrants,” she added. “Let it serve as the fertilizer for a new, renovated institution which responds to the social reality in which we Mexicans live.”
Sansores’ resolution was turned over to the Mexican Senate’s migrant affairs commission. There was no immediate public comment from Vargas or other Pena Nieto administration officials concerning the criticisms of the INM chief and the mounting calls for his ouster.
Four months into the Pena Nieto administration, Mexico’s migration policies stand at a crossroads. While advocates of Central American and other foreign nationals who pass through the country on their way to the U.S. demand a humanitarian approach to the migrant question, Mexico’s role as a kind of exterior Border Patrol for the United States continues under the Pena Nieto government just as it did during the previous two administrations.
At the same time, immigration policies are getting more attention in the Mexican Congress. As in the U.S., tensions and contradictions swirling around human rights, border security and economic insecurity underpin immigration controversies in Mexico.
Rights organizations and institutions including the official National Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Sin Fronteras and others have long documented a litany of abuses of migrants traveling in Mexico, ranging from mass murder and kidnapping to sexual assaults and slavery. Many migrants have died or wound up mutilated from accidents on railways used to cross the Mexican Republic.
Estimates of the number of Central Americans who have disappeared in Mexico run into the tens of thousands. And speaking up for undocumented migrants is risky business. Defenders like Father Tomas Gonzalez and Ruben Figueroa of the Catholic Church-supported “72” migrant shelter in Tabasco have been the targets of frequent threats and attacks.
Earlier this month, Amnesty International warned that the migrant crisis had not gone away with the advent of the new federal administration. “The government of Enrique Pena Nieto, which yesterday completed 100 days in office, has not taken any step towards correcting the absolute failure of the previous administration in confronting the humanitarian crisis,” Amnesty International charged.
In recent weeks, the Federal Police (PF) has been very active in detaining migrants. In March, the PF detained at least 59 migrants in Oaxaca and 19 in San Luis Potosi. Although the vast majority of the migrants were from Central American nations, two of the detainees were from China and four from Albania.
State police forces have also stepped up migrant detentions. In Zacatecas, for instance, the State Preventative Police picked up seven Central American nationals at a checkpoint this month who were traveling from Chiapas.
On March 22, Chiapas state police, in coordination with the PF, INM, federal attorney general’s office and the Mexican military, detained 41 Central American migrants. Typically, bus drivers are held for investigation of human trafficking in such detentions.
In an episode reminiscent of high-speed U.S. border chases, one Honduran migrant was killed and another injured March 18 after an unidentified police patrol chased a truck carrying migrants on the border line between Chiapas and Oaxaca. The dead man was identified as 23-year-old Jonathan Mondragon Sarmiento. The Chiapas state attorney general’s office said it was investigating the fatal chase.
This year’s detentions follow in the path of massive detentions carried out during the presidential administrations of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderon (2006-2012). According to the Interior Ministry’s Migrant Studies Center, Mexican authorities detained 1,114,874 migrants during the Fox administration and 508, 361 during the Calderon administration.
On the other hand, government officials increasingly stress the humanitarian nature of their actions. They routinely say detained migrants are turned over to the INM, given medical exams and accorded full respect of their human rights. The legal authorities also frequently report rescuing migrants from the clutches of human traffickers, as in the recent case of 18 women from Central America and southern Mexico who were purportedly forced into prostitution in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.
Migrant advocates contend that women and children have especially suffered in the prevailing immigration regime, with women sexually abused or coerced by corrupt agents and minors inappropriately detained and not given access to consular officials from their respective nations. Like the United States, family separation has been an issue.
INM statistics show that 9,160 women and girls were detained in Mexican immigration stations during 2011, with the number of female detainees rising to 11,958 the following year. During the Calderon administration, the non-governmental organization Sin Fronteras documented verbal, psychological and physical violence against women by INM agents. In some cases, women were suddenly taken from dormitories in the evening and later returned visibly shaken and unwilling to talk about their experience, according to Sin Fronteras.
The lower house of the Mexican Congress approved reforms this month to the national immigration law, requiring the INM to notify consulates of the presence of unaccompanied minor children and mandating the transfer of children to the Integral Family Development (DIF) shelter system instead of holding them in immigration detention centers. The legislation passed by a unanimous vote of 434 representatives, with across-the board political support.
“The problem is that our country requires guaranteeing protection of human rights in this sector,” said Green Party (PVEM) Congressman Eduardo Ramirez Aguilar. “The reality is that this right is not preserved in the immigration stations, but it’s positive for the DIF to attend (minors) so they are given adequate spaces.”
As the Easter holiday loomed, about 100 undocumented Central Americans and supporters from the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement once again staged a public protest. Gathered in the state of Tabasco to reenact the Stations of the Cross, the activists simulated the crucifixion of a 16-year-old young man from Guatemala, Kevin Barrientos, on one of the cars of “The Beast,” the infamous train that transports migrants north across perilous territory.
“The migrants have to be taken down from the train where they are massacred,” said activist Ruben Figueroa. “The train tracks are stained with migrant blood.”
Figueroa’s words proved more than metaphorical. On Good Friday, unknown assailants shot up a train station in Tabasco, killing 22-year-old Kelvin Saul Cruz of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
Sources: Cimacnoticias, March 25 and 26, 2013. Articles by Patricia Chandomi and Adriana Franco Rosales. La Jornada, March 19 and 29, 2013. Articles by Elio Hernandez, Roberto Alberto Lopez and Notimex. Mexican Editorial Organization/El Sol de Tijuana/El Sol de Mexico, March 6, 19, 20, 21, 22, 26, 29, 2013. Articles by Bertha Becerra, Gabriel Xantomila and DPA. El Diario de Juarez/Notimex, March 22, 2013. Somos Frontera (El Paso Times)/Reforma, March 12, 2013. Proceso/Apro, March 11, 2013. Article by Gloria Leticia Diaz.
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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico