Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Migrants: The Threat of Crime



Threats against U.S.-bound migrants from Mexico are on the rise. Government corruption and inattention to migrants’ security is encouraging organized crime groups to become increasingly bold in kidnappings and ransom demands. Crime is not the only threat. Although the economic crisis has reduced the migrant flow since 2006, deaths have increased during the perilous desert journey that exposes many unprepared migrants to scorching weather during the day, freezing temperatures at night and animal predators.

A joint Mexican National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH) and American Civil Liberties Union report released in September 2009 based on bodies recovered in the deadliest area of the border zone found that the risk of death during an attempted crossing is 1.5 times higher than in 2004 and 17 times higher than in 1998.One factor in the rising death rate may be a change in the composition of the migrant flow. The number of young males making the crossing has decreased, while increasing numbers of women and children are risking the trek in order to reunite with relatives in the United States. Many of these women and children have suffered economically as a result of the economic crisis in the U.S. and the corresponding reduction in remittances.

The different composition of recent immigrants may also explain the spike in crime against border crossers. The CNDH and the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers’ office in Mexico have conducted interviews about migrant life in shelters located along the most heavily traveled migrant routes. They found that 63 percent of the abuses suffered by migrants were either robberies or extortion attempts. Beyond that, they uncovered stories of physical mistreatment, including being thrown from moving trains as well as beatings at the hands of private security agents or even the authorities.

But the most alarming trend is kidnapping. Cases linked to organized crime groups like the Zetas were uncovered along the entire migration route but with greater frequency in Veracruz and Tabasco. From September 2008 to February 2009, 9,758 kidnapping cases were documented—more than 1,600 kidnappings per month—but the likelihood is that this number may actually be quite higher. The study found that a ransom of $1,500 to $5,000 is generally demanded, and over these six months, kidnappers took in around $25 million. Although it’s not known where 32 percent of the victims were kidnapped, 55 percent were abducted in southern Mexico, almost 12 percent in the north and about 1 percent in the central zone.

Organized crime is usually behind migrant abduction, but their actions are often aided by corrupt authorities. In 99 of the kidnapping cases documented by CNDH, victims identified the direct involvement of local or state police, and in another 100 cases, authorities were said to have collaborated with the kidnappers while carrying out the actual attack.

Searching for Victims

Family members looking for the disappeared often encounter indifferent public servants, complex and contradictory bureaucratic procedures and a lack of centralized databases both in Mexico and in the United States. This can make the search for relatives or their bodies last months or years.

That’s what happened to Magdalena Vázquez Calderón and her husband, who spent four months on the border hoping to recover the corpses of their two sons, José Enrique, 22, and Cruz Adán, 20.

The men were killed and buried in the countryside at the hands of assailants collaborating with the guides, or coyotes, that had been hired to bring them across the border. According to Magdalena, her sons arrived in Tijuana, Baja California, on July 14, 2009, with the plan to drive to the nearby town of Tecate before crossing to the United States.

Once in Tecate, the youths contacted a pair of coyotes and joined a group of about 25 people who then followed the guides. They were later ambushed and their hands and feet were bound. The coyotes called José Enrique’s wife in San Francisco, California, demanding that she send a $4,000 money transfer to secure their release.

But José Enrique, who tried to escape, was beaten to death along with Cruz Adán after the men were forced to dig their own grave.The survivors filed a police report on July 18, but by the time the men’s parents arrived in Tecate to search for them, no authority had investigated the incident or recovered the bodies.

Vázquez found that the missing persons’ unit couldn’t help her because her sons “weren’t from there,” and the personnel in the National Institute of Emigration told her, “You’d be better off posting the report on the Internet.” It was only when the couple brought the case to CNDH and spoke with journalists that the bodies appeared.

This case shows that men, but particularly women and children are vulnerable to attack during their journey. They can pass easily from migrants to victims of human trafficking—a crime that affects at least 18,000 people per year. The majority of trafficking is for sexual exploitation, with women accounting for approximately 75 percent of the cases—half of these women are Central American and almost 40 percent are under 18 years old.

But one year after Mexico implemented its federal anti-trafficking law, the country has not fully complied with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. Twenty-two states have criminalized human trafficking, but no convictions or punishments have been issued against traffickers, including complicit public officials.

The result is a spiraling challenge for Mexican authorities, but also for U.S. law enforcement authorities who must deal with the transnational nature of kidnappings and trafficking. Close cross-border collaboration is needed to investigate trafficking cases, expand victim assistance capabilities and provide anti-trafficking training for judges and law enforcement, including immigration and labor officials. Authorities should also step up efforts to offer training at migrant shelters on how to avoid becoming a victim. But unfortunately the lack of attention only means a growing problem for migrants.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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