Two years after the massacre of 72 migrants in Mexico, shelters for undocumented migrants are facing challenges and threats, due to the rise in the number of people seeking assistance, the lack of solidarity on the part of local communities, pressure from organized crime, and a lack of adequate public policies addressing the problem of migration.
“We are seeing a backlash from a combination of hurricanes that have destroyed infrastructure, train accidents and mass killings, that have drawn increasing attention to immigrants,” activist Martha Sánchez, with the Meso-American Migrant Movement, told IPS.
On Aug. 23, 2010, people around the world were shocked when the Los Zetas drug cartel killed 72 migrants who were headed to the United States ― 58 men and 14 women ― in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.
There are 54 shelters in Mexico, located at the main transit points for migrants, many of whom ride cargo trains northward. One of them is run by civil society organizations, and the rest by the Pastoral de la Movilidad Humana, the Mexican Catholic bishops’ human mobility ministry.
Some 500,000 undocumented migrants from Central and South America cross Mexico every year in their attempt to reach the United States, according to estimates from experts and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Along the way, they face the risk of arbitrary arrest, extortion, theft, assault, rape, kidnapping and murder at the hands of criminal organizations and corrupt police and migration officers, activists and migrants report.
“The shelters are places of protection, and they also denounce the situation, in public and in the courts,” said Alberto Xicoténcatl Carrasco, director of the Casa del Migrante Posada Belén, a shelter in the town of Saltillo in the northern state of Coahuila.
“Public sentiment against the shelters has grown in some areas …We are seeing many interests mobilizing against these centers,” he told IPS.
The Posada Belén shelter takes in 200 to 300 immigrants a week, who stay one week on average before continuing their journey.
In the shelters, the undocumented migrants are given food, clean clothes, a bed, a shower, and advice about the measures they should take to reduce their vulnerability.
The shelters survive mainly thanks to donations of clothing, food and medicine.
“The main problem is the country’s migration policies,” Raúl Vera, the bishop of Saltillo, told IPS. He is one of the most outspoken defenders of undocumented migrants who are in transit or have come to Mexico to stay.
Activists accuse the Mexican government of implementing repressive policies against immigrants under the argument of national security, which they say are ineffective in combating the complicity of police and migration officers with the criminal bands that prey on migrants.
“The shelters stand between the immigrants and the interests of those who want to benefit from them,” said Jorge Andrade, a member of the local NGO Ustedes Somos Nosotros (You Are Us). “Because of their vulnerability, they are easy prey for criminals.”
The NGO used to support the Casa del Migrante San Juan Diego, in the town of Tultitlán on the outskirts of the capital, with provisions. But the shelter was forced to close in July, as a result of pressure from the local population, who protested the presence of migrants in their midst.
The shelter then set up a camp under a bridge, near the railroad. But they were driven out of there as well by the local community.
The state government then relocated the migrants to the town of Huehuetoca, 30 km from Tultitlán. They are now near the San José shelter in that town, which is run by civil society groups and receives support from Ustedes Somos Nosotros.
In the new spot, up to 180 undocumented migrants are allowed to stay a maximum of three days, in the large tent that was set up as a makeshift shelter.
The fate of the Casa del Migrante San Juan Diego is an illustration of the harassment experienced by the shelters for Central American migrants without papers ― yet another obstacle faced by the migrants on their difficult journey through Mexico.
In 2011, Leticia Gutiérrez, a nun with the Pastoral de la Movilidad Humana, told IPS that their shelters and staff had received death threats from both organized crime and the authorities, and reported that their electric generators had been sabotaged, their electricity cut off, and their windows broken.
The activists say the increasingly precarious situation faced by the shelters is more evidence of the shortcomings in the immigration policies of the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón, whose six-year term ends Dec. 1.
Of a total annual budget of $136 million, the National Migration Institute has dedicated just $1.4 million this year to the protection of emigrants and immigrants, repatriation, and assistance for migrant children. The rest has gone to operational and administrative activities.
The Institute deported nearly 42,000 Central Americans, mainly Guatemalans and Honduras, in the first half of the year.
The calls for better migration policies and for efforts to fight impunity for abuses against undocumented migrants were voiced on the second anniversary of the massacre near the town of San Fernando in Tamaulipas.
The mass killing of 72 migrants graphically brought to light the flaws in Mexico’s migration policy, which activists and experts say is contaminated by organized crime.
“I was shocked that there was not a better response,” said Leticia Calderón, head of the political and economic sociology department in the José María Luís Mora Research Institute, a public institution. “The level of impunity is terrible. It is very worrisome that Mexican society is not indignant about” the plight of migrants in this country, she told IPS.
Thirteen of the 72 victims, most of whom were from Central America, were buried in a common grave without even being identified.
“What we see in this chain of impunities is suffering, death, torture and the destruction of people and entire families,” Vera told IPS.
The growing difficulties faced by migrant shelters was among the issues on the agenda of the Pastoral de la Movilidad Humana’s 13th National Workshop, Aug. 28-30 in the city of Morelia in the west-central state of Michoacán.
“Above and beyond the fact that the Catholic Church is specifically involved in this work, there should be a dialogue between the government, the local populations and the organizations, to carry out this task,” said Andrade, the Ustedes Somos Nosotros activist.
Civil society organizations and the government are also in conflict over the migration bill drafted in 2011, because the government has not incorporated their proposals in the bill.
The conflict reached the Mexican courts in June, when Strategic Human Rights Litigation Ideas, a local NGO, filed a protective action because of the lack of consultation with organized civil society and the failure to incorporate the points of view of NGOs in the bill.
The protective action was initially dismissed, but on Aug. 20 an appeals court ruled that it had to be reviewed.
The 2011 bill decriminalizes the entry into Mexican territory of migrants without legal documents, and recognizes their human rights. But the creation of a migrant transit visa, which was to be issued for humanitarian reasons, was struck from the draft law.