Trump Has It Backward: Many Migrants Are Victims of Crime

Trump Has It Backward: Many Migrants Are Victims of Crime

Originally published by The NY Times

In June, Josue, a 21-year-old Honduran, reached a safe house in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas. He was there with 11 other Central American migrants. His family had spent the previous year scraping together the $3,800 necessary for this last part of his journey to the United States.

But the “safe” house was not so safe. Only miles from the border, his migration was interrupted as armed men burst into the house, kidnapping the migrants and demanding an additional $1,800 for their release. If their families couldn’t raise the money, the armed men warned, the migrants would be killed.

Every day, dramas and tragedies like this play out for the Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants traveling through Mexico. The Trump administration’s rhetoric has repeatedly linked migrants to gangs, violence and crime, and cast undocumented immigrants as a threat to public safety. But in fact, a majority of the Central Americans arriving at the United States-Mexico border are not perpetrators but rather victims of violence, both in their home countries and during their fraught transit through Mexico.

Over the past three decades, the risks and dangers on the journey from Central America to the United States border have increased — ramped-up United States and Mexican migratory enforcement has pushed migrants onto more invisible, risky paths, and impunity in Mexico for criminal perpetrators has kept them on the streets.

Yet however daunting the risks and challenging the policies, they have not significantly put a dent in the number of Central Americans traveling north. What has changed is that hundreds of thousands of migrants make the journey to the United States along more clandestine and treacherous routes.

For Central American migrants, there is no single transportation method or route to travel through Mexico to reach the United States. Travel experiences are influenced by a migrant’s nationality, gender, age and income. If a Central American migrant hires a smuggler for transiting through Mexico — and 60 percent report hiring these guides in surveys conducted by the Colegio de la Frontera Norte — then the routes will also be determined by the smugglers’ contacts and methods. But they all have at least one thing in common: Not one is safe, and each comes with a series of risks.

As soon as migrants near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, the dangers begin. To reach Mexico’s southernmost cities, migrants with a bit of money can take local buses or hire taxis. Those with empty wallets must walk. This may include hiking for days on the sides of highways, often at night to avoid detection and the strong tropical sun. Mexican officials have focused their enforcement attention less at the physical border and more at highway checkpoints set up around 30 or 100 miles into Mexican territory, where migration authorities attempt to identify individuals transiting through the country without the appropriate documents.

Great Distances and Dangers

Migrants fleeing violence in Central America may travel distances equivalent to that between Chicago and Miami (about 1,400 miles) or Chicago and the West Coast (more than 2,000 miles). Many are subject to crime along the way. The map shows some of the most-traveled routes.

In these desolate areas in the south of Mexico, migrants may be set upon by criminals like corrupt authorities, opportunistic local groups and members of the gangs MS-13 or Barrio 18 — the very groups that migrants may be fleeing and who have a presence in this part of Mexico.

That was the case for Josue, who was robbed by local criminals as he hiked the 40-mile stretch of remote highway between a Guatemala border city, El Ceibo, and Tenosique, a southern Mexican city. The thieves slipped out of the nearby ranch land and stripped him of his possessions, even taking his sneakers and leaving him with one of the robbers’ decrepit, fungus-covered pair. According to prosecutors in the southernmost states of Chiapas and Tabasco, these robberies and assaults are fairly common. Women are also singled out for other forms of violence, with Doctors Without Borders reporting that one-third of female migrants suffer sexual abuse while in Mexico.

To advance north, the poorest Central Americans climb aboard Mexico’s train cars (nicknamed “La Bestia,” or the Beast) and ride exposed through rain, heat and frigid wind, and with the constant fear of slipping off the sides. They also travel on high alert for the gang members or train security guards who sometimes board the trains to extort or rob the riders. Given these extreme risks — along with Mexican officials’ 2014 crackdown on migrants riding the train through the Southern Border Plan (Programa Frontera Sur) — only 12 percent of Central American migrants in 2017 reported to Colegio de la Frontera Norte researchers that they had taken the trains at any point in their journey.

Migrants with a little more money use private cars, buses or trailers and move along Mexico’s major north-south highways; they pass through the Mexican migration checkpoints by passing as locals or paying off corrupt officials. Some avoid the checkpoints altogether and hike around them. Traveling in vehicles is generally safer for migrants, but there may still be hardships from the varying quality of food, abysmal sleeping arrangements or mistreatment from their guides or fellow migrants.

At the United States border, patrol agents and a range of radars, sensors and other technology seek to block the migrants’ irregular crossing into the United States. In response, some Central Americans may attempt to cross in the remote areas in the vast California or Arizona deserts or near the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Others ask for asylum at ports of entry. But most travel up Mexico’s Gulf Coast to reach Reynosa, Tamaulipas. This city shares a border with McAllen, Tex., within the southern Rio Grande Valley. In fiscal 2017, the United States Border Patrol reported that it apprehended two-thirds of all irregular Central American migrants (104,305 in total) in this 320-mile section of the border.

On the Mexico side of the border near Reynosa, drug trafficking organizations, particularly the Gulf Cartel and the splinter groups of the Zetas, control the territory and the smuggling routes and act as unofficial tax agents. These groups offer the Central American migrants’ final security challenge and engage in their signature crime, kidnapping. Their presence gives this area the nefarious distinction of having the highest number of migrant kidnappings. Since 2011, data from Mexico’s National Migration Institute has documented 1,034 kidnapping victims in Tamaulipas — 75 percent of all migrant kidnapping victims in the country. Women and minors each account for more than a quarter of the victims.

But official numbers barely scratch the surface of the crimes committed against migrants in Mexico. Central Americans rarely report the crimes to Mexican authorities because of a lack of trust, fear of repercussions or limited knowledge of the country’s justice system. Josue is a good example. He was able to escape his captors after the Federal Police intercepted a car that was taking him to a second safe house, but he decided not to report the kidnapping given concerns over his safety.

When migrants do report these crimes, few are ever investigated or prosecuted. In July 2017, the Washington Office on Latin America reportedthat only 1 percent of crimes against migrants in Mexico ever reach a conviction.

What could push people to knowingly face these conditions or, worse, to bring their children along? For Central Americans, there is a deep chasm between migrants’ desires for safety, work and family reunification and their ability to fulfill these dreams within their own countries or legally in the United States.

In Reynosa, Josue was gearing up to try to make the hike from the border to Houston. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Central American migrants taking these same routes and escaping violence at home or in transit, he was confident that the journey would be worth it. The hope of a better and safer life in the United States was stronger than the fear of any dangers along the way.

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