Sunday, March 17, 2019

Ruthless cartel violence drives a wave of Mexican asylum seekers

By Rebecca Plevin and Omar Ornelas | Reporting from Chilapa de Álvarez, Mexico
Feb. 27, 2019


For decades, people like Alfredo and his siblings have left Guerrero, one of the poorest states in Mexico, mainly for economic reasons. The mostly low-skilled migrants labored in fields in California, or in restaurants in New York, without authorization, and sent money home to their families. But the number of unauthorized migrants from Mexico apprehended at the southwest border has been steadily declining since 2004 and flattened since 2014, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The improving Mexican economy, enhanced U.S. immigration enforcement and a long-term drop in Mexico’s birth rate all contributed to the change, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C., focused on immigration.

But a different Mexican migration pattern is emerging as homicides reached a record 33,341 in 2018 and as more than 37,000 people remain missing amid the country’s extended drug war. The violence is particularly intense in the southwestern states of Guerrero and Michoacán, two of five Mexican states the U.S. government says Americans should not travel to due to crime. In recent years, people have been fleeing Guerrero and Michoacán not only to improve their lives, but to save their lives.


Today, there are military checkpoints along the highway into and out of Chilapa. Soldiers with combat helmets and guns slung across their chests guard Chilapa’s zócalo. Yet the rival groups continue firing at each other in the streets. They kidnap people and demand ransoms.

They also engage in more covert terrorism. The groups extort people who own stores and small stands in the markets. Business owners must pay the weekly fee or face consequences. The groups post hit lists on social media sites like Facebook and WhatsApp. They identify people by their names or nicknames and use crude language and slang to threaten them.


In Guerrero, he said, people believe that some police collaborate with the criminal groups, and worry that if they serve as witnesses or report a crime, the groups will retaliate. In February 2019, four municipal police officers from Chilapa were arrested for working with Los Rojos.

The fear of retribution is so entrenched, people typically don’t speak the names of the groups suspected of crimes, even when discussing violent incidents.


The violence spurred by the extended drug war, combined with the widespread mistrust and fear of Mexican authorities, and the lack of justice in the country, are major reasons people flee Mexico, said Everard Meade, a professor at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, who often serves as an expert witness in Mexican asylum cases.

“I haven’t done an asylum case in the past couple years where the risk and the threats people face for reporting (crimes) wasn’t part of the persecution,” Meade said. Impunity, he said, is “at the core of what people are fleeing.”


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