Mexico Massacre Galvanizes Migrant Rights Activists

(IPS) Activists in Latin America have been galvanised by atrocities like the recent massacre of 72 migrants near the U.S. border to step up their efforts on behalf of migrant rights.

“We want to create a common front among non-governmental organisations (NGOs), migrant shelters, and rights defenders to create a system that helps migrants identify the most dangerous areas and understand the way organised crime groups operate, so they can avoid them,” Mexican activist Rubén Figueroa told IPS.

Figueroa, who is himself a former migrant, provides assistance to undocumented migrants in Huimanguillo, in the state of Tabasco, around 700 km southeast of Mexico City.

An estimated 500,000 undocumented Latin American migrants a year cross Mexico from south to north, through the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Tamaulipas, in their attempt to reach the United States.

On the way, they are beset from all sides, facing abuses from corrupt police, predatory youth gangs, drug traffickers and kidnappers.

Since the appalling Aug. 23 murders of 72 migrants from different countries on a ranch in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, activists have been discussing how to improve the assistance they offer migrants and how to draw attention to and combat the abuses.

The difficulties faced by migrants trying to cross from Mexico into the United States have grown “exponentially” since 2002, Miguel Ugalde, the head of the migration programme at the Jesuit Rafael Landívar University of Guatemala, told IPS.

“They used to cross the border in a more normal fashion; they could even return to celebrate the holidays in their villages and towns,” he said. “But this massacre has really brought things to a peak. The use of migrants as tools of organised crime has reached such a level of sophistication, with unprecedented cruelty and brutality.”

The programme that Ugalde heads forms part of a broad alliance, including the Catholic Church and NGOs, dedicated to protecting migrants through educational campaigns on the dangers of travelling to the United States without a visa.

The groups also run shelters for undocumented migrants in Guatemala and in the Mexican states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz, as well as Mexico City.

In the state of Arizona in the U.S. southwest, the humanitarian group Humane Borders helps those who venture into the desert by maintaining water stations, with the aim of reducing the number of deaths of migrants in inhospitable border crossing zones.

The alliance of NGOs is seeking to influence the Regional Conference on Migration, “to raise awareness about this being a regional phenomenon, not a problem of each particular country. And that all governments have to work together to manage the phenomenon of migration,” Ugalde said.

The Regional Conference on Migration, an intergovernmental body that links 11 countries — Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and the United States — emerged in 1996 to promote dialogue and cooperation on international migration in a context of economic and social development.

The bodies of the 72 migrants, including 14 women, found on Aug. 24 were bound and blindfolded and lined up against a wall on a ranch in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. They were presumably killed by the Los Zetas drug cartel, which is also involved in kidnapping and exploiting migrants.

The only survivor, 18-year-old Luis Freddy Lala from Ecuador, walked 22 kilometres with a gunshot wound to the neck, till he reached a military checkpoint. Lala, who was under heavy protection in Mexico, returned to his home country on Aug. 29 as a safety measure, although he is expected to return later to assist in the investigation of the killings.

Officials in Ecuador asked the media not to try to locate Lala or seek interviews with him, for his safety. They also set up a telephone line — 593 2 240-3088 — to receive calls from people who have lost track of family members travelling to the U.S. or Mexico.

So far, the bodies of 40 victims have been identified: 15 Hondurans, 13 Salvadorans, six Ecuadoreans, five Guatemalans and one Brazilian.

“We know about this massacre because one Ecuadorean survived and with enormous courage managed to walk two dozen kilometres and report the attack,” said Brazilian nun Lelis da Silva, assistant director of the Ecuadorean Catholic bishops’ conference’s Pastoral de Movilidad Humana (pastoral care for migrants and refugees).

“But it is very difficult to determine where, when and how a migrant has gone missing,” she told IPS.

Da Silva belongs to the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo – Scalabrinians, whose specific mission is to help migrants, and which runs shelters along the route through Central America and Mexico.

There are dozens of shelters for migrants in Mexico, especially at key points along the main routes followed by the migrants, where they face innumerable dangers of falling prey to kidnappers or other criminal elements.

The groups that run the shelters now expect the flow of migrants to decline, out of fear of Tamaulipas-style massacres, but they say it will eventually return to normal.

“With our scarce resources, we are intensifying the aid we offer, even though the risks are growing,” said Alejandro Solalinde, a priest who heads the Pastoral de la Movilidad Humana of the Mexican bishops’ conference and is director of the Hermanos en el Camino shelter for migrants in Ciudad Ixtepec, in Oaxaca state.

“We have to reach deeper into our pockets, to show solidarity with our migrant brothers and sisters,” he told IPS.

The centre assists between 100 and 150 migrants every three days, offering them a place to sleep, hot meals, and basic medical care.

From September 2008 to February 2009, 9,758 kidnappings of migrants were reported in Mexico, according to a special report by the governmental National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).

The study says the kidnappers demand ransom payments from the victims’ families in the United States or their countries of origin, ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 dollars.

Víctor Herrera, president of the Mesa Nacional para las Migraciones en Guatemala (National Forum on Migration in Guatemala – MENAMIG), told IPS that today “we’re not talking about the American dream, but about the American ordeal,” because of all the risks involved in trying to reach the U.S. without the proper documents.

Countries in the region should warn the population about the dangers, and protect the human rights of migrants, Herrera said.

At an Aug. 30-Sept. 2 meeting of the Pastoral de la Movilidad Humana in the city of Nogales in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, some 150 delegates from around the country are meeting with a delegation from the U.S. to discuss abuses against migrants and other issues.

“We have to move on, from the pain of indignation to concrete proposals,” Solalinde said. “The Church has to do more, and many have to do what they’re supposed to be doing.”

* With additional reporting by Danilo Valladares in Guatemala City and Gonzalo Ortiz in Quito.