Understanding and Countering Corruption and Migrant Abuse by Mexico’s National Migration Institute

For Mexico the emigration of its nationals to the United States has traditionally been the top political priority. In recent years, however, the situation of transmigrants—many from Central America—has spurred growing interest because of the increase in their numbers and the visibility of the mounting human rights violations they suffer. The majority of those who undertake this journey do so to find dignified job opportunities, to flee from social violence or political persecution, or to reunite with their families abroad. With few resources and no permit to enter the country, undocumented migrants resort to precarious means of transport and travel through inhospitable terrain where they risk accidents and abuse by criminals and state agents.

Historically, Mexico has strongly lobbied for its citizens residing, regularly or otherwise, in the United States. For a long time, however, it turned a blind eye to the rights of migrants in its own territory and sought to contain their flows through the detection, detention, and deportation of those without legal papers. Although Mexico has recently enacted a new Migration Law, these normative advances have not reduced the vulnerability of transmigrants. For the time being, the design and implementation of a more humane migration management, as well as a regional migration policy, remain pending issues.

The INM: Powerful and Opaque

The National Migration Institute (INM), Mexico’s principal actor in migration management, has historically been secretive and opaque. This stance not only contradicts the Institute’s transparency obligations, but also impedes the creation of mechanisms that would foster transparency, access to information, and accountability. The INM’s procedures and the practices of its agents, especially in migration control operations, detention centers, and deportation proceedings, remain largely outside the scrutiny of independent observers.

Given the INM’s mandate to apply migration laws, its fragile institutionality, and the occurrence of systematic migrant rights violations, the Mexican civil society organization Institute for Security and Democracy (INSYDE) conducted a comprehensive assessment of the INM. The research, based to a large degree on information requests, interviews, and visits to migrant detention centers, analyzed the INM’s institutional and migration management procedures and practices with a view to increasing its transparency, accountability, and respect for migrant rights. Some of the key findings concern the INM’s internal workings, migrant protection, the use of force, and migrant detention.

Institutional Management

Corruption and abuse by INM officials and agents occur for a variety of reasons, including deficiencies in personnel recruitment and training as well as ineffective sanctions. The Institute has job profiles and publishes – infrequently – calls for applications to fill certain positions. However, appointments among middle and senior management have often been political in nature, resulting in the hiring of unsuitable candidates based on family and party ties, among others.[1] Intransparent staff selection contributes to the recruitment of staff who may be neither qualified for their position nor have the necessary commitment with human rights.

In addition, the INM lacks both a migration training academy and an initial training program. In other words, personnel receive no training prior to entering service, but once hired are given an introduction to the Institute and offered training on different subjects. Worse yet, the INM tends not to administer proficiency exams, instead asking participants to evaluate training courses through a brief survey, and lacks a tracking system that would help determine how or to what extent staff apply what they learned to their daily work. Possible knowledge gaps, if they go undetected, could ultimately affect the quality of the migration service.

Whenever misconduct or improprieties at the INM emerge, whatever their reasons, they need to be investigated and punished accordingly. In practice, however, investigations of suspected cases are rarely conducted, and sanctions tend not to go beyond the termination of employment. Instead, the Institute changes the affected personnel’s place of assignment or asks for their resignation. While the number of cases that warrant sanctions is unknown, the number of public servants that have in fact been punished for human rights violations or other wrongful acts is insignificant.

Available INM data indicate that between 2002 and 2013 5,710 resignations were accepted (for reasons that could not be confirmed), during the same period only 237 employees were dismissed and 29 barred from service.[2] Similarly, information provided by the Secretariat of Public Function confirms that between 1993 and 2013 a total of 1,837 agents and officials were sanctioned, 27 of them for human rights violations.[3] The preference for resignations or changed assignments allows the Institute to avoid lengthy labor disputes (during which posts are not considered vacant) or severance pays. However, its effect is that that misconduct goes unpunished, and the prevailing impunity encourages the recurrence of certain practices within the INM.

Migrant Protection

The National Migration Institute has a series of programs designed to assist migrants in need and protect their rights. The cornerstone of these programs is the Migrant Protection Groups or Beta Groups. The latter emerged from an armed police group created to prevent attacks on undocumented Mexican migrants seeking to enter the United States. Over time, the Beta Groups became the INM’s humanitarian arm, tasked to offer guidance to undocumented migrants, perform search and rescue missions, provide social and humanitarian assistance as well as legal advice, and receive and refer complaints.

The Beta Groups have provided humanitarian assistance and saved the lives of many migrants. However, a series of constraints raise questions about their effectiveness and impact. First, Beta Group members come from the three levels of government, including federal agents and individuals delegated by states and municipalities. The participation of the three levels of government is meant to optimize the use of resources, but at the state or municipal levels this allows for the entry of individuals with military or police backgrounds into the Beta Groups.[4] Second, despite their broad powers, the activities of the Beta Groups tend to focus on guidance, rescue operations, and humanitarian assistance. Their members are reluctant to receive and refer complaints about human rights violations in order to avoid retaliation and conflicts with agents of the INM or other institutions.[5]

Third, besides being deployed only on the southern and northern borders as well as on the Gulf coast, these groups have limited material and human resources. Fourth, the presence of organized crime in certain areas of the country in some way impedes their work, especially patrols and search and rescue missions. Generally, the Beta Groups’ performance depends to a great extent on the personal commitment of their members and particularly that of the Coordinators. While some make efforts to maximize the impact of their work, others do not do what they are required to do. Even though the nature of their work leaves little margin for corruption, the Beta Groups have not been free from irregularities or from collusion with organized crime.[6]

The Use of Force

To date, the National Migration Institute lacks a protocol regulating the use of force by its public servants. The INM explains this omission by arguing that its agents are not authorized to carry and use weapons or any type of equipment to restrain individuals.[7] Migration agents that were interviewed insisted that all they could do was not to appear intimidated or afraid, to talk to migrants, and to adopt a persuasive attitude in order to gain their trust and calm them down.[8]

However, at the heart of the issue lies confusion between the use of weapons and the use of force. The latter refers not only to lethal and non-lethal force, but also to non-physical or psychological force, which includes verbal or physical persuasion (such as brandishing a baton), threats to use physical or other types of force, and factors such as the demeanor and attitude of the agent or the number of agents present.[9]

Clearly, a use of force protocol is fundamental because of migration agents’ direct contact with migrants and the INM’s possibility to request the intervention of the security forces, notably in operations and the containment of security incidents in the migrant detention centers. The lack of said protocol leaves agents with a broad margin of discretion in their dealings with migrants and increases the potential for injury.

The control operations that the INM carries out along the railroads have been widely criticized. Sometimes these are conducted at night, and often they involve outright persecutions, since agents use excessive force in order to arrest migrants that travel aboard the train. In many cases, human rights defenders have reported casualties, because migrants get injured when they try to get off the train and escape from the agents. The abuses that most commonly occur during these operations involve blows, pushing and shoving, insults and intimidation.[10] However, INM agents are also known to commit a variety of offenses against undocumented migrants, ranging from the theft of their personal belongings to extortion and collusion with migrant kidnappers.

Migrant Detention

Because of their designation as national security installations, Mexico’s migrant detention centers are prison-like in nature due to both their physical appearance and the rules that govern them. A few years ago the INM stopped fitting out temporary holding space as migrant detention centers and began to significantly improve the conditions in others. However, these changes do not necessarily entail a better treatment of migrants. To the contrary, deficiencies still prevail both in the implementation of procedures and in the services offered in different areas, from food to medical services.

Depending on the results of the control operations, migrant detention centers can be overcrowded. A sudden increase in the detainee population in turn affects the hygiene in the installations, including the cleanliness of floors and bathrooms as well as the conditions of mattresses and blankets. The habitual lack of information about the duration of their stay and the deportation process leads migrants to feel uncertainty and frustration, thus contributing to different kinds of security incidents. Containing these incidents can be complicated because of the absence of a protocol regulating the use of force by migration agents. Equally critical is communication in emergencies, since at night migrants are locked in cells with doors that do not open automatically, but instead require a key.

The treatment of migrants depends to a great extent on individual performance and the number of agents and officials working in the migrant detention centers. Additionally, it is influenced by the duration of the detention, as its prolongation creates a sense of boredom and frustration for the detainees. Over time, issues such as limited telephone access, the little variety in food, and the shortage of recreational activities are experienced more intensely. The most serious deficiency concerns medical care since many migrant detention centers have no permanent medical service. Gaps also exist in psychological and psychiatric care as well as in the detection and treatment of withdrawal symptoms.

Furthermore, when kits with basic hygiene items are in short supply, laundry detergent is supplied for personal hygiene use, despite its potentially harmful effects on the skin. It is a positive sign that, unlike most migrant detention centers, the facility in Ciudad Juárez has a laundry service. The availability of this service might be less feasible in busier migrant detention centers, but it would offer migrants health and hygiene benefits, since they would not be constantly surrounded by damp clothes.

In the migrant detention centers the occurrence of harmful, if not illegal, practices is common and is largely due to the hiring of unsuitable staff, low salaries, and the lack of oversight and control of on-duty personnel. Although the Operating Rules for the Migrant Detention Centers prohibit any sort of commercial activities in these facilities, the acquisition – by direct purchase or by request – of different products such as coffee, water, sodas, popcorn, cookies, chewing gum, chips, cigarettes, and phone cards is allowed. Thus, objects that could endanger human lives are brought onto the premises, for example cigarettes which could be used to start fires. In addition, INM staff and migrants profit from the sale of products inside the migrant detention centers, taking advantage of many individuals’ poor knowledge of local prices or the fact that migrants are required to buy telephone cards in order to make calls. In certain migrant detention centers, such as that of Acayucan, migrants of different nationalities, especially Cubans, purchase products through the cleaning staff and sell them to other migrants at much higher prices. A complementary arrangement has INM agents pick up the money that family members of detainees send through Western Union or MoneyGram. Since migrants do not know what fees these companies charge, they are also unaware whether the agents are keeping a part of that money for themselves. Moreover, drug sales, particularly in the migrant detention center in Iztapalapa, are common.[11] Likewise, in several migrant detention centers cases of extortion –alleged or proven– by INM personnel have been reported.[12] Citizens from countries that are farther from Mexico are more likely to be victims of attempted or actual extortion, since they are prepared to pay large sums of money to avoid deportation and the need to repeat a long journey.

A Regional Migration Policy and Management

While the National Migration Institute will need to make changes to aspects of both institutional and migration management so that its practices may be more transparent and its treatment of migrants more rights-respecting, the issue of migration goes far beyond the INM. The governments of Central America and Mexico will need to foster community development so that migration becomes an option, but not a necessity for a better standard of living. The government of the United States, for its part, will need to develop a migration policy which manages both to satisfy labor demands and to allow foreign nationals in search of job options to settle in that country in a dignified and secure manner.[13] In this context, the United States has the opportunity to invest fewer resources in border security, which has already heavily increased in recent years, and to divert more resources towards institutional strengthening (for example, a migration training academy in Mexico) or towards community development in Central America.[14]

Unless there are changes in the status quo of migration policy and its associated focus on national security, the pressure on Mexico – especially on the INM – to stop the flow of undocumented migrants through detection, detention, and deportation will not subside. If we add to this –in the case of the INM– the lack of procedures in certain areas (such as the use of force), the current deficiencies in personnel recruitment and training, low salaries for ground-level staff, migration restrictions that do nothing but foster corruption, and weak oversight and control mechanisms, it is unlikely that the performance of INM public servants will improve, to the detriment of migrants.

Sonja Wolf is a researcher in migration and human rights at the Instituto para la Seguridad y Democracia (INSYDE) A.C., Mexico City.

[1] Sonja Wolf, coord., Diagnóstico del Instituto Nacional de Migración: Hacia un Sistema de Rendición de Cuentas en pro de los Derechos de las Personas Migrantes en México (Mexico City: Insyde, 2013), p. 115.

[2] Ibid., p. 175.

[3] Ibid., pp. 181-183.

[4] Ibid., p. 228.

[5] Ibid., p. 235.

[6] Ibid., p. 241.

[7] Directorate General for Legal Affairs, Human Rights and Transparency of the National Migration Institute, Official Communication No. DGJDHT/

UEAIPG/TRANSPARENCIA/0296/2013, May 28, 2013.

[8] Wolf, coord., Diagnóstico del Instituto Nacional de Migración, p. 310.

[9] Robert Varenik, coord., Accountability. Sistema policial de rendición de cuentas (Ciudad de México: Insyde, 2005), pp. 155-156.

[10] Wolf, coord., Diagnóstico del Instituto Nacional de Migración, pp. 261-262.

[11] Ibid., p. 329.

[12] Ibid., p. 329.

[13] See Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Doris Meisner and Eleanor Sohnen, Thinking Regionally to Compete Globally: Leveraging Migration & Human Capital in the U.S., Mexico, and Central America (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute and Woodrow Wilson Center, 2013).

[14] See Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer, Beyond the Border Buildup: Security and Migrants Along the U.S.-Mexico Border (Washington, DC: WOLA, 2012).