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'We live in fear': Over 6,000 migrants in Mexico have been violently attacked

An investigation by Human Rights First compiled thousands of attacks against migrants and asylum-seekers, including kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and rape.
Image: Asylum-seeking migrants cross the Rio Grande river in Roma
Unaccompanied minors from Central America wait to be processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents in Roma, Texas, on July 30, 2021. Go Nakamura / Reuters

Yorje Pérez Moreno traveled thousands of miles from Venezuela to reach Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, leaving his family, friends and studies, as he fled the violence of state security forces who allegedly persecuted him for participating in anti-government protests.

“My dream was to finish college, but they wouldn’t let me. They beat me, chased me and threatened to imprison me, that’s why I had to leave,” Pérez Moreno, 23, said.

He said that in early August, when he was finally a few miles from the U.S. border, he took a taxi with a friend who accompanied him to request asylum at the border. “You’re not from here. You are Venezuelan and you come to ask for asylum, right?” he said the driver asked, without giving him time to ask for help, locked the car doors and began to drive around the city while making calls to other people and asking for money.

Pérez Moreno said he and his friend panicked and paid more than $600 to be released from the car to avoid being taken and confined to “safe houses” where drug cartels hold people they kidnap at the border. After being extorted, he said, he changed hotels to avoid being found by others looking to exploit migrants.

The next day he crossed the border bridge to request asylum. He said that despite explaining what he suffered, he was returned to Mexico by U.S. immigration authorities. “We live in fear because it is a very corrupt area. All the people tell you that the cartels impose the rules, the narco is the law,” Pérez Moreno said with dismay.

In a new report, the Washington-based organization Human Rights First has registered 6,356 violent attacks against migrants in Mexico since January. These include rape, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and other assaults against migrants who were deported to Mexico or people who were prevented from seeking asylum at the U.S. border under Title 42, a health ordinance implemented during the coronavirus pandemic.

An Indigenous man from Honduras reported that he was kidnapped and separated from his 5-year-old son after being expelled to Reynosa, Mexico. A Salvadoran woman and her 7-year-old son were also allegedly kidnapped in Reynosa. A Guatemalan migrant was allegedly raped in Ciudad Juárez, after U.S. authorities returned her to that city with her 5-year-old daughter.

"Since most people do not make complaints to the authorities, we believe that this is a minimal figure of what is happening at the border,” Ana Ortega Villegas, a lawyer and researcher at Human Rights First, said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo.

The report warns that almost 83 percent of asylum-seekers who were returned to Mexico reported having suffered attacks or threats in the last month, according to data from the survey conducted from mid-June to mid-August.

The document is based on interviews with asylum-seekers, surveys applied to migrants, press reports and information provided by lawyers and humanitarian aid groups. 

The Mexican interior ministry and Mexico’s National Institute of Immigration did not respond to requests for comment on the report.

According to the researchers, the extensive control exercised by the cartels in vast swaths of the territory and the complicity of the Mexican authorities are evidence that U.S. policies that force asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico or require an initial exemption or other processing there country put migrants, lawyers and humanitarian groups at risk.

In the last two months, Human Rights First helped 69 migrants in Tijuana, in the Mexican state of Baja California, and Piedras Negras, in the state of Coahuila, to apply for humanitarian visas. Sixty-two percent of them reported having been kidnapped in Mexico, and almost 19 percent said they had suffered sexual assaults in those Mexican cities.

Most LGBTQ migrants attacked or threatened

Research data reveals that 89 percent of people from the LGBTQ community who participated in the surveys were attacked or received threats recently. 

A Honduran woman, a member of the LGBTQ community, told investigators that she was raped and assaulted in Ciudad Acuña, a Mexican town on the border with Del Rio, Texas. “She had a broken arm, and many bruises on her face and stomach. Something that moved us a lot was that she told us that she never imagined that the violence and discrimination from which she had been fleeing would accompany her to the border,” Ortega said.

In each section of the investigation, there are many complaints from migrants who were alleged victims of cartels and other criminal groups in Mexican cities. In addition, the researchers warn about the increase in the number of people living in makeshift camps in cities such as Tijuana, Matamoros and Reynosa, where a camp in the central square of the city houses thousands of migrants.

At the end of June, the organization published a report in which it registered 3,300 violent incidents, so the new figure shows a 95 percent increase in these attacks.

Eunice Rendón, an academic and international consultant on migration issues, who did not participate in the research, agrees with the report's findings. She has seen the effects of migrant returns closely because she studies the flow of people in regions such as Ciudad Juárez.

Aside from the violence many migrants experience, what is being experienced in the shelters in Ciudad Juárez is that close to 20 percent of migrants who are being returned to Mexico after they've sought asylum or tried to enter the U.S. are infected with Covid-19, she said.

‘Remain in Mexico’

The investigation was released as the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Biden administration’s request to pause the implementation of the Trump-era "Remain in Mexico" policy.

This decision means that U.S. authorities will have to resume the practice of returning asylum-seekers at the border to Mexico, while they wait for their cases to be processed in American immigration courts.

President Joe Biden suspended the Migrant Protection Protocols (the formal name of the program) during his first day in office, and the Department of Homeland Security assured that it would finalize it in June, according to court documents.

Recently, more than 70 organizations from Mexico and the U.S. signed an open letter asking Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to oppose the reinstatement of that program.

It is estimated that more than 70,000 migrants — mostly Central Americans, but also Cubans, Venezuelans and other nationalities — were returned to Mexico by the Trump administration during the implementation of this program in 2019.

“Like the Title 42 expulsion policy, the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program … cannot be carried out legally or humanely and will only increase the danger to those seeking safety in the United States. That will lead to more kidnappings, assaults, torture and other violent attacks,” said Kennji Kizuka, associate director of research and analysis at Human Rights First.

“I want to live in a place where I don’t feel like my life is in danger. Meanwhile, I have to endure and be patient,” Pérez Moreno said in a shelter in Nuevo Laredo.

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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