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Gangs, corrupt officials make illegal migrants' trip through Mexico dangerous

By William Booth
Friday, June 18, 2010; A16

IXTEPEC, MEXICO -- As the Mexican government condemns a new immigration law in Arizona as cruel and xenophobic, illegal migrants passing through Mexico are routinely robbed, raped and kidnapped by criminal gangs that often work alongside corrupt police, according to human rights advocates.

Immigration experts and Catholic priests who shelter the travelers say that Mexico's strict laws to protect the rights of illegal migrants are often ignored and that undocumented migrants from Central America face a brutal passage through the country. They are stoned by angry villagers, who fear that the Central Americans will bring crime or disease, and are fleeced by hustlers. Mexican police and authorities often demand bribes.

Mexico detained and deported more than 64,000 illegal migrants last year, according to the National Migration Institute. A few years ago, Mexico detained 200,000 undocumented migrants. The lower numbers are the result of tougher enforcement on the U.S. border, the global economic slowdown and, say some experts, the robbery and assaults migrants face in Mexico.

The National Commission on Human Rights, a government agency, estimates that 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year in Mexico.

While held for ransom, increasingly at the hands of Mexico's powerful drug cartels, many migrants are tortured -- threatened with execution, beaten with bats and submerged in buckets of water or excrement.

"They put a plastic bag over your head and you can't breathe. They tell you if you don't give them the phone numbers" of family members the kidnappers can call to demand payment for a migrant's release, "they say the next time we'll just let you die," said Jose Alirio Luna Moreno, a broad-shouldered young man from El Salvador, interviewed at a shelter in the southern state of Oaxaca.

Luna said he was held for three days this month in Veracruz by the Zeta drug trafficking organization, which demanded $1,000 to set him free. He said he was abducted by men in police uniforms and taken to a safe house with 26 others.

'Epidemic' in kidnappings

Of the 64,000 migrants detained and expelled by Mexico last year, the Mexican government granted only 20 humanitarian visas, which would have allowed them to stay in Mexico while they testified and pressed charges against their assailants.

"We have a government in Mexico that emphatically criticizes the new immigration law -- which is perfectly valid, to criticize a law with widespread consequences -- but at the same time doesn't have the desire to address the same problem within its own borders," said Alberto Herrera, executive director of Amnesty International in Mexico.

"The violations in human rights that migrants from Central America face in Mexico are far worse than Mexicans receive in the United States," said Jorge Bustamante of the University of Notre Dame and the College of the Border in Tijuana, who has reported on immigration in Mexico for the United Nations.

U.N. officials describe the kidnapping of illegal migrants in Mexico as "epidemic" in scope.

"We have definitely begun to see a greater degree of violence in the shipping of migrants north to the United States," said Juan Carlos Calleros Alarcón, a director of policy at the National Migration Institute, which is responsible for detaining and deporting illegal visitors.

He said local authorities appear to be involved in the kidnappings.

The migrants are preyed on by roving gangs that operate along the Guatemalan border. Once in Mexico, many migrants ride on dangerous freight trains to bypass immigration checkpoints. Local police, taxi drivers and city officials often demand bribes or deliver them to kidnappers, according to the migrants and research by government and human rights workers.

Amnesty International says that as many as six in 10 women experience sexual violence during the journey.

Mexican government officials stress that only a handful of complaints are filed against federal immigration agents. The government has sped up the process of returning illegal migrants to their countries. Detention centers are newly built buildings; the migrants ride home in air-conditioned buses.

At a meeting Wednesday, Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont, the U.S. ambassador and the governors of the southern Mexican states pledged to work harder to protect migrants.

Like 'merchandise'

The small city of Ixtepec in the humid hills of Oaxaca is a crossroads for illegal migrants moving north on trains. At the edge of town, along the tracks at a shelter for migrants run by the Catholic church, 100 migrants slept on cardboard in the shade, waiting for an afternoon meal, before they move on.

Sergio Alejandro Barillas Perez, a Guatemalan at the shelter, said he was kidnapped in the gulf state of Veracruz this month and held for three days by men who said they worked for the Zetas.

He said his kidnappers demanded $10,000 for him and his girlfriend. "They told me if you don't give us the phone numbers, we'll kill your girlfriend," said Barillas, whose face was still bruised. "We were all in a house, a normal house. When they beat us, they would put a rag in our mouths and they turned on the music, loud, like they're having a party."

He said the kidnappers knocked out his girlfriend's teeth and dragged her away. He and others escaped. He said he does not know what happened to his girlfriend.

"These migrants aren't people -- they are merchandise to the mafias, who traffic drugs, weapons, sex and migrants," said Alejandro Solalinde, the Catholic priest who runs the Brothers of the Road shelter in Ixtepec. "They suck everything out of them."

The priest said that federal authorities do not protect the migrants and that local officials also look the other way, or take their cut from the robbers and traffickers.

Solalinde has battled local authorities who want to shut down his shelter, which feeds as many as 66,000 passing migrants in a year. More than 100 were at the shelter last week.

The priest said many Mexicans are distrustful of the outsiders. In 2008, townspeople became enraged when a Nicaraguan man who was living in Ixtepec was accused of raping a young girl. As police and the mayor were outside the gates at the shelter, Solalinde said, 100 angry protesters got inside.

"They had stones and sticks and gasoline," the priest said. "They wanted to burn us down."

Researcher Michael E. Miller in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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