While international aid efforts in Mexico to assist Central Americans heading to the United States have been expanded to match growing needs, Mexicans fleeing gang violence in their own country say they are being left out to dry with no shelter, legal aid, or protection.
Often viewed as a transit country for migrants and asylum seekers from Central America and elsewhere, Mexico has generated its own expanding population of internally displaced people in recent years, with many joining the rising numbers attempting to enter the United States.
In February 2020, some 150 armed men on pick-up trucks set fire to more than 20 houses and several vehicles in Las Pomas – a village in the northern state of Chihuahua – kidnapping 10 men and reportedly forcing them to work as sicarios (hired killers) for their cartel.
The next day, around 20 families from the village – deep in the pine-oak forests of the Sierra Madre Occidental, also known as the Sierra Tarahumara – left their homes, taking with them individual bags of clothes and a few pesos to make a bus trip to Chihuahua, the state capital.
“Since then, we’ve been through a lot,” said María, an Indigenous Tarahumara who was among those to flee and now lives with four members of her family in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, asking that her real identity be withheld for her safety. “We had a good life in our village. Now, we beg for money; we sell chips on the streets; and we have nowhere to go.”
Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have been forcibly displaced in recent years, with violence linked to organised crime the primary cause. Chihuahua has become one of the most violent states in Mexico due to conflict between criminal groups vying to control marijuana and opium poppy production, as well as key routes to traffic illegal drugs into the United States.
By the end of 2020, the number of internally displaced people in Mexico had climbed to 357,000 – after the first rise in three years – boosted by an uptick in violence as the authorities focused on COVID-19 and criminal gangs took advantage of the security vacuum.
The number of Mexicans attempting to migrate to the United States rose at a much slower rate than migration from Central America from 2017 to 2019, but it has doubled since last year – encouraged by a booming US economy that has contrasted sharply with Mexico’s 8.2 percent contraction in 2020 and soaring youth unemployment.
Mixed drivers, little asylum
While several factors are spurring the migration – including high levels of violence and a worsening economy – the rising numbers of Mexicans apprehended at the US border coincided with a high rate of Mexican applicants being denied asylum by US courts in 2020: 85 percent, up from 66 percent in 2018.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has refused to even acknowledge that violence is driving the displacement. With his policies – his mantra has been “hugs not bullets” – doing little to diminish the gang violence, scenarios such as the one that unfolded in Las Pomas have been repeating themselves throughout the country. And the 6 June general elections, among the most violent of the past 20 years, demonstrated the extreme lengths armed criminal groups are willing to go to to influence the political process: Nearly 80 politicians were assassinated ahead of the polls.
According to data provided to The New Humanitarian by El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, the highest percentage of Mexicans arriving in and deported from the United States in 2020 were from Guerrero and the neighbouring state of Michoacán. Between October and December 2020, 10.2 percent of all Mexicans deported were from Guerrero, and 12.8 percent were from Michoacán. Both states have seen escalating gang violence and forced displacement in recent years.
“We live with a time bomb,” said Javier, a farmer from the Sierra Madre del Sur region of Guerrero who also preferred not to use his real name for security reasons. “We don’t know when it is going to go off or where it is coming from, so we’re looking to migrate to a different country.”
People in Guerrero are suffering economic fallout from the pandemic, the effects of climate change on food production, and ongoing violence and insecurity due to conflict between armed non-state actors who are being allowed to act with near-total impunity, even in the state capital, Chilpancingo.
Javier, who fled temporarily to a neighbouring state with his family, said “violence, fear, and worry for our families, our children” had motivated their desire to leave.
Like many others in his community, Javier has been waiting to hear whether a US company will hire him and arrange a visa so he can cross the northern border as a documented migrant worker. “There are 200 of us here ready to work in the US,” he said.
For the majority who can’t secure a work visa, there’s little choice but to attempt to cross the border illegally or to apply for asylum in the United States.
Both options are riddled with difficulties or worse. Desperate migrants may end up relying on abusive criminal groups, making an already dangerous crossing even more perilous, while Title 42, an order implemented at the start of the pandemic to curb the spread of COVID-19, has left many asylum seekers waiting for months in northern Mexico as US authorities struggle to process a vast backlog of requests.
Carlos Spector, an immigration attorney and founder of Mexicanos en Exilio, a US-based nonprofit offering legal aid to Mexicans forcibly displaced from their homeland, was critical of the lack of recognition by US authorities of the Mexicans fleeing violence.
“It is very hypocritical that the US is recognising violence as a root cause in Central America but not in Mexico, when this is the [most common] cause of forced displacement that ends up in US immigration courts,” he said.
‘There is no shelter for us’
After María and other families fled their homes in Las Pomas, they slept at the bus station in Chihuahua for days, before finding a proper place to shelter.
They then travelled on the back of an old pick-up belonging to one of the other families to Ciudad Juárez – a four-hour drive away on the US border. They tried to seek asylum in the United States, but – like most people of all nationalities – they were turned away without further explanation by US Customs and Border Protection officers on the bridge separating the two countries.
Between February 2020 – when they left their homes – and May this year, when The New Humanitarian spoke to them, the former residents of Las Pomas didn’t receive any support from state, national, or international aid groups. They said they reached out for protection to get back home, but a comandante from Chihuahua’s state police told them it wasn’t safe to go back, until further notice. They never heard back from the authorities.
“There is no shelter for us; no help from anyone since we are Mexicans,” María said. “We don’t even know how to properly ask for political asylum, and we will not try to get across illegally.”
María’s family is staying in the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, in an old abandoned house lent to them by a friend who left for the United States years ago. The house is bare, except for an old stove, two mattresses on the floor, and a plastic table for eating on. They only get power by connecting illegal wiring to the formal electricity network.
“I’m not sure what the other families did. We lost communication with them. But I guess they are still in the city, like us, surviving how they can,” said María.
Depending on the state – and the particular violence and resources around them – displaced Mexicans end up in a wide variety of locations and situations, but many make their way to border cities like Ciudad Juárez or Tijuana.
For the most part, they are not to be found in the shelters where most Central Americans wait. This can be due to wanting to remain under the radar of criminal groups, but it’s also because most rely on a network of family or friends to host them and offer them jobs while they decide what to do next.
As violence and forced displacements have increased, it has mostly been left to church groups and local community organisations to fill the gaps for Mexicans seeking shelter and support in their own country.
Catholic priest Gregorio López – the former vicar of Apatzingán, one of Michoacán's largest cities – founded a shelter called El Buen Samaritano in Tijuana in May due to the large numbers of people displaced by violence in the small town of Aguililla, in his home state.
“There are more than 500 families currently hosted at the shelter,” said López, who is known as Padre Goyo (short for Gregorio). “They are fleeing the ruthless violence of organisations killing innocent people.”
El Buen Samaritano, located at the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Catholic Church in Tijuana, has the capacity to shelter 1,500 families. It offers shelter, food, medical attention, and legal assistance, with aid provided by a group of US Catholic priests, according to López.
Turf war or internal conflict?
While church groups and local coalitions coordinate a lot of the response efforts in northern Mexico, the growing numbers of migrants from Central America stranded in border cities like Ciudad Juárez has drawn the attention of international aid groups, with UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, expanding operations and offering more support to Mexico’s asylum office.
But the international aid groups told The New Humanitarian they were catering – broadly speaking – to the needs of international migrants throughout Mexico and had no specific programmes for Mexicans forcibly displaced by violence.
While the UN’s migration agency, IOM; the International Rescue Committee (IRC); and UNHCR all maintain a presence in Ciudad Juárez and other border cities, operations away from the key crossing points – on both Mexico’s northern and southern borders – are almost non-existent.
“IOM works with a general moving population and we do not ask for specific motives for their migration,” said Alberto Cabezas, the agency’s national communications officer. “We understand that violence is only one of many causes for migrating.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross does provide protection and assistance to Mexican communities affected by violence, particularly where violence restricts access to healthcare and other basic services, including in Guanajuato and Guerrero. This has included technical advice on mass graves and search mechanisms as well as local health assistance.
“Mexico is facing a situation of violence, distinct from an armed conflict as defined under international humanitarian law,” explained Mayra Roffe Gutman, ICRC’s deputy migration coordinator in Mexico.
For Falko Ernst, senior analyst in Mexico for the International Crisis Group, it is this dubious distinction – between localised acts of violence and an internal armed conflict that endangers the broader safety and human rights of the population – that is one of the main factors preventing international aid groups from creating specific programmes for those forcibly displaced in the country.
“The problem in Mexico is still being reduced by most as a turf war between cartels, while it is more of an internal violent conflict,” he said. “This has complicated the work for most international aid groups in Mexico.”
Ernst acknowledged that it was difficult for international aid groups to apply more pressure on the Mexican state over its failure to provide basic human rights to its people. “Operating on a more honest approach could compromise their permanence in Mexico, given that their stay depends on the state,” he said.
However, he urged them to do more. “Aid groups should bring a broader visibility to this conflict, in particular to try and move the public agenda and people’s comprehension of the issue,” he said. “We need them to be a key actor on this issue.”