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Undocumented Migrants from Central America in transit in Mexico | Central America |

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Undocumented Migrants from Central America in transit in Mexico

Javier Treviño-Rangel

/ 6 Minuten zu lesen

Hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants pass through Mexico every year to reach the USA. In the context of a flourishing migration industry, they have become commodities.

Around 3,000 people, mostly from Central America, on a foot march through Mexico towards the north. After the death of 40 migrants in an immigration facility, they held a protest to draw attention to their situation and demand justice (April 25, 2023). (© picture-alliance/dpa, Isaac Guzman)

Migrants that don’t matter

In Western countries, the main focus of interest in migration issues is on primarily two migration movements: on the one hand, the flow of undocumented Mexican migrants to the United States; on the other, the arrival of undocumented migrants to the European continent, mainly from Africa and the Near East.

But there are other equally important but less well-known migration processes. One example is the case of those hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants from Central America – El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala – who pass through Mexico every year to reach the United States. As Mexico is one of the most violent countries in the world with regard to the homicide rate – Externer Link: 28.2 homicides per 100,000 population in 2021 –, their journeys are perilous. Some of them make it, most do not – at least not on the first attempt. On their way through Mexico, a substantial number of migrants is kidnapped and threatened with extortion, human trafficking and rape. Many migrants are victims of enforced disappearances and murder.

But these migration processes hardly ever make the headlines, not even in Mexico. Sporadically, in Mexico, the media report that the police have found hundreds of migrants kidnapped in a warehouse in subhuman conditions or that clandestine mass graves with the human remains of dozens of migrants have been discovered. Such news causes something of a stir for a couple of days before the interest in it is lost again. Salvadoran journalist and writer Oscar Martínez has described these migrants as "the migrants who don't matter". And he is right: these Central American citizens illegally transiting through Mexico are less seen as humans than as commodities that are valuable as long as they can generate profit. But they are disposable: Their destruction does not matter as they can be easily replaced because the supply of migrants never ends.

Context and background

Migrants who pass through Mexico to reach the United States come from different countries: from Brazil or Venezuela to India. However, the vast majority of them are from Central America and come mainly from three countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We know this because more than 90 percent of the people detained in the Mexican government's migrant detention centres are citizens of these countries.

Migrants' reasons for leaving their countries are diverse and complex. Some seek to reunite with their families already living in the United States. But the vast majority migrate because they have no other choice. In their countries of origin – El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras – they live in precarious conditions in extreme poverty. Moreover, these three countries are extraordinarily violent. Many of their citizens are victims of violence from multiple groups: drug cartels, organised crime groups, gangs, guerrillas and corrupt police or military agents. In short, the citizens of these countries migrate because they don’t see any other alternative to survive.

At the same time, migrants know that in the US their presence serves to satisfy the demand for cheap labour, that companies are looking for employees like them: vulnerable undocumented people they can hire for very low wages. This migration process is also made possible by what is known as the "migration industry": a multiplicity of actors who gain money by facilitating undocumented migration through Mexico. For example, transport companies that move migrants, agencies that facilitate visas, that falsify birth certificates, that link migrants with potential employers. But there is also a group of companies that benefit from illegal migration in the US: private businesses contracted by the US government to detain and deport undocumented migrants. In other words, there are many people in Mexico and the US who economically benefit directly or indirectly from undocumented migration.

Migrants in transit in Mexico

Migration of Central Americans to the United States is not new. However, during the last thirty years the number of migrants making this journey has increased considerably due to the increase in violence and poverty in their countries of origin. The majority of these migrants are not interested in staying in Mexico, but in reaching the United States as fast as possible.

Before 2006, migrants reported suffering abuses by Mexican authorities, mainly migration authorities: arbitrary arrests, lack of due process, and detention in deplorable conditions in detention centres set up and run by the Mexican state. However, this pattern has changed ever since and migrants have increasingly become victims of abuses that are mainly committed by members of organised crime groups: mass kidnappings, mass killings, torture, disappearances, human and organ trafficking, and rape. In 2011, the National Human Rights Commission, the most important governmental office protecting human rights in Mexico, published an investigation revealing that approximately 20,000 migrants were kidnapped every year. The escalation of violence against migrants in transit in Mexico took place in the context of the so-called “war on drugs” which as launched by former Mexican president Felipe Calderón in 2006: It is a military strategy aimed at putting an end to the violence of organised crime and drug trafficking. But the opposite of its intended effect has happened: the number of criminal gangs has multiplied, violence has grown exponentially and Mexico has become one of the most violent countries in the world, with an annual murder rate like that of countries experiencing civil war. In 2014, the number of homicides was 20,010 and has steadily increased since then, reaching 35,700 in 2021. According to Mexican authorities, an estimated 84,785 people have disappeared between December 2006 and July 2022. More than 52,000 discovered bodies of deceased people are yet to be identified.

The migration industry

In the last decade, the drug cartels in Mexico have increasingly ventured into new businesses: they are no longer only involved in drug trafficking, but also in the trafficking of gasoline, agricultural products, mining, fishing, human trafficking and the kidnapping and extortion of migrants. These criminal organisations demand large sums of money from the abducted migrants or their families. Those who do not pay are subjected to forced labour, sexual exploitation or are being killed. The mass kidnapping of migrants by criminal gangs is possible because Mexican authorities are colluded in the process. Migrants in transit have testified that they are stopped by migration authorities, police or members of the military at "migration checkpoints" or on passenger buses, but instead of taking them to a government migrant detention centre, they are sold to organised crime. These government officials see migrants as an opportunity for extra income. The mass kidnapping of migrants is a lucrative business, which every year generates at least US$50 million, according to estimates from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

The business with migrants has flourished in a context of tightening immigration control where migrants are being pushed onto longer and more dangerous migration routes and often need to rely on the help of smugglers (“coyotes”) to make their way through Mexico and across the Mexico-U.S. border – all of which increases their vulnerability.

But the migration industry does not only involve members of criminal organizations and government officials, but also ordinary citizens. They, too, profit from the undocumented transit of migrants. For example, Mexicans who live near the places where migrants are kept by criminal gangs are hired as watchmen, to bring some food to the migrants or to clean these clandestine warehouses. But they also earn money by surcharging migrants for taxis rides, hotel accommodation or any other service.

Externalizing immigration enforcement

Migration control in Mexico is not new. Already in the late 1980s Mexico partnered with the USA to curb the flow of Central Americans fleeing civil wars in their home countries. In the 1990s and early 2000s, in the context of pressure from the U.S. to curb migration, Mexico expanded migration enforcement on major transit routes. Migrants thus started to search for ways to evade controls and tried, for example, to ride on the top of freight trains through Mexico. With the Mexican government’s “war on drugs” migration routes have become even more dangerous, and pressure from the U.S. to stop migrants from reaching the Mexico-U.S. border has increased even further.

In July 2014, Mexico introduced Programa Frontera Sur, financed by the USA and aimed at stopping migrants already at Mexico’s southern border. On trend, the number of irregular migrants that have been apprehended in Mexico has risen ever since (although numbers tend to fluctuate) and transit routes through Mexico have become even more militarized.

In 2018, migrants started to travel through Mexico in large groups (so-called caravans of migrants) i.e. to protect themselves from atrocities committed by the drug cartels and government officials. The Donald Trump administration reacted by introducing the “Migrant Protection Protocols”, better known as “Remain in Mexico” policy. It stipulated that undocumented migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. would be send back to Mexico until a decision on their asylum application was taken.

In June 2019, again reacting to pressure from the U.S., the Mexican government send 25,000 officers of the National Guard to Mexico’s border with Guatemala and increased their number even further after the arrival of new caravans in January 2020.

In sum, migration controls have increasingly been shifted away from the Mexico-U.S. border into Mexican territory and to the country’s southern border (so-called externalization). However, they did not manage to significantly curb irregular migration through Mexico as the drivers behind these movements – poverty, violence, political instability – have not been eradicated and continue to push people out of their Central American countries of origin. Likewise, pull-factors such as employment opportunities in the shadow economy in the USA and the myth of the “American dream” continue to attract migrants. Moreover, many actors along migration routes, including state officials, are not really interested in substantially curbing migration flows as these generate economic gains for those involved in the migration industry.

Conclusion: Migrants as disposable commodities

The migration of Central American citizens in transit through Mexico is a process of radical dehumanisation. Undocumented migrants are no longer seen as human beings, but as things, as commodities that can generate some money, but commodities that are disposable because their destruction seems irrelevant as they can be easily replaced by the new migrants who flock into Mexico every day in search for a better life in the U.S.

Quellen / Literatur

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  1. Others estimate the gains from migrant smuggling to be much higher. For example, in 2022, Rocío Gonzáles Higuera, leader of the Migration Policy, Registration and Identity of Persons Unit (UPMRIP) of Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior, referring to data from a study on migration at Mexico’s Southern border (Encuestra Sobre Migración en la Frontera Sur, EMIF SUR), stated that in 2019, migrant smuggling made an estimated $615 million in profits (Gobierno de México, Secretaría de Gobernación, Externer Link: Tráfico de personas migrantes dejó ganancias de 615 mdd en 2019, 6 July 2022).


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Dr. Javier Treviño-Rangel is currently a visiting Professor at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University Juárez of the State of Durango (UJED), in northern Mexico; and is a Fellow of the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) of Mexico. He is also a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Sociology at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). At LSE, he also acts as consultant to the project “Externer Link: Human Rights – Human Remains”. His research interests include transitional justice, grave violations of human rights, bystanders and public responses to atrocity, and international undocumented transit migration in Mexico.