LAWGEF Calls for Justice and Protection of Migrant Rights Defenders in Mexico

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Migrants in transit through Mexico suffer from pervasive violence – threats, physical abuse, kidnapping, murder, extortion – at the hands of criminal groups or complicit and corrupt public officials.  In suit, the brave defenders who provide humanitarian assistance and denounce abuses against migrants find themselves under attack, enduring harassment, death threats, violence, and smear campaigns. 

In 2012, LAWGEF’s Executive Director Lisa Haugaard and I, Senior Associate for Mexico Policy Jenny Johnson, travelled to Saltillo, Coahuila in northern Mexico and Tenosique, Tabasco in southern Mexico as part of an international observation mission sponsored by Project Counselling Service to meet with migrant defenders from those regions. During a week of intense discussions, we heard testimony after testimony describing threats and extraordinarily difficult security conditions that jeopardized these defenders’ ability to carry out the important work necessary to protect this vulnerable population.  

In March, while in Mexico City to present the final report and recommendations from this verification mission, I shared how I was struck not just by the gravity of threats that these migrant defenders endured, but where they originated.   No question, many of the threats and violence came from organized crime and gangs, angry that the defenders’ work to protect migrants was getting in the way of their criminal activities.  However, from their testimonies, it was clear that authorities were directly involved – or complicit – in many of these acts.

Our host in Tenosique, Father Tomás González from “the 72” shelter (named in memory of the 72 migrants found slaughtered en masse in Tamaulipas)  recounted repeated attempts of intimidation and harassment, including arbitrary detention by security forces, for his efforts to assist and protect migrants by denounce officials who prey on and abuse migrants. Just last month, we received notice that local organized crime groups, assumed to be off-shoots of the Zetas, had issued targeted death threats against Father Tomas and other migrant shelter workers. 

Although we documented a range of abuses and threats defenders had suffered,  the common thread was that they all remained in impunity – uninvestigated and unsanctioned.  Exacerbating this problem, in many cases the justice system was used against these same defenders to harass and make them vulnerable, including smear campaigns involving trumped up charges of human smuggling or abuse of migrants. 
For example, defenders from the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Hermanos en el Camino, recounted how they efforts to approach local authorities to denounce robbery, kidnapping or abuses of migrants by police and immigration officials not only failed to  justice, but led to a coordinated surge of threats and violence against the defenders themselves. 

Although many defenders have been granted protective measures through the Inter-American System or Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, we learned that these defenders remained as vulnerable as before because these protective measures have never been implemented properly as a result of inadequate political will.  The concluding report of the verification mission includes a series of recommendations to address threats and violence against migrant defenders, such as prompt, effective and well-coordinated implementation of protective measures and – as the key to prevent future violence and protect migrants and defenders at risk. The report urged the Attorney General’s office to advance criminal investigations to identify and sanction those responsible for threats and violence against migrants and defenders alike.

To read the full final report (in Spanish), click here