Labor trafficking / Mexico's Southern Border

U.S. Officials Doubted Mexico’s “Rescue” of Migrant Laborers

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Publicity shot from the Grupos Beta Web site

Case fell into “gray area” between labor exploitation and trafficking, according to U.S. Embassy

The recent exposure of inhumane conditions in overcrowded U.S. migrant detention centers, now overwhelmed with tens of thousands of migrant children seeking refuge from violence and instability in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, has refocused attention on the root causes of migration, the brutal conditions faced by migrants during their journey north, and need for stronger protective measures meant to guarantee the safety and security of migrants during their long trek through Mexico.

A recently declassified U.S. State Department cable looks at the latter issue and shows that in 2011 U.S. diplomats were critical of a Mexican “rescue” operation aimed at migrants thought to be victims of labor trafficking near Mexico’s southern border.

Agents from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) told U.S. diplomats that migrant farm workers removed from their homes as part of a 2011 “rescue” operation aimed at illegal labor trafficking “did not see themselves as victims of any crime,” according to a declassified cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico published here today for the first time.

The U.S. Embassy said the case highlighted “the gray area between labor exploitation and labor trafficking” adding that the migrants were “just as upset at being unable to collect their personal belongings at the farm where many of them had lived for years after being ‘rescued’ by federal authorities.”

The 2011 cable reviews Mexican efforts to prosecute labor trafficking cases, especially since the “alleged kidnapping of 40-50 Central American migrants in Southern Mexico” in December 2010 and subsequent accusations of Mexican “indifference” leveled by Central American governments.

High-profile “rescues” by Mexican federal agencies of migrants that fall victim to human trafficking and other abuses have risen in recent years. As these operations have become more frequent, some researchers have begun to question whether they have become simply another means of exercising control over migrants in Mexico. Areas along Mexico’s southern border, in particular, have become the focus of U.S.-sponsored security programs aimed at curtailing the flow of migrants into Mexico.

Sonja Wolf, a migration expert from the Institute for Security and Democracy (Insyde) in Mexico, recently completed a diagnostic report on Mexico’s National Migration Agency (INM) and finds that the increase in “rescue” operations coincided with a change in rhetoric at INM under new Commissioner Ardelio Vargas (see Wolf’s article in Animal Político). Wolf argues that in many cases what are presented as humanitarian “rescue” operations are actually administrative arrests that “interrupt the flow of migrants seeking a better life” in the United States.

Other documents published here today shed light on the nature and amount of U.S. support for the Mexican agencies behind these operations.

A U.S. Embassy cable from August 2011 notes that $959,000 in equipment had been delivered under the “Grupos Beta project,” including “eight airboats and six surveillance towers.” The equipment was intended to support the Grupos Beta – the INM agency responsible for assisting migrants “that find themselves in precarious situations along the Mexican borders (both U.S. and Guatemala).” Another 2010 cable sent from the U.S. State Department offers figures on Mérida Initiative funding, noting one million dollars in support for “rescue units training and equipment/Grupos Beta.”

Mixed Response from Mexico

On the Mexican side, it has been more challenging to gain access to information relating to the operations of migration authorities. In response to one of our access requests, INM released files on migrant protection programs implemented after the August 2010 San Fernando massacre. The documents discuss the creation of new INM Migrant Protection Groups (Grupos de Protección de Migrantes) in July 2011 for deployment to dangerous migration routes along the Gulf of Mexico, and the reinforcement of existing protection groups with new INM agents in the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas [see INM documents received in response to information request #0411100064213].

In response to another information request, INM disclosed records on an August 2013 operation involving more than 56 Central American migrants. It remains unclear, however, whether it was in fact a rescue mission or an operation to detain migrants, as there is no information on the files relating to suspects involved in the supposed trafficking operation [see INM documents on August 10, 2013 operation, received in response to information request #0411100064413]. INM’s responses in such cases is indicative of the agency’s refusal to disclose substantive information on the deployments of its protection groups or the names of officials tied to abuses. [see INM documents related to the arrest of 6 of its agents in May 2011, information request #0411100075613].

The suspected involvement of INM officials in abuses against migrants continues to be an area of serious concern for migrant rights groups. The Attorney General’s office has investigated INM officials suspected of aiding criminal groups involved in human trafficking and other abuses in Mexico [see September 2013 article on PGR investigation]. INM announced shortly thereafter that 200 of its agents were being investigated and 40 processed for alleged abuses against migrants [see article on INM’s investigations]. More recently, rights groups and Central American governments have denounced violent operations to detain migrants, as in a recent case involving 300 migrants in the state of Tabasco, municipality of Emiliano Zapata [see article on condemnation of abuses during the operation].

Efforts to investigate and prosecute cases of migrant abuses have led to nowhere in the vast majority of cases. One audit found that of the 1,203 formal complaints filed from 2008-2012 against INM officials for abuses against migrants, a mere 63 cases were investigated, and only five ended in sanction [see article on audit report]. The Grupos Beta have also been implicated in acts of extortion, and of sexual abuses [See articles on alleged abuses of extortion and other abuses by the Grupos Beta].

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