Mexican kidnappings reveal ongoing abuse of migrant workers

Numerous kidnappings in Mexico have sparked an international incident and have stimulated the efforts of Mexican human rights activists in favor of Central American migrants in their country. Many hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants try to enter the United States via Mexico every year by riding on top of freight cars. They are frequently attacked by both the police and criminals who rob them of their meager possessions.

In August of 2010, a group of 72 Central and South American immigrants, passing through the northern state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, in an effort to enter the U.S. to find work, were murdered by one of the country’s notorious drug cartels.

More recently, on December 16, after already being robbed by police officers, a group of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador found that their train stopped near Cahuites in the southern state of Oaxaca because of tree trunks on the tracks. At that point, about 10 armed men came out of the surrounding forest and dragged off a group variously reported as between 20 to 50 migrants. On December 22, another group of migrants was similarly captured. All are still missing.

Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights reports that almost 20,000 undocumented immigrants from Central America were kidnapped in 2010 alone. Undocumented migrants headed for the Mexico-U.S. border are snatched and then their relatives in the United States or in their home countries are forced to pay large ransoms for their safe release. In the case of the 72 murdered migrants in Tamaulipas, the drug cartel involved had demanded not merely to be paid a ransom, but that the kidnapped people work for it. When they refused, they were massacred.

Both Mexican human rights organizations and the governments of the kidnapping victims’ home countries have become alarmed by the kidnappings themselves and by the seemingly negligent attitude of the right-wing government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. When the December 16 kidnapping occurred, the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras all presented the Mexican Foreign Ministry with notes protesting the failure of the Mexican government to protect migrant workers from their countries. The Mexican government at first reacted in a tone of wounded national pride, claiming that it had not been proved that an actual kidnapping had taken place.

This was sharply challenged by the neighboring governments as well as Mexican human rights activists. Father Jose Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, a priest who runs “Brother/sister Migrants on the Road” (Migrantes Hermanos en el Camino) a center to help Central American migrant workers in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, denounced the attitude of the government and called for action to rescue the migrants and to keep similar things from happening in the future. For his pains, Father Solalinde found himself the target of multiple death threats. 

Since then, however the Mexican government has changed its position, providing police protection for Solalinde and opening an investigation into the kidnapping. Civil society and political organizations have also come to the aid of Solalinde, including members of the Labor Party (Partido del Trabajo) and the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement (Movimiento Mesoamericano de Migrantes). A statement from the latter organization, one of whose key leaders is Elvira Arellano, who spent a year in sanctuary in Chicago as a protest against repression of undocumented workers, states: “The International Tribunal of Conscience for Peoples in Movement, which took place in Mexico this past November, passed a vehement sentence on the Mexican state for its great responsibility for the permanent violation of human rights of the migrants who cross Mexico and the crimes against humanity can’t simply be written off as actions of organized crime. They are state crimes…with a great deal of official collusion…Migrants are human beings and their rights travel with them, as do their culture, their demonstrated ability to work, their vital energy and their dreams. What is happening here is a national scandal which we can not sidestep. Enough!”

In spite of the bad economy in the United States and efforts to “seal” the U.S.-Mexico border, huge numbers of people both in Mexico and in countries to the South are still displaced from rural areas by the ravages of globalization and perceive no other option than to try to get into the United States to find work. No legal visas are to be had, so they easily fall victim to criminal gangs which have been taking over this irregular cross border traffic. Human rights activists in Mexico and Central America point out that the United States shares responsibility: On the one hand, the U.S. government promotes trade policies that radically disrupt local economies and therefore set millions of migrants in motion. On the other hand, the United States will not take responsibility for the fate of those workers, or give them legal status to be able to earn a living.

Photo by Scazon, cc by 2.0, Flickr


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.