For the past year, Ciudad Juarez has been a flashpoint of the migrant and refugee humanitarian crisis gripping the U.S.-Mexico border. It began a year ago when hundreds of Cubans and Central Americans asylum seekers camped out for weeks on the Santa Fe Bridge connecting Juarez with its sister city of El Paso, Texas.
Now hundreds of other people-mainly women and children-are camped out at the base of the bridge also seeking asylum. The difference is that the latest group of refugees is Mexican.
“They have problems in their cities and towns,” said Jose Hernandez, an asylum seeker who acted as coordinator of the group. “They are persecuted by drug traffickers. Their life is in danger.”
In early September, U.S. government officials allowed small groups of Mexican asylum seekers to cross into the United States on the Santa Fe Bridge, but during the third week of the month five days passed without a single person from the encampment being allowed to present an asylum case on the U.S. side, according to Hernandez.
Hernandez reported 490 individuals had signed up with him at the bridge for U.S. asylum interviews. Each person was accorded a number, a system immigrant advocates term “metering”. No one from the previous groups allowed in had been returned to Juarez, the refugee spokesman added.
Hailing from the Mexican states of San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Michoacan and Guerrero, Mexican refugees occupy an entire city block near the bridge’s entrance, just yards from the community-erected monument to Juarez’s femicide victims known as the Cross of Nails.
Photos of 1998 murder victim Sagrario Gonzalez, the 17-year-old factory worker whose story was portrayed in Lourdes Portillo’s classic 2000 documentary Senorita Extraviada, fluttered from the pink monument as an enduring testament to the violence and impunity that refugees more than two decades later say they confront, too.
Tales of Fear and Violence
The asylum seekers interviewed at the bridge, requested anonymity, but otherwise spoke freely about current conditions in their home town. A small group from Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacan explained that meth labs have popped up back home, drug abuse has skyrocketed and gangsters extort residents for payments of up to $2,000. Residents are fearful their children will be forced into the ranks of the drug gangs.
“You can’t go to the police because they are with the (criminals). There’s a lot of corruption and collusion with delinquency. You’re afraid to go to the district attorney out of fear of reprisals,” one man said.
A woman with small children from the Costa Chica region of southern Guerrero state said her husband had been murdered and the rest of the family threatened with extermination.
She said when she fled to another Mexican city to seek a secure place, the criminals found her so she decided to come to Juarez and seek refuge in the U.S.
“We’re good, decent people. We just want safety,” the woman pleaded.
A younger woman with tears welling up in her eyes said she escaped from another region of Guerrero, where opium poppies are cultivated, gangs kidnap girls like her and criminals demand protection money from citizens.
Recounting how he was almost murdered, a man from the north-central state of Zacatecas described a war-like situation between competing criminal organizations, which he said are rooted in the local population but undergo shifting changes in the top leadership.
The crime and violence have increased since 2007, he stated, with massacres covered up by the government and a silenced press.
“This is the worst state in Mexico. In Guerrero, someone is killed and it gets on television. In Zacatecas, they kill 50 Zacatecans and nobody knows about it. The government says it’s not true, nothing bad has happened,” the man contended.
From One Dangerous Situation to the Next
Encamped along an entire block adjacent to the Santa Fe Bridge, the refugees sleep in tents or under plastic tarps and drape blankets on donated mattresses and other bedding. A makeshift hammock is strung up on a business’ wall.
To pass the time in a spot without a school, children scribble in coloring books or play American football in the street, a game they have to suspend when the Greyhound and Transborde buses that transport passengers over the Santa Fe Bridge to El Paso suddenly enter the narrow thoroughfare.
Acknowledging that they were offered indoor shelter at facilities in Juarez by government officials, most refugees declined the offer because they want to be ready to cross into the U.S. when their numbered turn is announced.
According to Hernandez and other refugees, medical services have been provided by the Red Cross and the Chihuahua state health department, and restrooms on the Mexican side of the bridge stay open 24 hours for their use.
Local churches, organizations and individuals provide food, water and other supplies, they said. U.S. volunteers also lend a hand.
“It’s a nightmare,” declared Rhonda Lee, a North Carolina resident who is part of an “informal” network of people of faith from the U.S. who volunteer their time and resources to aid the refugees. “It’s getting worse. More people are coming. People are afraid,” Lee remarked.
Although the Santa Fe refugee encampment is located in a highly-transited and visible place, Juarez is by no means a safe place for refugees. Ironically, the asylum seekers find themselves stranded in a city that was abandoned by tens of thousands of people during the 2008-12 period of hyper-violence and recession.
According to local press reports, drug-fueled violence is again increasing in the border city. Several recent murders took place not far from encampment, including one shooting almost at the very spot where the refugees later camped.
Citing official statistics, Nortedigital.mx and El Diario de Juarez reported that 1, 143 murders occurred in this city of 1.4 million between January and September of this year–a death toll that nearly equals the 1,247 homicides registered for all of last year. 2019 will be the worst year on record since the violence-torn 2011 if the current pace of killing continues. Nortedigital.mx recently ran a story stating that illegal drug consumption is up, noting a particular problem with meth trafficking and consumption.
Several asylum seekers complained of occasional insults hurled at them by passing motorists or suspected gang members. One man claimed he spotted two hired killers from his home state moving through the encampment one evening. A couple of men complained about the Mexican television crews that show up and record the scene, exposing their faces to the world and jeopardizing their security.
Forcing asylum seekers to remain in Juarez, “puts vast numbers at risk,” said Dr. Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. Reports of the metering of Mexican refugees at the Santa Fe Bridge are consistent with a Trump administration practice that purposely delays the entry of refugees while attempts to legally restrict asylum face court challenges, Heyman said.
Based on recent history, the current chances of the Mexican asylum seekers waiting on the Mexico-U.S. border are very slim. According to an April 2017 article in the Texas Tribune, “Of the 12,831 asylum requests from Mexicans received during the 2016 fiscal year, only 464 – fewer than 4 percent – were granted while 2,624 were denied and thousands more either withdrawn, abandoned or may be pending, according to federal statistics. The percentage of Mexicans granted asylum is far less than the 13.3 percent overall rate of approved asylum claims in the United States during the same time frame.”
Despite the day-to-day hardships and hazards confronting both children and adults at the bridge, there is no going back for the woman from the Costa Chica and her kids. “It’s better to be here,” she asserted, after weighing the dangers back home and the trials and tribulations of refugee life.
Drivers of Forced Displacement in Mexico
The scene at the Santa Fe Bridge is not unique on the Mexico-U.S. border. Similar encampments recently appeared at the Bridge of the Americas and the Zaragoza Bridge in other sections of Juarez.
According to El Diario de Juarez, the official Chihuahua State Council for the Protection of and Attention to Migrants registered 3,270 Mexican nationals fleeing their country between June and September of this year.
Enrique Valenzuela, the council’s general coordinator, was quoted in El Diario as saying there were 1,772 refugees at the three Juarez bridges; he predicted the total would soon reach 2,000. Valenzuela’s predictions were surpassed by mid-October, when El Diario reported nearly 3,200 asylum seekers at the three Juarez bridges, including 1,280 children and adolescents. In addition to the states mentioned earlier, many asylum seekers have fled the violence in the states of Veracruz and Durango.
In late September, La Jornada reported that approximately 260 indigenous residents of Chiapas and Guerrero aiming for U.S. asylum were camped out near an old bridge connecting Matamoros, Tamaulipas, with Brownsville, Texas.
Citing pro-immigrant activists and researchers, the Los Angeles Times reported 1,100 plus Mexican asylum seekers waiting south of the Arizona border crossings at Yuma, Nogales and Douglas.
In a press statement, the Nogales-based Kino Border Initiative charged that six Mexican families recently were physically and psychologically mistreated and “wrongfully removed by Border Patrol despite reporting that they expressed fear of return to agents,” in an episode that added to a growing pattern of wrongful removals that violate U.S. asylum law and due process.
“This escalation demonstrates a concerted effort to deny access to asylum, which results in deportations back to life-threatening circumstances,” the binational organization contended.
The human dramas playing at the Mexico-U.S. crossings coincide with an upsurge in criminal violence this year in Mexico. The official National Public Security System reported 23,724 homicides between January and August of this year.
In important respects, the current wave of violence and the displacement accompanying it recalls 2010, when the emergence of the Zetas organized crime group precipitated a realignment of different criminal groups and alliances for and against the Zetas.
In addition to the proliferation of meth across Mexico, a major motive of the current violence appears to be the rise of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the formation of pro and anti CJNG alliances, as evidenced in recent months by grisly and bombastic online videos, narco banners displayed in prominent public places with threatening messages, and a slew of press reports. The refugees in Juarez and other places come from many of the localities embroiled in this conflict.
But violence and displacement are not confined to the CJNG-related disputes. In Chihuahua, for instance, groups reportedly associated with the latest configurations of the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels are engaged in pitched battles in the state’s mountainous zones, threatening and displacing indigenous Raramuri communities. In Juarez, local authorities attributed 75 to 80 percent of the killings during the first months of 2019 to competition over street-level meth sales (which have displaced a part of the traditional cocaine market), according to El Diario. The local press gave wide coverage to the discovery of a body dumped outside a notorious bar only blocks from the Santa Fe Bridge refugee encampment last month that was accompanied by a narco-style message warning such a fate awaited all meth peddlers.
“The real issue in Mexico today is not that one or another ‘cartel’ is fighting for control of some business or another, but that the country at large is enduring and perpetrating levels of violence that led to the largest number of homicides in the country’s history…at least in recent history where an attempt is made to count the victims,” New Mexico border researcher Molly Molloy commented in her Frontera List electronic news service.
La Jornada correspondent Herman Bellinghausen reported in September from areas of traditional Zapatista influence in the southern state of Chiapas that , “displaced people, destruction, theft of crops and land, all kinds of extortion and a cluster of murders” constitute the bloody harvest of power struggles involving political parties, paramilitary groups, human traffickers, and even bikers.
An award-winning journalist with decades of experience in Chiapas, Bellinghausen assessed the current socio-political landscape in the state as “alarming.” Forced displacement is not new in Chiapas and other regions of Mexico. Since 2014, the non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH) has been monitoring press and other reports of forced displacement, which is typically connected to narco-violence, land disputes and resource extraction.
The human rights advocacy organization’s 2018 report documented 25 episodes of violence-related displacement, which it defined as cases encompassing at least 10 or more family units or 50 persons. Authored in cooperation with the Norwegian Refugee Council, the report registers a total of 11, 491 people forcibly displaced during the past year, with 87.82 percent of the total residing in either Guerrero or Chiapas.
Calculating a total number of forcibly displaced persons in Mexico is a tricky proposition. As of December 2018, the CMDPDH cumulatively estimated 338,405 forcibly displaced persons in Mexico since 2006, with the caveat that the destinies of all the displaced might not be known. The estimate was based on average household size numbers used by the federal government census agency INEGI as well as press reports.
“There are people now who, due to the actions and omissions of government authorities, remain in a state of neglect, vulnerability and violation of their human rights,” the report concludes.
Mexican authorities are aware of the situation of the internally displaced. A March 2019 report co-authored by the federal Interior Ministry and the National Population Council, with the assistance of the United Nations Population Fund, corroborates and adds to the reports from the CMDPDH and other human rights defenders.
While contending that legal advances like the General Victims Law and the National Register of Victims favor the displaced, the report admitted that there huge gaps exist in addressing the circumstances of displaced persons, noting the negative impact of “…the absence of public policies that provide attention to the most urgent demands of those forced into displacement, since, given prevailing conditions, receiving justice and recuperating lost materials become impossible goals to achieve.”
The report’s conclusions were borne out in the state of Guerrero this month, when representatives of 180 forcibly displaced families in the coastal municipality of Tecpan de Galeana complained to La Jornada (Guerrero edition) that earlier government promises of land and employment remained unfulfilled. The newspaper also reported that 100 displaced persons blocked a local highway near the state capital of Chilpancingo in protest, demanding security guarantees so they could return to homes abandoned a year ago.
The Mexican civil society organization Cencos reported October 19 that a leading member of a Chihuahua displaced person’s collective who had earlier been threatened and disappeared, Cruz Soto Caraveo, was mysteriously found dead.
If current trends continue, 2019 could surpass last year in levels of internal displacement, with mounting violence forcing more refugees to head for the U.S. border.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has stated, not untruthfully, that he inherited a country ravaged by insecurity and corruption and calculated that it will take at least two years to turn the situation in a positive direction. But the clock is ticking fast, and according to Jose Hernandez and his fellow refugees in Juarez, time has simply run out for them.
“We haven’t seen any changes,” Hernandez asserted. “All the presidents have said the same thing, and knowing that (corruption) comes from the top of the government, they are the ones most involved.”
Kent Paterson, US-Mexico, is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to the Americas Program americas.org
Center for Inter-American and Border Studies:
Kino Border Initiative:
Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights report (Spanish):
Mexican government report (Spanish):