In recent weeks, the world spotlight has fallen on the drama of Central American refugees crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet little attention has been accorded to the ongoing, forcible population movements within Mexico caused by similar outbreaks of criminal and state violence that are propelling Central Americans north.
While Mexicans make up a small percentage of an estimated 50 million displaced persons in the world, according to the United Nations, the ranks of the displaced are growing in Mexico.
Last November, Laura Rubio Garcia-Leal, a researcher with the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM), testified to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington that 170,000 Mexicans could be internally displaced. More than eight months later, the refugee crisis has only expanded, with an additional 35,000 persons displaced, Rubio Garcia-Leal said in an e-mail.
“The problem of the self-defense groups and violence has continued creating displacements in Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacan, and Sinaloa, she said.
Comparing Mexico with Central America, Jorge Durand, migrant studies researcher for the University of Guadalajara, wrote in a recent La Jornada column that the extortion and kidnappings suffered by Central Americans were also such stark realities in his own country that they constituted a “missile” leveled at the “structural survival of society” in Michoacan and some other Mexican states.
Suddenly expelled from their homes, victims of displacement lose property, small animal herds and crops and vital identification documents necessary for all manner of services; displaced children, meanwhile, miss out on valuable school time.
Their lives turned upside down by violence, victims of displacement are out in the cold.
“The problem is not recognized by the state and no state institution has the authority or responsibility to address the problem,” said Brenda Perez Vazquez, internal displacement coordinator for the non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH).
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is aware of the problem, but has not intervened, Perez said in a phone interview, Four months ago, the CMDPDH launched its civil society initiative to document the displacement crisis and find solutions to it, Perez said.
A May 2014 report by the non-profit Norwegian Refugee Council/Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (NRC-IDC), a humanitarian organization that tracks displacement across the globe, estimated that the population of internally displaced persons in Mexico reached 160,000 in 2012-double the number of internal refugees in 1995, the year after the Zapatista uprising and Mexican state counter-insurgency campaigns displaced entire communities in the southern border state of Chiapas .
Not unlike forgotten orphans, the report found that 25,000 people in Chiapas were still living in “protracted displacement” two decades later. Worse yet, Chiapas’ internal refugees are increasing. Approximately 300 indigenous Tlotzil inhabitants of Chiapas abandoned their homes this month after a long-brewing land dispute turned violent when members of one community fired gunshots, forcing members of another community, including pregnant women and babies, to seek safety elsewhere, according to Proceso magazine.
Likely an undercount because of the silent flight undertaken by many people who abandon their homes while attempting to evade attention, as well as the difficulty in conducting accurate census counts in remote and conflict-ridden communities, the NRC-IDCM’s estimation of the scope of the internal refugee problem noted that a 2010 Mexican government survey detected that more than one in every 100 families had at least one member who changed residence due to fear of physical safety.
No comprehensive study on displacement has been conducted in Mexico, according to the NRC-ICDM. Coinciding with the geographic hot spots of the so-called narco war, the report listed Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Durango, Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Guerrero as the states with the gravest problems of internal displacement. Oaxaca is another state where large groups of people have fled their homes to escape violence.
In June 180 people, mainly women and children, fled the indigenous community of San Juan Cotzocon amid a power struggle over control of the municipal government. Reports emerged of one faction employing sexual violence against women and girls, including gang rapes and public sexual attacks as a means of asserting political control.
“The rape of women and girls in conflict situations and wars has turned into one of the massive crimes of the 20th and 21st centuries, as it is employed in deliberate and systematic form,” concluded a report on San Juan Cotzocon by the Mexico City-based women’s news service Cimacnoticias.
Talia Vazquez Alatorre, supporter of imprisoned Michoacan self-defense movement leader Jose Manuel Mireles, recounted to Cimacnoticias how sexual violence was similarly utilized by members of the Knights Templar group in Michoacan to subjugate the population.
Operating in an environment of impunity guaranteed by state collusion, gang members snatched middle school-age girls from public plazas, as if online casino they were cattle paraded at an auction, and whisked women family members away from the homes of extortion targets. The victims were raped and sometimes returned home after enduring a week or more of abuse, Vazquez said.
In Guerrero, atrocities accompanying violent displacement include mass murder and kidnapping, the burning of homes and the disposal of victims in mass graves.
The splintering of the old Beltran Leyya and Familia Michoacana crime organizations has fueled wars between about a dozen groups over control of one or another part of the state.
From July 2013 to July 2014, more than 4,000 people were displaced because of violence in Guerrero, according to the daily El Sur. While some people have returned home with government assistance, others live as refugees in the towns and cities of Tecpan de Galeana, Acapulco, Chilpancingo and Iguala, or in localities outside the state.
During the first six months of 2014, Guerrero had the dubious distinction as ranking number one in homicide rates nationally, as measured per 100,000 people. According to official government statistics cited in El Sur, Guerrero’s murder rate of 21.99 homicides per 100,000 persons was far above the national average of 6.77 per 100,000 people. Again likely an undercount, the newspaper reported 780 people were murdered in the state between January and the end of June of this year.
Displacement in Guerrero is concentrated in though not exclusive to the Tierra Caliente region bordering Michoacan and Mexico states and the high Sierra Madres, where opium and marijuana production is rampant.
Even in the “best” of times, these regions are forgotten places where transportation, doctors and teachers are scarce but guns and bullets plentiful.
It would be mistaken to blame all the contemporary violence in Guerrero and other places on a simple matter of dominating the narcotics trade. As the NRC-IDCM report underscored, gangland disputes have evolved from competition over the drug market to territorial disputes aimed at the conquest of the public and private spheres.
“The more territory they control, the more illegal protection payments they can demand from anyone from company owners to peasant farmers,” the report stated. Coupled with control of seemingly legitimate activities like mining, construction and logging, criminal groups also manipulate elections, infiltrate local governments and impose police officials.
In essence, the “shadow state” merges with the official one, and enemies are intimidated into silence, physically eliminated or forced to flee for their lives.
Most recently, violence- and displacement-has spilled out of remote rural areas into towns like Chilapa, an indigenous market town once largely removed from the bloodshed, where shootouts left at least 14 people dead and dozens of others injured during the first half of July.
“Chilapa is no man’s land.” residents were quoted in the local press.
Adding to the displaced population, at least 20 families have since fled Chilapa, Cuauhtemoc Salgado Romero, the Guerrero state president of President Pena Nieto’s PRI party told El Sur.
“Certainly, more families have fled that I don’t know about,” Salgado said. “But I could confirm the departure of 20 families.”
According to the NRC-IDCM, the Mexican government does not have a coherent approach to the displacement crisis.
Though the Pena Nieto Administration assured the Inter-American Human Rights Commission during its Washington session last November, when commissioners urged Mexico City to develop a clear policy on displacement, that it was working hard on improving the federal government’s response to the crisis, six months later the NRC-IDCM assessed the overall state approach as “piecemeal and fragmented.”
While state governments in Guerrero, Sinaloa and Chiapas had delivered some services for refugees, along with the assistance of the International Red Cross and the Mexican Red Cross, the implementation of more substantial aid and longer-term assistance as envisioned under the 2012 federal General Law for Victims was still lagging, the NRC-IDCM said.
Researcher Laura Rubio Garcia-Leal concurred with the assessment, adding that the Pena Nieto administration’s Executive Commission on Victim Attention (CEAV) has not even decided on the definition of a displaced person or identified the committees that will assist refugees.
“Roberto Campa, Interior Ministry undersecretary for the prevention of social violence, said at the (Inter-American Commission) hearing that the internally displaced could be included in his program but nothing has been done,” she added.
Currently, the CEAV is concluding a series of regional forums and gathering public input via the Internet to define the thrust of its overall program to assist crime victims.
CEAV Commissioner Susana Thalia Pedroza de la Llava conceded that victims have not been treated accordingly by the responsible officials, but pledged governmental action. “We will not stop insisting that the authorities of this country should act with responsibility and foment the dignified and complete treatment of victims,” Pedroza said in a statement marking the conclusion of the fourth CEAV regional forum in Cuernavaca on July 17.
Reached while the Cuernavaca forum was in progress, the CMDPDH’s Brenda Perez said she found herself struggling to have the displacement crisis considered in working groups discussing other victimization-related issues, as well as to get the matter included in the forum’s final statement.
In remarks to La Jornada at the end of the gathering, Commissioner Pedroza said a proposal to classify forced displacement as a crime was duly heard, and that a committee would be formed to focus on the displacement phenomenon.
Meantime, displaced persons can face grave risks if they dare return home. Perez recalled a large family from Sinaloa that came back home after fleeing. Not long afterward, two family members were murdered “as a warning,” she said.
“This was in Sinaloa, but it happens in Michoacan, Guerrero and the northern states,” Perez added.
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America. He is an analyst for the Americas Program at www.americas.org
2014 Norwegian Refugee Council/Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre Report on Mexico
Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights: http://cmdpdh.org/
El Sur article on forced displacement: http://suracapulco.mx/archivos/177422
Spanish-language video of November 1, 2013, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hearing on internal displacement in Mexico: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-tPYwm8asE
The Executive Commission on Victim Attention: http://www.ceav.gob.mx/