It Takes a Massacre

Mexico Finally Institutes Protections for Immigrants
by Published on

Mexican President Felipe Calderon frequently criticizes the unfair treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States. But It took a mass grave in Tamaulipas to finally jolt his administration into action to help the undocumented in his own country.

The grisly discovery last week of 72 executed undocumented immigrants in the state of Tamaulipas is finally forcing Mexico to face a festering problem going back for at least a decade: the kidnapping and extortion of immigrants by organized crime.

Mexico’s own National Commission on Human Rights had reported in a lengthy report last December that nearly 10,000 immigrants in a six-month period during 2009 had been kidnapped and held for ransom by drug cartels and organized crime. The majority of the victims, like the 72 found in Tamaulipas, were Central and South American immigrants on their way to cross illegally into the United States.

It was especially chilling to read about the massacre in Tamaulipas because I had just been interviewing immigrants from Central America in Reynosa the week before at a migrant shelter. From my conversations with people working with migrants in the city the kidnappings had been escalating for the past two years sometimes with the help of the local and state police forces. Here’s a local news report from Reynosa from December of 2009 about immigrants being freed from a Gulf Cartel safe house where they were being held for ransom.

What was especially shocking and sad in speaking with Central American migrants was the utter lack of protections for them. With the state and city law enforcement sometimes involved in these kidnappings and no consular presence from any of their countries in Northern Mexico they had nowhere to turn.  (There will be more on this in upcoming Observer issues.) The National Commission also found police collusion in some of the cases they examined in their report. The worst state for these kidnappings, they found was Tamaulipas, because it is the primary route Central Americans travel to the United States. (For those not familiar with the location of Tamaulipas it includes the cities of Reynosa and Matamaros which are across from McAllen and Brownsville.)

The kidnapping of migrants is a lucrative business. The National Commission on Human Rights estimates that organized crime made $25 million from the nearly 10,000 kidnappings they documented. What often happens is a migrant is kidnapped and the victim is forced to give the telephone numbers of relatives in the United States and back home. The kidnapper then phones these relatives and extorts them for money some times torturing the victim so the family members will pay up faster. If the families don’t pay, their loved ones are often never seen again. This is the presumed fate of the 72 men and women found in Tamaulipas last week.

And so today, Felipe Calderon’s Administration finally announced a new three-pronged strategy to protect undocumented immigrants in Mexico. The strategy includes: creating campaigns to alert migrants of the risk of crossing, forming intelligence groups that can dismantle these organized crime groups and seize their finances. While this is promising, the Calderon Administration runs into the same problem it has in fighting the drug war. The local and state police forces in many parts of Mexico are corrupt. Until, he can rebuild these forces with honest cops it will be difficult to protect anyone, let alone undocumented immigrants. This being said, it’s good to see Calderon finally paying attention to this humanitarian crisis in his own country. It’s a shame it took such a tragedy to bring him to this point.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.