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Mexico is America’s Very Own Mediterranean Sea — A Cemetery Without Tombstones

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Today, Fusion’s Mexico consultant Rafa Fernandez spoke at The 19 Million Project about the similarities between the refugee crisis in Europe—and the migration flows from Central America to the U.S. Rafa grew up in Mexico City, and currently lives in Miami. Below is the text of his talk.

When we talk about immigration, we are not talking about a European problem, a Syrian problem, a German problem, or, for the purposes of this presentation, a U.S. and Mexican problem. To talk about immigration is to talk about a human problem.

Yes, Europe is currently experiencing the biggest immigration crisis since the end of WWII. But we also experienced one in North America last year: thousands of Central American children, traveling alone, crossing Mexico to reach the United States. Close to 80 thousand children migrated alone.

My argument is this: Mexico is like Italy– a country that migrants and refugees must cross to reach their destination. In a way, Mexico is also America’s very own Mediterranean Sea. It’s a cemetery without tombstones (a phrase said by Italian priest Flor Maria Rigoni), a path where death is imminent, filled with violence and abuse.

Today I want to talk about four similarities between what’s happening in Europe and what’s happening in another corridor of intense immigration — Central America, Mexico and the United States:

  • First, these are both very big immigration flows.
  • Second, the push factors are similar to those of Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans.
  • Third, transit conditions are extremely dangerous in both migration corridors.
  • Fourth, the main responses of the receiving and transit countries have been mostly short-term security measures.
  1. Let’s begin with the first one: the size of the flows:This year Europe’s immigration flows have been record breaking. However, flows towards Europe had previously remained between 150 thousand and 300 thousand. Last year, the number of refugees and immigrants coming into Europe was close to 300 thousand (According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, last year some 218 thousand refugees came to Europe).2004 was the peak year of Central American transmigration, defined as migrants from all over Central America passing through Mexico in transit to the U.S. More than 400 thousand migrants attempted to cross Mexico to reach the U.S. in 2004, according to the Mexican Migration Institute. Moreover, undocumented Mexican migration to the US reached its peak in the year 2000, with some 770 thousand crossing to the U.S.The 2008 U.S. economic recession, combined with increased enforcement of the US-Mexico border following 9/11, caused the flows to decrease. The flow of Mexican migrants entering the the U.S. without papers slowed significantly—and a growing number of undocumented migrants were deported.

    Beginning in 2008, roughly the same number of undocumented Mexicans were deported each year as were entering the country without papers. The combined effect meant the Mexican migration flow equaled net zero.

    But as the number of Mexican migrants declines, the flow of Central American migrants – from countries including Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – are increasing. Last year, for the first time in the history of the U.S.–Mexico border, border patrol agents detained more OTMs (an acronym that stands for Other Than Mexican) than Mexicans. More than ninety percent of migrants crossing Mexico come from Central America.

    The so-called “push factors” for Central Americans — the reasons why people leave their countries — are similar to those of many migrants trying to reach Europe. This year, it’s estimated that some 200 thousand Central American migrants will attempt to reach the U.S. via Mexico. This is lower than the migration flows in Europe for 2015, yet bear in mind that when we talk about the U.S., we are talking about only one receiving country and only one in transit country: Mexico.

  2. What pushes Central Americans out of their countries?Last year, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world for a country “not at war.” There were some 88 homicides per 100 thousand inhabitants. This year a new record is expected. Some experts estimate El Salvador will have more than 100 homicides per 100 thousand inhabitants, displacing Honduras as the murder capital of the world.Central American migrants are motivated by multiple factors. Some are economic migrants seeking better lives, others are fleeing violence, some are seeking refugee status and asylum. Often these categories overlap: Typically those who face violence also experience poverty. In countries where law enforcement is weak, basic security and safety is something you have to buy by hiring private guards. Where rule of law is weak, justice is a purchased result.In my opinion, in spite of current laws that say otherwise, economic migrants often end up becoming refugees. In Central America, you cannot expect justice unless you have the means to attain it. You cannot escape the violent ghettos or the pressure to join a gang without the economic means to pull yourself out of those neighborhoods.

    The same can be said about Mexico when it comes to the relationship between injustice and poverty. The push factors in Central America are not that different from Syria and Iraq: heavy violence and poor economic prospects.

  3. Huge dangers to cross Mexico
    Central American migrants in Mexico are invisible victims. They travel through the most inhospitable places to avoid being detected, and consequently detained and deported. Moreover, when they are victims of rape or some sort of crime, they do not report it to the authorities.For example, a Honduran woman that is raped during her trip through Mexico is not likely to report the crime. Technically she could. There is a humanitarian visa in Mexico that allows victims to stay and report crimes, but frankly, that wouldn’t go anywhere. I cannot comment on Italy or other transit countries, but I can safely say that in Mexico, impunity is the most probable outcome at the end of the day. We simply don’t have the mechanisms to protect these victims.And listen, I don’t want to be that guy who comes here and talks shit about his country. I love my country, I am proud of my country. But I cannot ignore the fact that we’ve reached record levels of lawlessness. Moreover, Mexico has so many security problems that our authorities have proven incapable to protect these invisible Central Americans traveling trough Mexico.In Mexico, a very low percentage of crimes are punished. So a woman who has been gang raped has two realistic options: she can gather enough emotional and physical strength to continue her journey towards the U.S.– or she can return home.

    If you are not raped, you might get extorted by organized crime. The Zetas drug cartel is especially good at this. Many have established networks with local police. When ISIS was in diapers, The Zetas were already uploading videos to YouTube showing beheadings, etc. Instilling widespread fear, in the same vein of ISIS, is how The Zetas operate and gain a competitive advantage.

    There are estimates but no real or accurate stats of migrants who have died while in transit. But there are stats on those in transit that have been kidnapped. This is a huge business: you kidnap the migrant, and then you call his family and ask for ransom.

    According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, almost 20 thousand migrants were kidnapped in 2009. Some experts have told me that the stat is exaggerated. Even so, to have half of that is still too many.

    Why does this matter? Because receiving countries have to pay more attention to what is causing violence and poverty. Drug consumption in the U.S. is at the root of the problems in Central America. El Salvador and Honduras have become key transit points for cocaine coming from Colombia and Peru. Moreover, the U.S. continues to deport thousands of Central America youngsters from the Mara Salvatrucha, SM 13 and Calle 18 gangs. These deportees return home to strengthen the already very dangerous Central American gangs.

  4. Responses, both in Europe and the U.S. have focused on short-term solutions. There is not very much focus on improving the conditions in Syria, Eritrea, etc., or Central America that cause people to leave.Regarding the European Union, the tragedy of the 800 migrants who died off the coast of Libya sparked an emergency meeting between top-level leaders which produced more coast guard presence and battling smugglers. The San Fernando massacre of 72 migrants in Mexico at the hands of The Zetas did not spark the same international reaction.The U.S. response for many years has been militarizing and closing the border with Mexico. Now, Mexico is doing the same with its border with Guatemala and Belize.This tactic doesn’t really work. It temporarily slows down migration flows while promoting a black market economy surrounding a closed border. This gives jobs to human smugglers, drug cartels, it’s like a kind of prohibition. Having a border that’s harder to cross just drives up the prices of crossing it, or of the illicit products you are smuggling across, it doesn’t necessarily stop people from trying.

    The U.S., Mexican and Central American governments recently held meetings to deal with the crisis of un-accompanied children last June. And just like their European counterparts, there was a plea to establish more control.

    So far there’s little political will in Mexico and also in the U.S. to go to the root causes of Central American migration. In Europe, we seen the best immediate remedy for crises: ballsy leadership.

    Angela Merkel is taking the heat. She has made foreign and domestic enemies for welcoming the Syrian refugees. And frankly, I applaud Merkel. As was stated by The Economist magazine this month, she’s not thinking about a graceful exit, she’s thinking about legacy. At least that’s how she is increasingly seen in North America but I am aware that many Europeans see Merkel as more conservative and trying to be the boss of the continent, and Germany is deporting migrants. However, she seems to be adopting more progressive measures when it comes to refugees at least.

    But Mexico, in sharp contrast, is increasing the obstacles for both economic migrants, refugees and unaccompanied children — especially in its Southern border with Guatemala and Belize— in an attempt stop the flow headed for the United States. Some say it’s being pressured by the U.S. to do the dirty work.

    Perhaps the biggest difference is that while Europe is moving towards opening its border and facilitating flows at least for those who are considered refugees under the Geneva Convention, Mexico is taking the opposite approach. Little is being done to combat smuggling and abuses. And as long as the root push factors are not being tackled, mass migration will continue with or without walls and obstacles.

— Rafael Fernandez

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