Seventy-two Latin American migrants crossing Mexico and headed to the U.S. border in 2010, met their fates together. Their families, frightened by the control wielded by brutal drug gangs in regions of Mexico, had begged their loved ones not to make the trek, but the migrants remained determined, yearning for a better existence.
They were massacred before realizing their goal. One hundred miles from the U.S. border, the migrants were found shot to death, lying in a row, bound and blindfolded.
Five cars had intercepted them on a highway. More than 10 gunmen jumped out of the vehicles and identified themselves as Zetas, a group started by former Mexican army special forces soldiers and now a lethal drug gang.
“They tied up the migrants and took them to the ranch, where they demanded the migrants work for the gang,” the Associated Press reported in 2010, recounting police statements. “When most refused, they were blindfolded, ordered to lie down and shot.”
Eighteen-year-old Luis Freddy Lala Pomavilla of Ecuador, the lone survivor, lived to tell of the terror.
This account and experiences of The Advocates for Human Rights’ asylum clients, fly in the face of the blame-the-victim suspicions and the conspiracy theory spun in an August 12 FOX News report that focused on the increased number of people from Mexico and Central America coming to the United States’ southern border to seek asylum, claiming credible fear of gangs and drug cartels.
“This clearly has [to be] orchestrated by somebody,” former U.S. Attorney for Southern California Peter Nunez was quoted as saying. “It’s beyond belief that dozens or hundreds or thousands of people would simultaneously decide that they should go to the U.S. and make this claim.”
Let’s take a closer look at the source of the “orchestration theory,” and delve into the reality confronting people living in large parts of Mexico and Central America.
Nunez chairs the Center for Immigration Studies, the think-tank arm of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organization that, despite its facade of legitimacy, was determined by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as a hate group. FAIR’s sole mission, according to the SPLC: to severely limit immigration into the United States.
“FAIR leaders have ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists, and have made many racist statements,” according to the SPLC. “Its advertisements have been rejected because of racist content. Moreover, FAIR’s founder, John Tanton, has expressed his wish that America remain a majority-white population, a goal to be achieved, presumably, by limiting the number of nonwhites who enter the country.”
Brutal, Ruthless Gangs Rule
The largest, most violent, and most organized gangs operate in Mexico and Central America, with estimates of more than 70,000 gang members in Central America; other sources estimate as many as 200,000 members, according to Jillian Blake, author of “Gang and Cartel Violence: A Reason to Grant Political Asylum from Mexico and Central America,” published by The Yale Journal of International Law, 2012. Even with the lower estimate, there are more gang members than military troops.
In Mexico, the number of “foot soldiers” working for the two most violent drug cartels is about 100,000, almost equal to the number of Mexican military personnel, says Blake.
U.S. military officials report the conflict in Mexico and Central America rivals the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan regarding scale of violence, spending, and weapons.
Powerful gangs and cartels have de facto control over a significant amount of territory and directly influence state and government officials. “There are many young, vulnerable individuals struggling to overcome poverty in regions in which traditional state authority and police control have eroded,” said Deepinder Mayell, director of The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program. “With rampant corruption and the absence of the rule of law, powerful gangs can shape a country’s economy, culture, and the day-to-day life, such as in Mexico and Central America.”
The Mexican state of Michoacan is arguably at the epicenter: Most of the 600 people who have come to the border during the past month seeking asylum protection are from small villages being ravaged by cartels, according to reports.
People live in extraordinary danger, faced every day with violence at its most extreme. These are people resisting gang demands, resisting recruitment, and resisting extortion. They are women who are victims of sexual violence and intimidation. They are human rights advocates and church activists. They are law enforcement agents. They are people trying to leave the gangs they were forced to join.
Christian Chaidez, originally of Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, fled to this country in 2011. Ten of his relatives, small-business owners including his father and grandmother, were slaughtered for refusing to pay extortion to gangs, according to Borderland Beat, a website reporting on the Mexican cartel drug war.
Then there are the 55,000 people enslaved by Mexican cartels and forced to work at gunpoint for gangs, according to Esclavos del Narco (Narco Slaves), a report compiled by the Mexican news site, Animal Politico.
The report also tells of 36 young professionals ― mostly engineers ― who disappeared about five years ago. Abducted by cartels, the engineers were forced to build private cellphone networks across Mexico to ensure that cartel communications are safe from eavesdropping by police or rival groups.
The report describes how cartels force children to sell drugs on street corners; how immigrants on their way to the United States must make an anguishing choice: transport drugs across the border or be murdered in cold blood; how migrants are kidnapped and forced under threat to work as hitmen, to join gangs; how women are locked up, deceived, and forced to serve as sex slaves; how very young children are lured into arming themselves with automatic rifles in the name of some organization.
The case of a client of The Advocates illustrates the plight of people from Mexico trying to escape gang violence. The man was kidnapped by a cartel, held for ransom, and threatened with death. Out of fear for his life, he fled to the U.S. on two occasions. Each time, he was apprehended by ICE, tells Michele Garnett MacKenzie, director of advocacy for The Advocates.
“Despite the fact that he told of his fear of being returned to Mexico because of gang threats, U.S. immigration officials told him that he had no chance of winning since he was from Mexico and that, if he did make a claim, he would be in prison for at least a year,” she states. “Not only did they not conduct a screening as they were required to do, they clearly discouraged him from applying.”
The Advocates’ client recently made his case to remain in the U.S. based on his fear of continued persecution by cartels and the government. The case remains pending, and he remains in jail.
Asylum claims largely rejected by immigration authorities
Despite the increased violence from Mexico and Central America, U.S. immigration authorities have largely rejected asylum claims.
In 2012, Mexico for the first time ranked in the U.S. Department of Justice’s top 25 of asylum grants by country of nationality, at 17 behind countries like China, Pakistan and El Salvador. However, the cases approved were less than 1.6% of the total asylum grants issued before an immigration judge and less than 2% of asylum grants issued by an asylum officer ― contradicting the notion that Mexicans are “gaming” the asylum system.
“We routinely see people fleeing gangs who have experienced persecution commensurate with that experienced by other asylum seekers and motivated by the same things – power, greed, and the need for political and economic control over a region and its vulnerable populations,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights. “If we changed the setting and the country, the cases would be granted. But, because of some refugees’ nationalities, they are denied protection.”
Michele Garnett MacKenzie is The Advocates’ director of advocacy, and Susan Banovetz is the organization’s director of communications.