Mexico: a country of refuge

How did Mexico, a country long-associated with drug cartels, organized crime and high levels of emigration to the US, become a country of refuge for people coming from the Northern Triangle? Español

Laura Dowley
14 September 2017

Central Americans reading information they have been given about the asylum process while the queue up for a shower in the migrant hostel in Palenque. Paul Miranda. Some rights reserved. “I am afraid. I can never go back to Honduras,” Rosario tells me over a warm batch of doughnuts she has just fried. She is in the small flat where she now lives with her husband and three children in the jungle town of Palenque, Mexico, about 90 miles from the nearest border crossing with Guatemala.

Rosario is one of many people fleeing their home countries and turning to Mexico for help. Statistics published by the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) – the state body which analyses asylum cases – show that requests for asylum in Mexico are up. In 2013, Mexico received 1,296 requests. In 2016, the number had increased to 8,788. The COMAR predicts that this year the total number of people seeking sanctuary will reach nearly 20,000.

How did Mexico, a country long-associated with drug cartels, organized crime and high levels of emigration to the US, become a country of refuge? 

The chronic violence which plagues the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has a large part to play; last year, 89.65% of requests for asylum came from nationals of these three countries. However, with the current political crisis in Venezuela, this year has seen a surge in the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in Mexico.


This is the cargo train on top of which many migrants and refugees travel across Mexico. Travel this way is extremely dangerous as the train is not designed for passengers and goes at high speeds.

Figures published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2013 indicate why so many people from the Northern Triangle are fleeing to Mexico. According to the UNODC, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world at 90.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. El Salvador came in at 4th with 41.2 per 100,000 and Guatemala at 5th with 39.9 per 100,000. The global average was 6.2 per 100,000.

Homicides are generally categorised as separate to deaths caused by armed conflict. A study by academic David Cantor suggests that, even factoring in deaths from armed conflict, the overall rates of violent deaths in Honduras in 2012 and El Salvador in 2015 exceeded those of war zones including Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of this lethal violence in the Northern Triangle is related to the two major Central American gangs – or maras as they are known in the region: the Marasalvatrucha – commonly know as the MS-13 – and their arch rival, the Mara 18.

Both gangs were founded in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Central American immigrants living in Los Angeles, US, having fled the regions’ civil wars. US “repatriation” policies introduced under President Clinton saw mass deportations to Central America. Between 1998 and 2005, nearly 190,000 immigrants with criminal records and those without a permit to be in the US were deported to the Northern Triangle. Amongst the deported were members of the maras who quickly reproduced the gang structures in their new Central American homes.


Central Americans queuing up to use the showers and washing areas in the migrant hostel in Palenque. Paul Miranda. Some rights reserved.

Today, the control that the MS-13 and Mara 18 exercise over certain areas of the Northern Triangle is such that they constitute a kind of quasi-government, somewhat akin to the mafia in southern Italy. Their criminal activities include drug dealing and trafficking, prostitution and people trafficking. But it is extortion, of the kind suffered by Rosario, which forms the maras’ bread and butter. A 2015 investigation by Honduran newspaper La Prensa found that Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans pay an estimated $390 million, $200 million and $61 million respectively in extortion fees to criminal organisations every year.

Rosario’s tale is, today, somewhat typical. Local members of the MS-13 demanded a monthly ‘war-tax’ from her brother-in-law, a small business owner. “When he refused to pay, they put a bullet in his head as he was leaving church one day,” Rosario tells me. They then began to extort money from his surviving family members. Following months of threats of violence, the murdered man's wife paid the gang-members the sum they demanded. Not long after, the MS-13 began to threaten Rosario, her husband and their children. Heavily armed gang-members tailed their car, followed their children home from school and let off gun-shots outside their home. Rosario and her husband received weekly phone-calls threatening to kill them and their children, starting with the youngest. Terrified for their lives, they fled their home in Honduras earlier this year.

In the COMAR’s opinion, Rosario and her family do not fulfil all the legal requirements to be granted full refugee status. Nonetheless, the COMAR considers that their life would be at risk if they returned to Honduras and has therefore awarded them complementary protection which, like refugee status, entitles them to permanent residency in Mexico. 


Central Americans waiting by the cooking areas in the migrant hostel in Palenque. One of the nuns who runs the hostel is walking past.

Forced recruitment of teenage boys is also common. “[The MS-13] told my son that he had to work for them if he wanted to stay alive,” Elena, a recognised Salvadoran refugee, tells me. “They wanted him to sell drugs, to be the look-out for when the police arrived, and for him to be ready to do anything they wanted, even to kill someone.” Leaving all her possessions and a 12-year-old daughter behind, Elena fled to Mexico with her son.

The protection offered to citizens by the Northern Triangle states is scant. “The [Honduran] police force is reported to be one of the most corrupt and mistrusted in Latin America,” according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The region’s police forces are famously infiltrated by the maras, such that many are too frightened to report gang-crime. In 2014, the Honduran authorities estimated that around 85% of victims of extortion refrained from reporting the crime for fear of reprisals by gang members. “I know of many cases of people who have filed a police report in the morning and by that night they are gone. Disappeared,” Rosario tells me.

Lack of information surrounding the asylum process has, and continues to be, a major factor preventing people from applying for asylum in Mexico. But the situation has improved over the last few years. “[M]any people arriving in Tenosique had already passed through Mexico a few years ago,” asylum lawyer Scarlett Gómez tells me from her office in Tenosique, about 35 miles from the Guatemala border and a first stop for many Central Americans arriving in Mexico. “The authorities pretended that refugee status, or the right to apply, did not exist in Mexico,” says Gómez. “Of course it existed. The fact is that people were not getting the right information.”

Immigration enforcement officials who detain migrants without a permit to be in national territory are supposed to screen detainees to identify individuals who may be entitled to protection, and provide them with information about the asylum process. But they are notoriously bad at doing so.

Government figures show that, in 2015, Mexico arrested and deported 117,990 Central Americans. It is impossible to tell how many of these had a legitimate claim for asylum, however, according to a report published by Amnesty International in June this year, “numerous asylum-seekers” reported to have been returned on multiple occasions to their country of origin without being informed by agents from National Institute of Migration (INM) – Mexico’s immigration enforcement agency – of their right to seek asylum.

The increase in the UNHCR presence in southern Mexico has been a force for good in terms of dissemination of information.  Elena, like many others, knew nothing of the asylum process when she fled her home in El Salvador. “Here in Palenque, in the migrant hostel, we met some people from the UNHCR who told us that we could apply for asylum and that Mexico could help us.”

The UNHCR has two offices in Chiapas – one of 3 states bordering Guatemala – where it provides technical assistance to the COMAR, and humanitarian aid to refugees and asylum seekers. It also funds international NGO Asylum Access to provide legal advice to refugees in southern Mexico, which has helped to increase access to the asylum process.


This is a photo of a 17 year old Honduran asylum seeker with her Mexican born baby in the migrant hostel in Palenque. Paul Miranda. Some rights reserved.

Most recently, Trump’s draconian immigration policies seem to have had a dramatic effect on the number of people applying for asylum in Mexico. Between his election in November 2016 and March 2017, 5,421 people applied for asylum in Mexico, up from 2,148 people in the same period a year earlier. Whilst there is no doubt that the vast majority of Central Americans still view Mexico as a transit country, increasing numbers appear to prefer to stay in Mexico as opposed to embarking on the dangerous journey north to face US border controls. 

David lost a leg in Texas, US, in 2008 when he fell from a train escaping immigration agents. This time he wants to stay in Mexico. “My plan was never to go back to the US,” he tells me during his lunch break in the greengrocer where he works in Palenque, and where he is trying to rebuild his life. “I just wanted to escape the trauma I had lived in El Salvador.” David’s elder brother is a MS-13 boss who was ready to kill his younger sibling for refusal to cooperate with the mara. Like Rosario, David was awarded complementary protection in Mexico.

Despite major dangers in Mexico – migrants and refugees face, amongst other things, extortion by border officials, violence at the hands of immigration officers and kidnapping by gang-members who have reached Mexican soil – the country has become a new source of hope for many. “[In Honduras] it would be certain death,” says Rosario. “We are getting used to our new life here [in Mexico]. We’re here to stay!” 

Names have been changed to protect identities

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