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Mexico can lead the way in protecting migrant workers worldwide

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Mexico has deployed few resources to take up the cases of horrific abuse of Central American trans-migrants and of its migrants in the US. It is in a unique position to take up this cause and create a model for the rest of the world. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights. Español

Carlos Heredia
25 June 2013

Under President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), Mexico overhauled its constitution in June 2011 and among many changes it included human rights as a guiding principle of Mexico’s foreign policy. 

Calderon’s government wanted to send a message to the world: Mexico fully embraced global and regional human rights regimes and conditions by formally adopting the protection and defense of human rights as an essential part of Mexico’s political identity.

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Under President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), Mexico overhauled its constitution in June 2011 and among many changes it included human rights as a guiding principle of Mexico’s foreign policy. 

Calderon’s government wanted to send a message to the world: Mexico fully embraced global and regional human rights regimes and conditions by formally adopting the protection and defense of human rights as an essential part of Mexico’s political identity.

There is a sharp contrast, however, between the formal adoption of an international human rights code and its enactment.  I want to discuss here the situation of Mexican and Central American undocumented migrant workers, who are the target of multiple human rights violations, both in their country of origin and in the country of destination, the United States of America.

Mexico and the Central American countries have free trade agreements with the United States.  The North American Free Trade Agreement - NAFTA (1994) includes Canada, the United States and Mexico, while the DR-CAFTA (2004) brings together Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic with the United States. Although both agreements facilitate the flow of goods, services, investment and capital, there are no provisions about labor mobility, so migrant workers are left to their fate as they try to cross borders to reach economic opportunities.

Globalization creates migration and then criminalizes migrants: workers are barred in their country of origin from satisfying basic material needs, so they generate an oversupply of cheap and disorganized labor elsewhere, exploited by employers and corporations interested in keeping costs down. The North American economic system generates migration, creates an endogenous demand for foreign workers in the United States, and then this forced migration takes place under conditions of extreme vulnerability.

Mexico has deployed few resources to take up the cases of its migrants in the US who have been killed, kept isolated in detention, separated from their families, deported without any coordination with Mexican authorities, or been subject to pressures that the United Nations considers equivalent to torture by US enforcement agencies.

One of the underlying reasons for the ongoing 2013 attempt for comprehensive immigration reform in the US is the fact that there are not enough visas for non-skilled international workers to be legally employed in the US, so they are forced to seek irregular entry at their own expense and risk. Governments of the region fail to comply with the principle that all labor has dignity, and that migrant workers have human rights regardless of their migratory status.

The Mexican government’s response to the plight of migrant workers has been mixed.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) looks after Mexicans abroad, while the Ministry of Political Affairs (Secretaría de Gobernación) is in charge of dealing with trans-migrants, immigrants and foreigners in Mexico.

On the one hand Mexico’s network of 50 consulates do sometimes heroic work to protect and defend migrant workers in the US, but they face a stringent budget to do their work, and also the fact that the protection of fellow Mexicans who are poor is not a priority to the country’s economic and political elites.  Mexico has launched successful lawsuits in the US to protect Mexicans in death row, but we have not seen a similar effort to defend migrant workers’ rights, lest that endeavor may be in conflict with political, diplomatic, trade and investment trade links with Washington. 

On the other hand, many Mexican officials treat Central American trans-migrants en route to the US much less well than their US counterparts. Central American trans-migrants face the corruption and extortion of several Mexican authorities and the abuses of criminal bands both from their home countries and from Mexico. 

The tip of this iceberg was unveiled on August 23, 2010, when it was revealed that 72 bodies of Central and South American migrant workers were found buried in San Fernando, state of Tamaulipas, a town that is located in the northbound route migrants use to get to the United States.  News of a second massacre in exactly the same place emerged on April 6, 2011 – this time it was 193 bodies. Although 85 people have been arrested in this case, and the Federal Government announced that an early warning mechanism would be established to prevent further kidnappings and murders of migrants, the truth is that criminal bands continue to terrorize migrant workers along the rail and bus lines heading for the US border.

In the same period of time there was a spike in drug-related violence throughout Mexico.  The so-called ‘war on drugs’ undertaken by Calderón at the start of his administration led to a worsening of the human rights situation in Mexico.  Both the police and the military have been accused of illegal arrests, torture, rape, extrajudicial execution, as they carried out the combat against drug cartels. Organized crime-related claimed nearly 60,000 lives in Mexico during the presidency of Felipe Calderón, according to a tally published on November 1, 2012 by the Milenio daily.

Since President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) came back into office on December 1, 2012, his administration enacted the Law of Victims and created a special unit to find missing persons, but it has yet to take the steps necessary to ensure that those responsible for these crimes are brought to justice. 

In a briefing update released in March 2013, Amnesty International describes the situation at the beginning of the Peña Nieto Administration: “the routine abductions, sexual violence, forced recruitment into criminal gangs, people trafficking and murder of migrants continued unchecked. Impunity for these grave abuses remains the norm. The government of Enrique Peña Nieto so far has not taken any steps to correct the abject failure of the last government to get to grips with this humanitarian crisis. Once again the fate of irregular migrants in Mexico appears to be reduced to a side issue”.

Amnesty International calls on Mexico’s federal authorities to ensure the prevention, punishment and remedy of abuses committed against migrants by state and non-state actors, demanding action from the government in a number of priority areas including taking measures to prevent abuses against migrants, establishing better systems to help migrants report abuses and improve the way they are investigated.

Civil society organizations use social media to denounce the activities of criminal bands and have become active watchdogs of government policy members in the advisory councils of both the policy (Unidad de Política Migratoria) and enforcement (Instituto Nacional de Migración) units of immigration within Mexico’s Ministry of Political Affairs (Secretaría de Gobernación). They have pushed for federal authorities to lead, develop and implement an action plan to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of irregular migrants in Mexico.

Mexico must make the protection of migrants and trans-migrants a priority. Policymakers, political and business leaders, and civil society organizations must understand the intersecting and related dynamics of changing migration flows, and significant and evolving security challenges, independently of each other, but tackle them in coordinated ways. The country must cleanse its migration system of gross inconsistencies, inveterate corruption and blatant impunity. If the Peña Nieto administration wants to become a responsible global actor, it must start at home by protecting the rights of its own migrant workers and of people in transit from other   countries.  The issue is not more or less migration, but smarter migration policies and a firm commitment to the civilizing process of human rights.   

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