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Rampant violence in Mexico sends refugees to Canada

February 10, 2008

By Suzanne Rumsey

Two seminars: Why Refugees from Mexico?

“Can you protect me if my refugee claim is rejected and I have to return to Mexico?”
“I am sorry but we cannot protect you.  Even human rights defenders are at risk for the work that we do.”

This exchange took place on January 28 at Regis College, University of Toronto, between a Mexican woman fleeing domestic violence in her country, and a Mexican human rights defender and it brought tears to the eyes of both, and silence among the 125 people gathered. 
The occasion was the second of two seminars held that day at the university entitled, “Why Refugees from Mexico?” at which three experts from Mexico and a Canadian academic explored the root causes of the increased refugee claimant flow from Mexico.

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), together with the United Church of Canada, Romero House (a Toronto-based refugee advocacy organization) and the Jesuit Migrant and Refugee Service, organized the events. 
The initiative grew out of a recognized need to better understand and inform Canadian journalists, Immigration and Refugee Board members, members of parliament, and those who advocate with and on behalf of refugees about why there has been such a dramatic increase in the number of Mexicans seeking asylum in Canada over the past year and a half.  Mexico now tops the list of countries producing refugee claimants in Canada.  However, between 2006 and 2007 the rate of acceptance declined from 28 per cent to only 12 per cent of claims filed.

Judith Teichman of the University of Toronto; Michel Maza from the Mexican National Network of Civil Human Rights Organizations “All Rights for All”; Blanche Petrich, a journalist with the respected Mexican daily, La Jornada; and Guillermo Zepeda, a lawyer, academic and expert on the Mexican justice system, provided an in-depth response to three questions:
1.  Can the Mexican state protect Mexican citizens whose rights have been violated?  (More than the fact that such structures exist, do the political will, the capacity and the REALITY of protection exist?)
2.  Do Mexican victims of violations have the option of going to another part of the country in order to protect themselves?  (Known as the “internal flight option”.)  In other words, is anywhere safe in Mexico?
3.  What are the sources of violence and corruption? (The context that is causing Mexicans who are victims of violations to flee the country.)

  • Michel Maza noted that during the six years of the Fox administration (2000-2005), 32 journalists were murdered and five disappeared, making Mexico the country with the second-highest number of journalist killings and disappearances in the world, exceeded only by Iraq.  During the first 14 months of the administration of President Calderón, three journalists have disappeared, four have been murdered, and two have had attempts made on their lives.
  • An average of four women are murdered each day in Mexico.  In 2006, the Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes Related to Acts of Violence Against Women in the Country (FEVIM) was established.  The prosecutor found that 90 per cent of women who were assassinated had sought help from the authorities prior to their deaths.  As Guillermo Zepeda pointed out, although the system should spontaneously protect the victim, it is the victim who must gather evidence of abuse, hire a lawyer, present a request to the judge for protection, and persistently pursue a protective order at every step.  The financial resources to see this process through (including having to pay bribes to justice officials) are beyond the means of most women.
  • Judith Teichman described Mexico as a potential “failed state” with the drug trade — and the violence that accompanies it — having increased dramatically since 2005.  During the Fox administration approximately 1,500 drug-related executions took place annually.  President Calderón’s declared “mano dura” (tough hand) response to drug trafficking resulted in 2,120 executions in 2006 and 2,275 in 2007.  Disturbingly, in recent months, victims have included not only drug traffickers, police and military personnel, but also the children of law enforcement officials.
  • In his head-on battle with drug traffickers, Calderón has promoted the use of large numbers of soldiers.  In December 2006, the incorporation of 10,000 soldiers and marines into the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) was announced and a series of military operations in various states of the country commenced.  In 2005 and 2006, the National Human Rights Commission received 186 and 182 complaints against the military, respectively, while in 2007 the number of complaints doubled to 367.  Disturbingly, while Mexican citizens are increasingly the target, military personnel cannot be touched by the Mexican judicial system, but rather are tried in military courts.  As a result, they enjoy virtual impunity for the human rights violations they commit. 
  • As Michel Maza pointed out, civil protest is being criminalized.  That is to say, actions of resistance to authoritarianism, the denouncement of human rights violations and the pressuring of authorities to comply with their responsibilities are increasingly considered motives for accusing human rights defenders of crimes, jailing them and subjecting them to criminal trials.
  • Blanche Petrich presented the case of Lydia Cacho, a journalist and women’s rights defender who was detained in Cancun, Quintana Roo state, and taken by road to Puebla, a journey of 23 hours, for the publication of her book, “The Demons of Eden” in which she revealed the existence of a pedophile network involving Kamel Nacif, a friend of Puebla Governor Mario Marín.  Recordings of telephone conversations between these two friends were later released in which the two men boasted about having “taught” Lydia Cacho a “lesson”.  Cacho was later released and the charges dropped. 

The violations of her rights were brought before the Supreme Court  which voted to deny her petition.  During the discussion of the ruling, Supreme Court Judge Aguirre Anguiano stated, “If thousands of people are tortured in this country, what is this lady complaining about?  What makes her so different or more important to take up the court’s time with an individual complaint?”   In that brief statement the Supreme Court justice summed up so much of what is wrong with the Mexican justice system, one that is rife with corruption, relies on the systematic use of torture to gain confessions, and which protects those with money and authority.
Mexico’s economic situation is pushing more and more people to abandon their homes and farms (1.5 to 2 million people have been pushed off their land since NAFTA came into effect in 1994), and migrate north to the United States, and, in some cases, Canada.  They too are deserving of a better life, but do not constitute convention refugees.  While some claim that all Mexicans who come here are simply economic migrants, Mexico’s corruption, violence, impunity and lack of state mechanisms to respond adequately is also forcing increasing numbers of convention refugees to seek asylum in Canada.  The response of Canada, which views Mexico as its NAFTA “amigo”, needs to change.

Suzanne Rumsey is the Latin America-Caribbean Coordinator for PWRDF

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