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Aiding Central America's "Women on the Run"

A fence at the U.S. border. (Photo: BBC World Service)

Norma remains in a detention center in the United States, where she awaits the resolution of her asylum petition. She left a neighborhood in El Salvador, controlled by the M-18 Gang, at the end of 2014. Four members of the gang kidnapped her, took her to a cemetery where they raped her and then threw her in a trashcan—all an attempt to send a message to her husband, a Salvadoran police officer. Reporting the violence only made things worse; shortly after the incident Norma and other members of her family began to receive death threats.

Without any realistic possibility of protection in El Salvador, Norma's husband hired a coyote to help her travel through Mexico. The ultimate goal was that she might make it safely to the United States. Sadly, that journey resulted in more challenges than Norma and her family could have imagined.

The northern triangle of Central America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world, particularly for women like Norma. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras rank first, third and seventh, respectively, in the global index of femicides. In recent years, even the political and legal space to defend the rights of women has been closing down. The Mesoamerican Initiative of Human Rights Defenders reported a doubling in attacks against female human rights defenders in these countries between 2012 and 2014. These frightening figures included more than 1,600 attacks and 32 assassinations.

The escalating violence in Central America is reflected in the rising number of women crossing the border between Mexico and the United States. Not only did the number of women detained by the U.S. Border Patrol triple between 2013 and 2014, but more than 68,000 families arrived during fiscal year 2014 and 40,000 during 2015. Thousands of these individuals have sought asylum in the United States, though only a tiny fraction have had their requests granted.

As Norma's testimony reveals, family relationships are frequently central in the histories of women migrants seeking asylum. With alarming repetition, these women are the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of persecuted family members. Others are the direct targets of violence, often because they have stood up to violent actors and criminal gangs in their communities. Still others flee with their children hoping to prevent their offspring's forced recruitment into armed gangs.

The UNHCR, in its recent, stark report "Women on the Run," provides firsthand accounts of the gravity of the crisis for women in Central America and their lack of access to humanitarian protection in Mexico. The report underscores that responding to the crisis requires coordinated, regional action to guarantee the human rights of migrants, while also contending that this action can be pursued while border security is maintained. The current situation, however, reveals that both Mexico and the United States have engaged in border security investments and practices at the expense of human rights—in particular, the human rights of migrants.

"Hunting migrants"

In 2014, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras rolled out the Alliance for Prosperity with the stated goal of tackling poverty, preventing violence and providing decent work—all factors that have motivated out-migration from Central America. This Alliance is buttressed by the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America, which has a budget of about $1 billion for fiscal year 2016. Although the United States, through the Central American Regional Security Initiative, has made more than $640 million in security assistance available to the region since 2008, the causes of displacement and an emerging humanitarian crisis have not been well attended, which is largely why such problems persist.

In parallel, since 2008, the United States has developed and implemented the Mérida Initiative with Mexico. Among its four pillars, this program has sought to create a "twenty-first century border structure." According to the Congressional Research Service, since 2013 the Mexican government has implemented a security plan along its southern border with the active support of the United States. This assistance includes the establishment of 12 naval bases along Mexico's border rivers and three security cordons that stretch 161 kilometers north of Mexico's border with Guatemala and Belize. At the same time, the United States has provided support with non-intrusive communication and inspection technologies, has trained the troops that patrol the border, and has provided greater mobility and surveillance assistance.

For fiscal year 2015, the U.S. Congress provided an additional $79 million above the initial amount of $115 million solicited by the Obama administration for the Mérida Initiative, with the explicit purpose of securing Mexico's southern border. With this investment, the U.S. believes it can dissuade potential migrants and reduce irregular transit across its borders. As Michael McCaul (R-TX), Chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, emphasized before Congress at the beginning of July 2014, "[Migrants] are all coming from Central America. If we can close the southern border of Mexico, that stops 99 percent of our problems here."

From the U.S. government's perspective, the results of this collaboration have been notable. In 2015, the number of Central Americans detained by U.S. Border Patrol fell by half—from 239,000 to 110,000.

Not so in Mexico. Far from improving the situation, the U.S.-backed policy of containing migration south of the U.S. by reinforcing Mexico's southern border has only increased and intensified violations of migrants' human rights—what the civil society organizations have openly called "hunting migrants." It is not surprising, then, that complaints filed against Mexico's National Migration Institute (INM) before the National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH) increased by 39 percent during the first year of the program's implementation. The number of Central Americans detained by Mexican officials surged by some 70 percent over that same period.

Mexican authorities now routinely prevent migrants from boarding trains headed north through violence (including the use of weapons), the construction of walls along the tracks, and by increasing the speed of at which trains travel. These "containment" actions have forced migrants to seek out alternative routes, many of which have, until recently, been disproportionately used by women.

The routes women use

The majority of women don't migrate in the manner that has been most often documented—on cargo trains and utilizing networks of migrant shelters. In contrast, women have pursued more clandestine routes and strategies. They hire the services of coyotes or smugglers, often paying for such services through a combination of housework, sexual favors and money.

Female migrants choose more isolated roads and transport networks. Some skip migration roadblocks by walking particular segments of the route. Others find Mexican truck drivers to take them on specific parts of their trajectory north. With alarming frequency, payment often includes sexual services. There are no migrant shelters along the highway routes, so women tend to stay in hotels and guest houses, which frequently pay a fee to an armed group to operate, creating a situation in which women have less access to the protection offered by the church or civil society organizations. They may also be forced to purchase false documents. 

Although women's strategies appear to be more effective in enabling them to move north through Mexico, their journeys involve considerable gendered vulnerabilities, which go beyond sexual violence and abuse. The accounts of female migrants underscore how women meet these challenges largely as an accepted additional step they must take before arriving at their final destination.

Since the Southern Border Program began, male migrants in transit through Mexico have been forced to abandon their traditional routes in order to take highways and roads or walk on foot through the jungle and desert. Consequently, the INM, with the backing of the Mexican police and army, has multiplied surveillance along the highways, mounting mobile roadblocks at random along known migrant routes in the country, and demanding documentation from all migrants.

Migrants are identified through increasingly discriminatory methods of profiling, in which one's race, the outward demonstration of nervousness and even odor are taken as evidence of unauthorized entry. Even Mexicans have been detained using these profiling practices, despite the explicit prohibition of racial profiling in Mexico's Constitution and in the international accords to which Mexico is a signatory.

The National Center for Human Rights (CNDH) has clearly demonstrated that these roadblocks and inspection operations promote extortion. As one Central American migrant recalls, "In Mexico, every time we got on the bus, the police came on and asked for a certain amount. You had to pay them."

For the Central American women interviewed by the UNHCR, detention and the asylum petitioning process are the most problematic parts of their flight. In fact, despite the wealth of legislation in Mexico, accessing international protections is particularly difficult. The INM and the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR) have a highly limited ability to detect cases that require seeking refugee status or humanitarian protections. On the one hand, the INM does not follow due process in detaining migrants. They do not inform detainees of the possibility of soliciting asylum, nor do they undertake any systematic interviews to determine if an individual qualifies for refugee status or humanitarian protections. On the other hand, the COMAR cannot respond to the growing number of petitions, as it has only 15 officials in the entire country.

As a result, Mexico conceded only 322 residence permits for humanitarian reasons in 2014 and gave refugee status to only 277 people between January and September 2015, of which 43 percent were women and 4.3 percent girls and boys. The majority of petitions are denied for "lack of proof."

Consider the case of Patricia, a Honduran woman who migrated north through Mexico. Though the U.S. eventually determined she had a credible fear of persecution or torture in her home country, Patricia says Mexican authorities nearly sunk her chance at asylum. "[The Mexican adjudicators] told me that I did not bring proof or anything," Patricia says. "They wanted proof. … I did not have photos showing how he had hurt me. … They made me feel like if I had photos, it would have been easier."

At the same time, the Mexican state fails to maintain adequate standards of protection for families and child migrants during the process of detention and deportation. Children should be dealt with by the National Institute for the Protection of Children (NIPI) part of the country's National System for Integral Family Development (DIF). However, the majority are detained in the same facilities as adults and deported in a context in which their well-being and lives are at risk. Moreover, while the United States deports three of every 100 children detained, Mexico deports 77.

Moving beyond the "securitized border"

In October 2015, Washington reproached Mexico for its failure to observe due process and protect the human rights of migrants by withholding funds. (Fifteen percent of annual funds channeled through the Mérida Initiative were held back). Yet, withholding $5 million of the more than $3 billion that have been granted since 2008 is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on the human rights of migrants in transit. 

Mexico has made commitments that are supported by legislation and international human rights covenants such as the International Convention of the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families; the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its Recommendation No. 26 on migrant workers; the Convention of the Rights of the Child; and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Providing further support to Mexico to comply with these Conventions could be a first step in protecting the rights of migrants.

The INM is in urgent need of strengthening its ability to administer migration from a rights-based perspective. To do so, it needs to develop and apply appropriate practices and filters to identify migrants in need of international protections (i.e. possible victims of kidnapping, sexual exploitation and other human rights violations), and channel them to the appropriate institutions to facilitate their access to justice. It requires special training of officials to understand the gender-specific vulnerabilities of migrants and identify female migrants who may qualify for asylum and refugee status. The United States, through the Mérida Initiative, could play a pivotal role in building the Mexican government's capacity to identify, protect and assist migrants in a situation of vulnerability in Mexico.

Ultimately, and with the goal of reducing the vulnerability that comes from enforced clandestinity, the Mexican government could also emit time-delimited tourist visas to all potential entrants, and extend more humanitarian visas to those in need. This would reduce vulnerability for migrants in transit and enable the more effective and transparent delivery of services to those requiring asylum and refugee services. Further, such an action would fall squarely in line with commitments made in Mexico's Special Program for Migration 2014-2018—namely the promotion of "migration schemes and international mobility that foster development with full respect for human rights."

What is clearly needed is an integrated approach achieved through regional cooperation that facilitates human mobility throughout Central America and Mexico and protects the human rights of migrants. Investments in securitizing borders have proven themselves to be patently insufficient. If the respective states do not attend to the growing humanitarian crisis within and beyond their borders, and uphold the rights of their nationals abroad, more human rights violations will occur. If the United States continues to invest in securitization in Mexico in the current context of a weak state with corrupt institutions, more migrants will be kidnapped, extorted, tortured and disappeared. The time to act is now.

This article was originally published by NACLA. Gabriela Díaz Prieto collaborates with the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI) in Mexico. Sarah Gammage is the director of Gender, Economic Empowerment and Livelihoods at the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, D.C.

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