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The Drug War and Migration Collide

By Claudia Rodriguez Witness for Peace’s Mexico-based International Team

The biggest news coming out of Mexico is the violence as a consequence of the warring drug trafficking organizations and the Mexican government attempting to dismantle them. The number of people dying and the brutal ways in which they are killed are making headlines. The death toll is nearing 50,000 lives lost since Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched his campaign to take down the drug trafficking organizations in 2006, as soon as he took office. Shortly after, the United States government began showing its support to President Calderon’s campaign through the Merida Initiative, a U.S. policy that provides equipment and training aid to Mexico to fight the drug trafficking organizations.

But what does the violence of the drug war have to do with migration? There are at least three answers to this question. First, it forces people to migrate, either from being displaced because of the violence or fleeing insecurity in their communities. Second, drug trafficking organizations are also largely responsible for many of the dangers migrants encounter on their journey. As migrants cross through Mexican territory, especially areas considered “territory” of drug trafficking organizations, there are dangerous and at times deadly confrontations with these organizations, which attempt to rob, rape, extort, and kidnap the migrants. And lastly, many of the root causes of migration – particularly lack of jobs and economic opportunities – are also causes of the rise of violence due to the lack of alternatives.

According to a briefing paper from December 2010 of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 230,000 people fled their homes last year because of the insecurity. About half of those people went to the U.S., and the other half remain in Mexico. That means around 120,000 people have been internally displaced in Mexico. While that may not seem like many people, it is important to note that the previous year, the amount of internally displaced people was only 5,000.

As Calderon’s U.S.-backed war rages on, not only is the death toll climbing, but also the number of internally displaced people is skyrocketing. A new term is emerging for those who flee to the US: “narco refugees.”

This highlights a new phenomenon of Mexican citizens fleeing to the US and applying for asylum to escape the rising violence. One important group of those fleeing are journalists – Mexico has been named one of the most dangerous places for journalists in Latin America, and was recently named by the United Nations the fifth most dangerous place for journalists in the world.

Another extremely vulnerable group is migrants crossing through Mexico. Central American migrants are continuously targeted by traffickers. Some are robbed, raped, and also held for ransom and extorted. Some have called this “business as usual” or a way for the organizations to “diversify their profits.” In August of 2010, a survivor of a massacre of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas told the story about how they were kidnapped and held on a ranch by a drug trafficking organization.

Over the last year, there have been discoveries of what are being coined “narco fosas” or mass graves where drug traffickers are dumping dozens, if not hundreds, of bodies. The bodies dumped are commonly times migrants or people kidnapped by drug trafficking organizations. From April to June of this past summer, 429 bodies were found in mass graves in Durango and Tamaulipas, two states in northern Mexico.

Apart from robbing migrants, holding them for ransom, or killing them, drug trafficking organizations are also kidnapping and trafficking them. These organizations use the migrants for forced labor or sexual enslavement. Unlike a drug that is sold once and earns a profit, the forced enslavement and labor of a human being provides a repeat profit. Because many of the drug trafficking organizations already mastered routes to traffic drugs, many of those same routes are used to traffic human beings across the border. Female migrants are especially at risk.

Lastly, and what is often overlooked, are the root causes behind the proliferation of organized crime and the subsequent rise of violence. Apart from US demand for drugs, there are important, deep-seated root causes of drug violence, similar to those driving Mexican migration. Poverty and lack of economic opportunities leave people with no other option but to migrate. Some look to drug trafficking as a means of survival. Young people have been especially hit hard by this reality. More than 25,000 children have left school to join drug trafficking organizations since President Calderon came into office and started his campaign.

These children are also part of the 8 million youth in Mexico known as “ninis.” Ninis is a term in Mexico that refers to youth who don’t study or work (“ni estudia ni trabaja”), largely because of the lack of opportunities that exist in Mexico. It is estimated that at least half a million of the ninis have joined drug trafficking organizations. Working for these organizations is seen by these young people as a lucrative way to make money, even though many are aware of the risks involved. The common attitude is that it’s better to live well for a short time, than face a life of misery in poverty. Unfortunately these are some of the few “choices” that exist.

There is no end in sight for the escalating drug violence. It will continue to clash with migration by further endangering migrants and causing migration. And as long as the deep rooted structural inequalities, poverty, and lack of economic opportunities exist and are exacerbated by US polices like NAFTA, there will continue to be many people, especially youth, left with few “choices:” join with drug trafficking organizations, or migrate to save your life and provide for your family.


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