By Amanda Tello Witness for Peace Delegations Assistant
Every year, thousands of migrants risk their lives on a treacherous journey toward el norte, facing violence, extortion, kidnapping and discrimination. However, female migrants face a heightened risk of exploitation in the form of sexual violence and trafficking at the hands of many groups: criminal gangs, corrupt officials, law enforcement, immigration or security forces and other migrants. Despite the enormous risks, thousands of women continue to make the harrowing journey northward. According to Katharine Donato, an associate professor of Sociology at Rice University who studies Mexican migration to the United States, as many as 35-45% of those crossing the border are women. While other experts have estimated the number of female migrants crossing the border to be closer to 15-25%, it remains a significant portion of the migrant population.
Although it is commonly thought that most female migrants are following their male counterparts to the United States, an increasing number of women are migrating independently to find work and support their families. Impelled by unemployment or underemployment in their home countries, frequently a consequence of free trade agreements like CAFTA and NAFTA that have “eroded” local economies, migrants are forced to look beyond their own borders for a means of supporting their families. Additionally, a press release from a Mexican women’s advocacy group, REDGE, reported that more and more women are migrating as a means to escape intra-familial and drug-war related violence.
The Perilous Journey
Mexico is commonly referred to as both a point of origin and destination for migrants throughout Latin America. The complex flow of people, many traveling without legal documentation, between Mexico’s northern and the “forgotten” southern border gives criminal gangs and corrupt officials an opportunity to exploit the masses of vulnerable migrants, particularly women and children. Those crossing the southern border are primarily Central Americans who are viewed as “easy” targets because their transitory status makes them unlikely to report abuses out of fear of deportation or repatriation.
Local and international NGOs report that 6 in every 10 women are raped and as many as 80% of female Central American migrants are sexually assaulted during the volatile journey. A study conducted in 2006 with 90 migrant women at the Iztapalapa Detention Centre revealed that: “Twenty-three women reported experiencing some kind of violence, including sexual violence. Of these, 13 stated the person responsible was a state official.” Nevertheless, researchers believe that sexual violence is often underreported out of fear, lack of resources or assistance and the victims’ desire to continue their journey.
Sexual assault is such a frequent occurrence that many women tragically consider rape the price they must pay to migrate, according to Fermina Rodriguez of the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center. In fact, rape is often viewed as a form of currency that perpetrators exact upon women to earn their passage. To take precaution, many women inject themselves with contraceptives prior to migrating, oftentimes at the behest of their smugglers.
In addition to rape and sexual assault, women are targets for traffickers who kidnap them along the migrant path or lure them from home with romantic promises and the possibility of employment. Many credit the government’s militarized strategy of combating the drug war with inadvertently pushing drug traffickers and criminal gangs toward “alternative revenue sources,” namely human trafficking and forced prostitution. Sex trafficking not only involves less risk, as undocumented migrants are less likely to be reported as missing or to file reports of abuse, but it also provides criminal gangs with an additional source of “reusable” revenue.
Southern Mexico in particular has become a hot spot for forced prostitution and human trafficking in recent years. According to Patricia Villamil, the Honduran consul in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the now infamous criminal organization known as the Zetas is primarily responsible for luring and kidnapping young girls from Honduras and forcing them to work as prostitutes upon their arrival in Chiapas. Despite the influx of reports Villamil is receiving, she claims that the Mexican authorities have been “slow to react.” In fact, while Enrique Mendez, the official prosecutor in charge of crimes against immigrants in Chiapas, admitted that trafficking is occurring, he insisted it was “not widespread.”
In response to the growing problem of sexual exploitation and violence along the migrant path, the Mexican state has taken the formal step of passing human rights treaties, including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (UN Migrant Workers’ Convention). Moreover, the Mexican Congress passed a law known as, “la Ley para Prevenir y Sancionar la Trata de Personas,” in order to assist victims and “prevent and penalize human trafficking.” Although the passage of these laws and treaties are positive developments, there have been very few convictions and the government continues to focus its efforts on the drug war.
Moreover, NGOs insist that state officials remain complicit actors in the problem either by inaction or direct involvement. For instance, many migrants report that state officials allow buses full of kidnapped migrants to pass freely through government checkpoints after receiving bribes. Other public officials and members of security forces assume more active roles, either by directly assisting criminal organizations with the kidnapping and trafficking of migrants or by raping female migrants as a means of payment.
As UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Jorge Bustamante described, “transnational migration continues to be a business in Mexico, largely operated by transnational gang networks involved in smuggling and trafficking in persons and drugs, with the collaboration of the local, municipal, state and federal authorities…With the pervasiveness of corruption at all levels of government and the close relationship that many authorities have with gang networks, incidences of extortion, rape and assault of migrants continue.”
Excerpt from “On the Mexico-Guatemala Border, Migrants Demand End to the Violence” by Kristin Bricker from the Center for International Policy Americas Program: Honduran migrant Daniela Melendez, mother of five, recounted how her coyote, the man she paid to help her cross Mexico and enter the United States, tried to rape her as she traveled through Chiapas. In an attempt to pressure her to have sex with him, he told her, “Here, I’m just one man. But I work with the Zetas, and if I turn you over to them, it’ll be fifteen or twenty men raping you.” Melendez managed to reach the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, run by Father Alejandro Solalinde. “Father Solalinde’s team in the shelter rescued me,” she recounts. Salvadoran woman quoted in the 2009 CNDH special report on kidnapping:
“All the time they swore at us, slapped us, pushed and kicked us all over and hit us with a whip, they covered our eyes and mouths… they killed my friend because she didn’t have any [relatives] to help her and she couldn’t given them [phone] numbers, so they shot her twice in the head and they left her bleeding in front of me for three hours to intimidate me… The place they held me captive is a big, dark, dirty house that smelled bad. The two days I was there I slept on the ground with no blanket. They only gave me something to eat once and a little water. The men who kidnapped me also stripped me naked and raped me. In that place, I heard the whole time the moans, cries and groans of other people”.
From the Washington Office on Latin America’s report entitled, “A Dangerous Journey Through Mexico,” By Maureen Meyer, with contributions from Stephanie Brewer:
My name is Nancy, I am Salvadoran and I was kidnapped from April 13 to June 22, 2009. I was in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, staying in the supposed shelter of a woman nicknamed “the mother” who tried to pass for a nun so we that we would trust her and fall into her trap. Some large trucks arrived there that were like moving vans and they grabbed me and 83 others…They took us up to Reynosa, on the state of Tamaulipas, and on the road we passed checkpoints of the National Migration Institute and Federal Police who saw how we were traveling and even so they did nothing, they merely took the money that was given to them as a bribe to keep silent. The kidnappers told us to pay attention so that we would see that they had paid for everything. One of the men began to bother us women and sexually abuse us. Then, one of our male companions got angry and tried to defend us, but he couldn’t because they raped him too and then they beat him to death…”