Fresh reports that Mexican immigration officials extort asylum seekers at the US border adds to scores of stories of abuse at the hands of crime groups, illustrating how vulnerable people are while taking one of the most dangerous journeys in the world.
According to a series of testimonies published by Vice, Mexican immigration officials demanded as much as $3,500 to allow migrants to stay at the border and wait for a chance to seek asylum in the USA.
Thousands of asylum seekers from countries including Venezuela and Cuba looking to enter the USA have been forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border after the administration of President Donald Trump has limited the number of people who can be processed on any given day.
Human rights groups have said this process, called metering, exposes migrants to extortion and even kidnapping by criminal groups.
In February, Telemundo published another series of testimonies by asylum seekers held in an immigration center in the border city of Reynosa who said police were demanding $3,500 to release them.
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Mexican migration officials have also been accused of stopping buses entering Reynosa and demanding that migrants provide a code given to them by so-called “coyotes” (human smugglers) or other local officials before they allow them to continue their journey.
Irineo Mújica, the director of People Without Borders (Pueblo sin Fronteras), an organization that assists migrants moving through Mexico, said that people without a code can be charged anything between 500 and 2,000 Mexican pesos (around $25 and $105).
Mújica’s accusations come after gunmen intercepted a bus in San Fernando, a city in the northern border state of Tamaulipas, that connects to Reynosa and kidnapped 22 migrants.
The day after the Vice report was published, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his administration was investigating corruption by customs and immigration agents.
“The government is full of corrupt practices, it has been for a long time. But we are cleaning it, we will end corruption,” López Obrador said at a press conference.
InSight Crime Analysis
Extortion of migrants by Mexican immigration officials and other criminal groups has been common for some time, but the practice may be increasing as US policies force migrants to stay longer on the Mexican side of the border.
Both Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración – INM) and various local and federal police forces have long been linked to migrant kidnapping and extortion.
The promise made by López Obrador at a recent press conference to rid the system of corruption follows some steps taken by the INM when in 2016, it dismissed 2,500 agents.
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However, corruption within Mexico's public services is endemic and ensuring migrants crossing Mexico are safe will be a titanic challenge.
Criminal organizations large and small are known to control the migrant trail across Mexico, making it one of the most dangerous journeys on earth.
Gangs prey on migrants through small-scale crimes like robbery, extortion, and assault. More sophisticated organized criminal groups like the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas charge taxes for migrants to pass while also running their own migrant kidnapping or smuggling rings.
The Trump administration’s pressure on Mexico to detain and deport migrants and asylum seekers is making things even more complicated. When borders close, crime organizations win as the number of potential victims increases. With immigration flows unlikely to decline, the situation will continue to be desperate for some of the most vulnerable people in the region.