Hundreds of thousands of people in Mexico have been internally displaced due to violence perpetrated by organized crime groups but the majority have yet to receive adequate assistance from Mexican authorities, who have largely turned a blind eye to the problem.
At the Second Regional Humanitarian Conference on Forced Migrations in Bogota, Colombia, Sarnata Reynolds -- a senior advisor on human rights from Refugees International (RI) -- presented a field report on the country's internally displaced persons (IDPs) entitled "Mexico's Unseen Victims" (pdf). The report is the product of field research conducted by RI in Mexico in May and June this year.
The organization found that individuals displaced by criminal organizations shared three characteristics: 1) they were fleeing extreme violence in the form of the murder, kidnapping, or disappearance of at least one family member; 2) they faced serious economic problems after displacement, including difficulty finding work; 3) they had lost land and property without receiving any economic compensation.
According to RI, criminal groups in Mexico seek control over land for a variety of reasons, including the cultivation of crops used to produce drugs, control of natural resources and establishment of drug trafficking routes. The organization found that many IDPs had been directly forced out of their communities by criminal organizations -- who either threatened or perpetrated violence against them or their families -- while others had fled violence caused by territorial disputes between rival groups, military offensives, or battles with self-defense militias.
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Reynolds told InSight Crime that although the Mexican government did not have official figures on the number of people who had fled criminal organizations, RI's research indicated forced displacement was a growing phenomenon. She added that while there had been some efforts at the state level to provide temporary shelter to IDPs, the federal government had not acknowledged the scope of the problem or implemented adequate programs to aid victims.
Without government assistance, a significant portion of the IDPs interviewed by RI had been unable to find adequate shelter or dependable jobs. Prior to migrating, many had also paid sizeable ransoms to criminal groups in an attempt to free kidnapped relatives, and remained in debt.
Another serious problem identified by RI was a lack of identification documents among IDPs, which made it difficult for children to enroll in school or for adults to become legally employed. A lack of identification also makes children appealing targets of forced recruitment for criminal groups, as they are less likely to get caught committing crimes. Reynolds told InSight Crime an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 children had fallen into the clutches of criminal organizations. Many of these children are used as guides to bring migrants across the border into the United States.
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To some extent, the lack of visibility of the problem of displacement stems from the fact that many families leave alone or in small groups, rather than en masse -- a problem that has impacted the availability of displacement statistics in Central America as well. In other cases, the internally displaced get hidden among larger groups of migrants moving for reasons unrelated to violence, making it hard to determine who's who.
However, Reynolds believes Mexican authorities have also chosen to make the problem of IDPs invisible because it is a blemish on the image they want to project internationally: that security is improving and Mexico is a safe place to invest.
"The counter-narrative is that there are hundreds of thousands in Mexico who live in a perpetual state of fear," Reynolds said.
Although figures on the number of people who have been internally displaced vary, Mexican think tank Parametria estimates 1.65 million people fled from their homes between 2006 and 2011. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 160,000 people were internally displaced in 2011 alone and the states with the highest rates of displacement that year were Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Durango, Sinaloa, Michoacan and Guerrero -- all of which have a significant drug cartel presence.
Of these areas, the Sierra Madre mountain range in the state of Sinaloa has been especially hard hit. The region forms part of an area called the Golden Triangle, known for the cultivation of marijuana and opium poppies -- used to make heroin -- and also believed to be home to large methamphetamine laboratories.
When the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Organization began fighting for control of the area in 2011, residents were forced to either work with the criminals or leave. Thousands poured out of the mountains. According to the non-governmental organization the Sinaloa Human Rights Commission, as many as 25,000 left over a period of several months in 2012. The Mexican government, however, refused to acknowledge the scope of the problem. Seeking to minimize the role of the drug cartels, Mexican authorities reported that only 5,000 had fled, and attributed part of the migration to a severe drought.
RI met with 80 families who had left the region together, and none of these families -- or any others interviewed by the organization -- listed drought or farming issues as a reason for their displacement. Reynolds told InSight Crime that all but one of the families from the Sierra Madre mountain range said the cartels had actually come into their community.
Thousands have also fled from Ciudad Juarez, the site of another fierce battle between rival cartels. Between 2008 and 2012, the Juarez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel fought for control of the city -- a bloody dispute that resulted in the deaths of nearly 10,000 people. According to a study conducted by the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez, around 230,000 people left the area between 2007 and 2010, with roughly half attempting to migrate to the United States.
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As RI and other organizations have noted, the Mexican government has not done enough to protect and support the country's internally displaced population. In 2013, Mexico passed a law to compensate victims of organized crime and human rights violations, but Reynolds told InSight Crime it remained unclear whether or not the law would cover IDPs who fled because of a credible fear of violence, but had not personally been the victims of a violent crime.
Even without the Victims Law, as RI pointed out in their report, Mexico has a number of government agencies -- including the country's natural disaster response agency -- with existing programs that could be used to serve the internally displaced population. For example, one program implemented in 2006 that assists indigenous communities who have been forcibly displaced could be used as a model for victims of forced displacement perpetrated by criminal groups, RI noted. The vital ingredient that appears to be missing is the political will to organize an adequate response.