A new set of migrant protocols implemented in the United States is requiring asylum seekers to wait out their court proceedings in various border towns in Mexico, where organized crime dynamics suggest they will be increasingly at risk.
Implemented in January 2019 by the administration of US President Donald Trump, the “Remain in Mexico” program forces asylum seekers to wait for US immigration courts to decide their cases in several Mexican border towns rife with organized crime-related violence.
At end of June, the United States had already sent almost 17,000 migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to the towns on Mexicali and Tijuana in Baja California state along Mexico’s northwest border with California, as well as Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, which borders the US states of New Mexico and Texas, according to Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración -- INM).
Soon, however, those waiting for their immigration cases to progress will also be sent to Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas state along the border with Texas, as well as San Luis Río Colorado in Sonora state bordering Arizona.
(Asylum seekers sent to Mexico as of June 30, 2019)
“It’s extremely concerning that migrants are being sent back to Mexico’s northern border states,” Madeleine Penman, a regional researcher at Amnesty International, told InSight Crime. “For more than a decade, many observers have characterized this region by its precarious security situation and consistent lack of rule of law.”
Below, InSight Crime looks at the criminal dynamics in these four border states.
Mexicali and Tijuana, Baja California
For the better part of two decades, between 1990 and about 2007, the Arellano Félix Organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel, dominated Baja California. But since the group’s collapse and the further fragmentation of Mexico’s organized crime landscape, violence has surged.
Last year was the most violent year in Baja California’s history. The state's homicide rate of 77 per 100,000 in 2018 was the second highest in Mexico, and nearly three times the national rate of 25.8, according to data from Mexico’s Executive Secretariat for Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública – SNSP).
Today, the Tijuana Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) each have a presence in Baja California. However, it’s the local drug trade and low-level dealers battling for control of drug sales that is driving violence, especially in Tijuana.
A rise in demand for synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and the deadly opioid fentanyl has been a boon for local drug dealers. But this also sparked more bloodshed. Local officials in Tijuana earlier this year estimated that some 90 percent of the city's homicides are linked to local drug sales, according to the Los Angeles Times.
As criminal groups have fragmented, the smaller competing groups that have emerged have resorted to extreme violence and diversifying their criminal portfolios to also include crimes like extortion and kidnappings. Vulnerable migrants waiting in Mexico without any legitimate protection are the perfect prospects for such groups to prey upon.
Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua
More than 1,200 homicides were committed in Ciudad Juárez alone in 2018. This marked the first time the city had recorded more than 1,000 murders since 2011, when the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels were deadlocked in a bloody war for control of the strategic border town.
Much like Mexico’s criminal groups, the local and international drug markets in Ciudad Juárez have splintered in recent years, leading to both increases and decreases in homicides. While a truce between local powerhouses like the Barrio Azteca, the Artistas Asesinos, La Linea, and the Mexicles led to a dip in homicides last year, the 151 murders recorded in April this year marked the most violent month in the city in the last eight years.
To make matters worse, there is evidence that these increasingly splintered criminal groups are working with security forces to further their criminal interests. Caught in the middle are migrants waiting for a chance to seek asylum in the United States.
Indeed, in early June of this year, federal police forces in Ciudad Juárez kidnapped a migrant woman from Honduras and turned her over to a criminal group. Members of the group then sexually assaulted her and refused to release her until she paid $5,000. US officials sent the woman to the Mexican border city after her first immigration hearing.
Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas
After initially removing Nuevo Laredo from the list of Mexican towns receiving migrants seeking asylum in the United States, officials north of the border returned the first group of asylum seekers to the border city on July 9 to wait out their immigration proceedings.
Nuevo Laredo -- and the state of Tamaulipas -- has for years been the battleground for deadly disputes over drug trafficking and human smuggling routes between the Gulf Cartel and Zetas. As a consequence of this, the city and state suffer from high rates of killings and kidnappings.
“Tamaulipas is the disappearance capital of Mexico, it’s a bit of a ‘no man’s land,’” Penman said.
In one particularly horrid incident in the city of San Fernando in 2011, local police forces colluded with the Zetas in the massacre of 193 primarily Central American migrants who were making their way to the United States.
What's more, earlier this year in a war-like scene with burnt out vehicles and charred bodies, fighting between the Gulf Cartel and a splinter faction of the Zetas known as the Northeast Cartel left 30 dead in a span of just two days in the town of Miguel Alemán, some 30 minutes north of Nuevo Laredo. In addition, the CJNG has also made incursions into Nuevo Laredo to further their drug smuggling operations, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
At the same time, migrants have long been easy prey for criminal groups. If the Zetas and Gulf Cartel aren’t extorting and charging migrants taxes to cross through the territory they control, they’re running sophisticated kidnapping or smuggling rings, and outright attacking those passing through.
Of all the Mexican states that vulnerable migrants traverse, authorities in Tamaulipas routinely recorded high-rates of violence and crimes committed against migrants between 2008 and 2018, according to research from the University of Texas at Austin’s Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora
San Luis Río Colorado in Sonora state is yet another extremely strategic border point for smaller criminal gangs and larger organized crime groups smuggling drugs, people and other contraband into the United States.
Years ago, the Sinaloa Cartel took over control of the plaza in San Luis Río Colorado while Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” still headed the group before his arrest. The cartel uses the border town to construct so-called narco-tunnels -- a staple of the group’s border operations -- to smuggle drugs into Arizona before they’re distributed to major US cities.
“Sonora is this great big desert where organized crime groups have famously carried out a number of criminal activities,” Penman from Amnesty International said.
In 2017, for example, the Mexican Army and Sonora's state police seized 1,126 kilograms of cocaine, in addition to heroin and methamphetamine, at the Cucapah military checkpoint located near San Luis Río Colorado that was linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. It was the largest cocaine bust in this checkpoint's history, according to the DEA.
As of April 2019, the US State Department itself advises US citizens to “reconsider travel due to crime," adding that Sonora serves as a “key location used by the international drug trade and human trafficking networks.”