Often their trauma and their stories lie in the shadow. Frequently femal migrants in South America suffer in silent structural sexual harassment, gender-based violence and rape during their escape. And the affected states ignore the problem continually.
Teresa’s relatives warned her not to take the train to Mexico. It was too dangerous, not worth the risk to mount that violent mammoth of metal that propelled through the small town of Intipucá every week. The twisted silhouettes of men and women, darkened by days of travel under a nagging Salvadorian heat, elegantly topped The Beast, as the villagers dubbed the jolting machine. Yet such a sight was barely enough to deter the 38-year-old mother of three. On the contrary, La Bestia was her chosen chariot to flee the ruthless gangs that today make El Salvador the murder capital of the world, and reunite with her children in Texas. Just as warned, Teresa was captured by ten armed men, who threatened death and promised rape after dragging her to an unmapped ranch in Chiapas. Traumatized, she returned to El Salvador, where a human rights lawyer pled for asylum from the Mexican government on her behalf; the officials not only remained silent when asked about their efforts to track down the criminals that abused her, but also negated her visa to Mexico, leaving Teresa to fester in the poverty and crime of her hometown.
Teresa’s journey is one of many. 92% of undocumented migrants transiting through Mexico are sequestered by organized criminal organizations every year. 6 of every 10 women amongst them are raped. The numbers cry for a hard policy to disband the delinquent groups and aide these vulnerable migrants who hale predominantly from Central America’s crime-ridden Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala & Honduras.
The Mexican government’s response to such egregious violations of human rights, however, is characterized today by a dual rhetoric of equal impotence— at once, unshaking commitment to “fundamental values of today’s liberalist order” when facing the international community, at once shameless silence towards the victims and the Mexican people in the face of such violations. Its reticence not only fails to address Mexican accountability in illegal migration, specifically regarding Central American women in transit, but also inherently exacerbates the violence endured by thousands of human beings caught in a legal void where human rights and identity are mutually nullified.
Feminization of Migration
The increase of female migration from Central America in the last 15 years has met a rise in sexual and gender-based violence that is not just the expression of a crisis in the economy, society, or value perception, but the result of the process of constructing women as subjects.
On the one hand, they are persecuted by criminal groups, lurked by every kind of merchant looking to attract them to beef up their businesses; on the other, they are threatened by men they encounter, namely smugglers, fellow travelers, police authorities and public officials. Top it all off with an androcentric society, and the female migrant today is the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in transit through Mexico.
Migrant Women as Tokens of Organized Crime
As the Mexican population found itself immersed in a war on drugs at the start of 2006, criminal organizations looked on at the outbreak of migrant flows through a lucrative lens: kidnappings and extortions became the newfound business model.
Informal and illicit economies developed not only at points of entry and departure from the Mexican territory, but also across various positions within the migratory route undertaken by undocumented migrants. A study by the Mexican National Commission of Human Rights revealed that organized crime brought in 25 million dollars in a period of just six months in 2009 from kidnapping irregular migrants. The traffickers today take the trophy as the principal perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence towards migrant women.
Migrant Women as Targets
Though Mexican migration law identifies women as amongst the most vulnerable, it fails to change the primary factors contributing to their susceptibility to abuse. Failure to provide legal migration channels or address the role of organized crime in their extortion, and the maintenance of punitive enforcement structures only encourage conditions that place women in positions of vulnerability to sexual & gender-based violence.
“We were on the train near Tlaxcala. There was a migration checkpoint nearby. A security official got on the train and raped me. He told me that if I reported something to the police, I would be returned to Guatemala. He then stole $40 from me,” related a 21-year-old Guatemalan migrant.
This vulnerability is furthermore exacerbated by the routine abuse of power by migration officials of the National Migration Institute and the Mexican military.
In January of 2007, shortly after having arrived in Mexico from a month’s journey on The Beast from El Salvador, a 27-year-old migrant was detained by 7 soldiers who robbed her of the little cash she carried and forced her to undress: “We were in Tapachula. A migration agent stopped us and told us that if we had (sexual) relations with him, we wouldn’t be detained,” she explained to the Institute for Women in Migration.
What is more, the institutional weakness of municipal bodies today has not only allowed its permeability to the incursion of criminal organizations in governing organs, but has also tied impunity to state’s omissions, concealment of evidence, creation of bureaucratic obstacles, and the unnecessary prolongation of trials related to female migrants.
Cue in President Peña-Nieto
Government policies thus herald questions of accountability in the neglect of and violence towards irregular migrants, amongst whom women are most exposed. In a speech directed to President Trump in Mexico City in 2017, Mexican President Enrique Peña-Nieto underscored the necessity to “provide humane treatment to immigrants and establish orderly procedures of repatriation when necessary.”
At the 2016 UN General Assembly, Peña-Nieto further outlined what such humane treatment could look like in practice, noting Mexico’s successful policies, which he “shares with the international community as a model”. At the closing of the speech, Peña-Nieto called upon the international community to “uphold its commitment to migrants who represent not only our past and present, but also our society’s future”.
The Government’s Double-Talk
Such fine statements regarding Mexico’s approach towards migration belie the reality of the country’s practice. In August 2010, Los Zetas, the drug-trafficking criminal organization that operates in northern Mexico, executed 72 migrants from Central and South America. The salience of the event attracted the attention of the international community, urging the Mexican government to act. Its response was the substitution of the main law governing migration with the 2011 Migration Law, which not only overturned irregular migrants’ legal status as ‘delinquents,’ but also promised to offer them greater protection in transit. Unfortunately, the promise has come at the cost of their systemized deportation.
Since 2001, Mexican authorities have deployed programs of border control and policies of migration constraint, such as Plan Sur (2001- 2003) and Plan México (2008). One of the pioneer measures in this respect was a ‘vertical border’ implemented to reduce the illegal transit of migrants across the country.
In practice, however, the plan has indirectly increased the vulnerability and marginalization of migrants by forcing the search for alternative routes of transport. Migrant women especially are exposed today to the illicit activities of criminal organizations, the danger of opting for rail transport, and the risks inherent to the geographical and climatic nature of the landscape.
Female migrants increasingly rely on intermediary smugglers to avoid risks of detention, increasing their likelihood of falling into forced prostitution and human trafficking at the hands of organized crime.
In the wake of such abuse, the government’s language seems painfully inept.
A Market of Words
Female migrants transiting through Mexico today confront a business of organized crime that exploits the government’s dual rhetoric and profits from women’s bodies.
Their experiences along migration routes are proof of a normalized environment of violence and impunity. The Mexican society’s proclivity to other the figure of the migrant, alongside a culture of machismo, only systematizes such abuse towards women in transit.
While irregular migrants have been decriminalized in words, their treatment is still that of criminals at best, merchandise at worst. In a marketplace of words that carry the weight of violence itself, bankrupting the language that brands female migrants as invisible victims may be the first step in redirecting their route away from neglect.