Illegal Migration and Mexico's Maras

(International Relations and Security Network, 07/11/2006)


Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of in-depth stories on drug smuggling in the Americas. Each piece will focus on a specific city and the surrounding region, beginning with Buenaventura, Colombia and moving north through Central America and Mexico, to conclude with Washington, DC.


As Americans vote in mid-term elections on 7 November, immigration and border security will be two important issues. Yet from the Mexican point of view, heavy pressure from Washington to curb violence and stop illegal immigration at the US-Mexico border has strained relations and taken much needed resources from Mexico’s southern border between Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. The city of Tapachula, the second most populated urban center in Chiapas, is at the center of a clandestine world of illegal migration, human smuggling and prostitution.


Mexican authorities in 2005 reported that at least 3,000 members of Central American street gangs, known locally as “maras” or “pandilleros,” prey on illegal migrants passing through the state. Since then, the numbers of maras have grown. A hurricane that ripped apart the infrastructure in early October 2005 removed important transport lines, such as the Tapachula-Salina Cruz train, forcing immigrants to walk and making them much more vulnerable.


The Mexican state of Chiapas has long been a problematic area for smuggling, passing from Central America to Mexico. Yet like many of Mexico’s other states that suffer from the drug trade and immigration patterns, police corruption, limited resources, and perhaps most of all, political pressure focused on the north has maintained a status quo where thugs steal from poor immigrants and cops do little to stop them.


Overlapping routes


From Tapachula, migrants have a choice of routes to take. They can proceed toward Salinas Cruz, into the state of Oaxaca and up the Pacific coast, passing through Guerrero, Michoacan, Sinaloa and Sonora before arriving at the Mexico-US border in Arizona. Alternatively, they can make their way along Mexico’s eastern coastline, passing through Veracruz and Tamaulipas. These are the routes most often used by criminals who traffic migrants north from Tapachula, and migrants who choose to make the trek alone.


These routes almost completely overlap with the smuggling routes used by Mexican organized crime to move Colombian cocaine through Mexico into the US.


Acapulco, the coastal tourist center in the state of Guerrero, has seen a sharp spike in violence as Mexican organized crime has battled for control of this important access point. Michoacan is one of Mexico’s primary sources of opium, making it a heavily contested state. Sinaloa is considered the home turf of the Sinaloa Federation, Mexico’s most powerful organized criminal faction. Tamaulipas is one of Mexico’s most violent states, and the border town of Nuevo Laredo, located in Tamaulipas, is fiercely defended by the Gulf Cartel, the principle rivals of the Sinaloa Federation.


Migrants traveling along these routes have at least one thing in common with Mexico’s prolific underworld of organized crime: avoiding detection and detention. Invariably, the two worlds collide, but what is interesting is that a third group, one that is also migratory, has become more of a security problem for migrants than organized crime.


Mexico’s maras


“The maras in Mexico are well established in the state of Chiapas, but are now appearing around the country, especially along the routes of illegal migration,” a Mexican security analyst told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity, adding, “more than anything they are an unanchored presence in Mexico.”


Like Central America’s illegal migrants, the maras travel from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the US, he explained. Unlike the migrants, they are armed, ruthless and enjoy the support of an organized network that stretches from Honduras into just about every major urban center in the US.


On the Mexico-Guatemala border, maras work with highly organized human trafficking networks that provide fraudulent documentation, falsified fingerprints and voting papers for illegal immigrants. Many of these groups also traffic cocaine and use the maras to move the cocaine from Guatemala to the Mexico-US border, where it is delivered in exchange for US dollars or drugs.


Within Mexico, the maras are most concentrated along the Pacific route that stretches from Tapachula to the US-Arizona border. Along the northern border, maras normally move farther to the west, where they have historically strong links with gang members based in southern California.


Maras prey upon Central American illegal migrants as soon as they arrive in Mexico. With machetes and knives, maras kidnap women and children, kill or injure the men and extort money from all.


As many have pointed out, from local journalists in Tapachula to researchers with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), illegal migrants are easy targets. They almost always carry cash and are rarely armed or prepared for a fight.


As Central American street gangs have proliferated along Mexico’s illegal migration routes they have contributed to a growing security problem that forces many migrants to make a decision. They can subject themselves to shady human smugglers, who could just as easily sell women and children into the sex trade as they could safely deliver them to the US. Or they can make the trek alone, risking an encounter with maras, who are likely to steal their money, prostitute the women and kill or severely injure the men.


Adding another layer to this growing security problem along Mexico’s illegal migration routes is what appears to be a growing relationship between maras and Mexico’s organized criminal factions.


Maras and organized crime


“There is a current debate in Mexico as to whether the maras are a real security challenge or if they’re just a delinquency issue in Tapachula and other Mexican cities,” Raul Benitez, a member of the Maras Research Project with ITAM University in Mexico City, told ISN Security Watch.


“In Chiapas, for example, the state government has changed criminal legislation to target maras,” Benitez said. He said the Chiapas Congress justified this law by pointing out that the presence of the maras there required tougher legislation.


Mexican intelligence, Benitez pointed out, has completed a number of reports on the maras, claiming that they are a mobile presence in Mexico, traveling back and forth from Guatemala to the US.


Still, Benitez said, it is debatable whether the maras are heavily involved in higher-level drug trafficking in Mexico. “It remains a debate because there is little information to suggest if they are working closely with organized crime or if they’re just dealing drugs on the street to survive,” Benitez said.


Yet the rumors swirl. Beheadings have become a calling card for Mexico’s organized criminal factions. It is a new level of violence and psychological warfare that some analysts argue highlights the presence of a new group. But this group is more likely to consist of former members of Guatemalan special forces, known as Kaibiles, rather than members of Central American street gangs.


While it is possible that maras work as assassins on occasion for Mexico’s larger drug smuggling organizations, it is a stretch to claim that they work closely with Mexican organized crime or that they control a portion of the drug trade flowing through Mexico. What is more certain is the role they play in terrorizing thousands of illegal immigrants.


Numbers are growing


While thousands of illegal migrants are caught by the system, thousands more slip through, but fewer make it into the US. Half of these illegal migrants are women, and some 80 percent end up in some type of sex trade operation, according to Mexican Senator Maria Elena Orantes, who sits at the head of a human rights working group in Mexico. She claims that just along the border area between Guatemala and Mexico, some 100,000 women and some 2,000 girls are forced into prostitution.


According to the Chiapas state government, more women die in one year in the city of Tapachula than in Ciudad Juarez, a city on Mexico’s northern border that drew the world’s attention for violent crimes against women.


Many women who leave their homes in Central America for a better life in the US do not make it much farther than Chiapas and the city of Tapachula.


Mexican authorities will deport some 250,000 illegal migrants in 2006, according to National Migration Institute Commissioner Hipolito Trevio.


According to the IOM, some 150,000 illegal migrants were deported from Mexico in 2002; 175,000 in 2003; and 205,000 in 2004. Next year, this number is expected to jump again. Some 40 percent of these immigrants are from Guatemala. Another 40 are from Honduras, while the rest are from Ecuador, and, increasingly, Brazil.


The Mexican government has offered some response. Tapachula is home to the country’s largest immigration station. Food there is certified. Deportees are sent home on air conditioned buses with clean bathrooms and movies. But this is a drop in the bucket.


At a recent meeting held by Mexican president-elect Felipe Calderon with his policy advisers, the subject of national security was not on the agenda. Mexico has not had a national level security policy since outgoing Mexican president Vicente Fox announced the Safe Mexico plan in June 2005.


There is little doubt as to whether Calderon will come up with a national security plan, but many in Mexico wonder if the plan will have a heavy focus on the country’s northern border as did its predecessor. All agree it is time that another plan was devised, but few expect it will be one with enough emphasis on Mexico’s border with Guatemala.