Mexicans flee to escape violence

Immigration: Coming north to the United States is not done just for economic reasons. Human-rights abuses are playing an increasing role.

June 06, 1999|By RICK ROCKWELL

WHEN Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo acknowledged recently the extent of poverty in his proud nation, it seemed like a first step toward solving a problem many Americans also want addressed.

For Americans, the mention of Mexico conjures one stereotypical image: a flood of desperate, unemployed people illegally crossing our border. The reasoning on this side of the border seems to be that if Mexico's economy gets better, Mexicans will have less need to come here.

Of course, that reasoning looks at immigration as if it were simply caused by a lack of jobs in Mexico. That simple-minded approach ignores other catalysts for immigration, and refuses to look at the entire Mexican sociopolitical climate.

Take a closer look at Mexico, and you'll see the secrets Mexico's president isn't discussing. Those not-so-well-kept secrets are contained in a growing number of human rights reports which show the country's record for torture and extrajudicial killings grew worse in the past decade. Abusive police and military groups, guerrilla insurgencies and a climate where basic human rights are often absent might seem more like Kosovo than Mexico. That dark political climate also could be pushing Mexicans north.

Consider the case of Jose Tomas Capistran Rios. Two years ago, an immigration judge in Chicago granted Capistran legal asylum in the U.S. In Mexico, Capistran had reported about abuses by the Mexican army fighting guerrilla groups. For this type of critical reporting, Capistran was kidnapped, tortured and charged with being a rebel sympathizer, aiding terrorists. Freed before his trial, Capistran decided it would be safer for him and his family if he fled north.

Human rights reports

But the ugly human rights reports coming out of Mexico show that for every case like Capistran's, there are many others in which people never make it out. In a report last fall, the Organization of American States (OAS) criticized Mexico for its record on summary executions by police and the military without trial. The report also noted the rising rate of forced disappearances and illegal detention by Mexican authorities. Last year, Amnesty International issued a report with similar criticisms. The extent of the problem is hard to quantify. Statistics for such human rights abuses are inexact and vary widely. The Amnesty International report notes a figure of more than 100 forced disappearances in 1997 in the state of Chihuahua. The OAS report documents 65 such cases in 1997 for the country.

At a recent conference about human rights in Mexico at DePaul University in Chicago, several experts pointed to a familiar culprit behind the human rights abuses and the breakdown of the rule of law. They blamed drugs and the corruption that drug trafficking breeds as a cause of Mexico's problems.

David Beall, executive secretary of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, a division of the OAS, likes to use the hoary comparison between Mexico and Colombia. He told the conference that those who try to expose corruption, drug trafficking and official abuses in the Mexican system are the most at risk. "This is a virtual replay of what happened in Colombia," he said, "The effective prosecutors were shot. The same thing is happening to the media. The effective reporters who wrote about it are dead."

Journalists attacked

The Inter-American Press Association lists Colombia and Mexico as the two nations where the most journalists have been killed or attacked in this hemisphere during the past decade. In Mexico, reporters are often like the coal miner's canary: violence against journalists is often a sample of what will come on a larger scale later.

An example is the case of J. Jesus Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana weekly, Zeta. In the fall of 1997, Mexico's notorious Tijuana cartel attacked Blancornelas in daylight on his way to work. Gang members fired submachine guns and assault rifles, spraying Blancornelas' vehicle with more than 70 bullets on a city street. Blancornelas was seriously wounded, but survived. His bodyguard was killed, as was the leader of the ambush, David Barrsn Carona. Days earlier, Blancornelas had written about Barrsn's connection to the killing of Mexican army officials and his criminal activities in the United States.

After his recovery, the editor, also a renowned investigative reporter, said he felt the attack was retaliation for his reporting. Blancornelas and his staff have investigated ties between the Tijuana cartel and powerful politicians in Baja California.

A year later, Blancornelas still walked with a limp after surgeons removed three bullets, one lodged near his spine. After the ambush, President Zedillo committed army troops to guard the editor. Since the order, other prominent journalists and writers who have received threats from drug lords have been given similar protection.

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