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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 338 | Septiembre 2009
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Central America

Don’t Deported Migrants Have Human Rights?

Three observation points gave us a chance to see how migrants’ human rights are violated in the arrest, transit and deportation processes. In San Carlos we heard Nicaraguans deported from Costa Rica, and in Guasaule listened to Nicaraguans sent back from Mexico. Their dramas mirror those of thousands of other Central Americans. Then in Managua we spoke with Asians, Africans and Latin Americans detained as “illegal” migrants in our own country. It’s worth hearing what they have to say.

José Luis Rocha

Every Friday a load of migrants is brought to the Honduran-Nicaraguan border post of Guasaule. These are the migrants that Mexico’s migration system likes to label “verified” and “returned” from its detention center in Tapachula, Chiapas. They are first sent there from the state migration delegations of Tabasco, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Chiapas, San Luis Potosí, Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora, which, in descending order, are Mexico’s most “productive” delegations. These eight alone detained between 12,789 and 1,480 migrants last year. It’s no accident that the descending order of volume corresponds to the geographic distribution of these delegations from north to south; Mexico is a gigantic funnel that works to slow the migrants’ advance and reduce their volume, in which a natural selection process lets only the most resistant, persevering and relatively well-heeled to slip through.

But this funnel only increases the pressure at its widest point, without significantly reducing the flow out the other end. In 2008 the 32 migratory delegations scattered all over Mexico repatriated 55,561 Central Americans, but given that the Central American population living in the United States allegedly doubled from one to two million between 1990 and 2000, that growth of roughly 100,000 per year was nearly twice the “return” of “verified” migrants from Mexico.

Even though the funnel didn’t reduce the flow as much as was envisioned, the demand has continued to grow at the other end, increasing both the financial and human costs. The rate for coyote services has shot up and those mutilated by the “death train” that crosses Mexico from point to point is now counted in the hundreds; the Sonora-Arizona desert alone takes 500 lives a year. Then in 2002, Los Zetas appeared, a sinister collective of hired guns that also runs drugs and engages in the no less lucrative business of kidnapping and shaking down migrants.

Their odysseys, penuries and tenacity

Among last year’s deportees from Tapachula, 978 were Nicaraguans, a figure that grew by 699 just from January to June this year. All have stories woven of their frustrated determination to touch “American soil.” Those deported from Costa Rica also have stories, as do those in the other more variegated group we talked to: migrants from Asia, Africa and various Latin American countries nabbed as they try to pass through Nicaragua on their way to the United States.

We listened to many of these men and women who committed the sin of wanting to live where they weren’t born and are forced to return to the site from which they fled because their life, their daily bread, their hunger for a different experience and/or their dreams were at stake. They shared their odysseys with us and now we’re passing on what they saw, heard and felt, their penuries and their determi¬nation to make a better life. Figures help and are an important part of this analysis, but the migrants’ words have the greatest power to demonstrate the core of our interest: the violations of their human rights during the transit and deportation processes.

This article ought to be a comparative point of reference, a companion piece to a report by the Nicaraguan state, but there is no such report. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migratory Workers and Members of Their Families adopted by the UN General Assembly was ratified by the first 20 countries in December 1990, and approved by Nicaragua’s National Assembly on June 22, 2005. Article 87 of that Convention establishes that “for each State ratifying or acceding to the present Convention after its entry into force, the Convention shall enter into force on the first day of the month following a period of three months after the date of the deposit of its own instrument of ratification or accession.” Given that the Nicaraguan State deposited its ratification on October 26, 2005, the Convention went into effect in Nicaragua on February 1, 2006.

Article 73 establishes that “States Parties undertake to submit to the Secretary General of the United Nations for consideration by the Committee a report on the legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures they have taken to give effect to the provisions of the present Convention: (a) Within one year after the entry into force of the Convention for the State Party concerned.”

Two years and seven months have passed without the Nicaraguan State presenting its first report to the Committee of experts created by the Convention. Thus this text will only present our own monitoring of the human rights of migrants from other countries deported by Nicaragua or by other countries to Nicaragua. The common denominator of all those we listened to was the label put on them: deportees or deportables. All legal points cited are articles of the Convention mentioned above unless otherwise identified.

First observation point:
The San Carlos shelter

The Human Mobility Pastoral has provided a shelter service for migrants passing through the Migrant Attention Center in the Nicaraguan city of San Carlos, Río San Juan, ever since the center was opened in 2000. Between October of last year and August of this year, 470 migrants, 78% of them men, passed through the shelter: 6.3% were under 13 years old; 9.2% were 13-17; 32% were 18-24; 17.6% were 25-29; 26.6% were 30-45; 7.6% were 46-65 and only 0.7% were over 65. In other words, more than 15% were legally minors and nearly 60% were adolescents or young adults under 29, the age most sought after as a work force in agricultural harvests, construction and domestic labor.

According to the World Bank’s Program for the Improvement of Surveys and Measurement of Living Conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean (MECOVI), women make up 50.9% of the total number of Nicaraguans who have migrated to Costa Rica. Judging by the gender imbalance in the San Carlos group, it’s not the route for women. Those deported through San Carlos and taken in there are mainly temporary migrants, as they themselves explained in the interviews and as our database corroborates: 7.3% were deported the same day they entered Costa Rica, 4.5% a day later, 42% up to a month later and 50% within two months. Only 22% had been there over a year. Temporary migration is a predominately male endeavor. Around 72% of those who go to Costa Rica are men and nearly 60% are under 29 years old, figures very similar to the composition of the shelter’s guests.

“In Costa Rica everyone lives shut in”

Presumably women are less affected by deportations. Do they tend to travel more with documents? We have no evidence to back that up, but we do know they’re not repatriated less because their occupations expose them less to capture, given that there are no substantial gender differences in the case of temporary migration. It would seem they are more prudent, in part because they are more affected by the confined life of those without documents.

Fourteen-year-old Diana Obando, from Rivas, voices a frequent opinion: “It’s better to be here in Nicaragua, because in Costa Rica you have to live shut in.” Raquel Castillo shares her view: “There you can hardly go out. You always have to have the doors shut. You feel all tied down in Costa Rica.” Jessica Vado also says that “everyone lives closed in” there. It is documented that Nicaraguan youth in Costa Rica seldom frequent the kind of areas associated with adolescents, since as dances, concerts and malls.

Adult men often go out more, exposing themselves to capture. A large part were picked up once they had settled down in their new residence and were creating a social life, predominately in parks (27%) and streets (20%), at bus stops (9%) and on buses (8.5%). Migrants are often detained while having a good time, something men are more frequently inclined to do given the machista culture of tempting fate. Barely 1.7% were detained at home and 1.1% at work. Some were detected when they got into fights.

Henry Hernández, from Waswalí, Matagalpa, repatriated at age 27, recalls: “The Ticos say that Nicas are good people but that booze messes us up. I figure that some 50% leave Costa Rica for problems of alcohol, drugs and fights. Many go to work but others only drink, and once they’re drunk, since they drink bad booze, they go picking a fight with each other. Women obey the law more. Nica women don’t have vices and support their man. You see many women working on dairy farms, but most go with their man. Women work more as housekeepers, indoors, and do nothing but work, so they get deported less. They say there that Nicaraguan women are hard workers.”

Diversified, specialized, “Jacks of all trades”

Shelter guests between 25 and 45 years old already have several trips under their belt: 5% had at least one deportation on their curriculum, 65.4% had one rejection and 16% between two and ten rejections. Repeating is a common feature in this age range. Migrants from El Rama and Nueva Guinea have used this route to work the harvests for nearly two decades. They often have relatives they can visit, which facilitates their insertion. Uncles, cousins, grandparents or godparents who left during the war of the eighties ended up staying in Costa Rica, which gave them political asylum at the time. Older people travel undocumented most often, exposing themselves to deportation. The 18-24 range may have a greater weight in the temporary migration than is reflected in the shelter’s database, but it appears smaller because they are more inclined to travel with their documents or more agile at eluding their captors.

A full half worked in agriculture when they were in Nicaragua, while 10.5% were housewives, 7.6% unskilled laborers, 6% students and 4.5% construction workers. They mainly came from rural areas. Once in Costa Rica they became slightly less rural, with only 45.3% working in agriculture, while 4.7% worked in construction and a large number diversified into jobs as waiters, cooks, carpenters, electricians, security guards, gym instructors, machinists, mechanics and gardeners. And like the Salvadorans in Roque Dalton’s “Love Poem,” they also became “the eternally undocumented, the do-anything, sell-anything, eat-anything…” Opportunities they had never had or had seen as utopian in Nicaragua opened up to them. Concho Balladares, from the district of Las Azucenas in San Carlos, recalls: “There were bosses who treated me great and thanks to them I was able to make something of myself. I learned cabinetmaking.”

They diversified their occupations and also specialized. They no longer say they just did agricultural labor, but that they pulled cassava or quequisque, weeded, picked oranges or pineapples, cultivated ñame, packed bananas and planted vegetables or teak saplings. Half earned over $250 a month, a notable improvement over their situation in Nicaragua, where 54.5% didn’t even have a fixed wage. Of the remaining 45.5% that did earn a wage in Nicaragua, 92% made less than $200 a month, 89% less than $150 and 25% under $50.

Migration raised their economic and social status, but deportation shot it down. Elvis Antonio Díaz, a 20-year-old from Santo Tomás, Chontales depicts it for us: “They treated us like we were some kind of drug traffickers. The police searched our bags, our clothes like 15 times. I felt really bad because they don’t do anything to those they ought to check out, the drug traffickers, but we Nicaraguans who are just looking for a way to earn a living are abused in the worse way imaginable.”

“They told us we were like cattle”

The Costa Rican police conducted 57% of the detentions. Once detained, 28% were held in a police cell, 26% were immediately rejected, 15% were sent to migration and 10% awaited their rejection in a detention center. The repatriations were usually expeditious, with 51% returned the same day they were apprehended, 41% held for a day, 6.3% for two days and only 2% for three to seven days.

A full 48% said they either witnessed or were victims of a violation of their rights and 32.3% said they had personally had their rights trampled. The police (60%) and migration authorities (38%) are cited as the main ones responsible for violations of their rights. Coyotes weren’t mentioned at all and barely 1% of the violations were attributed to employers. Most of the charges of rights violations (77%) refer to failures of due process. Only 3% denounced physical or verbal abuse. This is the perception of this group of repatriated migrants, but going deeper into some histories, we found numerous violations of labor rights, terra incognita for most migrants because they’re unaware that being undocumented doesn’t mean losing all their rights and that they could even turn to the Ministry of Labor.

What were the most perceived violations? Many are rights violated in the street when they’re picked up or in the detention centers: typically physical abuse and verbal offenses. Elvis Antonio Díaz, detained in Pital, in the San Carlos canton, shared his rough experience: “I left work that day at six in the evening. I was calmly heading home with my little bag, walking, when they stopped me and asked for my documents. They already had several in the patrol car and told me to get in. I got in peacefully, but the other guys felt bad and sincerely they just started talking about it. They told us to shut up, that we sounded like a herd of animals. One police officer told us we seemed like cattle, that the only thing missing was to brand us.

“After that they took us to the cell; there were eight of us. One guy started talking a lot because he had lost his moccasin and they tried to shut him up. They kept hushing him and hushing him, but he wouldn’t be quiet, so a police officer came and threw this liquid at his eyes through the bars. Just for talking. Then they took him out and grabbed him by the throat and were choking him. What do you say to that? They began going through our bags and asked me what I had in mine. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘the only thing I’ve got is lunch stuff, a little fruit juice glass, a spoon, and a T-shirt I changed out of to go home.’ When we woke up the next morning the other guy couldn’t even open his eyes. We asked for water for him and they told us that gas was what they were going to give us instead of water. And they put handcuffs on another guy and scratched the whole length of his arm with something like a key. How does that grab you?”

Although Costa Rica—like other countries that are mainly recipients of migrants—isn’t a signatory of the International Convention on Migratory Workers, its Ombuds¬person’s Office of Residents claims that what is established in it is legally binding because it emanates from the United Nations, a body endowed with the power to issue mandates of that nature. The binding strength comes from the collective pact implied by membership in the United Nations. Other institutions, however, seem to be purposely ignoring that binding nature.

According to Elvis’ testimony and that of many other repatriated migrants, the Costa Rican police customarily violate article 10 of the Convention: “No migrant worker or member of his or her family shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” They also violate article 16.2: “Migrant workers and members of their families shall be entitled to effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions.” And they pay little attention to article 17.1: “Migrant workers and members of their families who are deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person and for their cultural identity.”

“They didn’t let me bring my things”

Only 15.7% of those repatriated were allowed to bring their belongings and only 9% could collect their wages before being repatriated. Considering that 22% had been living in Costa Rica for less than a year, 10% for more than two years and 3% for more than five years, the repatriated group included a number of people who needed to move belongings and collect unpaid wages.

Carlos Rostrán Barberena is a case in point. He worked for years weeding and planting cassava, picking oranges or coffee, until, at age 67, he was repatriated: “They grabbed me the day before yesterday. They grabbed me and bam, bam, bam… you’re out of here! I begged them to go to the farm where I worked, to my boss, so I could bring all my things… but they wouldn’t agree to it.”

Carlos Rostrán, together with more than 60% of those repatriated who had resided in Costa Rica for more than a week, suffered the violation of two articles of the Convention. Article 15 states: “No migrant worker or member of his or her family shall be arbitrarily deprived of property, whether owned individually or in association with others….” And article 22.6 reads: “In case of expulsion, the person concerned shall have a reasonable opportunity before or after departure to settle any claims for wages and other entitlements due to him or her and any pending liabilities,” while point 9 of that same article says that “Expulsion from the State of employment shall not in itself prejudice any rights of a migrant worker or a member of his or her family acquired in accordance with the law of that State, including the right to receive wages and other entitlements due to him or her.”

Some 77% of the denunciations of rights violations refer to failures of due process. For example, the majority of the cases are dealt with collectively, while article 22.1 makes clear that “Migrant workers and members of their families shall not be subject to measures of collective expulsion. Each case of expulsion shall be examined and decided individually.” Furthermore, most were simply picked up, without being given any explanation whatever of the process to which they would be subjected, in open violation of article 16.5: “Migrant workers and members of their families who are arrested shall be informed at the time of arrest as far as possible in a language they understand of the reasons for their arrest and they shall be promptly informed in a language they understand of any charges against them.”

Article 23 establishes that “Migrant workers and members of their families shall have the right to have recourse to the protection and assistance of the consular or diplomatic authorities of their State of origin or of a State representing the interests of that State whenever the rights recognized in the present Convention are impaired. In particular, in case of expulsion, the person concerned shall be informed of this right without delay and the authorities of the expelling State shall facilitate the exercise of such right.” Nonetheless, only 0.2% of those repatriated had access to communication with the Nicaraguan Consulate. Some were deprived of the opportunity while most abstained because they thought they “had no case,” could resolve the problem alone or planned to return to Costa Rica at some point and chose not to make waves.

Documentation is at the root

What is at the root of all these problems? Documentation. Over half (55%) of those repatriated traveled with no original identity document, while the 45% who did carry one were divided between 35% with a Nicaraguan voter-ID card, 7% with a birth certificate and barely 1.5% with a passport. The other 1.5% had an array of photocopies, ID requests and stubs from the request of a replacement document. Most of those few who had a passport had a provisional one. Elvis Díaz explained the precariousness of that document: “I got a provisional passport that the company recognized. They said that with that I could work and they would insure me, but that it wouldn’t work for migration. I got the provisional passport because they give it to you overnight… actually in an hour, while the ordinary one takes two months. When migration stopped me I told them I had that passport, but they told me it’s a swindle by my own country, and it’s true. When I was there getting the provisional passport they warned me in so many words: ‘This provisional passport will only be useful for working, for identifying yourself.’”

The Nicaraguan State has a whole chain of legal impediments, negligence, policy cunning and administrative deficiencies, starting with the absurd issuance of these second-class “provisional” passports, moving on to procrastination in providing full passports abroad and ending with the Supreme Electoral Council’s reluctance to provide ID cards to Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, presumably to avoid the double ID encouraged by political forces with fraudulent intentions.

“I was happy when I was in Costa Rica”

In the shelter, 9.6% of those passing through had shared their cell with relatives. Many uncles travel with nephews, grandmothers with granddaughters, children and adolescents with their mother—three times more than with their father… For that reason, 15% who passed through the Human Mobility Pastoral’s shelter last year were minors. These children and adolescents detained in Costa Rica received no assistance from officials responsible for protecting minors and were then confined in the same cells as the adults. There were no special cells for them, as established in article 17 of the Convention. Among all the other worthless junk in the juridical entelechy is instrument no. 351, the “Law of Organization of the National Council of Attention to and Comprehensive Protection of Children and Adolescents and Defense System for Children and Adolescents.” This law created commissions, and has been instituting principles, delegating functions and promoting coordination since 2000. Contrary to what Plato must have assumed, its existence in the cavern of ideas has nothing to do with the real world in which children being repatriated live.

How do boys and girls experience their nationalist rejection? In a series of workshops we asked them to express it graphically. They drew roads that united two houses situated in two extremes: one gray and the other very colorful. Sometimes they drew flowers along the road. At times the houses bear placards, one of which says COSTA RICA and the other NICARAGUA. One is larger and on a higher plane and is shown to be inhabited. The other one is empty, abandoned. The Costa Rican surroundings are more urban, with bakeries, buses and churches. The Nicaraguan surroundings are rural, with trees, ponds and wild animals. Those who know how to write imprint their memories as well, for example: “I was very happy when I was in Costa Rica. The water came out cold.” In no drawing is a border depicted.

Letters to Óscar Arias by
repatriated Nicaraguan children

We asked the children to narrate their experience, to write letters to the Presidents or legislators of the two countries to tell them how they felt. The favored choice was to write to Costa Rican President Óscar Arias. Gloria Rojas, 12 years old, wrote this: “June 4, 2009. I send my fraternal greetings, Mr. Óscar Arias, President of the neighbor country of Costa Rica. The reason for this letter is to talk about the migrants who migrate to your country. I want you to respect the rights of Nicas, not exclude them from certain events that happen there. I want the Nicas who go to the neighbor country to have their ID and their residence so they aren’t excluded from certain events as quickly as possible, since their children, friends and other relatives believe they are working. But since they aren’t residents, they cannot get their ID or a decent job there. Their children suffer a lot missing them. And they want them to come home faster with enough money not to suffer hunger. Sincerely, Gloria Rojas.”

The day of her repatriation, 16-year-old Yahaira Kelly Ortega from Bluefields explained her experience like this: “February 7, 2009. The reason I went to Costa Rica was to work because the situation in Nicaragua is very bad. Please, President Óscar Arias, I also wanted a chance to study, but I’m going to work to help my mom because she’s a single mother. She has three little children, is very sick and, since she saved for me, now I’m going to help her.” Yahaira’s cousin also left her message, thinking about her own return: “February 7, 2009. Hello, Óscar Arias. My name is Sandra Marina Kelly González. I am 13 years old. I am writing you to tell you the following: I want you to support me to get to Costa Rica because that city is very pretty. I would like to go, but I can’t because of problems. I like Costa Rica because it is nice; the people are very friendly, they help people. I am writing to you from San Carlos, Nicaragua. Help me, please. I traveled to Costa Rica just a little while ago, but the people who took us swindled us. Costa Rica has very good jobs. Excuse my bad writing. Last year I was in second grade. This year I couldn’t study because of the trip. These are my words. Thank you. Sincerely, Sandra Marina Kelly”.

Another 14-year-old girl wrote: “February 7, 2009. My name is Yartiza Yamalin Ortega. I wish you the best Óscar Arias. I wish all immigrants could have the chance to know other countries. As I am one of them, I would like to live in your nation. When I was on the road, I asked my God for all us boys and girls to have human rights. Also the right to study and to live. It hurt me to leave my mom and my brothers and sisters. I wish the immigrants the best.”

With a light tone of confidence, these girls addressed the most sensitive issues of the in-transit and repatriated migrants: exclusion, the economic motivations for migrating, the pain of separation from family, the opportunities in Costa Rica bordering on idealization, the right to migrate and the importance of documents. Their synthesis of the UN Convention requires neither margin notes nor epilogue.

Harvesters one day,
repatriated the next

Costa Rica has been receiving and rejecting Nicaraguans for a long time. Between 2000 and 2006, the Costa Rican State granted residence to 72,255 Nicaraguans and repatriated 336,000. Only 4% of all repatriations were actually deportations. The other 96% were rejections, a more expeditious measure that is also less damaging to the migrants and carries less implications and legal sequels. But this understatement doesn’t mitigate the hard reality: Costa Rica repatriates 4.7 Nicaraguans for every one it grants residence, placing it at the opposite extreme from the United States, which obtains four Nicaraguan residents for every one it deports.

Two harvests run in tandem: the harvest of agricultural crops in Costa Rica and the harvest of repatriated migrants in Nicaragua. If we analyze the peak period of labor demand for the different agricultural crops—which taken together go from December to April—we can see that it ends when the peak period of repatriations begins, according to the 2008 statistics of the San Carlos delegation of Nicaragua’s Department of Migration and Aliens.

In fact, May to October are saturated with repatriations, particularly of temporary migrants because they are superfluous workers. “Human throwaways,” as Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman would call them. A fundamental right not enunciated in the UN Convention on Migrants is the right not to be declared “human dregs” when a country’s economic system decides they aren’t recyclable and the legal and coercive apparatus goes into action. People’s right to reside in a country shouldn’t have to depend on whether or not the economy can instrumentalize them.

Second observation point:
The border at Guasaule

Ever since May 5, 2006, when the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua signed a memorandum agreeing to “dignified, orderly, streamlined and safe” repatriation from Mexico to Central America, deportations have become streamlined, but not dignified. Nicaragua received the first repatriated group in the framework of this memorandum on March 5, 2008. And since then, a group of some 30 deported people arrives every Friday at the Honduran-Nicaraguan border town of Guasaule. The flow was interrupted by the AH1N1 flu panic, then continued by plane.

The Jesuit Service for Migrants accompanied around 400 people deported through Guasaule for a year. With the information gathered, we can sketch out a characterization. Men made up 82% of the deportees. Of the total number, 1.5% were under 13 years old and 2.3% under 18; 31% were 18-24, 22% were 25-29, 40% were 30-45 and 5% were 46-64, an older age curve than those coming back from Costa Rica. The biggest single segment (27.4%) were originally from Managua, followed by Chinandega (25%), Estelí (12%), León (9%), Matagalpa (8.5%) and Nueva Segovia (6%). Cities and municipal seats of those departments predominated among the places they left from. Most if not all were headed for the United States, a country with the most urban composition of migratory origin: 92% according to Mecovi 2005.

The snippets of good will that may have encouraged the 2006 memorandum have been tarred by the blemishes, deficiencies, negligence, bottlenecks and abuses of authority in its application: the list of those sent from Mexico doesn’t even coincide with the number of those who reach the Central American countries; there’s no personalized attention; those without documents are not provided one for the deportation process; many deportees come from the United States, not Mexico; there’s no limit to the number of days they are held and no efficient human rights monitoring during their arrest and detention in Mexico.

The deficient composition of the group of migrants and the lack of coincidence with the list reached the point of absurdity when the Tapachula officials included a Mexican in the group of deportees this past June 16. Upon boarding the bus that would take the group from Guasaule to Managua, one person repatriated accused him of being “one of those who denounces Latin American migrants in Mexico to Los Zetas. He has a connection with those groups of kidnappers.” The presumed Zeta agent was taken off the bus immediately as the one who pointed the finger yelled death threats at him.

Mexico has “returned” 1,248,445 Central Americans between 2001 and June 2009, among them 19,155 Nicaraguans, an average of 6 a day and 43 a week. Based on the interviews, their composition is more varied than we would have intuitively imagined. Some were making their debut as migrants, while others were on their second, fourth and even seventh trip. The majority had never swum the Río Bravo, but a sizable group had managed to cross the border and even reside in the United States for several years. Among them were women and men picked up after two, five and even ten years living in the United States. Spouses and children were left behind, crying over the separation. Some were captured in Mexico while trying to return to their adopted country after a short visit with relatives in Nicaragua. A wedding, a funeral, the opening of a business had brought them back temporarily. Mexican migration hopes to return them once and for all, but they invariably undertake the trip again until achieving their purpose and reuniting with their families or perishing in the attempt.

“Better the Migra than the thieves there”

The dangers they face in Mexico can be grouped into five categories: the “surcharge” imposed by any opportunist because they are undocumented foreigners; theft, rape, scams, kidnapping, extortion and even murder at the hands of gang members, coyotes (called “polleros” in Mexico) and organized crime gangs often supported by state officials; extortion by officials of the Mexican State itself; abuse, mistreatment and bad conditions during their arrest and confinement; and the indolence of Nicaragua’s diplomatic representation in Mexico.

Let’s start with the surcharge that any plain old citizen with an opportunist bent charges undocumented migrants any time the chance arises. According to 26-year-old Fernando López, originally from Managua: “Many locals take advantage of those who come from outside and make money off them, because there’s extortion. They charge you more on the bus. It costs them 12 pesos but they charge us a hundred, two hundred… Everything’s different, everything costs us triple because we aren’t their people. Sometimes I think it’s better to wind up with the Migra than with the thieves there.” That’s the experience of some.

Next and more serious, both by how widespread and by the direct harm and the aftermath, are the violations of criminal groups and their collaborators in the State. Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights issued a special report in June 2009 on the cases of undocumented migrants who had been kidnapped in Mexico between September 2008 and February 2009, a period in which there were 198 known cases of migrant kidnappings (33 a month). It obtained information indicating that the number of migrants deprived of their freedom was actually as high as 9,758, more than 1,600 a month.

The Commission revealed that authorities sometimes participate directly in the kidnappings. Its report said that in the immense majority of cases, 9,194 migrants, the victims were kidnapped by organized bands, another 35 by authorities and 56 by criminals together with authorities. The participation of Mexican authorities in the kidnapping of at least those 91 migrants, said the Commission’s report, reveal the existence of bonds of complicity between the criminals and some State agents. Of the 91, 59 said they were kidnapped by police officers, which they deduced from the fact that their captors wore uniforms or that they were transported in patrol cars. Another 99 kidnapped migrants said they could tell the police were colluding with the kidnappers while they were held captive because various elements went to the security houses and the kidnappers gave them money or alcoholic drinks.

“The famous Zetas kidnapped me”

Several repatriated men and women were kidnapped by Los Zetas. Los Zetas are the most active criminal group in Mexico; they exploit their ties with the military, which is the source of many of their recruits. While they are dedicated to kidnapping and extorting migrants, they also traffic in drugs and control much of Mexico’s gulf coast. They came into being in 2002, when the leader of the Gulf cartel recruited a group of deserters from the Mexican Army’s Special Forces. In 2007 they formed an independent cartel. A US intelligence report put out in January of this year by Mexico’s Security Secretariat called them the most dangerous organized group of hit men in Mexico. According to various sources, they enjoy the protection of local police and even of employees of the National Migration Institute.

Their earnings are astronomical. Just like the transnationals that go after the migrants’ family remittances, these mafias quickly figured out that migrations moved millions of dollars. So they went into business to get a big slice of that pie. They kidnap migrants to force a ransom out of family members already in the United States. They even torture those kidnapped until wringing from them a pitiful request for help from relatives who are expected to come up with thousands of dollars in less than a week.

The Commission reports that the size of the ransom asked of victims generally ranges between $1,500 and $5,000, with the average running around $2,500 per person. It thus calculated that the kidnappers have obtained an illicit benefit of approximately $25 million just from the 9,758 victims identified. And given that the real number of victims could be nearly twice that, we’re talking about some $50 million. The quarry mined the most is that of Central Americans. Surely the Zetas and their colleagues consider their $50 million a mere pittance given that remittances sent back to the region as a whole have reached some $12 billion a year.

Mario Noel Sandoval, age 46, recalls: “The super famous Zetas, those people, kidnapped me in Mexico.” He pauses to show where they beat him, then after taking a deep breath, continues: “They beat me. I went 22 days without a bath, without being able to clean up at all. Thank God there are also good people in Mexico. There are very good people in the shelters. In one Catholic Church shelter there in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, they took me in all beaten up, and that’s how I survived. I did odd jobs there for six months after the kidnappers let me go.”

Ernesto López, age 30, remembers when he was in the Tapachula detention center: “There was a group of kids who suffered it worse than us. There were some Salvadorans who were really messed up. If you aren’t carrying money, they ask for the telephone number of where you’re going to stay in the United States and the name of the person who will pay it. Then they grab you and take you to a house. You’re kidnapped.” These kidnappers work with migration and belong to local mafias. “There are territories they dominate,” explains López. “There’s a mafia with people responsible for collecting. They’re former army officers and are known as Los Zetas.”

Miguel Ángel Guzmán relates his story: “Los Zetas had me kidnapped for four days. We didn’t have any money. My family couldn’t pay so they let me go. They didn’t beat me but they didn’t give me anything to eat. They work in the state of Chiapas, but they start from Guatemala.”

Ronald Pérez had a more tortuous experience. He was traveling in a group, all from Ocotal, and all of them were kidnapped by Los Zetas. “Four days, they asked us for money; $2,000 minimum. We all got out, thank God, but I think they killed two from another group. We don’t know where they were from. There were a lot of people in that house. They had 26 of us.”

Why are they so vulnerable?

In its report, Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights synthesized the reasons for migrants’ vulnerability: “Undocumented migrants of different nationalities who make their trip through national territory are highly vulnerable because they travel in high-risk means of transport, such as freight trains or dual-use trucks; they use outlying roads and generally lonely places; they spend the night in open spaces; they do not know the zones they are going through; they avoid contact with the police or any State agent; they do not know their rights or prefer not to exercise them if doing so involves becoming visible; they are far from their places of origin and do not know whom to turn to when necessary and are ignorant of the country’s laws.

“Due to their irregular migratory situation, they do not seek out authorities; on the contrary, they stay away from them; because they are undocumented, they become propitious victims of bad public servants and of common and organized crime; their attempt to cross to the United States makes them vulnerable to false promises and offers of jobs or of transport to their destination; they have very limited economic resources and many of them travel by letting their relatives know when they get to a town so they can wire them some money; they are easily detected by those who want to abuse them; they are unaware that they can turn to the authorities to denounce abuses or offenses against them, or else they prefer not to do so because they do not want to be sent back home. All the above makes them potential subjects of a large number of risks and abuses and puts them in a defenseless position.”

Raúl Mandujano: “From above he
will keep fighting for the migrants”

All these reasons are buttressed by the growing power and impunity of the abusers, from whose violence even public officials who just want to do their work don’t escape. The organized crime groups in Mexico have as much power and widespread presence as the Italian mafia. Some operate with hierarchical structures like the Cosa Nostra. Others have decentralized structures but are tributaries of some big boss, like La Camorra. The strongest, including these two groups, have penetrated the state apparatus. But while conscientious investigations—albeit not ones entirely immune to corruption—are undertaken by the Italian State, which also protects its officials involved in the struggle against the mafias, the Mexican State leaves its most loyal and self-sacrificing officials defenseless.

This behavior by the Mexican State—whether through fear, negligence or complicity—became apparent in the kidnapping of Raúl Ángel Mandujano Gutiérrez, who at age 27 was named director of migrant attention of Chiapas’ recently created Secretariat for the Development of the Southern Border. On April 2 of this year he was kidnapped in Tapachula by an unidentified armed commando that demanded a ransom. Leaked information prevented his rescue two weeks later.

Shoeless, cuffed and blindfolded, Mandujano was led on an unknown course. In a communiqué his relatives denounced the negligence of the Mexican authorities investigating the case: “It infuriates us to see the way the government of Chiapas promotes an image of respect for migrants’ human rights while it isn’t even capable of protecting its own officials, particularly those who work with commitment and sensitivity to make this policy reality.” When we first wrote these lines, we didn’t yet know the horrendous, although predictable outcome broadcast on the midday news on September 1: “State authorities found the body, with signs of beating and torture, of former director of the Office of Migrant Attention of the government of Chiapas, Raúl Angel Mandujano Gutiérrez, in the rural area of the municipality of Mazatán.” His father confirmed the death of his son with these words: “They killed him. They tortured him. There was no justice for him. They never looked for him. They let him be killed with impunity. But his struggle has not ended. He is now with God and from there he will keep fighting for the migrants, as he always did.”

“One officer took the
little money I was carrying”

The third category of abuses against migrants is those committed by state authorities, mainly during the capture and confinement processes. Extortions with uniform and epaulets are commonplace. Julio Menocal told us of his experience: “I was coming into the city of Puebla and the sector officers were abusing their uniform. They wanted to take my money, but since I didn’t have much, they beat me and sent me to Tapachula. I spent 12 days there.”

Mauricio Antonio López, age 31, from barrio San Judas in Managua, recalls: “An officer of Mexico’s sectoral police stopped me in Hidalgo and asked for my documents. But since I wasn’t carrying any, he asked me for money—they call it a ‘bite,’ but I wasn’t carrying much money on me either and he took the little I had. Because I demanded that he return the money, he proceeded to arrest me, accusing me of murder, even though I didn’t even know the person who had died. Just like that. But they couldn’t pull together enough evidence, so they let me go.”

Estelí-born Alba Pérez, age 33, was detained as she was coming into Mexico’s Federal District: “Someone asked me for money and said he would let me through. As I was getting off the bus he said to me, ‘If you give me the 1,500 right now you can get back on the bus and go. I told him I didn’t have that much, so he told me to put everything I had on the table. This had happened to me other times, so I’m not ignorant of the situation. I said to him: ‘If you’re going to give me free passage I’ll be glad to, but if not, you know what? I’ll just go back to my country and there’ll be no problem. Because if I give something to you, everybody’s going to want some, and further on they’ll ask me again and again they won’t let me through, when I don’t have any more money.’ You have to give migration 500 or 1,000 pesos, and they let you go. Last time, coming into Arriaga, they started throwing rocks at us. They made us get off the bus and stuck us in the cell. ‘So how much are you going to give each of us? A thousand pesos and you can go.’ We barely made it. I gave them 500 pesos and the others gave them a thousand. ‘No, you’re not leaving,’ they told me, ‘because you only gave 500 pesos.’ ‘If these guys can go, you have to let me go too,’ I told them, ‘because if you don’t I’m going to put the finger on you.’ And the Migra got me out the back door.” The key to freedom: enough money for bribes.

The National Commission on Human Rights revealed these and other abuses against migrants: “They are frequently victims of organized bands and on many occasions of federal, local and municipal authorities, especially those in charge of public security, which beat them brutally, humiliate and extort them with threats of depriving them of life or liberty or of deporting them to their countries of origin, practices that are violations of their human rights.”

Once detained, a high percentage of undocumented migrants are given no explanation for why they were picked up or the process that will be followed during their detention, reclusion and “devolution.” Leandro Sánchez’s experience was like that of many others: “There they just grab you and send you by satellite. They don’t tell you anything. You never even hear mention of what you’re supposed to be informed. There are only some numbers on a wall where they send you and detain you. But the migration guys don’t tell you anything. Me and another friend went to look at some numbers stuck on the wall and we saw that one said NIC. So I told him, ‘This is the number we need to talk to Nicaragua.’ Other numbers had come unstuck and you couldn’t even see them.”

“They violate all human rights;
they treat you like a dog there”

The most frequent complaints about the stay in the Tapachula detention center or in the prisons refer to abuse, unjust sentencing, the conditions, the bad and scarce food and the businesses the agents in the center run. José González charges: “Mexicans openly violate all the rights, because they take advantage of the emigrant. In the case of the Cubans, they charge them 100 pesos for a 10-peso T-shirt. The migration agents are the ones in that business. One told me he’d let me go free if I gave him $1,000.”

Mauricio López confirmed it: “I was picked up in Chiapas, Tapachula. The psychological number they do on you is tremendous. They treat you like a dog. You go into the penal center and have to have money to live okay. They violate human rights because people are picked up unjustly and they stick them in the drainage ditches where the sewage water flows. Nine of us Nicaraguans were held there. Each Nicaraguan is there for a different offense. There’s a kid there, I think he’s from León, who’s sentenced to 39 years in prison. Another kid is from Nindirí. He was working as a bricklayer’s assistant, and because the boss didn’t pay him what she owed him, she accused him for stealing two bags of cement. A bag of cement there costs 100 pesos. So that’s 200 pesos for two. For those 200 pesos they gave him two years and nine months in jail. All because he couldn’t pay a 6,000-peso fine. He’s detained there and has only served four months.”

“Four beans, three grains
of rice and one tiny tortilla”

Yamilet del Carmen Úbeda, 32 years old from Matagalpa, also complained about the conditions of the Tapachula detention center: “Last night we were awake the whole night. A Honduran got all upset. She got very aggressive because the jailers also got aggressive. And as we’re her friends, we went to calm her down and they left us sleeping on a bench. There wasn’t a mattress or even a thin cushion. We spent the whole night like that, freezing cold with nothing to cover us.”

Julio César, 29, from Chichigalpa, added: “You can sleep okay if they give you a mattress pad, but when it rains, like now, you should see how wet it gets inside. Last night we couldn’t even sleep because so much water was falling where we were lying. Once the rain stopped they finally came to change the pads, which were sopping wet.”

Twenty-year-old David Pérez, from Managua, concludes that the authorities “don’t care about anything. They’re neither friendly nor very hateful. They simply do their job of having us there and call us to eat. They do their job of treating us as prisoners. They don’t use obscene words. They don’t care whether we’re there or not. They said as much themselves: ‘I’m not interested in you being here. As far as I’m concerned you can go, but it’s your country that doesn’t want to receive you.’ I do remember one bad experience, though. One poor kid was behaving a little badly. He was hungry because all they give us are 4 beans, 3 grains of rice and a tiny tortilla, a piddling amount of food. So he got back in line. He’s Honduran and he got in the Nicaraguan line to get another plate of food. And they punished him by sticking him in a cold room. We saw when they locked him in the cold cell. They left him there 10 days.”

Rights violated during confinement

The 1990 International Convention on Migratory Workers mentioned above is aimed at avoiding, denouncing and correcting human rights violations such as those the migrants described. Article 16.7 of that agreement determines that when a migratory worker is arrested or imprisoned, the authorities of the country of origin must be informed and the detained person must be allowed to communicate with them “without delay.” Those interested must be informed of this and other rights.

Article 17.2 establishes: “Accused migrant workers and members of their families shall, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from convicted persons and shall be subject to separate treatment appropriate to their status as unconvicted persons. Accused juvenile persons shall be separated from adults and brought as speedily as possible for adjudication.” Of course there was no separation of minors. To the contrary, the testimonies we’ve heard provide evidence of the undermining of the rights included in articles 7, 9, 10, 16.1, 16.2, 16.3, 16.4, 17 and 18.1, where the Convention prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading and discriminatory treatment that goes against the right to life, physical and psychological integrity and liberty, and personal security and equality.

Even the Mexican Constitution contains a legal pretext to defend the rights whose trampling the migrants described. Its first article establishes: “Every person in the United Mexican States shall enjoy the guarantees granted by this Constitution, which cannot be restricted or suspended except in such cases and under such conditions as are herein provided.” The Constitution also prohibits all discrimination based on ethnic or national origin, gender, age, disabilities, social conditions, health conditions, religion, opinion, preferences or civil status.

Article 76 of the UN Convention postulates the presentation of reports when a signatory State of the Convention alleges that another State is not fulfilling the obligations arising from it. Given that both Mexico and Nicaragua have ratified this Convention, Nicaragua could present such an allegation, and would find an ally in Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights. And it would have a long list of evidence to present in its report.

“Three days in a cold room for
having entered the United States illegaly”

The US authorities are another bitter draught in the chain of vexations migrants suffer. Felipe Rocha, age 24, from Chinandega, remembers his experience: “I went to the United States all alone. I got into that country and spent a day just walking. But then migration nabbed me. They took my shoes and threw them away. They asked me where I was from, said I shouldn’t lie and that if I did it would go worse for me. I told them I was from Nicaragua. They stuck me in a cold room. The punishment they give you is three days there. They let me out from five in the evening until five in the morning. Under investigation every day. They sent me to Court in the United States. The judge told me the punishment for having entered the United States illegally is three days, but that since I had already done three days, I could go back to my country. So I was happy. ‘You’re going to your country, congratulations!’ they said to me. But when I got to where the Patrol guys were they sent me to a jail for three months, just for having entered the United States without papers.

“I spent those three months unable to communicate with my family. They didn’t know where I was, whether I was dead or not; they thought a thousand things. It’s hard there because of the abuse, the insecurity, the food and the 24 hours a day with strong air conditioning. They are experiences that I don’t think are nice. The whole time they trick you. ‘You’re getting out of here,’ they told me. And they took me to a different jail so I’d feel I was coming to Nicaragua. There you can’t even turn around to look at an officer because they won’t give you any food. When they deported me after three months, an officer on the plane said to me: ‘Don’t turn around and look back or you’ll stay here.’”

José González had a similar experience: “They grabbed me first in the United States and I was deported. They held me 22 days. I demanded that they send me in a plane since it was a provisional detention and they grabbed me on the US border. They were able to keep me 22 days. They had me detained and under pressure because they locked us in, and as we were only two Nicaraguans they saw us as terrorists and had us under investigation.”

In the United States:
Arbitrary and summary processes

Pedro Linares complains of having been separated from his family and of the impossibility of an orderly legal process: “I’ve been living in the United States for 22 years and they have violated my rights. They deported me without giving me a chance to see a judge, leaving my whole family there. I’m a father and a husband; I have a home there.” In Pedro’s case article 19.2 of the UN Convention was violated: “Humanitarian considerations related to the status of a migrant worker, in particular with respect to his or her right of residence or work, should be taken into account in imposing a sentence for a criminal offence committed by a migrant worker or a member of his or her family.”

He, Felipe and José suffered the violation of article 16.6: “Migrant workers and members of their families who are arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release….” But the United Status is not a signatory of the Convention, so claims may not be based on this article. For over a decade, but particularly since 9-11, US migratory policies have expressed a determination to build physical and ideological dykes against migratory population flows. The few judicial processes against migrants worthy of that name are increasingly summary and arbitrary. Migration judges make the majority of rulings within ten minutes after taking a quick glance at the suspect’s file. The expulsion of citizens and residents, the annulment of citizenship or residency and the separation of the families of undocumented migrants who have lived in the United States for years are daily violations. (See the envío issues of April and May 2009.)

Although the UN Convention doesn’t apply in US territory, the Nicaraguan State has an opportunity to establish alliances with activist groups and associations such as the We Are America Alliance, American Immigration Lawyers Association and the New American Opportunity Campaign, which offer legal services and/or lobby on behalf of immigrants. They could help prevent cases of migrants who are sedated so they’ll take their deportation more calmly. While the Jesuit Service for Migrants team hasn’t yet detected any such case, The Washington Post denounced the so-called “pre-flight cocktail” after learning of more than 250 cases of repatriated migrants between 2003 and May 2004 who were injected with sedatives that left them unable to fend for themselves for hours after having returned to their countries of origin, although they did not require medication or an examination by specialists.

“The Consulate in Mexico is disgusting”

To actively seek out these alliances, the Nicaraguan State would have to get over the apathy, arbitrariness, indolence and indifference our interviewees attribute to it. For example, Manuel Reyes complained that the consul in Mexico’s Federal District “never attended to us. And all the people who came on the bus with me—35 people—had called him.” Several migrants from another group in Tapachula who called the Embassy received this comment: “And what did you come from Nicaragua for?”

Ana Cristina Úbeda, a 22-year-old from Magatalpa, said she and others from her group tried to get in touch with the Consulate but “they never answered the phone.” And a migration official told us: “We have asked the Consulate, but they don’t respond. I don’t know what’s going on with your country. They don’t want them. They even told us they’d prefer not to accept them because of that flu.”

Jacinto Rivera, 19, was rather cruder in his views: “I’ll give you my opinion, but I’ll only talk about how disgusting the Nicaraguan consul there is. Because the truth is that he doesn’t give a shit about us. He didn’t even come visit us, while we could see that the Consulates of other countries did send someone. Those from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala arrived often to see how everybody was doing, and there we were like abandoned dogs; we didn’t have anybody. The truth is that the Consulate there is disgusting. We called it once and no one answered. We spent money to get a card to call it and no one ever answered. It’s not the slightest bit interested. In Tapachula they treated us like any old thing. Nobody defended our rights because nobody could defend us there. The only ones watching out for us were the guys from Human Rights.”

Regina Vega, 36, from Leon, corroborates this testimony: “The consul didn’t show up at all. We were always asking him and the truth is that we felt abandoned by him, because the consuls of all the countries, all of them, came several times. They came, they came and they came, and they would always tell us: ‘They don’t ask about you because they don’t want to have you.’ Once we talked to him and he just told us to wait until the vehicle in which we had to return filled up, that he couldn’t do anything else.”

“What use is our diplomatic corps?”

Things don’t go any better for those who come from the United States. José González suffered the “provisional passport” scam: “The Consulate we have in the United States is pure garbage because when I requested my passport and spent $200 dollars on two trips to Houston, they just stole my money. When I had to leave for Mexico, I had to get another provisional passport. I had already paid another $95 so I went to Nicaragua’s Migration and Aliens Dept. only to discover that they never requested it. I ask you, what use is our diplomatic corps? There are people in the United States who have been held for five and six months and the consul never showed up once. You call the Consulate and no one shows up. We Nicaraguans in the United States are suffering because we’re alone. Our diplomatic corps in the United States doesn’t do anything.”

Cándido Reyes, who also migrated to the United States, said he told an official of Nicaragua’s Foreign Ministry, “’Look, I don’t know how you’re going to take what I’m going to tell you, but every one has treated me well except here in Nicaragua. I’ve tried to get help and no one has given it to me.’ I was deported a year ago. I had been living in the United States for 30 years and the government of Nicaragua took away my passport and wouldn’t give it back. I’ve tried to recover it and they haven’t given me any response. They took it away from me in the airport here. I was escorted. Six other Nicaraguans came with me. Migration took me to the second floor and there they took all my fingerprints. I said to one boy, ‘Look, friend, are you going to give me my documents?’ And he said, ‘You have no business giving any orders around here, so you’d better get out of here now.’ I brought my passport and my residence card from there, and they took it all away from me. It really hurt me. I was in the Foreign Ministry asking about it. I went to Caritas Nicaragua. I even went to a human rights organization.”

Why not a Consulate
of the CA-4 countries?

The right to consular protection is recognized in Nicaraguan legislation but ignored in practice. The Department of the Consulate General and the Department of Protection to Nationals have a lead role in guaranteeing respect for the person and property of national and foreign deportees, according to article 63 of the regulations for Law 290, which assigns the latter department the mission of “providing attention and advice to foreign service officials on providing protection to nationals as well as legal advice in cases in which it is presumed that their human rights have been or are being violated.”

That protection is included in article 23 of the UN Convention as well. But the Nicaraguan State’s financial difficulties put fulfillment of this mission beyond its current capacities. One possible solution worth exploring is the setting up of a single regional Central American Consulate in Tapachula and in some key US cities within the framework of the Central American Integration System. It would be a CA-4 Consulate, which could have enough financial resources and trained personnel by combining the efforts of the four States of the isthmus most affected by migrations.

The least visible are
those detained in Managua

Every couple of months the media report on news like this, which appeared on Costa Rica’s nacion.com on August 9, 2009: “The Nicaraguan police held 79 illegal immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Nepal who were abandoned by traffickers of undocumented migrants in the port of Bluefields, in Nicaragua’s south Caribbean region. It is assumed that they brought them from Colombia to San Andrés Island and then to Bluefields, Nicaragua’s main South Caribbean port, ‘from where they would continue their trip to the United States in search of the American dream,’ Deputy Commissioner Rolando Coulson, one of the police chiefs in the zone, told the press. The Colombian island of San Andrés, situated off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, is used as a liaison point for transferring undocumented migrants to the United States, but many are swindled and abandoned in Nicaragua’s Caribbean cities, according to authorities.”

These migrants are sent to the Migrant Detention Center located in the central headquarters of the General Migration and Aliens Division in Managua. Why do they come? What are their dreams? The dust of what countries do they bring in their sandals? They dust of how many countries have they already shaken out? What collective history propels them? So many questions, so much ignorance… So much to learn, to understand, to feel. How can we attend to these migrants if we know virtually nothing about them? Doesn’t the UN Convention include the right to have their own culture known and to be treated in keeping with it? Are there political situations that could be shown to attenuate the condition of being an irregular migrant?

The most undocumented of all
are those without a country

The majority of those we interviewed in Managua’s Detention Center were from Eritrea. They were Eritreans without a country, if such a contradiction makes any sense. “What documents are you carrying?” we asked them. “We don’t have any,” they responded, “because they don’t issue documents for us.” A few added, “There’s no one to issue them.” And still others said, “They don’t want us to leave the country.” Why are there so many people without a country in Eritrea? History offers the answer. The current leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia fought against the criminal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, a despotic cacique supported by the Soviet regime until he was deposed in 1991. Two years later, in 1993, Eritrea began its life as an independent nation. Throughout the previous centuries and decades it was successively considered the property of Arabs, Ottomans, Italians, British and Ethiopians.

Its formal separation from Ethiopia finally occurred peacefully, following a referendum in which all those with Eritrean citizenship opted for independence. But access to ports, the change of hard currency and undefined borders led to new armed conflicts between the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998, resulting in thousands buried or banished. More than a million people had to leave their villages and trek to zones less exposed to military confrontations. Between 120,000 and 500,000 people of Eritrean or mixed origin were still living in Ethiopia that year.

Arguing that by voting in the referendum these people had acquired Eritrean citizenship, the Ethiopian government denationalized and deported them in August of the next year, calling them “a threat to the security of Ethiopia.” First it asked all people who voted in the referendum to register to obtain residency permits as foreigners. Tens of thousands fell into the trap: their identity documents were destroyed, their bank accounts frozen, their com¬mercial licenses revoked and they were not allowed to deal with their belongings before being deported, although many were detained for weeks and months in the police stations before they were herded onto buses that left them on the border with Eritrea. But the Eritrean government was unwilling to recognize all those recent arrivals as citizens, particularly if they were poor. They were caught in the limbo of non-nationality, people without a country. Now they are fleeing from a militarized society that only wants them as cannon fodder in a military service of undefined duration.

Nicaragua could do a lot for these men and women. For example, it could allow the Muslim women to be interrogated in their husband’s company, as part of the right to be treated in harmony with their own culture. But most important would be to welcome them, give them the permission to stay granted in article 22.7 of the UN Convention: “Without prejudice to the execution of a decision of expulsion, a migrant worker or a member of his or her family who is subject to such a decision may seek entry into a State other than his or her State of origin.” Nicaragua could open its doors to these and many other people passing through our country on their way from China, Nepal, Somalia, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia...

Why is Nicaragua
not a sanctuary country?

Deportations connect us to the world: hundreds of migrants whose cultures we don’t know pass through Nicaragua. Will we begin to see them as a challenge, a threat or an opportunity for cultural enrichment and an exercise of solidarity? Their presence, their history and their customs give us an idea of the enormous dimensions of our ignorance of the vast and alien world in which we live. They show us the scope but also the limits of globalization.

The three observation points where we listened to migrants—the San Carlos shelter, the Guasaule border post and the Managua detention center—showed us many lessons and challenges. These are the most vital ones:

— The fate of an emigrant with documents and one with none at all is very different. The problems of being undocumented are at the root of the abuse many migrants received. Providing its citizens documents is a responsibility of the Nicaraguan State. It can and must do something about this with extreme urgency. The negligence, delays or reluctance of the Supreme Electoral Council to issue documents violates article 8 of the UN Convention because it prevents people from leaving their country of origin in a regular condition and condemns them to greater dangers in transit and barriers to their insertion in the societies of destination.

— The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migratory Workers and Members of Their Families is an underutilized instrument. It not only generates obligations—which is all to the good—but also opens the doors to lawsuits by the book. The corresponding claims need to be made to Mexico, a signatory of that Convention. This legal adventure requires making common cause with other Central American States. Deportations bond us: “eternally undocumented” and “Jack-of-all-trade” Central Americans all suffer equally in Costa Rica, Mexico, United States, Spain and other destinations.

— Once again, Nicaragua is linked to Africa thanks to another sideways blow of the world system. Previously the slavery promoted by the Spanish and British empires turned us into the destination of forced migrations. Now migrations have made us a transit route of Africans escaping warlords, failed states and wars of all against all, that state of collapse where, as José Saramago wrote, the weapons are white and the dead are black.

What is to be done? Nicaragua could become a sanctuary country for these migrants in transit. There are sanctuary counties and sanctuary cities in the United States, where local legislation does not echo the federal and state persecution of undocumented migrants. San Francisco, Salinas and New York are sanctuary cities. Why not make Nicaragua a sanctuary country for migrants in transit?

José Luis Rocha is a researcher with the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

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