TULTITLAN, Mexico — About 200 impoverished and undocumented migrants recently packed into a small building in this ramshackle town 20 miles north of Mexico City.
Nearly all were from Honduras and headed for the U.S. border. Almost none spoke a word in the shelter’s dark main room, where the only thing thicker than the smell of unwashed clothes was a sense of fear.
“Yeah, I’m scared,” said Victor Caseres, 26, who had traveled 750 miles by hopping freight trains to arrive at the shelter, one of more than a dozen run by the Catholic Church in Mexico to provide refuge for migrants.
“Everything’s been all right so far, but going forward, I’m afraid. Sometimes criminal guys hop on the train, and they’ll rob you or kill you.”
Migrants in search of jobs in the U.S. face a gantlet of life-or-death risks in their treks across Mexico from its southern border: Many fall prey to extortion, kidnapping, rape and killing by crooked police and criminal gangs.
It’s a harsh reality that increasingly has undermined efforts by Mexican political leaders to reform their nation’s immigration laws in response to criticism from the international community.
Relief workers say violence against migrants is particularly common along popular transit routes in eastern Mexico, vast stretches of which are controlled by the ruthless Los Zetas drug cartel.
The Zetas make a steady side business in kidnapping migrants, targeting those with relatives already based in the United States who can pay ransoms.
Migrants are killed for refusing to join the cartel or carry drugs across the U.S. border.
Such was the case in August 2010, when the bodies of 72 slain Central and South Americans turned up in a field in northeastern Mexico, about 100 miles south of McAllen, Texas.
Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission followed the incident with a report citing the abductions of more than 11,300 migrants in a six-month period in 2010.
The Rev. Pedro Pantoja, a Catholic priest who runs a shelter for migrants in Saltillo, capital of the northeastern state of Coahuila, says the situation hasn’t improved since then.
“The Zetas have free reign to operate with impunity in Coahuila,” Father Pantoja said. “There’s always a presence of organized crime throughout the movement of migrants.
“They dominate the highways and transport vehicles. They follow the migrants on trains.”
What’s worse, Father Pantoja said, is that “they’ve completely infiltrated the police in Coahuila.”
He told of one incident in which a migrant arrived at the Saltillo shelter claiming to have narrowly escaped a kidnapping.
Shelter organizers initially were unfazed. But nerves went on edge when the migrant pointed to a federal police car parked near the shelter and said the man who had tried to kidnap him was sitting in the front seat.
Mexico’s leaders have long denounced the U.S. for harsh treatment of Mexicans living north of the border.
Arizona’s immigration law, which was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, drew particularly fierce criticism from President Felipe Calderon upon its enactment in 2010.
Until recently, however, Mexico’s own immigration laws were among the most draconian on the planet, allowing for felony charges against anyone found to be in the country illegally.
Analysts say Mexico’s laws created the pretext for local authorities to prey on Central Americans. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, police made a custom of threatening felony charges if migrants refused to pay bribes.
The law’s strictness also undercut Mexicans’ criticism of U.S. immigration policy.
“As the Mexican government began calling attention to the protection of human rights of Mexicans in the United States, calling on the U.S. government to issue more visas to Mexicans and to establish a guest worker program for Mexicans, the Mexican government found itself being accused of failing to grant foreigners in Mexico the same civil rights and workplace protections,” says a 2011 report by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.
Laura Gonzalez-Murphy, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany who co-wrote the report, says such factors served as motivation for sweeping immigration law changes embraced by the Mexican government during recent years.
In 2008, Mexican lawmakers eliminated the felony charge that could be filed against anyone passing through Mexico without documents.
The change was driven in part by a desire to gain leverage in the discourse with Washington and in part by a legitimate determination to improve the treatment of illegal immigrants passing through the country, Ms. Gonzalez-Murphy said.
Lawmakers went a step further in June by granting undocumented Central American migrants access to due process rights — effectively the same legal protections they have if they make it to the United States.
On paper, the changes are sweeping. Their implementation is a different story.
Bureaucratic bungling and political bickering have prevented enactment of regulations that “will give teeth to the new law,” Ms. Gonzalez-Murphy said.
“The result is this double morality,” she said. “On the one hand, you’ve got this vision of a new policy. But on the other, you’ve got what’s really happening.”
‘Deeper and more productive’
David Angel Fonseca, a legislative adviser to the Mexican Senate who has worked to implement the new law, added that “maybe you have a new law, but right now it’s not working.”
Mexico’s attempted reforms, meanwhile, have gone almost entirely unnoticed in Washington, where State Department officials declined to comment on the specific changes in the law.
A State Department spokesman instead offered broad praise for Mr. Calderon, saying the U.S.-Mexico relationship “has grown deeper and more productive” during his tenure.
“We have strong cooperation on a wide range of issues, including immigration,” said William Ostick, a spokesman for the department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. “We are now more committed than ever to closely collaborating as partners to achieve security and prosperity for citizens of both of our countries.”
Mr. Calderon’s six-year war on drug cartels and organized crime has involved vigorous attempts to weed corruption from the nation’s law enforcement ranks.
The effort has yielded arguable success at the national level. The minting of a new federal police force has involved the careful vetting and training of thousands of fresh officers.
But progress has been more illusive at the state and local levels. The number of new officers needed is simply overwhelming in some cities and rural areas, where collusion between police and criminals remains widespread.
Preying on the shelter
Fifty exhausted migrants lingered outside the shelter in Tultitlan earlier this month.
A Tex-Mex music band belted out ballads at one end of the street, while a freight train rumbled slowly past the other.
Police cruisers and age-worn American pickups circled the block every few minutes, while three tough-looking, albeit neatly dressed, young Mexican men watched from beneath the archway of a snack bar.
Down the street, a longtime neighborhood resident nodded discreetly in the direction of the three men. “You see those guys over there?” he said. “Those three are ‘polleros.’”
Migrants are often called “pollos,” or “chickens,” and the gangsters who sweep in to “help” them are “polleros,” a term used for men who raise chickens.
A pollero might promise safe passage all the way across the U.S. border for $3,000. If the migrant can’t pay, he may be more likely to fall prey to kidnappers along the route.
“The polleros are all over this neighborhood and they prey on the shelter,” said the resident, who asked that his name not be used. “The government is basically committing a crime by permitting this stuff to go on.”
Others take an even more conspiratorial view, arguing that the Mexican state is facilitating attacks on migrants intentionally to curry favor with U.S. policymakers.
“Mexico says to the U.S., ‘Hey, we’d like for you to give good treatment to Mexican immigrants in the United States, and if Central American migration is an inconvenience for you, we’ll take care of it,’” Father Pantoja said.
“This amounts to doing the dirty work for the United States,” he said. “As a result, the wall is not really on the Rio Grande River. The wall is much farther south.”
‘Always full here’
Attempts to pin an accurate figure on the number of Central Americans sneaking into Mexico during recent years have been complicated by increased lawlessness along the nation’s 750-mile southern border with Guatemala and Belize.
While it may be impossible to prove, Mexican authorities estimate that 171,000 migrants cross the jungle-thick border each year.
Mexico’s National Migration Institute detained more than 66,000 migrants during transit through the country in 2011, according to a report issued this month by the Washington Office on Latin America.
The report cited a significant drop in the flow of U.S.-bound Central American migrants from about 433,000 in 2005 to roughly 140,000 in 2010 because of decreased employment in the United States and rising insecurity in Mexico.
Statistics by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security show that the number of illegal immigrants captured while attempting to cross the U.S. border also declined sharply in the latter half of the past decade.
The number of Border Patrol apprehensions, a generally accepted barometer for illegal immigration into the United States, plummeted from 1,189,000 in 2005 to fewer than 465,000 in 2010.
A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, meanwhile, asserted that the net number of Mexicans immigrating to the United States — legally or illegally — has fallen to zero. From 2005 to 2011, about 1.4 million Mexican immigrants entered the U.S. and a similar number of Mexican nationals and their children left the country, the Pew study says.
Recent evidence, however, suggests that the number of Central Americans heading north is rebounding and may even be surging.
The Mexico City newspaper La Jornada last week cited interviews with relief workers at Catholic Church-run migrant shelters throughout southern and eastern Mexico in a report that says the number of Central Americans heading north has increased by 100 percent in recent weeks.
The same assertion was echoed by workers at the shelter in Tultitlan. “It’s always full here,” said Jasimine Reza, a coordinator at the shelter. “Every night.”
The shelter has enough mats to sleep 196 people, but often serves food to as many as 300.
“Ninety percent come from Honduras, the other 10 percent are split between El Salvador and Guatemala,” Ms. Resa said.
Each is allowed to stay a single night, then must move on to make room for the next ones. “All of them are headed to the United States,” she said.
Victor Caseres said he left his hometown of Cortes, Honduras, because “there was just no way for me to make enough money there to support my family.”
Mr. Caseres squinted as he stood outside the shelter. It was hard to tell whether he was trying to block out the bright sun overhead, or hold back tears as he spoke of a 7-year-old son he left behind in Honduras.
“My hope is to be able to send back money,” he said.