21 January 2011 The United Nations human rights chief today voiced deep concern over the fate of a group of about 40 migrants who have been missing since they were abducted in Mexico last month, and death threats to a prominent human rights defender assisting other migrants who escaped the kidnapping ordeal.
“The migrants were abducted in highly questionable circumstances a month ago,” said Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Since then there has been no trace of them, and human rights defenders working with other members of the same group have been repeatedly threatened.”
According to human rights groups following the case and who have been interviewed by staff of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Mexico, on 16 December a group of some 250 migrants from Central America were travelling on a north-bound freight train in the state of Oaxaca, southern Mexico, when it was stopped in a joint operation by police and migration officials who detained 92 of the migrants. Military personnel were also involved, according to some accounts.
An unclear picture has emerged about what happened next, but it seems that around 150 migrants were able to get back on the train, run by the State-owned company Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec, but were then subjected to demands for money by the driver.
Dissatisfied with the sum received, the driver allegedly threatened the migrants – believed to be mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala – with “more problems ahead.”
About half an hour later, the train was reportedly boarded by unidentified gunmen who assaulted and robbed some of the migrants, and then abducted around 40 of them, including at least 10 women and one child.
Two days later, some of those who had escaped managed to reach a migrant shelter called “Hermanos en el Camino” in Ciudad Ixtepec, Oaxaca. The manager of the shelter, Father Alejandro Solalinde, who is a well-known defender of migrants’ rights, informed the authorities and publicly denounced the kidnapping. Since then, he has received multiple death threats, Ms. Pillay said.
Mexico’s interior ministry has announced that investigations are under way, and that the migrants who witnessed the kidnapping have been given humanitarian visas and taken to Mexico City for protection and further interviews.
Ms. Pillay urged the Mexican authorities “to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of the alleged ill-treatment and abuse of the migrants by the Federal Police and the National Institute of Migration staff who conducted the original joint operation, as well as the circumstances surrounding the subsequent abduction of the migrants, and the threats received by Father Solalinde and his colleagues.
“The Mexican authorities need to ascertain whether or not any state officials, including those working for the state-owned train operator, were complicit with the criminal organization that carried out the abductions and extortion, both in this and other cases.”
The High Commissioner said that the human rights of migrants have been drastically deteriorating in Mexico in recent years.
The country, she said, has also been suffering a wider wave of crime and violence, resulting in over 15,200 violent deaths in 2010 alone.
Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have stated that many thousands of transiting migrants have been kidnapped over the past two years, mostly for the purpose of extortion, Ms. Pillay said.
In one of the worst incidents, last August the Mexican Navy discovered 72 corpses, including 14 women, who had allegedly been executed by members of a criminal group. Two government investigators deployed to the scene of the crime were reportedly abducted. Their bodies were found two weeks later.
“In line with its international obligations, the Government of Mexico must make all possible efforts to protect the life and integrity of migrants, in particular women and children,” Ms. Pillay said.
“It should also take the necessary steps to ensure that all state officials working with migrants fully respect their rights, and that human rights defenders like Father Solalinde and police and judicial officials investigating these acts are effectively protected.”
Ms. Pillay said she fully recognized that the Mexican Government is facing a tremendous challenge as it confronts the extremely violent and well-armed organized crime gangs in the country.
“Nevertheless, the protection of migrants, and of the brave and committed people working on their behalf, should not be neglected in the process,” she added.
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