Mexico steps up 'hunt' for US-bound migrants

Carola Sole
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Migrants are seen on a train in the Salto del Agua community in Palenque, Chiapas state in Mexico

Migrants are seen on a train in the Salto del Agua community in Palenque, Chiapas state in Mexico (AFP Photo/Alfredo Estrella)

Palenque (Mexico) (AFP) - The 35-year-old Honduran farmer shows the scar on his forehead where he says a Mexican migration officer fired a stun gun when he tried to escape a major dragnet.

While Wilmart avoided deportation, a rising number of undocumented Central American migrants are being rounded up in a crackdown launched a year ago following a surge of unaccompanied children reaching the United States.

Mexican authorities are chasing migrants in the middle of streets near the southern border with Guatemala or conducting raids in the dead of night on "The Beast," a freight train they use to travel across the vast nation.

Wilmart only got away because residents of Palenque, a town in Chiapas state, took out their smartphones to film the agents who were kicking him and a complaint was made to the authorities.

"They almost asphyxiated me. They shot me a lot with that (stun) gun. At the end, I couldn't walk. They threw me to the ground and savagely beat me," the curly-haired migrant, who declined to give his last name, said as he waited for a humanitarian visa following his ordeal.

He is not the only migrant to claim a Taser was used against him by migration agents.

Jose Adan Martinez, a 20-year-old Honduran, said a stun gun was used to get him off The Beast, though he did not file a complaint out of fear of reprisals.

"We have had several direct testimonies in recent months on the use of stun guns to detain migrants," said Ruben Figueroa, an activist at the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, a non-governmental organization.

The National Migration Institute denies that its agents use stun guns.

But several international NGOs have voiced concern about rough tactics being employed in the the Frontera Sur (Southern Frontier) operation, which includes the deployment of 5,000 agents and checkpoints set up in the wake of last year's migrant crisis in the United States.

- Detentions, deportations surge -

Mexican authorities have captured nearly 58,000 migrants -- most from Central America -- in the first four months of this year, an 83 percent increase from the same period last year, according to government figures.

Deportations have also surged 79 percent from 28,736 between January and April 2014 to 51,565 in the same period this year.

In addition to raids in hotels, buses and even hospitals, authorities are trying to take away a major form of transport by preventing migrants from boarding cargo trains.

Around midnight on Saturday, migration and police officers backed by men in civilian clothes stopped a train carrying some 30 migrants near Palenque.

"Get down! Get down," the officers shouted as they grabbed people by the arm with force and bundled them into vans dubbed "dogcatcher vans," without asking for their identifications.

As AFP reporters videotaped the operation, the agents put away their retractable truncheons, told the migrants to "carefully" board the vehicles and did not chase those who escaped into the bushes.

"It's never like that. They chase them and take them away violently," said Alejandro Fernandez, who has witnessed several operations from his home near the tracks.

- Pray the 'migra' doesn't catch us -

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed "concern" this month over the actions taken by the authorities.

Recently, a "Caravan of Migrants" that crossed the country during Holy Week with activists and undocumented Central Americans to demand that the government drop the Frontera Sur operation said several of them were detained during their trip.

In Tenosique, southern Tabasco state, officials in El Salvador's consulate voiced shock at reports that two Salvadoran and one Guatemalan migrants suffered bullet wounds in an attack by local police in the town of Macuspana.

"It's a hunt for migrants. We all see that this plan consists in catching migrants so that they don't get to the United States," said sister Nelly, a nun who founded a migrant shelter in Palenque.

The crackdown has forced the migrants who flee violence and poverty in Central America to find new routes in long treks by foot that expose them even more to the dangers of thefts, kidnappings and rapes by organized crime groups.

The arduous trip leaves many with blistered and bandaged feet, such as Luis Rivera, 24, who walked 116 kilometers (72 miles) in two days after leaving San Pedro Sula, Honduras, considered the world's murder capital.

"We pray to God that the 'migra' (border police) doesn't catch us and deport us," Rivera said, with sweat dripping down his face.