Every year, tens of thousands of migrants pass through Mexico on their journey north towards the United States. These migrants, many of whom are refugees fleeing violence in their home countries, are in an extremely vulnerable position. Because of this, they are routinely preyed upon by both criminal organizations and corrupt government officials in Mexico. Even when migrants or their families decide to report a crime, they confront a justice system incapable of properly investigating and holding the perpetrators responsible.
Fortunately, this situation may be changing. On December 18, 2015, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) formally established two bodies to investigate crimes committed against or by migrants in Mexico, as well as cases of Mexicans who have disappeared in other countries. The Unit for the Investigation of Crimes for Migrants (Unidad de Investigación de Delitos para Personas Migrantes, the “Unit”) and the Mechanism for Mexican Foreign Support in the Search and Investigation (Mecanismo de Apoyo Exterior Mexicano de Búsqueda e Investigación, the “Mechanism”) are important achievements of families, groups of migrants, and civil society organizations from Mexico and Central America.
For years, civil society has advocated for the establishment of transnational justice institutions and coordination mechanisms that correspond to the scale and magnitude of violence and crimes against migrants in transit through Mexico. These bodies underscore the need for authorities to respond to the needs of victims and families, regardless of the country where the crimes are perpetrated and the nationality of the victims.
The Importance of Expanding Access to Justice
Over the past years, the flow of migrants in transit in Mexico has increased in a context of escalating crime and violence in the country. High-profile cases, as well as official statistics, provide only a partial account of the numerous crimes committed against migrants in recent years. This includes the massacre of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in August 2010; the discovery of the remains of 193 other migrants found in approximately 50 mass graves between April and June 2011 in Tamaulipas; and the mass graves discovered in Nuevo León in May 2012 containing 49 torsos, some of which have been confirmed to belong to migrants.
According to Mexico’s National Registry of Disappeared and Missing Persons (Registro Nacional de Datos de Personas Extraviadas o Desaparecidas, RNPED) there are at least 175 disappeared migrants in Mexico; and Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) reported over 21,000 migrant victims of kidnapping between 2008 and 2010.
Additionally, as illustrated in the joint report produced by WOLA together with eight Mexican human rights organizations and migrant shelters, An Uncertain Path: Justice for Crimes and Human Rights Violations against Migrants and Refugees in Mexico, local organizations and shelters continue to document hundreds of cases of crimes and human rights violations against migrants, including kidnappings, assault, extortion, robbery, and torture.
Given this context, the new bodies in the PGR represent a step toward fulfilling Mexico’s international obligations to protect migrants and ensure access to justice.
The Investigative Role of the Unit
The Unit for the Investigation of Crimes for Migrants is a new body within the PGR’s Office for Human Rights. The Unit is led by federal prosecutor Leonor de Jesús Figueroa Jácome, who has full authority to investigate and prosecute federal crimes involving migrants.
Concretely, the Unit is charged with investigating federal crimes committed against and/or by migrants in Mexico, searching for migrants who have disappeared, ensuring respect for victims’ rights, and coordinating with foreign authorities and requesting international legal assistance when necessary. The Unit can also assert jurisdiction over local crimes provided that: 1) the crimes fall under federal law; 2) the victim or perpetrator of the crime is a migrant; and 3) the penalty for the crime in question is imprisonment.
Ideally, the Unit will not only lead to increased federal prosecutions for crimes against migrants, but also coordinate with the special prosecutors’ offices for crimes against migrants that have been established in seven Mexican states. To date, these special offices have been ineffective at investigating and prosecuting the majority of crimes reported.
Coordination Through the Mechanism
The Mechanism for Mexican Foreign Support in the Search and Investigation of crimes against migrants is tasked with carrying out a series of measures “to ensure access to justice for migrants who are victims of crime and human rights violations and their families that are in another country and who cannot directly access prosecutorial authorities in Mexico.” The Mechanism allows victims and migrants’ families who are based in other countries, primarily the United States and Central America, to approach Mexican legal authorities without having to travel to Mexico. This can range from reporting a crime; requesting the search of a person; filing or requesting evidence in investigative and legal proceedings; requesting participation in a criminal proceeding (coadyuvancia); obtaining access to reparations; and ensuring the respect of the defendant’s rights (for example, the appointment of a public defender).
The ability to approach Mexican legal authorities outside of Mexico is important not only given the limited economic means of some families, but also because of the transnational nature and investigative needs of many crimes against migrants. For instance, in many cases of migrant kidnappings in Mexico, the family members being extorted for ransom are based in the United States (or in Central America). Through the Mechanism, these families have the opportunity to approach PGR authorities based abroad to report this crime and provide them with information to facilitate an investigation into those responsible.
The new PGR Unit will lead the enforcement of the Mechanism, primarily in liaison with the PGR’s Coordination of International Affairs and Attaché Offices around the globe. To date, the PGR has six legal Attaché Offices (DC, Guatemala City, Madrid, Vienna, Los Angeles, and Bogota); four regional Attaché Offices (Los Angeles, San Antonio, San Diego, and El Paso), three liaison offices (Riverside, Brownsville, and Phoenix), a temporary liaison office in Washington, DC and an Intelligence Center in El Paso, Texas. Apart from the legal Attachés at the embassies, it is unclear whether the PGR’s other offices will assist migrants’ families and/or victims.
Given the shortcomings of Mexico’s judicial system and the country’s weak investigative capacity, the Unit and the Mechanism in and of themselves will not mean that cases involving migrants will suddenly be effectively prosecuted; however, they do force the PGR to guarantee that these new bodies do not put at risk or obstruct ongoing investigations and to properly train staff to carry out the investigations. Notably, the Unit must also produce reliable and detailed statistics on crimes against migrants.
Stakes are high for the Mechanism and the Unit to become fully functional. These institutions represent a unique opportunity to bring justice closer to migrants and their families and to ease the excessive burden they currently face to pursue the investigation of crimes. Mexico has prided itself on their creation before international and regional bodies. Now the country must demonstrate genuine will and prioritize their implementation, providing the human and financial resources necessary and guaranteeing the full participation of civil society. Otherwise, these new institutions will only add to the many incomplete justice reforms undertaken by Mexico that, in practice, deepen the gap between the law and the reality of the justice system in the country.