Forced internal displacement in Mexico

By Abril Ríos

Internally displaced Mexican family in Fuentes del Valle, an informal community area without electricity, running water, or sewer lines.

The notion of displacement

For centuries, processes of armed conflict and generalized violence have taken place in several regions of the world. Such processes, have impacted the lives of uncountable persons in different ways. Forced human migration is one of them, a form of migration that has been identified as forced displacement.

Forced displacement usually occurs within the borders of conflict affected nation-sates (IDMC 2015a, 2015b; Cosgrave, Crawford and Mosel 2015). Hence, in conflict and generalized violence situations, most of the affected populations fleeing from violence do not cross internationally recognized borders. They are forced into a situation of internal displacement.

Internal displacement has been overlooked by governments as well as national and international organizations that have commonly focused their attention on international displacement and refugee issues. Nonetheless, internal displacement cases around the globe, double those of refugees (IDMC 2016).

[D]espite the fact that internally displaced persons are often forced to leave their homes and, thus, find themselves in refugee-like situations, refugee law is not directly applicable to them as international law defines refugees as persons who have fled across international borders and are in need of international protection by virtue of their being abroad and having no access to protection provided by the authorities of their own country of origin. Kälin (2008: 7-8).

That means that internally displaced persons (IDPs) fall under the national ‘protection’ provided by the authorities of their countries of origin. Which, in many cases are related to the conflict conditions that generated their forced mobilization in the first place.

Internal displacement involves numerous dangers and marginalizing positions. Yet, individual and contextual differences entail distinct levels of risks and consequences. Correspondingly, historically marginalized societies, such as regions in the global South, have been more harshly impacted by forced displacement dynamics. That is the case of Latin America.

Forced displacement in Latin America

According to the IDMC (2015b: 16), in the Americas, forced displacement cases account for at least 7 million, spread in Peru, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Nonetheless, “there is good reason to believe that much of displacement has not been documented” (IDMC 2015b: 18).

Especially in the last decade, forced displacement in the Americas has been associated with political strategies of ‘war on drugs’, drug cartels’ operations, and the proliferation of smaller criminal groups. Yet, government repression, religious intolerance, constructions of damns, heavy oil extraction, natural disasters, amongst others, have also generated the forced mobilization of numerous communities. An interesting example of such processes in Latin America is the case of forced displacement in Mexico.

Forced internal displacement: A Mexican reality

Since the administration of former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), the declared war on drugs has brought numerous deaths and material losses that have occasioned a dramatic increase of forced displacement. Some figures indicate that as a consequence of the war on drugs, at least one million 600 thousand people have been displaced (Díaz 2011).

The CMDPDH (2014) informs that insecurity and authorities’ struggles against drug cartels are not new issues in Mexico. However, there are three recent factors that contribute to the intensification of violence: firstly, the security strategy set by Calderon’s administration, based on a politics of open confrontation. Secondly, the intensification of fights for drug distribution routes between cartels. Finally, both the security strategy and the dispute between the cartels caused the fragmentation of the latter, resulting in the proliferation of smaller criminal groups with internal divisions. Currently, these groups fight each other for the control of territories throughout the country. While the largest cartels maintain control of transnational drug trafficking. These new smaller players focus their activity in other criminal offenses such as extortion, charging “floor fees” (illegal protection), kidnapping, and drug distribution.

This is not the first time Mexico lives an unnamed war. In the 1960s up until the 1980s, the Dirty War in Mexico was developed through Mexican State actions to stop popular insurrection. Military institutions of administration of justice were used as criminal structures that aggravated wide sectors of the population (Morales 2010). The Dirty war impacts and consequences are still experienced by many of its victims who still claim for justice.

According to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR 2016, 46) report on HR in Mexico, the current crisis of HR violations is “in part a consequence of the impunity that has persisted since the “dirty war” and that has contributed to its repetition up to the present.”.

Mexico’s situation of violence has reached “intolerable” levels according to UN Special Rapporteur, Christof Heyns who “found an ‘alarmingly high rate’ of violations to the right to life, generalized impunity for the ‘widespread’ executions committed by both state and non-state actors in the country” (Centro Prodh 2014, 3). The so-called “war on drugs” has accentuated this crisis, leading to alarming levels of violence, “including the subsequent loss of more than 100,000 human lives, thousands of disappearances, and a context that has caused the displacement of thousands of people in the country.” (IACHR 2015, 11).

Mis-recognition of forced internal displacement in Mexico

The Mexican General Law of Victims mentions IDPs as persons in need of protection (Diario Oficial de la Federación 2015). Yet, IDPs are not differentiated from other victims of violence. The condition of displacement is not recognized in Mexico; internal displacement is not considered a problem of national concern nor an issue for which international assistance is needed.

Governmental actions and programs do not fulfil the needs nor ensure rights compliance of displaced persons in Mexico. In face of this, mainly CSOs, national and international NGOs, shelters and other organizations are the entities covering the needs of protection, housing, education, health and other services and needs of IDPs. However, they are unable to cover all the needs of these populations. A situation that exacerbates the already vulnerable conditions of IDPs.

Notwithstanding, displacement has gained momentum in the last years. In fact, there are more services, programs as well as NGOs and CSOs working on international migration issues. Yet, internal forced displacement and returns of Mexican migrants has received less attention. About this, CSOs and shelters’ workers, mention that displaced persons require specific programs that provide conditions of security and protection, services that existing organizations have not been able to provide.

Undoubtedly, forced internal displacement is a multilayered problem that requires the active participation of civil society, academic centers, stakeholders, as well as international community. In an attempt to contribute to the solution of this wide problem, some practical recommendations are suggested to tackle internal displacement in Mexico and develop integral interventions to benefit IDPs:

  1. Recognise internal displacement as an issue of national concern.
  2. Revise the processes of access to justice for victims of displacement. Identify gaps, and design and implement programs to ensure human rights compliance.
  3. Provide integral attention to IDPs, including:
  • Psychological support sensitisation programs aimed at hosting communities to promote holistic integration
  • Intercultural education
  • Ensure access to welfare services

Mexico’s situation of gross violations of HR, including the right to life and not to be displaced is alarming. This situation requires urgent attention as well as holistic and integral actions.


About the author:

Abril Ríos is a researcher and practitioner on migration, gender, human rights issues and intercultural studies. She has practical experience in in Uganda, Sudan, Greece and Mexico. She also coordinates talks about forced migrations and gender based violence in Europe and Africa. She likes dancing, playing music and travelling in her spare time. Follow Abril on Twitter @abrilriosrivera

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Human Nations and any of its campaigns and projects.

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