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April 2004, Volume 11, Number 2

Mexico: Returns, Politics, Death Row

In February 2004, Mexico and the US agreed that Mexicans apprehended in the US just inside the border could volunteer to be returned to their communities of origin rather than be simply bussed back to the border. The intent is to discourage migrants from making repeated attempts to enter the US. Asa Hutchinson, US undersecretary of border and transportation security, said "If we can move migrants back into the interior, closer to their homes, we can achieve our goal to break the cycle of smuggling."

The US is trying to persuade Mexico to see border control as a humanitarian issue, arguing that if Mexico helped to discourage illegal entries, the lives of migrants who now perish in the desert could be saved. Some say that the test will come in summer 2004. If Mexico helps to reduce illegal entries, the stage may be set for the Bush administration to argue that Mexico-US cooperation can make broader immigration reform work.

In September 2003, the US spent $1.3 million to fly 5,600 Mexicans apprehended in Arizona to Texas border cities and walked them across the border. The Mexican government protested, saying that it wanted "a bilateral agreement on how to discourage illegal migration" rather than unilateral US policy initiatives.

Mexico in March 2004 arrested 44 persons for smuggling, including 32 former officials of the National Immigration Institute, Mexico's border enforcement agency. Those arrested were charged with smuggling Brazilians, Cubans, Central Americans and Asians through Mexico into the United States.

Jaripo, Michoacan, six hours northwest of Mexico City, is a city of nurseries and nursing homes that survives from remittances and the return of migrants from Lathrop, near Stockton, every December-January. A reporter concluded: "Emigration to the United States encourages more people to emigrate, while stunting the region's ability to develop its own economy" because wage expectations are formed by what relatives earn in the US. Jaripo children tend to drop out of school at 15 and head for the US.

Politics. Homemade videos of Mexico City officials stuffing bribes in brief-cases prompted Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leading presidential contender for 2006, to assert that "The fundamental problem of our country -- corruption -- hasn't been solved. . . . As long as there is corruption, we can't get ahead." Millions of Mexicans refuse to pay income and property taxes because of a widespread belief that the money will end up in an official's pocket.

In the aftermath of the bribery videos, Mexico's political parties agreed to reform the financing of parties and elections: Mexico spends $1.2 billion on elections, the most in Latin America, and more than it spends on public safety. Under the proposed reforms, the amount of money given to parties and spent on elections would fall, and Mexicans abroad would gain the right to vote.

President Fox in March 2004 proposed major reforms of the criminal justice system, including the presumption of innocence, public trials with oral evidence, and introducing plea bargaining. The five federal police forces would be combined into one national entity, and police would be given new investigative powers. Under current procedures, people are sometimes arrested on dubious suspicions for minor crimes and held for months without charges; an estimated 80 percent of crimes are not reported because Mexicans have so little faith in the police.

Vienna Convention. Mexico challenged the death sentences of 51 Mexican citizens in eight US states for crimes committed in the US. On the ground that the rights of the Mexicans were not protected under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. That treaty requires arresting officers to allow foreigners to contact their diplomatic representatives. The US became a party to the Convention in 1969; there are 164 signatories.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague agreed with Mexico that, because state and local police and prosecutors did not provide consular access to the Mexicans, those on death row should have the opportunity to reopen and reargue their cases. Mexican lawyers told the court that in the cases when consular protection was provided, life sentences were more likely than death sentences.

In January 2004, there were 122 foreign citizens from 31 countries on death row in the United States. The US government says that it has distributed pocket cards to 700,000 law enforcement officials in 18,000 state and local jurisdictions informing them of suspects' rights to consular access.

Guatemala Border. In 2003, Mexico deported 147,000 illegal immigrants, about 20 percent more than in 2002, with 90 percent from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Many gather in Tecum Uman, and cross the Suchiate river into Mexico from Guatemala.

Many migrants try to board so-called trains of death that travel from the Mexico border city of Tapachula 1,000 miles to Texas-Mexican border. Corrupt police and criminals prey on the migrants; the Mexican Grupo Beta agents try to protect the migrants and warn them of the dangers of riding the trains north.

Hugh Dellios, "Seeking the train of death," Chicago Tribune, March 12, 2004. Sam Quinones, "Emigration brings dollars home but leaves Mexican town behind," San Francisco Chronicle, February 9, 2004. "Mexico's immigration problem" The Economist, January 29, 2004.