Photos of the trains known as "La Bestia" (“the beast”) have become famous around the world, showing young migrants crowded on top of boxcars, riding the rails from the Guatemala border to near the United States. It's a slow train, but many boys and girls have lost arms and legs trying to get on or off, and wind up living in limbo in the Casas de Migrantes—the hostels run by the Catholic Church and other migrant rights activists throughout Mexico.
Last week, as judges heard testimony on migration at the Permanent People's Tribunal in Mexico City, interior secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told the press that the speed of the trains would be doubled.
Osorio Chong said Mexico would require the companies operating the trains—a partnership between mining giant Grupo Mexico and the U.S. corporation Kansas Southern—to hike their speed to make it harder for the migrants.
In the Tribunal, young people, giving only their first names out of fear, said they would see many more severed limbs and deaths as a result, but that it wouldn't stop people from coming. Armed gangs regularly rob the migrants, they charged, and young people get beaten and raped. If they're willing to face this, they'll try to get on the trains no matter how fast they go.
"Mexico is a hell for migrants already," fumed Father Pedro Pantoja, who organized a Casa de Migrantes in Saltillo.
Outrage wasn't limited to the Tribunal hearings. Former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, now the head of one of Mexico's left parties, the Movement for National Renovation, asked, "How can the government keep them from freely moving through Mexico, when they're trying to stay alive, and find work so their families survive?" If Osorio Chong really wanted to reduce migration, he told La Jornada, Mexico's leftwing daily, "he'd support the farmers, so that people have work and don't have to leave to seek life on the other side of the border."
The Tribunal hearings offered an insight into the way the Mexican left sees migration to the United States and Canada. But the Tribunal itself is an international institution based in Rome. It was first organized by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell to investigate U.S. war crimes during the Vietnam War. Since then it has held hearings about the violations of human rights during the "dirty wars" under the military dictatorships in Latin America, as well as in the Philippines, El Salvador, Afghanistan, East Timor, Zaire and Guatemala.
In 2011 the Tribunal announced it would hold hearings in Mexico on a wide spectrum of issues, including attacks on unions, farmers, the environment and women. Of them, the hearings on migration have been the most extensive, including three pre-hearings in Mexico, three in the United States, and a weeklong debate at the national autonomous university (UNAM).
Bishop Raul Vera declared at their start, "We are experiencing the breakdown of the social order and the militarization of the fight against drugs [and] actions imposed by a state whose leaders are full of ambition, where it is not political proposals that count, but business and theft."
In August of 2010 seventy-two migrants were found massacred outside San Fernando, a small town in northern Mexico. The following April 193 bodies of migrants were discovered in forty-seven graves. Many were Central Americans, but others were Mexicans. In May of 2012 another forty-nine graves were found.
While the perpetrators of these crimes were, according to Tribunal testimony, members of drug cartels and their paramilitaries, the accusation submitted to the judges charged the Mexican government was ultimately responsible.
"All these acts are the predictable and preventable result of its policies and actions," declared Mexican academic Camilo Perez at the hearing's start.
Not only did the government fail to protect migrants, knowing that they were being kidnapped regularly for extortion, but it did not recognize their right to migrate at all, treating them instead as criminals
Raul Ramirez Baena, Baja California's former human rights prosecutor, testified by Skype that U.S. border enforcement policies were also linked to violence against migrants south of the border.
"U.S. border enforcement really got going when NAFTA took effect in 1994," he explained, "and national security became a major justification, even extending U.S. authorities' reach to Guatemala. At the same time, it established a policy of deportation, which made the problems of poverty and gangs here worse. Then Mexican government militarized the Mexican side, using the war on drugs as a pretext. The killings and kidnappings in northern Mexico are a consequence of this joint policy."
The increase in migration from both Central America and Mexico has been phenomenal.
Today there is no town in Mexico so isolated that people haven't left for the United States, and dollars now flow to every hamlet from those working in the north.
According to Ana Alicia Peña Lopez, an economist at UNAM, "Mexicans and Central Americans are forced to leave home because of their precarious economic and social conditions. These are the product of neoliberal reforms, especially the free trade treaties implemented in Mexico and the rest of this region."
Peña Lopez listed several changes in migration in the free trade era -- most important, its massive size. In 1990 4.4 million Mexican migrants were living in the United States. At the beginning of the economic crisis in 2007 it was 11.9 million and in 2013 it was still 11.8 million. In other words, jobs in the United States might have been harder to find, but people didn't go home because the conditions causing them to leave hadn't changed. Money sent home by Mexicans reached $27 billion by 2007, even during the crisis.
But, she also noted, migrants now include women, young people, indigenous people and even children. "Employers take advantage of this to lower their labor costs," she charged. "Criminalizing migrants hasn't simply led to the violation of their rights, but has made their labor even cheaper. And Mexico pushed this process, through reforms that lower wages and make jobs less secure, that drive rural communities off the land to enable mining and energy projects, and that put basic services like health and education out of the reach of more and more people."
The Tribunal's report on migration will be presented to another set of judges in November. The tribunal has no power to bring legal charges against the Mexican, U.S. or Canadian governments over human rights crimes. But it can focus international attention on violations, and help progressive jurists to pursue the issues in their own legal systems.
Throughout Latin America, in the wake of military dictatorships and civil wars, truth commissions were established to counter the culture of impunity - that governments can jail and murder people with no consequences for those who give the orders. Mexico has never had such a commission, nor has the United States or Canada. The Tribunal hearings certainly found evidence and witnesses that testify to widespread abuses, and provided an argument for further proceedings with more formal consequences.
To Andres Barreda, another UNAM economist involved in setting up the hearings, the ultimate goal is also to ask Mexicans themselves what direction they choose for their country. "Trade agreements and economic reforms have undermined Mexico's national sovereignty, and led to its economic and political subjugation to the United States," he says. "Mexico has a right to a national economic system that protects sovereignty and autonomy, and therefore places the needs of its people before the profits of corporations and an economic elite. Unless we face this, we can't resolve the situation of migrants, whether our own or those passing through Mexico."
David Bacon, a labor reporter based in California, was one of the judges in the Permanent People’s Tribunal hearing in Mexico City.