Hours after criminals left six bodies dangling from a bridge and 13 others scattered on the streets of Uruapan, Michoacan, Miguel Martinez Maya, his wife and four children headed for the U.S. border.
The trucker from Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacan, had already been targeted for extortion and didn’t want to become the next victim of out-of-control Mexican criminal gangs. “I transport sawdust from the mills but the people who control the highways wanted $500 a month to ‘protect’ me from robbers and the police. I don’t make that much and I know of other drivers who’ve been picked up and beaten for not paying,” he said.
Martinez Maya this weekend arrived at Juarez’s Migrant Assistance Center to sign up for an appointment for political asylum in the United States. He is part of a new trend: As the number of Central American and Cuban migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. decreases, more Mexicans fleeing drug violence are exploring that avenue of migration.
According to the latest numbers from the Migrant Assistance Center, since the start of August the majority of asylum seekers registering in Juarez for appointments in El Paso are Mexican citizens. On Friday, for instance, 44 of the 47 petitioners were Mexican, two were from Honduras and only one from Cuba. Previously, Cubans made up 80 percent of the asylum seekers in Juarez, followed by Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans.
“We are running into Mexican citizens who are being returned by U.S. authorities and they have told us they are fleeing violence,” said Rogelio Pinal, head of the Human Rights Department in Juarez.
The trend comes two months after Mexico agreed to more aggressively enforce its immigration laws and began keeping Central Americans from entering the country without authorization. U.S. officials are also asking Central American leaders to discourage criminal organizations — who are handing out makeshift travel brochures — from promoting “trips” to the U.S. border.
Now, asylum promoters are targeting Mexicans.
Rocio Galarza, from Zacatecas, Mexico, arrived at Juarez’s Migrant Assistance Center on Monday, days after individuals at a street market in her hometown encouraged her to seek asylum at the border. “I went shopping and they told me (the United States) is granting asylum. … One of my nephews was murdered recently and I don’t want something like that to happen to my son or my daughter,” said Galarza, who came to Juarez with her 16-year-old son, her 11-year-old daughter and two small children.
“My fear is that (drug traffickers) are forcing young men to sell drugs and they might try to grab my son. … There are several 13- and 14-year-old girls who’ve gone missing and I don’t want that for my daughter. We are looking for a safer place,” she said.
Jose Luis Mendez, a former teacher, made up his mind to seek asylum in the United States three months ago, after members of a drug cartel kidnapped him in Jalisco, Mexico. His first trip was thwarted when the bus he was riding to the Mexican border city of Reynosa was stopped by members of the Zetas cartel and he couldn’t pay the $300 “toll.” He was taken off the bus north of Monterrey, and slowly made his way to Juarez.
Terror in the state of Michoacan
Mendez, a career educator, was becoming uncomfortable with increasing drug-related crime in Morelia, the state capital of Michoacan. The crime wave struck home when one of his fellow teachers’ union member was murdered for speaking out against the drug cartels. He decided to move to Jalisco, but his trip was cut short at a bus station near the city of Guadalajara.
“When we got to the bus station, there were people offering jobs as security guards. Several of the men on the bus became interested because they were offering a lot of money. A bunch of us signed up and they told us to get on their trucks,” said Mendez in an interview Monday in Juarez.
The trucks drove a long way and when they got to their destination, the two dozen or so “recruits” were roughed up, tied, blindfolded and placed in locked rooms, Mendez said.
“We heard we were in a city called Zapopan and that we were being held by the Jalisco New Generation cartel. We had been kidnapped,” he said. “The Familia Michoacan cartel had captured 19 or 20 of their members, and we heard them talk that they would be exchanging prisoners. We were going to be passed off as captured members of the Michoacan cartel. I thought I was going to die.”
Mendez said the exchange fell through, and he and other abducted bus passengers were taken to a sparsely populated area on the Jalisco-Michoacan border and told to walk back home.
“There were only a few of us. I don’t know what happened to the rest. We had to walk barefoot and wearing only shorts because they took all of our possessions. We might have died if not for the people of a town who found us and gave us water,” Mendez said.
The former teacher said he tried to file a complaint with Michoacan state authorities but they told him to keep quiet. “They told me and other survivors not to say anything, that they had our names and our addresses. Our own state authorities were making threats; (the criminals) obviously have informants in the government. Since then, I’ve been trying to come to the United States because I fear for my life in Michoacan,” Mendez said.
“I have family in the United States, I’m educated and I can work. But if they don’t give me asylum there, I will try another country, maybe Germany, because I cannot go back to Michoacan. I will be killed for denouncing the cartels.”