Kidnappings and extreme violence against migrants are spiking on the southern border of Mexico

Two men stop at a migrant shelter in Mexico.
Mexico 2019 © Juan Carlos Tomasi
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Mexico City/New York—Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams in Tenosique, in Mexico’s Tabasco state, are reporting an increase in kidnappings and an escalation of violence faced by migrants and refugees on Mexico’s southern border.

In testimonies collected in recent weeks by MSF staff providing medical and psychological care to migrants traveling through southeastern Mexico, patients described suffering abduction, torture, extreme violence, cruel treatment, and sexual assault for extortion purposes as soon as they crossed the border from Guatemala into Mexico on their way towards the town of Tenosique.

“What we are seeing is an exponential growth in the number of kidnappings in this area and an increase in the cruelty and torture methods used by criminal groups operating in this area,” said Gemma Pomares, MSF’s head of medical activities in Tenosique.

In less than a month, the MSF team in Tenosique has treated 11 migrants who were victims of kidnapping and torture—the same as the total number of kidnapping cases treated in the first eight months of the year at this location.

In medical and psychological consultations, survivors reported being taken to abandoned houses where they were forced to take off their clothes and were tied up for hours and left out in the open in high temperatures and inclement weather in exchange for providing the phone numbers of their relatives for use in extortion.

MSF teams have treated patients for gunshot and knife wounds. They have treated victims of sexual assault, including people who have endured torture such as electric shocks to the genitals. Several of these patients reported that they were forced to witness their companions being raped.

MSF has provided medical support in Tenosique for four years. While violence has always been a reality for people migrating north from Guatemala through Mexico, extortion and this level of extreme violence have historically been more common in dangerous cities closer to the US border, and not as prevalent in the south of Mexico—until now, said Pomares.

The Mexican government’s policies of criminalization, persecution, detention, and deportation in order to stem the flow of migration to the US have forced people making the journey to go underground and take increasingly dangerous routes. These measures are exposing more women, children, and men to criminal gangs that operate with impunity throughout the region and in particular on the route from Guatemala to Tenosique. They also operate in Mexican cities on the border with the United States, where more than half of the people treated by MSF in the last month report being kidnapped.

“It was a just matter of time before the high levels of violence against the migrant and refugee population that our teams have seen on the northern border moved to the south of the country,” said Sergio Martín, MSF’s general coordinator in Mexico. “What we are seeing are the humanitarian consequences of the tightening of migration policies, designed to inflict greater suffering on the thousands of people desperately escaping for their lives. The lack of protection and the cruelty with which they are being treated is unacceptable.”

Since 2012, MSF has provided medical and mental health care to migrants and refugees, mainly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, along the Mexican migration routes. Our teams have provided assistance in the states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Hidalgo, State of Mexico, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Jalisco, and in Mexico City.