Telling the Human Story, 14 June 2011
TAPACHULA, Mexico, June 14 (UNHCR) – When gang violence started disrupting the lives of law-abiding citizens in his community in the city of San Pedro Sula, Miguel* decided to make a stand. He joined like-minded Honduran civilians in one of the many surveillance committees that started springing up in urban areas of the country from 1996.
These citizens' groups hoped to dissuade gang members from leading lives of crime and violence and to contribute to building a strong and lawful society. Instead, the gangs turned on their civic-minded neighbours. "The gang [in my home area] killed 18 members of our surveillance group," Miguel recalled, adding that he decided to flee with his family after the gangs tried to recruit him. "I told them I had a family, I had my sons, that I couldn't do it."
This is no isolated case. In recent years, UNHCR has come across growing numbers of people who have sought asylum in Mexico, Canada and the United States, citing the threat of gang violence and forced recruitment in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The UN reckons that some 70,000 young people are members of violent gangs in Central America. The activities of these maras range from drug trafficking and prostitution to violent assault, robbery and murder. The biggest are transnational.
The maras are mainly comprised of young people, but innocent civilians are often caught in the crossfire of their feuds or forced to pay a form of protection money. And they take a dim view of people, like Miguel, who try to stand up to them and their pernicious influence. Their hold is strongest in urban areas.
When the gangs disrupted their life, Miguel and his wife Josefina* were trying to live an honest life, plan for the future and bring up their two boys, aged eight and six, to know the difference between right and wrong. After Miguel spurned the advances of the local mara, the pressure became unbearable.
"You live daily with fear. Whenever the children went to the corner store, to the market, anywhere, you were worried that something might happen to them," said his Salvadorean wife, Josefina, who was pregnant when their ordeal began. The gang threatened to kill Miguel.
The family moved home several times, but he could not shake off his vicious tormentors. The gang finally tracked him down and opened fire on him as he stood outside his house. Miguel was hit in the right harm, but saved his life by diving to the ground.
He was rushed to hospital for treatment. But even though he informed police about the attack, Miguel knew that his luck would eventually run out. He decided to send the children to stay with his mother-in-law in neighbouring El Salvador.
Miguel and Josefina joined them soon afterwards in El Salvador, where he received further medical treatment. But he still didn't feel safe, knowing that the mara also operated in his wife's homeland.
He decided to make for Mexico via Guatemala, following a mixed migration route taken by tens of thousands of people hoping to reach Mexico or North America, including other asylum seekers and refugees.
It was a gruelling 10-day journey, mostly on foot, that brought them to the southern Mexican city of Tapachula in early December last year. "We felt hungry very often and there were times when I had to beg for some food for my children," Josefina told UNHCR.
"Once in Mexico, we spent the night at a hotel in Tapachula where they charged 10 pesos [US$1] to sleep on a petate [a mat made of dried palm leaves]. We were so tired," she recalled.
When the family woke up on their second day in the southern Mexico city, they discovered that somebody had stolen their travel documents and luggage, which included the children's clothes and shoes. "I felt so much anger, because I had been so careful with their clothes the whole journey. Those were the only things we had," said Josefina, her eyes brimming with tears at the memory.
They decided to move to a special shelter for migrants, where they were told about UNHCR and their right to apply to for refugee status. Josefina gave birth to a boy while they were waiting for their application to be processed by the government. Under the constitution, the baby is automatically entitled to Mexican nationality.
UNHCR believes that people fleeing from gang warfare and persecution by organized crime groups should be offered protection. Last year, the refugee agency issued a guidance note to help states when they are assessing asylum claims from such people. But UNHCR also believes that 1 Refugee Forced from Home is too Many.
Meanwhile, Miguel and Josefina are looking to the future. If he receives refugee status, Miguel wants to find a job and receive further surgery for his injured arm. Josefina hopes their children will go back to school and that her family will build a new life in Mexico.
* Names have been changed for protection reasons.
By Mariana Echandi in Mexico City, Mexico