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56 Migrant Deaths in Chiapas Were Due to Border Crackdown, Not an “Accident”

Such “accidents” are a recurring human cost of the policies of containment and repression imposed on migrants globally.

A woman lights a candle at the accident site on the Tuxtla-Chiapa de Corzo highway in the State of Chiapas, Mexico on December 10, 2021.

At least 56 migrants — mostly from Guatemala, many of them families with minor children — being transported from Mexico’s southern border region to the country’s heartland in Puebla by smugglers, were recently killed in an apparent road accident, with dozens more seriously injured.

This unspeakably tragic event is being widely reported as “accidental” in a more fundamental sense — as an exceptional event that was beyond anyone’s control, at the margins of human will or the stratagems of political power. But for many who have dedicated their lives to defending the rights of migrants throughout the world, mourning these devastated lives is pervaded by recognition of all the ways that migrant death and suffering have been utterly normalized as the result of prevailing immigration policies.

From this perspective, the recent migrant deaths in Chiapas — and those of 651 more at the United States-Mexico border in 2021, a new record, as well as more than 7,000 there since 1998, plus tens of thousands globally — are the largely unaccounted human cost of the policies of containment and repression of “irregular” migrant flows that have been imposed on a planetary scale. This incident’s toll marks the highest number of migrant deaths in a single instance since the massacre of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, just 90 minutes from the U.S. border, in August 2010, and the discovery of mass graves with hundreds more victims in the same region in March 2011.

This kind of targeting of migrants for persecution, terror and death because of their status and identity as migrants gives these incidents a genocidal dimension and triggers their recognition, at minimum, as “crimes against humanity,” pursuant to Articles 6 and 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and its relevant case law and interpretations. This includes “killing” members of an identifiable social group, and “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”

All of these deaths are the proximate results of the paradigm of prevention through deterrence that U.S. and Mexican authorities are jointly, vigorously enforcing on both sides of the border. This is what is at the core of the two principal mechanisms of exclusion: Title 42 and the “Remain in Mexico” (or Migrant Protection Protocols) policies that the Biden administration inherited from the worst days of the Trump era, and that it continues to implement and expand, with Mexican complicity. Together, in practice, these two policies have come to negate the right to seek asylum both at the U.S. border and in Mexico, and have exiled asylum seekers to precarious, life-threatening conditions of violence and persecution on Mexican soil, in improvised camps without access to adequate humanitarian assistance.

Both U.S. and Mexican authorities clothe these abuses in the rhetoric of “safe, orderly, and regular” migration promoted by the Global Compact on Migration. Similar policies have been regularly pursued by the European Union at its peripheries, and by Australia in its environs, with convergent human costs and results. It is striking, meanwhile, how spokespersons for the United Nations secretary-general and others have seized upon the news from Chiapas — and similarly, how others have responded to mass migrant deaths in the Mediterranean or the English Channel — as occasions to call for even more stringent measures of “controlled” migration.

Measures of this kind have been implemented at the U.S.-Mexico border at the same time as Mexico has been plunged into the worst human rights crisis in its recent history, with hundreds of thousands dead and tens of thousands of victims of forced disappearances, including at least 70,000 migrants kidnapped and trafficked since 2011, with migrant women and girls subjected to recurrent sexual violence within this overall landscape. The migrant deaths in Chiapas came at the close of the same week that began with the Biden administration’s joint announcement with Mexican authorities that Remain in Mexico was being reactivated and extended to asylum seekers from throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Most of the victims of the migrant tragedy in Chiapas were of Guatemalan Indigenous origin, in addition to others from Ecuador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Migration from Guatemala’s poorest and most marginalized Indigenous communities has soared since 2014, amid increasing hunger and the devastations of climate change induced by neoliberal mega-development projects, in many of the same regions where the country’s genocidal violence was concentrated in the 1980s, with U.S. backing. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to embrace the country’s current corrupt and illegitimate leadership, and to train, arm and finance the Guatemalan security forces that beat and gas migrant caravans full of women and children as part of the same containment policies that the U.S. and Mexico impose at their borders.

News of the migrant deaths in Chiapas came amid widespread Mexican and global observances of December 10 as International Human Rights Day, marking the 73rd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948. It also came shortly before International Migrants Day, on December 18, observed globally as well, commemorating the date of the adoption in 1990 of the UN’s core treaty focused on migrant rights. But Mexico’s tragedy reminds us how distant migrants are from the protections supposedly accorded by such instruments, at the hands of states such as the U.S. and Mexico, or those of the EU.

Migrants continue to be at the margins of the “rules-based international order” that was celebrated at the Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy” and will remain so until the right to freedom of movement for all those who have been denied dignified conditions of life in their home countries and communities, and until the right to refuge, asylum, sanctuary, solidarity and hospitality is fully recognized throughout the world.

Meanwhile, news will continue to come of more tragedies such as those in Chiapas, and migrants globally will continue to seek the dignity and freedom, which the neoliberal world order and the complicity of countries of origin, transit and destination has denied them.

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