Apr 7, 2014

Laura's Blog: The Iceberg in the Desert

Mexican new reports state that 162 migrants were rescued from clandestine camps by the Mexican Army on April 3 and freed. During rounds, soldiers of the 45th Batallion discovered four camps in Saric, Sonora, near the U.S. border, located on the edge of the Sasabe desert, a common crossing zone that has recently become an area teeming with organized crime groups seeking to use crossers to carry contraband.

The Secretary of Defense release gave very few details, stating,
Among the persons liberated were 97 mexicanos, 60 Guatemalans, three Hondurans and 2 Salvadorans, who appeared in good health and were placed in the hands of the corresponding authorities.
The brief note leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It does not tell us who was holding the migrants (if they were kdnapped, they had to have guards), nor why, according to the information provided, not one single culprit was arrested. 

It does not tell us if drugs, arms, cash or other possible contraband was found at the scene of the alleged crime. We don't know how many are men, how many are women, what their ages are or where they were heading. We also don't know what states they are from or if they are indigenous.

The authorities have this information but the fact that it has been reserved from publication creates deep doubts regarding any subsequent investigation or judicial process.

Once again, nameless victims make ephemeral headlines under strange conditions. Then they disappear into anonymity, taking the dark secrets of what really happened with them.

For public consumption, there is only this (again, from SEDENA):
With these actions, the Mexican Army and the Air Force are working alongside the efforts of the Government of the Republic to attain a Mexico in peace, affirming its commitment to guarantee the security and tranquility of the citizenry.
The release of captive migrants is cause for celebration. And 162 is a huge number. But I, for one, don't feel tranquil.

If this represents the tip of the iceberg--and that seems to be the case given the number of similar cases in the area within the last year--then we're looking at a tremendous iceberg in the desert. Local newspapers have been reporting an increase in the use of border-crossers as "mules" to carry small quantities of prohibited drugs over the border. Scores of stories report the abduction, confrontations and murder of migrants in run-ins with alleged criminal groups. In most of the reports, the story is unclear and the migrants' themselves seldom speak publicly about what occurred.

The area is famous for flows of drugs, cash, arms and human trafficking. Inexplicably, this all happens under the nose of the 45th Battalion, police and other security agents and in spite of, or sometimes with the help of, U.S. and Mexican government agents. 

The Globalized Grapes of Wrath
In addition to forced recruitment for the drug smuggling that is the lifeblood of cartels, human trafficking for agrobusiness is growing.

Sin Embargo, a Mexican information service, notes of this recent case and others:
The victims of kidnapping are not just migrants from other countries, but also Mexicans from other states, like the case of 54 day laborers from the state of Puebla who were kidnapped in Caborca by a criminal group. The day laborers escaped to denounce that their captors had offered them a well-paid job in Sonora.
Some 57,000 farm laborers arrive in Sonora every year from the states of Puebla, Chiapas, Guerrero and others to work in the grape harvest, where 59 companies install work camps for the harvest. Companies even receive government support and subsidies to bring migrant workers in. The state of Veracruz, for example, announced this year that it will provide $42,000 pesos "to support the day laborers" being sent from the state to Sonora. 

This is not a subsidy to low-wage farmworkers--it's a subsidy to private-sector agribusiness. The government of Tlaxcala also has a program to send migrant laborers to the grape harvest. Sin Embargo and others have documented child labor and the death of several children-workers in the Sonora farmworker camps.

Dossier Político, out of Hermosillo, Sonora notes that in May of 2010 in a similar incident 66 farmworkers were rescued. The workers reported being recruited and held as virtual slaves, working 13-hour days in the vineyards without pay and prohibited from communicating with their families.

The grape industry has sprung up in Sonora since the eighties and especially since NAFTA. Tucson Business reported in 2012 that the Mexican state produces 16.3 million, 19-pound boxes that pass through at the U.S. Port of Entry at Nogales beginning in May for about nine weeks.
Sonora accounts for 90 percent of Mexico’s table grape production. The state exports almost all of its production, dispatching several dozen brands to more  than 30 countries. Some10,000 acres are under cultivation...
the recent abductions could indicate a trend toward the alliance of agrobusiness with organized crime to provide virtual slave labor in the harvest. The possibility merits at least full investigation.

The news reports on the rescue of migrants indicates that at least some were kidnapped as forced labor for the harvest.

The government of Veracruz states that the average wage for the farmworkers is $153 dollars a week, with some workers earning more. However, reports from the region say it's more like ten dollars a day, and half that for children.

So what kind of a society makes it an attractive business plan to kidnap workers as slaves rather than to pay ridiculously low wages?

A society where life is cheap. And where the criminals know they can get away with murder.

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