Andrea Hernández, a 25-year-old Colombian woman, was vacationing in Tulum. She had come to enjoy the beach of this coveted tourist destination in the Mexican Caribbean. On September 26, 2021, when she returned to the hostel where she was staying while riding her bicycle, federal agents from the National Institute of Migration (INM) arbitrarily detained her at a checkpoint set up at the entrance of the hotel zone. While she was still wearing her bikini and sandals, they loaded her into an official van and transported her to Cancun, where they attempted to extort three thousand dollars ($60,000 Mexican pesos) from her to release her from the temporary immigration detention center where she had been confined —a place where the human rights of foreigners are systematically violated.
According to a series of testimonies, experts, and documents consulted for this investigation, sexual harassment, arbitrary detentions, discrimination, racial profiling, family separation, overcrowding, threats, punishments, hindrance of visits or phone calls with lawyers, family members, consular representation, detentions exceeding permitted time, medical negligence, spoiled food, refusal to provide information about refuge, and extortion are among the violations that are committed with impunity by federal agents within the Cancun immigration center in Quintana Roo. Despite the law stating that every detained foreigner has the right to know the location of the facility they are being transferred to and to be informed of the reason for their entry, Andrea was not given any information.
“They took me to the station, and one of the agents let me make a call to my friend to bring me my things. They brought them to me, that was on a Thursday. And they didn’t take my statement until Monday morning,” says the young woman, who, like any tourist, has up to 180 days to freely travel within the country. The agents attempted to extort her. Since her deadline was in two weeks, they took advantage and kept her locked up until the time was up, using it as a method of coercion.
In a second phone call, Andrea contacted some friends in Mexico City who helped her find a lawyer. “She came to see me, she talked to the director of the facility [Germán Luis Sánchez Naranjo]. It was a case of extortion because they told my lawyer that if I didn’t pay three thousand dollars, they wouldn’t let me leave. That was very shocking to me because I had nothing to pay, I still had time to leave the country. I was there for no reason,” she says over the phone.
Andrea proved that she had return flight tickets, but it wasn’t enough. It was only when the Colombian Consulate intervened on her behalf that she was released and able to return home.
This is not an isolated case. In 2022, at least three arbitrary detentions of tourists in Cancun became public. One of them, María Fernanda Vallejo, a 29-year-old Argentine woman, gained the most notoriety. Since 2020, María had been traveling in Mexico. On February 1, 2022, she was detained by immigration officers at the airport, even though she had a visa and permission to stay in the country until March of that year. She was taken to the immigration center, where they tried to extort two thousand five hundred dollars, which she didn’t pay. Only when the case went viral on social media, did the Argentine consulate intervene. And only when María’s mother, Graciela Chamorro, spread the story through Mexican and international media, was María eventually released.
Cancun is the most significant point of entry in Mexico. More foreigners enter through the international airport of this city than anywhere else in the country. Nearly ten million people arrive through this route each year, according to INM data, with six million being tourists. It’s also a key point on the migration route to the United States for people coming from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The INM is the decentralized administrative body of the Ministry of the Interior and is responsible for monitoring the entry and exit of people into the country and reviewing their documentation. They are in charge of immigration stations and centers throughout the country, where foreigners who cannot prove their regular immigration status are temporarily housed.
The Cancun facility has been controversial since its beginning. It was built in 2012, with a capacity for 96 people and an investment of 78.7 million Mexican pesos, but it didn’t start operations until August 2020, making it one of the newest facilities. It was constructed by Proyectos La Silla, whose partner, Gerardo Arturo Peña Jara, was sentenced to five years in prison for real estate fraud in 2021. Between its inauguration through December 2022, more than 2,535 people from over fifty nationalities have been held here, according to INM data obtained through Transparency.
Detentions of people in traveling contexts have increased due to pressure from the United States to curb migration from Central America, and because Mexico has agreed to act as a containment barrier, even involving the military in operations and checkpoints. Those most likely to pass through here are migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Guatemala, Argentina, Colombia, Honduras, and El Salvador. Some of these countries have authoritarian regimes or exacerbated violence and poverty. There have also been reports of extra continental migrants from India, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Romania, Egypt, Nepal, Yemen, and Iran. However, it is Cubans who are the most numerous among the detained (30.4 percent of the total) and who are most frequently victims of extortion.
28-year-old Dianelis Giménez fled the Cuban regime in November 2021. She left her country in a boat that sailed through open seas for three days heading for Cancun. Once there, she was detained by federal immigration agents who extorted fifty thousand Mexican pesos (two thousand five hundred dollars) from her to release her from the Cancun immigration center, where she spent three months locked up. “There are so many things you go through in there, you’re desperate to get out,” is all she will share in an interview. Dianelis still feels affected by what she experienced and asks that we speak to her husband Maikel Aguilera to get the details of what happened, as he paid the extortion to get her released.
She participated in the massive protests on July 11, 2021, the largest anti-government demonstrations under the Castro regime in Cuba, which resulted in over seven hundred accused and nearly three hundred sentenced to prison. In the months that followed, she went back to the streets, this time demanding the release of political prisoners. “She and a group of friends went out [in Havana] to protest, demanding freedom for the detained people. When the protests were over, the government went door-to-door to find the people who had taken to the streets and imprison them as well. She hid for a while [in acquaintances’ houses], and then she left on a boat,” says Maikel, 39, who left Cuba over a decade ago and has been in the United States ever since.
Dianelis, three of her acquaintances, and eleven other people with whom she sailed on the open sea landed in Isla Blanca, on the mainland of Isla Mujeres, a neighboring municipality of Cancun, on November 5, 2021. They took a taxi to downtown Cancun, where they stayed for four days. The plan was to fly from the airport to Mexicali, Baja California, with the aim of reaching the U.S. border, surrendering to authorities, seeking refuge, and reuniting with Maikel to start a new life together. However, they didn’t succeed. Immigration agents detained them at the airport when they realized they were missing the Multiple Migratory Form, the document that verifies their legal stay in Mexico. Dianelis informed Maikel of her detention via WhatsApp, and he decided to travel to Cancun and hire a lawyer to resolve the issue, who in turn filed a legal protection order to prevent the deportation of the detained group. Due to pandemic-related delays in the Quintana Roo Judicial Power, Dianelis’ hearing was scheduled for several months later.
“Sixty days had passed without any response from the judges. Sixty days during which my wife remained locked up. At that point, I no longer trusted the legal route. What they told me later at the station was that the only way out was by paying,” Maikel says.
From the beginning, he recalls, the INM (National Institute of Migration) staff at the facility attempted to extort him. If he wanted freedom for his wife and friends, he had to pay. Although Maikel initially refused, after three months, desperate, he decided to give in.
“It’s through the guards that the transaction is made. They are the ones who propose the matter to you. The guards are the ones who take the money and give it to Germán (Luis Sánchez Naranjo). It cost me to get the four people out, $2,500 per person. It was ten thousand dollars [then 200,000 Mexican pesos],” says Maikel. “The guards approach you when you go for a visit. They give you [a paper] to write down your phone number. Then they call you and WhatsApp messages start coming. They say: “Look, I can help you, but it will cost you this much.” Extortion with a capital “E”. And that’s the only way you can get out of there,” he continues.
The money has to be carried in cash, in a sealed envelope handed to the security guard of a private company guarding the entrance, who allegedly gives the money to the director of the facility. “You put the package of money at the entrance, in a drawer, and that’s it, you leave. Imagine the desperation we must’ve felt that we preferred to pay rather than have them locked up for one more day,” Maikel says.
Grupo de Seguridad Privada Camsa (Private Security Group Camsa) is the company responsible for the security of immigration facilities in twenty-three states in Mexico, including Cancun. They were unusually hired by the INM for an amount of 165 million Mexican pesos, and according to a Connectas review, they are not on the list of authorized suppliers. At the time of hire, they also lacked the capacity to provide such a service, according to information from the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection. What’s even more serious is that the company is being investigated for its alleged responsibility in the deaths of at least forty migrants detained on March 28 in the migration facility of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. These individuals, who had been detained and confined, were allegedly protesting because they knew they would be deported and hadn’t been able to access water, as revealed by the press. The initial official version stated that one of them caused a fire with the electrical cables, which grew without any attempt from security personnel or immigration agents to save them. “A State crime,” human rights organizations pointed out.
Maikel handed the guard the envelope of ten thousand dollars in cash. Two days later, his wife and the others were released. The first thing they did was fly to the northern border of the country, where they surrendered to U.S. authorities to request refuge, which was finally granted to them.
Dianelis’ case is not an isolated one. At least ten foreigners who have passed through the immigration facility in Cancun —and who provided their testimony for this investigation— reported being extorted with amounts ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 (27,000 to 90,000 Mexican pesos), with the majority pointing to Germán Luis Sánchez Naranjo, the head of the facility, as the coordinator of the extortion network within the Cancun facility.
Sabrina, a young Argentine whose name was changed to protect her identity, didn’t have the money to pay the two thousand dollars they asked for to release her from the Cancun immigration facility, so she had to spend two weeks detained while her situation was resolved. The last days of confinement were the most difficult; she discovered that immigration agents were filming women while they showered. “Where we showered, there was like a small square hole in the wall. They put a cell phone through it. We were showering, and one of the girls started screaming when she saw it was recording,” Sabrina says. Only the officials have access to and are allowed to use mobile devices.
The Cancun immigration facility, located on Av. Chac Mool, ten minutes from the airport and managed by the INM, is a cube-shaped building with high walls and a metal roof, no windows, and a small iron door for access, which has a tiny sliding window through which the guard occasionally looks out. Inside, there’s a dining area in the center, with rooms at the ends, the men’s area on one side and the women’s area on the other. The rooms have three walls and one with bars. Each room has two bunk beds, with space for four people. However, due to overcrowding, it’s common for six to ten people to share a room, sleeping on the floor. The walls are striped with contraband pens and markers. In all the rooms, the phone number of the Federal Public Defender’s Office is written; it has lawyers specialized in human migration who have legally defended several foreigners detained at the facility. There are also complaints against INM staff, insults, and Bible passages marked on the walls.
Sabrina recalls when she had to provide emotional support to a young Colombian woman, whom the guards took out of her cell at night to take her to the facility’s administrators, who offered her freedom in exchange for sex. “She arrived crying with rage. She told me that she said no to them and spat in their faces,” Sabrina says about the sextortion. “But with her and other younger women, they were insistent. Several times they offered to let them out if they had sex or performed oral sex with the administrators.”
The foreigner, a professional singer, was detained in October 2021 while leaving the supermarket. While buying red nail polish to get ready for a dinner with her husband and son, with whom she arrived in Mexico, the INM set up a checkpoint on Carretera 307, near Playa del Carmen, where federal agents, accompanied by armed members of the National Guard, intercepted her. Sabrina and her then-partner had been offered work as singers, entertaining at social events, in another destination in the Mexican Caribbean. They arrived in the country in July 2019 with work permits. After a year, their documents expired. He was able to renew his, but she couldn’t. Due to the pandemic, she couldn’t maintain employment, nor could she find a new job. For this administrative violation, which warranted a fine of just over ten thousand pesos, Sabrina was detained and taken to the Cancun immigration facility.
“All the time, my partner, who was there supporting me, was asked to pay the money. ‘Well, if you want her to be released, you have to pay $2,500.’ And we didn’t have it, we don’t have it, because we came from our country in poor economic conditions, hoping for a better future for our son in this country,” she recalls.
“I recognize that I was in an unusual situation. I was saving money to be able to obtain residency. I take responsibility for my mistake, but that doesn’t justify all the mistreatment I experienced inside there.” During the sixteen days Sabrina spent locked up, she was a victim of harassment, medical negligence, and punishments for “protesting” against the conditions within the facility. The food she received was spoiled, causing her to get sick. Instead of receiving medication from a doctor to counteract the symptoms, they were given valerian or sleeping pills “to calm us down, to sleep, so we wouldn’t keep protesting. And if we complained, they took away our phone calls.”
Each person detained had to sign a sheet every day as proof that they received food. Immigration agents, Sabrina says they were only approved to make their entitled phone calls if they signed that document. “One day I didn’t sign because I told them the food was rotten. And they told me, ‘If you don’t sign, there are no calls,’” she recalls. And she couldn’t communicate this to her partner; the calls were monitored, and they were interrupted when she talked about it.
Sabrina also experienced sexual harassment from members of the National Guard. The soldiers, with rifles on their shoulders, persistently asked for her cell phone number, with cynical and mocking smiles. They also gave lascivious looks and made inappropriate comments. ““One of them once told us that every man’s dream was to be in a place like this, full of women. We all looked horrified. We were here against our will. What kind of man’s dream are we talking about? I mean, what kind of person says that?”
Lorena Cano, coordinator of the legal clinic at the Institute for Women in Migration (Imumi), says that cases of aggression and sexual crimes against migrant women in the facilities perpetrated by National Guard members are becoming increasingly common: “There have been a series of abuses, humiliations, and beatings by these people, who have military training, who are soldiers. We have many testimonies from women who have been victims of sexual and gender violence by the National Guard in several facilities in the country.”
Human Rights Violations
Although Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promised during his 2018 election campaign to support individuals who are migrating and change the paradigm of detentions and the use of force against migrants crossing the border in search of the American dream, this promise has gone unfulfilled and the problem has intensified. In 2020, Mexico reached record numbers of migrant detentions: 318,660, at a rate of 873 detentions per day, of which 51.3 percent were Central Americans, according to the Migratory Policy Unit. Cancun also reached a historic high. While in 2017, the last year of the previous administration, 286 people were detained in this city, by 2022, 958 were detained: an increase of 234 percent.
This increase has paralleled the rise in complaints of human rights violations to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). In fact, the National Migration Institute (INM) is the third public entity that has been most frequently mentioned in complaints. In the case of Quintana Roo, in 2017, it received fourteen complaints against the Institute. By 2022, this number had increased to 56: four times more, according to information obtained via Transparency.
Complaints against the INM include arbitrary detention, violations of legality, honesty, loyalty, impartiality, and effectiveness in performing its functions; intimidation, actions, and omissions that violate the human rights of migrants and their families, failure to provide medical care, and isolation. However, this surge has not been reflected in public recommendations or requests to the authorities to provide proper victim care. Although 153 complaints for human rights violations by INM personnel have been filed in Quintana Roo since 2015, only one recommendation has been issued, according to a Transparency request.
In 2019, Olga Sánchez Cordero, then Secretary of the Interior, stated that upon her arrival, they found a corrupt INM with widespread extortion. “The National Migration Institute was penetrated by some of the most corruption; we are practically renewing the entire staff,” she declared during a visit to Tamaulipas, after committing to “renew the institute,” including its migration stations. However, this is still pending, according to Margarita Núñez, coordinator of the Migration Affairs Program at the Universidad Iberoamericana.
“I think one of the biggest disappointments we have in this government is the migration issue because, effectively, during the pre-campaign and electoral campaign, there was discourse and interesting proposals, but they have not been put into practice or reality. I remember that part of the campaign’s proposals was to eliminate migration stations and create shelters. The only change we have seen is in the discourse. We see how the president refers to the facilities as shelters, not as stations. But in reality, we see how everything has intensified: the persecution, the criminalization of migrant people. It’s a perspective that considers migrant people a threat to be pursued, detained, and deported,” says Núñez in an interview.
On March 7, 2020, singer Lúa Castro, a finalist on the show “La Voz Argentina,” was invited to Oaxaca, where she was supposed to perform in a musical show. The man posing as a producer lured her under false pretenses, kidnapped her, and attempted to sexually abuse her. A criminal case (number 307/2020) was opened for illegal deprivation of liberty for sexual purposes and sexual abuse against the perpetrator, L. J. G. V. As a foreign victim of a crime, Lúa, and her legal representation requested a humanitarian visitor permit. This was still in process when she was detained in Cancun by immigration agents on September 23, 2021, without due process or judicial guarantees. In fact, her detention and subsequent illegal confinement in the migratory shelter in the city occurred just days before the intermediate hearing that the judges had scheduled as part of the process against the perpetrator, which she had to miss, the artist claims.
“I was living and working [performing musical shows in hotels and bars] in Playa del Carmen. I went to Terminal 2 of the Cancun airport because I was going to travel to Monterrey [Nuevo León], where I was going to present my new music album. But they detained me. I had all my papers that said I was a victim of a crime, that my residence was pending, that I had a scheduled appointment with Immigration, but they didn’t verify anything and detained me,” Lúa recalls. Without further explanation, the agents approached her, prevented her from boarding the plane, and took her to the “sterile zone” of Terminal 3 and then to the immigration shelter. In the statement she made upon entry, she explained her situation and narrated the events of which she had been a victim, but nothing worked.
During the twenty-six days of confinement, members of the National Guard harassed her, asking for her contact information so they could talk to her when she was free. “They asked for my number, my social media username.” They would compliment her. “You look so beautiful,” they would say, staring at my chest.” They would also touch her. “They touched my waist, my arm, my back whenever they transferred me from one place to another.” She received expired food that made her sick. Because she complained, they left her without food for two days. It was thanks to the intervention of the lawyers from the Federal Public Defender’s Office that Lúa was finally released on October 18.
Family Separation and Deterioration of Health
Tired of the tumultuous and hostile environment in the neighborhood where she lived in Honduras, and exhausted from the threats and attacks from her ex-partner, Diana decided to flee from the municipality of Yoro. She pursued the American dream. She then hired a “pollero,” a member of a well-organized migrant smuggling network, who took her out of the country in a trailer, along with one of her thirteen-year-old sons and thirty other people, on July 21, 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. “I left sick with COVID. I didn’t get tested, but I had all the symptoms: body aches, fever. I was shivering even though I was bundled up. And I also infected my son. Oh my, if I told you,” says Diana, now 35 years old, working as a cleaner in a hotel in the hotel zone of Cancun.
She doesn’t know if it was three or four days. She only remembers traveling while sick, with a fever, muscle and joint pains, and thirsty; they crossed through Guatemala, Belize, and reached Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo. There, they were transported in a van to Cancun, where they stayed for a day. Later, they were taken to the Tierra Maya neighborhood on the outskirts, to a house where they rested while fake Mexican IDs were being made for them. On the third day, they were picked up again to be taken to Cancun airport, to catch a flight to Tijuana, where other people would receive them and help them cross the border wall. But at the airport, “they checked our documents and realized they were fake,” says Diana.
Officials from the State Attorney General’s Office detained her, took her to the Vice Prosecutor’s Office, and started an investigation against her for document forgery. From there, she was transferred to the Cancun immigration facility, where the real torment began: she was separated from her underage son, which goes against the right to family unity, as stipulated in the General Law for Girls, Boys, and Adolescents, which states that they should stay and be housed together while their legal status is being resolved. Her son was placed under the care of the state Prosecutor’s Office for the Protection of Girls, Boys, Adolescents, and the Family and was transferred to the Temporary Care Center (CAT) in Cancun, where Diana should have been transferred as well, in order to preserve the best interests of the child.
“The thing is, CAT receives Mexican children and migrants. It’s overcrowded. There’s a capacity for a hundred people, but they accommodate double or more. That’s why they often separate families. Also, there’s no shelter specifically for migrant children,” says a source familiar with the case, who requests anonymity. The separation, they explain, was due to their fake documents, so the kinship between mother and child couldn’t be verified. However, that should have been resolved immediately, as the law states that the National Migration Institute (INM) must resolve the immigration status of foreigners within no more than fifteen business days. Instead, two months passed, and immigration agents refused to provide any information about her son’s whereabouts and condition. “I hung on the door asking to know about him. And they never gave me an answer […], I told them: I need to talk to him, know that he’s okay, what’s the problem?” Diana recalls.
It was in October 2021, a quarter of a year after her detention, and thanks to the intervention of the IFDP and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), who took up the case, that Diana was able to file for legal protection, request refugee status, and gain her freedom. According to data obtained through Transparency, 505 migrants were detained for more than fifteen days in the same immigration facility, and another 69 were held for over sixty days. Furthermore, there is a case of an American woman who was held for 296 days, the longest recorded detention period so far.
“It’s terrible, terrible, to be locked up for so many days. With so many days there and all the human rights violations they experience, it generates trauma in migrants, which has significant consequences,” says Gerardo Talavera, the CEO of Casa Refugiados, an organization specializing in issues of human migration.
Diana’s health deteriorated so much due to her experiences inside the facility that she had to be hospitalized. “Imagine. I spent two months not knowing about my son, imagining the worst. I didn’t have an appetite, I was depressed, crying all the time, afraid they would send me back, never seeing my son again,” she says. Added to her uncertainty were illnesses caused by the poor quality of food. One time, the spaghetti came with hair, and another time, the lentils had worms. The breaking point was when, after two months of confinement, she bit into a cockroach. “It made a crunching sound when we were eating rice and salad. We were eating peacefully. The little cookies they give you. Beans. When I heard something crunchy. I felt like my lip was hit, you know? A cockroach leg. You know those things have little spines on their legs. And when I did this [mimics taking something out of her mouth], I felt something strange. I took it out. I’ll be right back and I’ll see it. I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s when I started getting sick. I stopped eating,” Diana recounts.
In 2021, the INM awarded a contract worth 1.3 million pesos to the companies Coordinación de Distribuciones y Servicios Logísticos and Pigudi Gastronómico to provide food services for migrants detained in immigration facilities in southern Mexico. The latter company has been criticized by the Federal Audit Office for irregularities and non-compliance in several contracts. In July 2021, months before Diana’s detention, civil society organizations pointed out Coordinación de Distribuciones y Servicios Logísticos for providing spoiled food at an immigration facility in Chiapas. At that time, sixty migrants experienced acute diarrhea due to consuming spoiled food, according to local media.
Diana suffered from a lack of hygiene: dirty mattresses and bathrooms. Since she entered with only a few clothes, she had to wash them every day and even put them on while they were still wet. She also struggled to get sanitary products and toilet paper. During her confinement, she was denied proper medical check-ups, tests, or prescriptions.
Once released, after three months, with her spirits shattered, fragile health, and unbearable abdominal pain, Diana went to one of the medical clinics attached to Similares Pharmacies for tests on October 7, 2021.
Connectas requested interpretation of the test results from Víctor Olivo Iglesias Guzmán, a first-contact physician affiliated with the Public Health Department of UNAM. “In the general urine test, there’s the presence of blood, proteins, and something called ‘nitrites,’ which are metabolites produced in the metabolism of certain bacteria that can be pathological in the urinary tract: their presence suggests a urinary tract infection,” says Iglesias, adding that it could be due to the lack of hygiene in the facility.
Iglesias also diagnosed kidney stones, abundant bacteria, anemia, low glucose, and high bilirubin. From the twenty-four-element blood chemistry test, the doctor was concerned about some values related to liver function, indicating possible hepatitis or acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). This disease, according to the doctor, is caused by a poor diet, much like what Diana experienced during her confinement.
The consequences for migrants don’t end with their release from the facility. Diana had to be hospitalized twice in the weeks following her release. Even now, two years later, she hasn’t fully recovered.
“And in all of this, we must not forget about the son,” warns Monserrat Alviso, a former official of UNHCR. “The separation of migrant children and adolescents from their parents is one of the potentially most traumatic experiences during this period of life. This has implications for their emotional, mental, and physical health, such as emotional deficiencies, anxiety, depression, developmental delays, hypertension, and heart diseases. They are also exposed to dangers such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse.”
Diana’s relationship with her son, she recounts, deteriorated due to her experience. “He doesn’t talk to me anymore. He thinks I abandoned him for those three months,” she laments.
Impunity and Lack of Oversight
Margarita Núñez, from the Ibero-American University, argues that immigration facilities resemble prisons more than shelters, as they are now called by the Federal Government. “In Mexico, migrating is not a crime; it’s an administrative offense. However, the action that the INM takes is to detain and imprison people as if it were a crime, requiring criminal action,” says the expert. That’s why the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) and the International Coalition Against Detention have urged the Mexican state to adopt alternatives to detention.
Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest and founder of the Brothers on the Road migrant shelter located in Oaxaca, believes that immigration facilities should disappear. “It sounds ridiculous, it sounds incongruent for Mexico to continue persecuting its southern brethren; to continue pursuing them, imprisoning them, deporting them: a terrible thing. It’s a terrible offense,” he says. In 2020, Solalinde proposed a reform to the INM that included the abolition of these facilities, which was ignored until the recent case of the death of forty migrants in Ciudad Juárez.
Between 2017 and 2022, the Internal Control Body (OIC) sanctioned only eleven INM public officials for administrative misconduct. In all cases, they were operational staff: ten federal agents and one immigration services officer. No higher-ranking officers were among those sanctioned. In four cases, the penalty involved being suspended from duty for four days, and in another, the suspension was for fifteen days. In four more cases, the suspension was for a month, and in the remaining two cases, they were removed from their position and temporarily disqualified for ten years and one year, respectively. On two occasions, the INM classified confidential the information requested by Connectas regarding the misconduct of these officials, preventing a detailed review of the case files. The OIC responded that it had not filed criminal complaints with the Federal Attorney General’s Office for these administrative violations.
According to Núñez, federal agents systematically violate the rights of detained migrants because they know they have guaranteed impunity.
On the other hand, despite being within its jurisdiction, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) does not conduct visits to verify compliance with universal rights in the Cancun immigration facility. It has only conducted one inspection, according to documents obtained by Connectas, on March 11, 2021. The document indicates that a complaint was received about the lack of hygiene on the mattresses, but that’s all. This contrasts with the accounts given by tourists and migrants consulted for this work.
Francisco Garduño Yáñez, head of the INM, avoided responding to questions about the matters raised in this work. When directly asked at the end of a press conference held on May 24 at Cancun airport, the official acknowledged being aware of all these situations but merely said that more complaints should be encouraged and reported to the Internal Control Body for investigations against the personnel involved. “Complaints need to be encouraged,” he said briefly, after evading questions about the various issues raised.
In 2022, the UN Human Rights Office in Mexico prepared an unpublished report on the admissions of foreign individuals at the airports of Mexico City and Cancun, which indicated signs of racial profiling by immigration agents. Connectas requested a copy of the report from the INM, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through Transparency, the three federal agencies to whom the UN Human Rights Office had presented the results. However, despite it being public information, they refused to provide it and claimed “non-competence or non-existence” of such information.
In an interview, Guillermo Fernández-Maldonado Castro, the representative of the UN Human Rights Office in Mexico, shared the main findings: The report manages to identify “differentiated practices when deciding rejections of entry to the country, in effect for a long period (2017-2021), which could be determined by the nationality of the individuals. For example, according to official data, the rejection rates for individuals from Ecuador, Venezuela, Romania, Jamaica, and Colombia are considerably higher than those of other nationalities. A more in-depth study with more information and analysis could determine whether these rejections are or are not, in whole or in part, due to racial profiling practices,” says the representative.
Connectas again requested information from the INM, this time seeking statistics on the admissions of individuals from Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Romania. After analyzing the data, there was an exponential growth in rejections of individuals from these countries entering Mexico through Cancun airport. While there were 1,740 rejections in 2015, the number rose to 17,793 in 2022: ten times more.
Among these numbers, Colombians have been the most affected. In 2015, 628 were rejected. In 2022, 14,162 were denied entry. This marks a historical record, an increase of over 2,000 percent. For this investigation, four Colombians were separately interviewed, confirming racial profiling: people who came as tourists met all entry requirements, but were returned to their countries for no reason other than their nationality. “I came to visit, and they sent me back just because I’m Colombian. The Immigration people treated me poorly, they told me that only bad people from my country come to bring drugs […] and I couldn’t do anything,” one of them said, requesting anonymity.
This lack of admissions has created a diplomatic conflict. María Fernanda Grueso, honorary consul of Colombia in Cancun, publicly voiced complaints about these abuses and arbitrariness towards her fellow Colombians and demanded changes that never came. Days later, the consul was threatened: if she continued to reveal information, she would be removed from her position, according to a source familiar with the case. “It’s inferred that the Consulates are also involved in all of this,” says this person who requested anonymity.
There is also an economic impact as the hotel sector has expressed dissatisfaction with Mexico’s immigration policies in Cancun. “People from Colombia are very afraid to come to Cancun for fear of being detained or turned back. This is already affecting us, as the market has decreased by 50 percent over the past year. And every tourist we lose here is one we give away to another tourist destination. It’s absurd that, in addition to competing with other tourist countries, we are battling against our own government,” says Jesús Almaguer, president of the Association of Hotels in Cancun, Puerto Morelos, and Isla Mujeres. He also explains that for every tourist that is turned away, they lose around two thousand dollars in average spending and taxes during their stay.
According to the INM, in 2022, 585 Cubans, 150 Ecuadorians, 1,199 Romanians, and 1,697 Venezuelans were turned away at the Cancun airport. This racial profiling has also fostered an extortion system at Mexico’s most important sun and beach destination.
Consuelo knows this method all too well. We changed her name to protect her identity. She left Venezuela eight years ago and arrived in Cancun to request asylum in Mexico, which was eventually granted. In September 2021, one of her eighteen-year-old sons tried to join her. He flew to Cancun but was detained by INM. Consuelo was waiting outside Terminal 3 for her son when he sent her a message notifying her of his detention and telling her that the agents threatened to send him back to Venezuela. Upon hearing the news, Consuelo was visibly distressed and caught the attention of “coyotes,” people who hang around and offer to release detained family members in exchange for a fee.
Consuelo had to pay four thousand dollars for them to allow her son to enter Mexican territory. “These guys talked to people inside, told them that I had already paid, and released my son,” she says and concludes, “There are people sent by Immigration to take advantage of your desperation and take your money.”
* This work was carried out by Ricardo Hernández Ruiz for El Estornudo, Pie de Página, Canal 44, Revista Espejo, Aristegui Noticias, El Espectador, Divergentes, Contracorriente, Novedades and CONNECTAS, with the support of the International Center for Journalists and within the framework of the Investigative Journalism Initiative of the Americas.
** Translation by Fiona Baler.