It was 10:00 p.m. when ‘Natalie’ – a fictitious name to protect her identity because of the sensitivity of the case she faces – got off the plane in which she returned to Hermosillo, Sonora, after a vacation in southeastern Mexico.
As soon as she went down the escalators of the airport, when agents of the National Guard (GN) stopped her to request her identification; she was then deprived of her liberty for almost two hours, during which time she was intimidated, threatened and extorted.
It was the beginning of a long odyssey in which at times she was certain that she would be deported or lose her freedom.
“I was dead of nerves and fear,” says the 28-year-old from Honduras.
‘Natalie’ is a legal resident in Sonora, since January 2020. He has a student visa, as he is pursuing a master’s degree in Social Sciences with a focus on migration.
The state where he lives is a traditional transit area for migrants seeking to cross the border with the United States, especially in the desert region of Altar and Sásabe.
In fact, Sonora is the eighth entity with the highest detention of migrants in the country. Between January 2021 and March of this year, 16,501 people have been detained there, most of them of Central American origin, according to data from the Migration Policy Unit of the Ministry of the Interior (Segob). Many were arrested at the airport. Hermosillo, where the air terminal is located, is the third municipality with the most detentions of migrants in the country.
The task is in charge of the National Institute of Migration (INM), which since 2019 is accompanied by elements of the GN that, since its creation, has powers of migration supervision. A decision questioned by civil organizations by the elements with which the corporation was integrated: the Military Police, trained for other purposes.
For this reason, they warn, there is a high risk of abuses against migrants.
The GN is one of the 10 federal government agencies with the highest number of complaints to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH): 920, in total, between 2019 and so far this year.
‘Natalie’ lived it directly.
The National Guard permanently monitors hermosillo International Airport, Sonora.
“Is there any problem?”
‘Natalie’ was returning home from Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche, where she went to visit a family of Honduran friends. On his return he was accompanied by one of them.
He had no problems on the trip, until he arrived at the Hermosillo airport. When he picked up his suitcase, he found four GN agents.
One of them “asked if we came together and I said yes; then, he asked us for identification,” he says.
The uniformed men who made the checks were not accompanied by INM personnel, which is an irregularity.
Since May 2019, when the National Guard Law was published in the Official Gazette of the Federation, the elements of the corporation are authorized to verify the migratory status of foreigners. However, according to article 9 section XXXV of the legislation, the review has to be carried out in coordination with the INM.
In case of finding any irregularity in the persons subject to review, says the same article, the elements of the GN must present them to the institute “for the purposes provided for in the law of the matter.”
In addition, article 60, section VIII, of the same law obliges the agents of the corporation to “refrain from ordering or carrying out the arrest of any person, without complying with the requirements provided for in the applicable constitutional and legal systems.”
This did not happen in the case of ‘Natalie’. The GN agents who intercepted them applied a different criterion with her and her companion was allowed to follow.
She, on the other hand, was ordered to go to another of the agents, whom her colleagues called ‘el Flaco’, to review the document that accredits her as a temporary resident in Mexico.
“I gave her my ID, she asked me if I came alone, I said no, I was coming with a friend,” she says. The travel companion was waiting for her at the exit door of the terminal, which at that time was becoming empty.
The agent who questioned ‘Natalie’ noticed and called the man. The military separated the couple, waiting for the terminal to be emptied.
Hermosillo International Airport, Sonora. The place where the extortion occurred.
“One of the elements was asking me what I was doing, since when I was in Mexico, where I lived, what my address was,” he recalls. “‘Is there a problem with my documents?’ I replied.”
The National Guard element became aggressive, took the papers of ‘Natalie’ and began searching the internet for personal information of the hondureña.
To her friend, another agent asked about her. “As far away I heard what they were asking her: ‘what is she doing here, what does she do, how long has she been here.'”
Agents took photos of his resident card, renewed in January 2021, and his student credential. Then they accused ‘Natalie’s’ friend of bringing a fake license.
“He comes from illegal,” they told me. “And the one who was checking me said to his partner, ‘She is in order.'”
At that moment, ‘the Skinny’, who questioned ‘Natalie’, asked him if he knew that his traveling companion did not bring documents in order.
“I told him ‘no, I don’t know his immigration status, we’re just friends, I’m not going to be asking him that,'” he says.
The response unleashed the agent’s fury. “He screamed at the other three who were with my friend and said, ‘We’re going to accuse you of human trafficking.’ I was very scared.”
Extortion at the airport
The mistreatment of ‘Natalie’ and her companion is a sample of the excesses that are committed when placing the military in tasks that correspond to civilians. Organizations such as the Foundation for Justice (FJEDD) have promoted amparos against the participation of the GN in these tasks.
Others, such as the Legal Clinic of the University Human Rights Program of the UNAM and the Institute for Women in Migration (Imumi), promoted since 2019 the campaign #LaGuardiaNoEsPolicíaMigratoria.
The amparos continue their course before the courts, while the National Guard maintains the same performance in immigration reviews, including abuses.
Deploying the GN in migration tasks involves risks, activists warn.
To the custody of the woman was also added ‘the Skinny’, who annoyedly demanded a proof of the deposits he receives from his government scholarship. He wanted proof of his sayings.
As she explained that she does not receive any paper receipts, only transfers to her bank, the agent required her to open her bank account from her cell phone and show the amount she received last month. ‘Natalie’ obeyed.
He then went back to threaten to charge her with human trafficking.
“He told me that every person who accompanies and mobilizes an immigrant does human trafficking, but I didn’t even know what was going on.”
“You see them there in uniform, there are four, they all make you believe that you are doing something wrong. So, I didn’t know what to tell him,” he says, recalling the episode that still upsets his nerves.
After a while — he doesn’t remember how long — his friend came out of the National Guard office and said the agents asked him for money.
“He gave them 3 thousand and a fraction” of pesos; he didn’t bring any more, the woman says. She was also required to hand over money, but since she did not have cash, she was ordered to go down to the ATM area of the airport, while from the upper floor she was watched by the elements of the GN.
‘Natalie’ then obtained 5 thousand pesos, which she gave to her captors. Then he waited outside the office guarded by ‘the Skinny’, to whom the woman begged to let her go home.
Another element of the GN approached with two sheets, which allegedly contained the accusation for the crime of human trafficking, but the agent who guarded her asked her to wait, because she said he wanted to help her.
“Look, I know how this is going to affect you,” he said. “First you’re going to be deported, you’re going to lose your scholarship, you’re going to lose the progress you have in your master’s degree… This is very big and I want to help you.”
Then he asked for more money. “How much is your freedom worth to you?” said the man, and immediately asked to see his bank account again.
As he recalled that he had already made a withdrawal at the airport cashier, he then asked him to make a transfer for 15 thousand pesos.
The woman accepted and from her cell phone deposited the money to the account provided by one of the agents who were in the National Guard office.
Even so, they did not let go of ‘Natalie’ or her companion. To free them, ‘el Flaco’ set two conditions: one consisted of the delivery of money – which he had already fulfilled – and the second, to keep silent.
“I want to make sure that this is not going to come out of here, that you are not going to talk to anyone and that this stays with us,” he threatened. He immediately snatched his cell phone, took his number, dialed him and demanded that he keep his.
When he said goodbye, ‘the Skinny’ asked ‘Natalie’, whom he held and threatened for several hours, to be friends.
“I want to be your friend”
It was almost midnight when ‘Natalie’ and her companion were allowed to leave the airport.
‘El Flaco’ offered to take her home and asked her not to leave with her companion. “I’m going to leave you, you’re going to go with me, wait for me,” he said. The woman refused.
In an oversight of the agents, the friend of ‘Natalie’ le she advised against allowing herself to be taken home and to talk to her roommate to pick her up at the airport.
His friend boarded a car from the Uber service. Her friend went through ‘Natalie’; he had barely gotten into the car when he received a WhatsApp message. It was ‘the Skinny’, who asked: “Are you on your way yet? Let us know when you get home.”
The journey was difficult. ‘Natalie’ was terrified that the GN element could reach her home. Every time he heard a car passing through the street where he lives, he feared it was him: “he began to tremble.”
But the harassment didn’t end that night. In the following days, the student received several messages.
“Hello, how are you?… Hopefully you will accept me an outing to a café… I want to be your friend… Happy Sunday!” were some of them.
It was a difficult time for her. “I was very afraid, I felt threatened, I felt intimidated, I felt cornered, I felt very small,” she says.
“I was shaking with fear,” Natalie confesses. He lived a hell because of the extortion and harassment of GN agents.
Nothing is the same
When leaving the Hermosillo airport, the last thing ‘Natalie’ thought was to file a complaint about what had happened.
He knew stories of migrants who had been forced to hand over money when they arrived at airports or bus stations. Cases of abuse and extortion by police or INM agents are common among migrants in Mexico.
At first, ‘Natalie’ decided to let the incident go. But the harassment of the National Guard agent and the permanent fear that invaded his life were the first step in changing course.
It was very difficult, he says. She feared negative repercussions, and she did not know if the officers who had arrested her were right to do so.
The other step was the conversation with a lawyer who explained that she was a victim, who had to be protected to stop the situation she was facing. That encouraged her.
Five days after his detention at the airport, he filed a complaint with the Sonora delegation of the Attorney General’s Office (FGR).
It was the last day he received messages from the ‘Skinny’. The harassment ended, but the Honduran woman’s life was not the same.
For 15 days she remained locked in her house, her social life came to a complete halt. The incident impacted his academic activity and mental health.
On this fact the National Guard was silent. He did not respond to an interview request about the case.
‘Natalie’ is now looking to resume her life.
The case of the Honduran student questions the immigration control strategy applied by the current federal government, civil organizations warn.
Addressing the problem requires understanding the particular situation of people crossing Mexican territory, especially those in need of refuge or humanitarian asylum, say specialists such as Gloria Ciria Valdez Gardea, general coordinator of the Migrant Childhood Seminar at the College of Sonora.
This is something that, so far, does not seem to happen with the National Guard. The corporation was created in 2019 promoted by the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The objective was to protect citizens and combat insecurity and violence, “without excesses, without authoritarianism, respecting human rights,” the president said.
However, the facts seem to exhibit something else.
Since assuming the position of commissioner of the INM, on July 18, 2019, Francisco Garduño warned that the GN would be deployed on the northern and southern borders, as part of the new immigration control mechanisms in the country.
The official then explained that migrants could be detained by agents of the corporation who participate in the operations, and then be made available to immigration agents.
Researcher Valdez Gardea reiterates the risk of this militarized deployment.
“The National Guard has been instructed to detain, supervise, observe any individual who may appear not to be bringing papers; so, somehow it is getting into very sensitive issues that concern people’s human rights,” he insists.
Valdez Galdea assures that the way in which the entire human infrastructure for immigration containment is organized should be observed with suspicion. For example, the incorporation of the National Guard into migration faculties imprints a different stamp on the strategy for several reasons.
It is a corporation made up of elements not trained for this task, nor with sufficient sensitivity towards migrants, which gives rise to the continuation of “human rights violations and extortion, “he warns.
At the end of the day, activists agree, the result is theism: a militarized apparatus to contain undocumented migration through Mexico.
And the growing vulnerability of people who are just looking for an alternative to stay alive.
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