Overcrowding, abuse seen at Mexico migrant detention center

María Verza
Associated Press
Federal Police and migration officers hold a child after her mother tried to jump the line at an immigration center May 27 in Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico.

Tapachula, Mexico – The 36-year-old Cuban mechanic’s eyes glazed over as he recalled his time at the Siglo XXI holding facility: 50 people sleeping in 9-by-12-foot pens, feces overflowing the latrines, food and water always scarce.

Women slept in hallways or in the dining hall among rats, cockroaches and pigeon droppings, as children wailed, mothers reused diapers and guards treated everyone with contempt.

“They threw us in there like little animals,” a Honduran woman said.

Many migrants who cross into southern Mexico end up in Siglo XXI, Spanish for “21st century,” said to be the largest immigration detention center in Latin America. Located in the city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala, it’s a secretive place off-limits to public scrutiny where cellphones are confiscated and journalists aren’t allowed inside.

The Associated Press was denied access, and the National Immigration Institute, which oversees the facility, did not respond to requests for comment. But about 20 people interviewed by AP including migrants, officials and rights workers who’ve been inside, described it as sorely overcrowded and filthy, and alleged repeated abusive treatment by agents tasked with running it.

Washington has demanded Mexico slow a migratory surge of mostly Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence but also Cubans, Haitians and Africans , and President Donald Trump has said threatened tariffs on Mexican imports may be revived if it doesn’t get results. As President Andrés Manuel López Obrador puts in motion a still-vague plan to crack down in response, observers fear an already overtaxed Mexico is woefully unprepared for the prospect of more arrests.

A Honduran migrant woman who did not want to be identified, talks about her experience being detained at the Siglo XXI migrant detention center, May 28 in Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico.

“If more people are detained, there is not the corresponding infrastructure to handle it,” Edgar Corzo of the governmental National Human Rights Commission said Thursday during a tour of southern Mexico ahead of an anticipated, 6,000-strong National Guard deployment to help police immigration.

As of late April there were more than 2,000 migrants in Siglo XXI, according to the commission, over double its 960 capacity. Hundreds were moved to an improvised camp and that was down to 1,230 as of last week, Corzo said. Another facility in Tuxtla Gutierrez with a capacity of 80 was holding 400.

“I cannot imagine putting 100 more or hundreds more at the Siglo XXI. … The migratory stations are not prepared to respond to greater capacity because they have been overwhelmed,” Corzo said.

Most of those interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. But from them a picture of the hermetic Siglo XXI emerges.

It’s a prisonlike compound with 16- to 30-foot walls, control towers, security cameras and high-ceiling caged areas where guards patrol above the migrants. There is a punishment cell called “the well” which the government has promised not to use, though the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center, one of the few NGOs allowed inside, has not been able to verify that.

The U.N. refugee agency and other organizations criticized detention centers in Mexico even before the current crisis, saying migrants are held in substandard conditions and regularly extorted. They have called for detentions to be the exception, and to be completely eliminated for minors. Yet children continue to fill up the centers, even after a girl died in Mexico City under unclear circumstances.