Migrants place themselves under ‘house arrest’ amid escalation of drug violence in Juarez

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Advocates make case for ending MPP program or, at least, speeding up asylum interviews

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Migrants waiting for asylum hearings are keeping a low profile in Mexico, as drug gangs terrorized the border city of Juarez for a fourth consecutive day on Friday.

“I go from work to my apartment, that’s all. I don’t go to bars or places like that because I don’t want to get caught up in a shooting,” said Edgarti, a Cuban citizen due for an interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the next few days in El Paso.

“You don’t feel safe even going out to buy a soda, but when you feel hungry or thirsty, you have to go out to buy that soda,” added Johnny, another Cuban waiting for news on his asylum claim Friday at the Juarez’s Migrant Assistance Center. Both men claim political persecution on the part of the government in Havana.

Juarez police have been on alert since Tuesday night, when drug gangs unleashed a wave of terror to stop a planned raid on the state prison where their leaders are held. The State Police Director said the gangs murdered eight rivals and torched 15 vehicles, including 10 city buses. More than 800 soldiers and police officers have taken over the prison and police have arrested 15 suspected members of the “Mexicles” gang.

On Friday morning, Juarez police responded to bomb threats at a Walmart, a mall, a Downtown park and the Autonomous University of Chihuahua. At least one additional vehicle was burned during the course of the day, bringing the total to more than 20 in four days.

Meantime, some 6,000 Central American, Cuban and Mexican asylum seekers remain either in shelters, shared apartments, run-down hotel rooms or find themselves sleeping in parks and on the streets in Juarez.

“Crime is bad here. The other night they tried to steal my boots as I was sleeping on the sidewalk,” said Jose Luis Villabautista, who left Zacatecas, Mexico after a run-in with criminals. He said the violence in Juarez took him by surprise.

“I ask, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, for (the United States) to take pity on those of us waiting here and give us asylum,” Villabautista said. “If we are good or we are bad, they (CBP) can separate the good from the bad.”

Villabautista said his troubles in Zacatecas started when he tried to stop gang members from robbing an elderly man on the street.

“They shot me on the side of the leg. When I recovered, they came back and told me that if I wanted to fight I should join them, or else,” he said. The interview was cut short by speeding police vehicles, sirens blaring, driving by the bridge area. Migrants were hesitant to consent to interviews after that.

Advocates: Don’t send any more asylum seekers to Mexico

The latest round of violence in Juarez prompted immigrant advocates in El Paso to call for the U.S. government to end the practice of making asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their claims are processed.

“For several months we have been saying that Mexico is not a safe place for asylum seekers. … Mexico is failing to protect not only asylum seekers and refugees, but also their own people. The latest developments only show that both countries failed to recognize that,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of El Paso’s Border Network for Human Rights.

He said the U.S. is putting refugee families in “mortal danger” by making them wait in Juarez, particularly now. And he noted that Mexico’s drug violence is taking place with guns “that are sold in the United States as if they were candy.”

The organization and others who work with migrants had previously alerted the news media about kidnappings, rapes and even a couple of murders of migrants returned by CBP to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) program.

“Even before this latest round of violence we knew migrants were living under a type of house arrest: from the shelter to work because of word-of-mouth on previous attacks, assaults and kidnappings,” said Marisa Limon, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute. “This just shows the precarious conditions that every day Juarez residents find themselves in — let alone people who are migrants and those who are seeking asylum.”

She also called on speeding up the asylum process for those already in the pipeline and for the federal government not to make petitioners wait in dangerous Mexican border cities. According to Juarez officials, more than 16,000 Cubans, Central Americans and others have been sent to Juarez by U.S. authorities under the MPP program.

“Our response has been a hardening of the border, the use of force, of deterrence and cruelty. Now we are seeing the unintended consequences,” Limon said. “It’s important that we think about alternative methods to make the asylum process accessible in the true nature of our stated values, instead of basically repealing asylum and shutting the door.”

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