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Mexico Plans Immigration Shake-Up
email this pageprint this pageemail usAssociated Press
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January 03, 2011

A Guatemalan boy in detention in the Mexican immigration office in Tapachula. He entered Mexico on his way to the U.S. (Jack Kurtz)
Mexico City Mexico plans a shake-up of its corruption-ridden immigration institute, officials said, after a year that saw some of the worst atrocities against illegal migrants trekking through the country including the mass slaughter of 72 Central and South Americans trying to reach the United States.

The dismissals early this week will include several top directors of the National Institute for Migration, according to two government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been made public.

The government of President Felipe Calderon also plans to reform practices that have led to omissions, oversights and acts of corruption, though the officials didn't provide details.

The hardships migrants face in Mexico have long been a source of discomfort for a country that lobbies hard for better treatment of its own immigrants in the United States.

The shake-up comes less than two weeks after El Salvador reported the kidnapping of 50 migrants from a train in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Mexico angered its Central American neighbors by initially denying the Dec. 16 abduction took place, but now says it is investigating and has several migrants who escaped in protective custody. El Salvador later denounced a second kidnapping in Oaxaca: nine migrants who apparently were taken from a train Dec. 22. Five escaped and reported the kidnapping and one was killed trying to flee, the Salvadoran Foreign Relations Department said in a statement.

The bodies of 72 migrants were found Aug. 24 at a ranch about 100 miles (80) kilometers south of the U.S. border they were trying to reach. Authorities have said the migrants were killed by the Zetas drug gang after refusing to work as traffickers. The Zetas have also been linked to the disappearance of the 50.

In September, Cecilia Romero resigned as director of the institute in the wake of the massacre and was replaced by the current director, Salvador Beltran del Rio.

The two officials said the shake-up is not a response to the kidnappings but to a government review that found widespread incompetence within the institute, which runs migrant detention centers and is in charge of deportations. They declined to say how many of the institute's 5,000 employees would be replaced.

Migrants who have long faced abuse often at the hands of Mexican police or immigration officials who have been caught taking bribes from smugglers, shaking down migrants or even handing them to kidnappers.

In the central state of Hidalgo, the government officials said, nine Honduran migrants escaped a detention center on Dec. 21 by smashing a hole through a wall. Staff at the center claimed to have heard nothing, and did not report the escape for hours. The supervisor on duty at the time was fired.

In the northern state of Tamaulipas, immigration agents have tried to turn away migrants brought to detention centers by the army, the government officials said. The immigration agents claimed to have received deaths threats and warnings from drug cartels not to accept any more migrants, an apparent tactic by drug traffickers to have more would-be victims on the streets.

Under Mexican law, the agents are required to take the migrants in.

Earlier this year, two immigration officials were arrested for smuggling Chinese migrants, and a detention center in Mexico City was found to be a drug-trafficking hotbed.

One of the worst cases came in 2007 when 12 Central Americans nearly suffocated in a truck where they were being held by immigrant agents demanding a bribe.

The intrusion of drug cartels has made the journey to the U.S. border even more dangerous. The Zetas, a vicious cartel with reach into Central America, has increasingly controlled migrant-smuggling routes in Mexico, extorting smugglers and kidnapping migrants for ransom or to use them as forced recruits.

A Roman Catholic priest who runs a migrant shelter in Oaxaca and first reported the Dec. 16 kidnapping said he has information that the Zetas were also involved in that assault.

Calderon's government already has taken several steps to try to improve the plight of migrants, including signing accords with other countries to ensure safe deportations, revamping detention centers and training immigration agents in human rights. Mexico has also passed a law stating that it is not a crime to be in the country illegally.

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