Monday, May 4, 2015
Guest blogger: Lorena Caldera – second-year graduate student, University of San Francisco School of Education
This semester I was given the opportunity to volunteer at Centro Legal de La Raza, a non-profit organization in Oakland, which provides free and low-cost legal aid services to low-income communities in the Bay Area. In conducting research for a country conditions report on the drug cartel violence in Michoacán, Mexico, I interviewed two young women, both in their early twenties and originally from Mexico, who were in the process of applying for asylum in the U.S. From their stories I learned of the severe and inhumane violence that is being perpetuated in Michoacán, Mexico, specifically, Apatzingan and Uruapan, Michoacán, by two dominant drug cartels in this area, Grupos de Autodefensa Comunitaria (Self-defense Groups) also known as Autodefensas, and Los Caballeros Templarios Guardia Michoacana (Knights Templar—Guard of Michoacan), also known as Los Templarios. In an effort to support these individuals with their asylum cases, do justice to their stories, and draw light to this human rights issue, I offer these views.
As was communicated to me by Maria and Lourdes (pseudonyms for interviewees), young teenage girls are being targeted and forced into prostitution by these drug cartel groups, and disappearing in numbers-fold. It is a commonplace understanding in neighborhoods where these groups dominate that if you are a beautiful young girl, you will eventually be approached by one of these drug cartel representatives and coerced to provide sexual favors for their chiefs/leaders. Young women who refuse to partake in these sex demands are threatened with violence and death threats against their family and loved ones. In a desperate attempt to protect themselves from these gender-based forms of violence, young Mexican women are escaping to the U.S., primarily California.
In addition to targeting young Mexican women, drug cartels also are zoning-in on small business owners in the cities of Apatzingan and Uruapan. Mexican nationals in towns throughout Michoacán, Mexico, report that even the smallest of business owners, including fruit and produce stand owners, are at risk of being confronted by the Knights Templar or the Self-Defense Groups, who demand a monthly monetary levy from their miniscule profits. Again, intimidation tactics and death threats against small business owners are used to coerce business owners into acquiescing with the drug cartels’ extortion and monetary demands. The effects of this drug cartel levy can be financially and emotionally devastating for countless small business owners and their families, as evidenced by small businesses filing for bankruptcy and closing down due to the drug cartels taking their scarce profits. In some cases, small business owners forgo their most basic of personal and family needs such as a daily meal to keep their humble businesses operating and be able to pay the monthly tariff that the drug cartels demand. Per Maria and Lourdes, small business owners who have refused to cooperate with the drug cartels have been found dead, their bodies viciously tortured, and/or have had someone in their family murdered.
Second, in my interviews with Maria and Lourdes, I was informed that the drug cartels have been aggressively evacuating families from their homes in Apatzingan and Uruapan, Michoacán, so as to use these properties for their drug and criminal operations. Many families have been left homeless and forced to flee to nearby cities to temporarily stay with relatives. In instances where no family members are available, entire families have fled to California seeking safety and asylum.
Moreover, the drug cartels have affected other aspects of Mexican society, including access to schools and higher education. College students living in surrounding rural areas in Michoacan, Mexico, who commute to the universities in nearby cities, have been faced with withdrawing from school due to the drug cartel violence that occurs on buses en route to school. Buses traveling to the city from rural areas in Michoacán, Mexico, have been known to be terrorized and ransacked by drug cartels looking to take anything that is of monetary value from bus riders, mostly students and workers. It is typical for violence and feuds between rival cartels to ensue in broad daylight, thereby obstructing the roads traveled by buses en route to school. Thus, because of the risks and dangers involved with traveling to the university, the educational and career opportunities for young people from the surrounding rural areas and small towns in Michoacán, Mexico, are very limited if non-existent.
Given the well-founded fear that these drug cartels, the Knights Templar and the Self-defense Groups, have instilled in the people of Michoacán, Mexico, Mexican nationals throughout this region are desperately fleeing Mexico and traveling to the U.S. with the hopes of being granted asylum and a chance at a new start for themselves and their families. It is important to note that exposure to the Mexican drug cartels’ inhumane and brutal forms of violence have caused severe trauma, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder in these asylum applicants, especially their children. Despite the atrocities these individuals have seen in their homes in Mexico, they still have aspirations for a better future that includes the American Dream—achieving a higher education and working to provide for their families. In view of that, these groups of people, who are being persecuted and forced out of their homes through no fault of their own, represent the ideal asylum applicant. On a personal note, my stance is that Mexican nationals, who are fleeing Michoacán, Mexico, due to the drug cartel violence in their home country, should be granted asylum in the U.S. in accordance with asylum eligibility laws. It would be irresponsible, unethical, and unjust for this country not to grant asylum.