Women, Violence and Nowhere Left to Turn

How Women from Mexico and Central America Flee Violence to Seek Asylum in the United States
by Lauren Green, Natalie Jubrail and Nanitzia Comparán Cuadras
with contributions from Julissa Limatu and Valeria Ortega

Warning: This report contains graphic descriptions of violence.

Today, tens of thousands of migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico are fleeing for survival. It is widely recognized that this humanitarian crisis is rooted in the spread of organized crime in migrants’ home communities. In this report, we illustrate how organized crime also infiltrates the supposed “safe spaces” women might have in their homelands and neighboring countries, forcing them to seek asylum in the United States. In particular, we show how organized crime leaves women unsafe in 1) their homes, 2) state institutions designed to protect them, and 3) the third spaces where they first seek safety. In a context of normalized gender-based violence, the criminal infiltration of safe spaces makes women more vulnerable, leaving them nowhere left to turn but to the United States.

The report is based on 36 in-depth interviews of women seeking asylum in the U.S., conducted at the Tijuana-San Diego border. All of the women interviewed were fleeing domestic violence, organized crime, and/or institutional violence in Central America and Mexico. 

Their testimonies reveal how organized crime embeds violence into the community in which these women live, leaving them with no sense of security in their homes and little protection from homeland institutions, including the police and the government. This forces women to escape and seek protection in third spaces, such as Mexico. Yet even those third spaces, including Tijuana, prove to be unsafe, leaving women nowhere left to turn but to seek asylum in the United States. 

Methodology

This research was collected by students participating in the Mexican Migration Field Research Program (MMFRP) at the University of California, San Diego. The MMFRP is a year-long program directed by Dr. Abigail L. Andrews, a professor of Sociology, in which students gain an understanding of the experiences of migrants, particularly those who are seeking asylum across the Tijuana-San Diego border. Prior to the start of research, these students participate in a ten week course focused on the sociology of immigration so as to develop some knowledge of Mexican and Central American migration to the United States, and of past and present U.S. policies around immigration. Students are also given professional training on self-care and on how to interact with survivors of trauma while conducting interviews.

The research was conducted between January and March 2020. This report is based on 36 in-depth individual interviews with Mexican and Central American women ages 18 and over who were in the process of seeking asylum in the United States. Most of the women interviewed were staying at a women’s shelter called Madre Asunta, but some others were staying at the shelters of Ejército de Salvación, Casa del Migrante, and Espacio Migrante, all of which serve women and/or families. 

The interview process was divided in two stages. The first stage started with undergraduate and graduate students staying in Tijuana, Mexico for a week, in which groups were placed in different shelters in Tijuana based on their research focus. Most students who participated in this report were placed and conducted their interviews at Madre Asunta. Throughout the week, we built relationships with the migrants at this shelter as well as the staff. We immersed ourselves in the daily lives of these women by helping with tasks such as washing dishes, cooking, playing games with their children, and serving lunch. Participating in these activities helped create a sense of trust between migrant women and student researchers. In the second stage, students went back to the shelters every Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a period of six weeks. Throughout the day, students conducted interviews and volunteered in activities in the shelters. 

The majority of the 36 women interviewed were single mothers from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, though several were also from Mexico. All were fleeing either from domestic violence, organized crime, and/or institutional violence. All interviews were voluntary and confidential. The questionnaires were mostly open-ended, to give participants a sense of control over the process and enable them to tell the story of their journeys and their reasons for seeking asylum in the U.S. Interviews lasted between 30 minutes and two hours, and took place in a private and confidential space in the shelter, to ensure adequate privacy for women. Before conducting the interview, the risks that were associated with their participation in this research were explained. All interviews were conducted in Spanish and audio recorded. We use pseudonyms to protect the identities of all respondents.

The audio recordings were transcribed in order to facilitate their use for the research. Each transcript was coded into eight different categories, including: domestic violence, threats to women and/or children, negligence by the police, direct attacks by the police, attacks in third-spaces, feeling of unsafety in third spaces, and indirect and direct organized criminal violence (Figure 1).  We then analyzed each category in order to identify evidence and common patterns among the transcripts. Limitations to this data include the number of interviews used, as well as the interviews only being done in four shelters around Tijuana. 

Background: Cartels and Gang Violence

This section offers a brief background on the context of cartel and gang violence in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. As of 2020 there were a wide range of criminal organizations operating across these four countries, including both cartels (large drug trafficking organizations, known by participants as narcos) and gangs (groups of criminals ranging in size from local to multinational, known by participants as maras). These organizations vary in their histories, practices of violence, and relationships to different supposed safe spaces. They also evolve over time. Indeed, refugees themselves were often unsure of the precise name or character of the groups who threatened violence against them. What is clear from the interviews is that these groups played a key role in infiltrating the supposed safe spaces for women and left women in vulnerable positions that led them to face an impossible choice between risking their lives by staying or risking their lives by fleeing. 

We will begin by saying a bit more about how cartels have affected women, particularly in Mexico. Cartels are narco trafficking organizations that have played an increasingly violent, public role in Mexico in recent decades. They originated as drug trafficking groups, but as of today they are international franchises involved in gun trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, gender-based violence, criminal involvement within the government, and other forms of corruption. 

The following quotes illustrate how cartels affected our Mexican interviewees’ lives in their home communities: 

CARTEL VIOLENCE
“Yo estaba en México, pero el problema es el crimen organizado. Los carteles, ahí hay guerra porque están peleando por el poder porque el jefe de antes ya no es, entonces hay mucha guerra. Ya están empezando a matar mujeres, y yo recibí una amenaza. Como sé que es verdad, ya son muchas en la lista que han estado matando, ya no puedo esperar a que me hagan algo…” (I was in Mexico, but the problem is organized crime. The cartels, there is a war there because they’re fighting for power. The old boss isn’t the boss anymore, so there is a lot of fighting. They’re starting to kill women, and I got a threat. Since I know it’s true, there are already many women on the list of people they have been killing, I can’t wait until they do something to me) -Irma, México“Primero empezó cuando los Zetas  llegaron a Altamirano. Empezaron a traer armas. No era un pueblo donde se usaban armas. Y allí fue cuando ya empezó las riñas que se empezaron a matar unos entre otros. Fue creciendo, que los demás querían tener más poder y así se fue durante ese tiempecito. Empezamos a ir a los velorios, cuando antes era … realmente era muy bonito ir allá al rancho. Empezaron a tener esa rivalidad y bueno… todo explotó cuando ya entró el cártel Nueva Generación de Jalisco.” -Edith, México “Fui violada por muchos. Estaba con muchas compañeras nos llevaban a la fuerza… y pues a la vez no puede ni caminar me dejaron en un campito sola pues con otras compañeras, y la verdad después no supe nada de mi. Me dijo el doctor que me dieron (grupo armado) como una pastilla como una droga, que me dieron para no saber nada de mi. Y pues me amenazaban cada ratito y me llevaban a la fuerza cuando ellos querían ” -Aracely, México

In Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, meanwhile, gangs play a more central role. Commonly referred to as maras, their activities originally only involved mostly vandalism and robbery, but they now practice widespread extortion, which involves making residents pay a “fee,” whose frequency and amount may vary, in order to avoid being killed or other forms of violence. Failure to pay these fees may result in harassment, violence, and even death. Besides extortion, gang activity also involves assaults, gender-based violence, local drug distribution and homicides. 

The following quotes highlight the presence of gangs within the home communities of respondents from Central America. 

GANG VIOLENCE
“Allá las pandillas, está la MS-13, está la 18 revolucionarios, está la 18 sureños… Se dieron cuenta que yo vivía en zona contraria y ellos pensaron que yo estaba dando información a los contrarios. Por eso a él le dieron la orden que mi asesinara. ” -W, El Salvador “Pues yo de El Salvador, después que ellos se fueron me toco cambiarme de lugar de vivienda porque me tocaba andar huyendo porque yo me sentía perseguida por las pandillas”. -W, El Salvador “En El Salvador, haz de cuenta que ahí si no estás con ellos tienes que hacerles favores. Te meten quieras o no… siempre hay pandillas y todo, allá les dicen Mara. Entonces el (su hijo) no se quiso meter, pero él siempre anduvo en el mercado. El problema es de que si tu vives… en un lugar y el mercado era contrario. Y asi sucedio todo… En cambio allá en El Salvador no, si andas o no siempre  si tienes hijos varones te buscan”. -M, El Salvador 

As illustrated in the testimonies above, the way in which organized crime groups infiltrate a community happens at varying scales and in different spheres. Women confront sexual assault, rape, child recruitment, threats of violence including murder of themselves and their loved ones. 

The Current Situation for Women Seeking Asylum in the United States:

In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported on how women from Central America and Mexico were unable to find safety in their homes, due to domestic and gang violence as well as a shortage of protection from state authorities (UNHCR). Five years later, women we interviewed affirm that the violence perpetrated by organized crime has made supposed safe spaces insecure for them, leaving them no option but to flee. Most of the women we interviewed who faced domestic and/or organized criminal violence had to pursue protection from other countries, including seeking asylum within the United States. 

In June 2018, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued the Matter of A-B- decision which overturned the legal precedent that had given domestic and gang violence survivors, mostly women, the right to asylum in the U.S. Although this ruling was eventually overturned, it shows how little protection is given to women fleeing from gender-based violence, particularly when that violence involves organized crime. 

At the beginning of 2019, the Trump Administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols Program, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” an immigration policy in which migrants are returned to Mexico while their asylum cases are being processed in the U.S. Migrants are expected to wait in Mexico and attend court appointments in order to continue their asylum process. Under this program, studies show that at least one in three asylum seekers face threats in Mexico before they attend their court session (USIPC). With little to no protection from the U.S. and Mexican governments, hundreds of women accompanied by their children are being forced to put their lives at risk as they continue to reside in dangerous territory.  

Findings 

The women interviewed for this report spoke to the different ways in which violence has permeated their lives as organized crime groups take over life in Central America and Mexico. These groups increase violence in the communities where they operate, affecting the supposed safe spaces to which these women might theoretically turn. Indeed, 55% of women we interviewed had received direct threats from criminal groups, while 45% reported that they had indirectly been affected by organized crime.

In our interviews, 45% of women said they had been directly attacked by cartels or gangs. 

Women who fled from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala consistently spoke to the presence of the Mara Salvatrucha, from whom they described numerous violent threats. Likewise, women from Western Mexico (especially the states of Michoacán, Jalisco, and Guerrero), reported a similar level of violence from the cartels in these territories. Women noted that the ways these organized criminal groups threatened their lives included, but were not limited to, extortion, recruitment of their children, sexual assault, kidnapping, and murder of family members. 

The following testimonies give in depth examples of how organized criminal violence permeates what should be women’s safe spaces, including the home, government institutions, and third places (including other countries) to which women flee to for safety.

The Home:

Out of the three supposed safe spaces, the household is the most important for women. Within their homes, women believed they should be able to feel safe. But due to organized criminal groups, the household became a hotspot for violence. This violence often took the form of intimate partner abuse or child recruitment, which directly affected the environment and dynamic within a household. 

Physical Violence in the Household

Julieta, for instance, was a 34-year-old woman from Honduras who experienced constant threats and harassment by her ex-partner. After three years of being separated, she discovered that her ex-partner had joined a gang. His behavior changed dramatically. Even though they had been separated for a couple of years, having a child together was his justification to continuously harass her. She described:

“Una vez me llaman de la escuela que había un hombre diciendo que le entregaran al niño porque era el papá. Quería que se lo entregaran al niño porque decía que el niño era hijo de él. Y pues él allí me hizo un gran problema, que quería llevar el niño, discutimos en la calle y al final no se lo llevó porque la gente llamó a la policía y el se termino yendo. Ya no quise seguir arriesgándome, así que tomé la decisión de venirme.”

Julieta said she noticed a shift in her ex’s behavior once he quit his job as a police officer and joined the gang. Her household was continuously disturbed by the father of their child trying to get back to his family by constantly emotionally abusing her and harassing them. She went on:

“Se volvió en una persona posesiva, muy agresivo también… Él empezó a buscarme, a quererse involucrar y él se había metido una idea de que él quería de nuevo a su familia, que era a mi hijo y a mi. Que si no era por las buenas, iba ser por las malas. Cuando yo lo conocí, él era policía también. Y pues ya cuando él empieza a buscarme él ya se había salido de la policía y entró en las pandillas. Andaba allá en cosas malas, consumía drogas, yo recibí amenazas por parte de sus personas entonces por eso mejor decidí venirme.”

Julieta’s testimony demonstrates that in many cases, even though the couple does not live together, men involved in criminal organizations can continue threatening them using the child who connects them. It also shows the shift in men’s character once they have joined a gang, leading to a hyper-masculine approach to domestic violence in which men become more aggressive towards the women that they are related to, or even separated from. 

Like Julieta, other women told similar stories of their partners, ex-partners, and fathers beating them, verbally assaulting them, or otherwise becoming extremely violent after becoming involved in a criminal organization. We offer a few examples in the quotes below: 

I have one concern about these quotes, which is that they do not necessarily link to criminal organizations. Can you add a sentence after the quotes that clarifies how the two are related?

“Cuando yo me separé del papá de mi niño, me pegaba mucho, era muy borracho, mujeriego, no me dejaba salir, no me daba dinero, siempre con la suegra me pegaban horriblemente feo… a veces me aventaban piedras… Cuando mi niño tenía como un año y medio, me escape porque tuve las fuerzas y decidí escapar…”

– Mariel, Mexico

“Me maltrataban mucho, me dejaron muchas marcas en mis brazos. Yo no sé si era coraje el que me tenían, no me querían. Ósea una cosa que yo hacía no les parecía, luego me pegaban. Y ósea yo era la que salía siempre maltratada. Yo todas estas marcas que tengo son porque cuando estaba chiquita mi mamá nunca me cuido bien. Casi me comían las ratas, a mí y a mi otra hermana, por eso yo tengo estas marcas. Yo estaba chiquita, no sabía.”

-Araceli, Mexico

“Mi padre le pegaba mucho a mi madre, borracho, le pegaba, todos los días no se por que. Desde los 6 años mi mamá se iba, mi papá le pegaba a mi mamá y se iba. Yo crecí con mi abuelo y mis tíos. Me acuerdo que tenia un tio, y el otro  abusaban de mí desde pequeñita. Nunca le dije a mi papá que ellos abusaban de mí. Mi mamá siempre se iba. Me dejaba con mis abuelos, todo el tiempo fue así.”

– Celeste, El Salvador

Although usually the first form of domestic violence that usually comes to mind is violence from a partner, the testimonies above demonstrate that household violence is not limited to romantic relationships but it is often carried out by close relatives including parents, aunts and uncles, and other family members that are supposed to be caregivers. 

Child Recruitment

In addition to family violence, child recruitment enters women’s households and families as a constant threat against children, beginning as early as 9 years old but in some cases even younger. In our interviews, women consistently told us that they felt a responsibility to provide a better future for their children, so given a constant threat of recruitment, they chose to escape in order to protect them. 

Celeste, for example, was a 40 year old woman from El Salvador who escaped for multiple reasons, including the fear that one of her four children would be recruited by a gang.  She explained that most of the child recruitment takes place outside of schools, transforming educational institutions into a danger zone. In order to protect her family, especially her 9- and 11-year-old sons, she decided to migrate and petition for asylum in the U.S. She reflected that she had come to the U.S.-Mexico border:

“Por que hay mucha delincuencia, por que los niños corren mucho peligro y las Mara los reclutan para hacer uso de ellos y cuando un niño no quiere asistir con ellos pues los matan”.

– Celeste, El Salvador

Threats against women and children by gangs and cartels have become very common in both Central America and Mexico, where 62% of the women and children we interviewed had been directly threatened with violence at least once. Melissa, a migrant mother from El Salvador put it poignantly:

El problema de por que vine acá es por que en mi país ser joven es un delito. Entonces, como a mi hijo el mayor – fue amenazado. No nos venimos así como, ‘Vamos a ir a los EUA a trabajar, a superarnos, vamos a ir por una vida mejor.’ No. Nosotros nos venimos por necesidad. Para que a mis hijos no les pasara algo más…En mi país ya un niño de 10 años ya en mi país ya no puede vivir.”

– Melissa, El Salvador

By targeting children, in short, criminal organizations penetrated family life, leaving women feeling that their children and homes were a hotspot for violence. 

The presence of violence in what should be a safe space deeply affected women’s well being. When women’s children were recruited, they lived in a constant state of worry, forcing them to consider fleeing in order to save their children and reclaim their sanity. 

Under such conditions, one might think women should go to the police, file lawsuits, or otherwise seek government protection and support. 

Government Institutions:

This report refers to “government institutions” as public entities in a country that have the responsibility to ensure the protection of its population by providing institutional support. This includes local police and courts as well as federal and national government institutions such as the military. We find that the lack of efficiency and corruption of Central American and Mexican governments gave organized criminal groups leeway to influence and even control local government institutions, leaving women no protection from this second supposed safe space. 

The testimony of a Honduran woman named Carla, shown below, illustrates the common feeling among women that police and other government agents not only would not help them, but were in league with the gangs and cartels.

Carla’s Testimony on Government and Cartel Collaboration
“La misma familia del presidente está trabajando con las drogas con el tráfico con el narcotraficante, imaginate. Ahorita en Honduras se están desapareciendo mujeres y niños en este tiempo. Esta un alerta roja. Se los estan robando. Ya no se puede vivir y el presidente dice que estamos bien… Nosotros el pueblo no tenemos la culpa de que el gobierno sea corrupto porque se sabe al nivel mundial que el anterior presidente, su esposa son cinquenta años que le dieron de cárcel por tráfico, de lavado de dinero de millones. De quién era ese dinero? De nosotros. Y se está dando que el presidente del congreso es el que sigue y se está dando ahorita que su hermano del presidente es narcotraficante.”

As Carla highlighted, women often observed officials at all levels of their home country governments directly collaborating with cartels. This led to high levels of distrust and an unwillingness to report violence to the police or the state. As a result, Mexican and Central American governments were ineffective in protecting women from organized crime. 

In some cases, representatives from these institutions also participated in gender-based violence themselves, and physical and sexual assault by representatives of state institutions were normalized by the public. According to Todd Stewart, physical and sexual assault against women by government officials is one of the most common forms of abuse towards women by state authorities in Mexico and Central America. The victims usually find it hopeless to report the abuse due to the corruption of the political system and the protection that most authorities get against prosecution for crime. In the interviews we conducted, a majority of the Mexican and Central American women seeking asylum struggled with the state institution in these countries. Among the 36 women, 53% experienced negligence at the hands of police officials and about 17% experienced direct attacks by them. 

53% of interviewees said they went to the police, and the police did nothing to help them.  

17% were directly attacked by police.

For instance, Laura, from Michoacán, Mexico, experienced sexual abuse from the head of the police department while she was trying to file a report of harassment by a member of a cartel. 

Laura, a mother of two boys, had recently left Michoacán, Mexico. One day before she left, while she was walking home, a man started following her and attempted to kidnap her. She was able to escape and survive this incident. However, Laura decided to report it to the police and to try and get protection. When she attempted to file a police report, government officials continued to send her back and forth between offices until the head of the police agreed to meet with her. She described:

“El director de la policía me da un vaso de agua y me dice tranquilícese señora no pasa nada va estar bien y me empecé a sentir rara, empecé a sentir mi cara adormecida, los labios los sentía adormecidos. Sentí muy rara mi cara, me senti mal y ya me dice, “¿Qué le pasa?” No se, me siento mal, eran las siete yo, no supe más.”

Laura woke up startled on the couch with her dress raised to her waist, and the head of police proceeded to ask her if she felt better. She explained that she was confused and uncertain as to how she ended up on the couch, but the only thought running through her head was that her kids had been left alone and that she needed to go home to them. She remembers there being a group of police officers outside his office and one of them, a woman, entered his office and asked if she was okay or if she needed the ambulance to come. She was still feeling drowsy and her head was in pain. She arrived at her house and immediately went to take a shower. 

“Llegué a la casa y yo todavía me sentía atontada, me siento adormecida y yo me metí a bañar. Yo traía mi ropa al revés y me di cuenta que ese tipo abusó de mí…”

Laura’s case is very important because it demonstrates what many women are victims of in Mexico. She gives an example of the sexual and psychological abuse women suffer in that country. She also demonstrates how the police are part of the problem and how, for many women, it is not safe to report fear of violence to them. 

The quotes below need some more explanation. Introduce here who the person is (I changed the pseudonym to Carla) and what her story is about or what it demonstrates. Then provide another sentence or two in between the two quotes and one after to contextualize what you’re showing.

“Hubo una mujer de Honduras, que ella peleaba por los derechos de las mujeres un día fue en su bicicleta salió a dar su paseo y unos carros del gobierno la subieron y la encontraron muerta. Saben que fueron agentes del gobierno y es como la hicieron en memoración de ella muchas cosas se dieron, ella abrió muchas oportunidades pero estaban exigiendo los derechos laboral, es que ella tenía una organización de los derechos de las mujeres y por ser eso fue muerta, la mandaron a matar porque ella sabía muchas cosas.”

“Varias de nosotros que somos mujeres emigramos por temor de lo que estamos viviendo. La misma policía en vez de proteger, hay un lema que ellos tienen, servir y proteger, y es una mentira. Recuerdo que venía caminando un día y le hice seña a una patrulla y no me hizo caso y la misma patrulla volvió y regresó y le hice seña, no me hizo caso. Y dije, ja me reí en mí y dije su lema es servir y proteger. Si porque eres mujer imagínate, te niegan.”

– Carla, Honduras

Adding to the overall gender-based violence against women, the collaboration between organized criminal groups and government institutions results in corruption and a failure of these organizations to protect women and migrants from gangs and cartels. Public and government officials, members of the local and federal police departments, and other law enforcement authorities have been frequently accused of cooperating with drug trafficking organizations and other criminal groups. Government officials themselves also frequently threaten or sexually assault women. Indeed, more than 52% of women we interviewed said that they went to the police, and the police did nothing to help them. As a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service shows, cartels and gangs use violence, bribery, and corruption to “neutralize government actions.” Thus, migrants are unable to access protection in their own countries from criminal threats, domestic violence, or attempts to threaten and recruit their children.  

Third Spaces: 

Before seeking asylum in the United States, almost all of the women we interviewed tried to to seek safety from violence somewhere closer to home – in what we refer to as a “third space.” Theoretically, migrant shelters in Tijuana also offered a safe third space, as they tried to give women a sense of security and comfort. Yet when we asked women how they felt in the shelters  more than 72% said they did not feel safe. 

72% of women interviewed did not feel safe in Tijuana.

Alma’s story gives a gruesome example of how cartel violence followed women to the places they attempted to flee. (Note: the following story is very graphic). Alma was a 35-year-old woman who had been a police officer in El Salvador and took part in a shootout that killed a leader of a prominent local gang. The cartel went after her, and when they found her they tortured her, raped her, and demanded she join them. Luckily, she was able to escape. However Alma knew she was not safe in El Salvador so she decided to seek asylum in Coahuila, Mexico with her three children. Then, the gang’s allies caught up with her in Mexico. After three years of living in Mexico, one day while she was working, cartel members found her and kidnapped her again.

Alma’s Testimony on Cartel Violence in Third Spaces 

Pues en Saltillo, Coahuila a mí me secuestran en mi caseta. 72 horas. Me violan, me secuestran,  tengo unas marcas de cigarro donde me estaban diciendo de que pedían $170,000 pesos para que yo quedara libre.” (Well, in Saltillo, Coahuila they kidnapped me in my booth. 72 hours. They rape me, they kidnap me, I have cigarrette marks, and they were telling me that they were asking for $170,000 pesos to let me go free.)

When Alma finally returned to her house, the door had been broken down and she walked into the sight of her 14-year-old daughter’s body on the floor, stripped of her organs. She explained that the police had been right in front of the house, but they did nothing about the situation:

“Estando la policía así enfrente en una caseta. A dos pasos de mi casa no pudieron hacer nada por mi hija, nada. Me la mataron, me le quitaron los órganos, y en todo eso usted cree que no iba a escuchar la policía? No me quisieron hacer caso. Ellos le temen a los narcos.” (The police were right in front, in a station. Two steps from my house, they could not do anything for my daughter, nothing. They killed her (the cartel), they took her organs, and in all of that, do you think that the police couldn’t listen? They didn’t want to listen to me. They are scared of the narcos.) 


Alma had no time to grieve for her elder daughter, as she knew that the cartel was still after her. She took her youngest daughter, then six years old, and made her way to Tijuana. There, things continued to get worse. No matter where Alma went, the cartel would threaten her. As Alma was waiting in Tijuana to get on the “list” for petitioning for U.S. asylum, the cartel found her, raped her, and left her pregnant. In between her multiple court hearings for U.S. asylum, Alma and her daughter were attacked in Tijuana four different times, yet they continued to be sent back under MPP (the Remain in Mexico Program).

Alma begged the judge to not send her back to Tijuana, because the cartel had found her and she feared for her life. The judge responded by saying it was not up to him, and that she would have to speak to the Customs and Border Protection officers at the border. She was given a date for her next hearing and sent on her way. We were able to observe her second hearing in the San Diego Immigration Court. When Alma’s turn came, she broke down in tears, explaining that the Cartel had found her and her youngest daughter again and tried kidnap them. She described how the men were licking her now seven-year-old daughter and how she was trying to bite them to get away. She begged and begged to be able to stay in the U.S. while her case was processed, asking the judge to help her, to keep her daughter safe. The judge once more said it was not up to him, and she was sent back To Tijuana. Then he gave her yet another new court date, six weeks later, which would be the first one to initiate her asylum case.

Alma’s story offers a clear example of how even the third spaces to which women run to get away from danger – such as Coahuila, Mexico and ultimately Tijuana – become infiltrated by criminal organizations, putting women in the same situation as before or even worse. The example also shows how dangerous the MPP program is to migrants. Alma stated multiple times that she feared for her life and had proof that she had been impregnated, yet the U.S. government denied her safety and forced her to go back to the third space in which she was put in danger. 

22% interviewees had already been attacked  in third spaces

Like Alma, about 22% of the women we interviewed reported that they had already been attacked in the third spaces where they first sought safety.

There have been more than 1,114 publicly reported cases of human rights violations against asylum seekers and migrants that are returned to Mexico. Some of the threats that migrants encounter include kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder, which in many cases are the same problems that they are trying to escape in their countries. 

The U.S. has continuously defined Mexico as an unsafe territory, with human rights violations and impunity cases. Alma is one of 56,004 migrants who have been returned to Mexico under MPP, who are sent back to a territory where their lives will most likely be threatened.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this report argues that women are forced to flee Western Mexico and Central America because they cannot find protection in the supposed safe spaces of the home, the police, and the third places to which they flee. Criminal enterprises like gangs and cartels infiltrate these spaces, leaving women subject to domestic violence, police negligence and/or abuse, and cartel stalking across cities and countries. As previously mentioned, these criminal organizations now have an overwhelming presence in communities in Western Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, facilitating their infiltration into households, government institutions, and external spaces.  

Based on this work, we have a series of recommendations for policymakers in the U.S. and migrant-sending countries, as well as for advocates seeking to help these migrants. First, the US government should: 

  • Provide legal information for asylum seekers, particularly women who seek asylum in the U.S. 
  • Recall the Mexican Protection Protocol policy that puts women and their children at risk.
  • Account for the interplay between criminal, domestic, and gang violence in asylum decisions, as well as for the lack of safe protection in Mexico.
  • Invest in strategies to reduce organized crime that do not fuel further violence.

Central American and Mexican Governments also have important roles to play by reforming institutions to provide more effective protection for women threatened with domestic or criminal violence. 

NGOs and Civil Society organizations can further support asylum seekers by ensuring they have access to adequate information and free legal assistance on the right to seek asylum in the U.S. and Mexico. 

Finally, the public and readers of this report can support asylum seekers by spreading awareness of the abuses they are facing at the hands of U.S. officials, as well as by volunteering at refugee shelters or donating food, clothing, hygiene products, and other basic supplies, as suggested in the box below. While these supports are urgently needed, without institutional change, women from Mexico and Central America will continue to have nowhere left to turn.

How to support asylum seekers at the Tijuana-San Diego Border
Donate and/or volunteer. More info available on the “donate” page of this website.
Shelters (Tijuana)
Casa del Migrante 
YMCA 
Espacio Migrante
Ejercito de Salvacion 
Madre Asunta
Advocacy Organizations:  
Al Otro Lado (pro bono immigration lawyers)
Border Angels
Otay Mesa Detention Resistance