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Fleeing the drug war, but finding doors closed in Canada

By: Oakland Ross

She was 24 years old — and six months pregnant — when Canadian authorities sent her back to Mexico, one more number in a long line of failed Mexican refugee claimants.

She was seven months pregnant when she was kidnapped.

Two months later, and still a captive, she gave birth by caesarian section, as an autopsy would later show.

A month after that, she was dead — shot once through the head following a severe beating.

Call her Grise. The name is a pseudonym, used to protect the woman’s relatives both here and in Mexico, and the motives for her murder remain unclear, but the story is true.

The Mexicans found her body in June, 2009 — grisly evidence that, in this case at least, Canadian immigration authorities got a refugee claim lethally and irreversibly wrong.

As for the child she bore, the infant vanished along with the killers, all protected by the same dark shroud of narcotics-induced corruption and fear that blankets much of Mexico.

It says in the Bible thou shalt not kill.

But, verily, in Mexico, you can.

Says Francisco Rico-Martinez, director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto: “In Mexico, you can get away with anything.”

They call it Mexico’s culture of impunity, and it is a source of mounting concern among activists in this country. They worry that changes to Canada’s refugee system will further imperil genuine asylum-seekers from Mexico, an increasingly beleaguered republic where narco-dollars, firearms, and brash young men with nothing to lose are gradually replacing the authority of the state.

“The legal system is being corrupted by drug traffickers,” says Judith Teichman of the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. “Particularly in northern Mexico, but throughout the country, when the drug gangs become ensconced, the first thing they do is go after the police force with bribes. It is affecting all of their institutions.”

Nowhere is this lawless culture more brutally expressed than in Juárez City, a northern border town that seethes in the desert sun, just a bullet’s arc across the Río Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Ensnared at the epicentre of the narco-wars now raging across much of the country, Juárez City has a population of about 1.5 million, who suffered roughly 2,600 homicides during 2009 alone, most of them drug-related.

But here’s a number that’s possibly worse: 30.

That is how many arrests were made in Juárez City during the same period, according to U.S. writer Charles Bowden, author of a searing portrait of the stricken community, entitled Murder City.

That’s one person arrested for every 87 corpses that turn up — and many corpses never do.

There’s a saying popular among the legions of young men who make up the ranks of Mexico’s drug gangs — impoverished and poorly educated for the most part, with few economic prospects apart from a deadly but glamorous life in crime: Mejor vivir 10 años como un güey que 40 años como un büey.

It’s better to live 10 years as a dude than 40 years as a donkey.

This is the logic, and these are the ethics, that seem to be winning the day — and haunting the night — in many parts of Mexico.

Granted, Juárez City and other towns along the U.S.-Mexico border constitute a special case, stranded as they are on the front lines of the narcotics wars that pit well-muscled drug cartels against the police and the army, not to mention each other, with innocents frequently caught in the middle.

But Mexico’s culture of impunity has inevitably spread to other parts of the country. The state authority is eroding amid an excess of payola and fear.

“There’s so damned much money,” says Carlo Dade, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas. “These guys carry a couple of hundred thousand dollars in walking-around money.”

Plus, they are armed.

Pablo Escobar, the late Colombian narcotics kingpin, famously articulated the two-step formula for drug-world success prior to his own violent demise in 1993: O plata o plomo.

Either silver or lead.

In other words, if a bribe doesn’t buy compliance, then a bullet surely will — a two-pronged tactic that has corrupted or killed legions of police officers, jail guards, judges and countless other public officials, first in Colombia and now in Mexico.

Since December 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a government assault on the drug trade, upwards of 35,000 Mexicans have died in narcotics-related strife.

“Mexico is not a safe place by any stretch,” says Teichman.

And yet it seems likely that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney will skirt at least some of these bleak realities when a new Canadian refugee law takes effect around the end of this year.

Under the legislation, Kenney will be empowered to designate certain countries as “safe.” Refugee claimants from such countries will still have their cases heard, but they will be subjected to a truncated process, with less time to prepare for an initial hearing or to file an appeal if their claim is refused.

A “safe” designation would most likely be applied to those countries that generate lots of refugee claimants but few approvals — conditions that certainly apply to Mexico.

In 2008, for example, would-be refugees from Mexico led all nationalities, filing 9,400 claims in Canada, or about 25 per cent of the total caseload.

Only about 11 per cent of the Mexican claims were approved.

Alarmed by the surge in applications, Ottawa began requiring visas from Mexican visitors in July 2009. That dramatically reduced the pace of refugee claims from that country, while also raising the ire of refugee advocates.

Many critics warn the new law could pose a particular danger to legitimate asylum seekers from countries such as Mexico, where the trappings of democracy remain intact but where many government institutions are crippled by drug-related bribery or terror.

“Does the country have mechanisms for protecting its citizens?” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a Montreal-based watchdog group. “On the surface, Mexico may have all the institutions, but in practice they don’t work.”

Mario Bellissimo, a Toronto immigration lawyer, also bemoans the “safe country of origin” provision of the new law, calling it an example of Ottawa’s preference for “bulk assessments.”

Instead, he says, each refugee claim should be weighed on its unique merits.

“I’ve argued drug cartel cases with nuances that are completely different, applicant to applicant.”

Bellissimo also cautions that refugee claims that might seem dubious if made by an applicant from another country could be far more credible coming from a Mexican, owing to the climate of impunity there.

A Mexican who threatens to kill his wife, for example, might be more likely to follow through if he believes, perhaps rightly, that he’ll never be caught.

And yet this distinction could well be lost in the bureaucratic fog should Ottawa declare Mexico to be “safe.”

Dench believes the low approval rate for recent Mexican refugee claims is misleading.

“You could say that a 10 per cent success rate is a low acceptance rate,” she says. “But it could represent a lot of people in absolute terms.”

Even in relative terms, the numbers don’t necessarily mean Mexico is safe.

“If a plane has a 15 per cent chance of a crash,” says Dench, “you wouldn’t say that’s a safe plane.”

The new law would permit the immigration minister a degree of discretion — for example, the authority to designate parts of a country to be “safe” rather than the entire national territory.

That’s a welcome provision, say some refugee advocates.

Despite the drug wars, Mexico’s overall murder rate remains modest by international standards — about 14 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, compared with 1.8 in Canada.

But that’s an average figure, and it obscures some huge variations. Last year, Mexico’s most peaceful region, Yucatán, had a murder rate that was even lower than Canada’s. On a per-capita basis, Mexico City experienced one-third the homicides of Washington, D.C.

But Chihuahua, Mexico’s most violent state, suffered 130 murders last year per 100,000 people.

When it comes to guns and drugs, Mexico is far from alone.

The overall murder rate for violence-plagued Venezuela is 49. For Honduras, 67. For El Salvador, 71.

“In pretty well every country, this is drug-related,” says Dade at the Canadian Foundation for the Americas. “People are talking about losing their countries to the gangs.”

With no place to call safe.


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