COVID-19: NGO denounces violent response to protest organized by immigrants held at detention center in Chiapas

Central American immigrants planned to start a hunger strike if they were not released 

COVID-19: NGO denounces violent response to protest organized by immigrants held at detention center in Chiapas
The Siglo XXI center has been accused of poor hygiene and scarce food and water - Photo: Jacob García/EL UNIVERSAL
English 29/03/2020 10:58 Reuters Mexico City Julia Love Actualizada 11:30
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This week, dozens of migrants housed at Mexico’s largest detention center protested over fears they will contract COVID-19 in the facility. According to advocates, the facilities are overcrowded and have poor sanitation.

During the protest, migrants were met with a violent crackdown by the country’s federal police and national guard, according to Mexican human rights groups.

On March 25, a coalition of local rights groups, the Collective for the Observation and Monitoring of Human Rights in Southeastern Mexico, denounced law enforcement’s response to the protest in the Siglo XXI detention center in the southern city of Tapachula, in the state of Chiapas, saying they beat migrants and later transported them to an unknown location.

“We strongly condemn all acts of violence and disproportionate use of force against people, men, women, and teenagers in immigration detention,” the rights groups said in a statement.

The account is the product of interviews with witnesses and victims, a representative of the groups said. Reuters was unable to independently verify the events described in the statement.

The National Guard did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the National Migration Institute (INM), which runs the facility, declined to comment.

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In 2019, detainees in Siglo XXI said they were being held in the facility near Mexico’s southern border for long periods without information about their cases, reported severe overcrowding, scarce water and food, and limited healthcare. The center has a long history of abuses recorded by groups including the Mexican government’s human rights ombudsman.

Previous protests at the facility have sometimes been rowdy, and security forces have defended their operations as necessary force to restore order.

Now, as cases of COVID-19 increase in Mexico, concerns are mounting about how to prevent the spread of the disease among thousands of immigrants who remain in the country as a result of rigid U.S. immigration policies. Moreover, detention centers in Mexico are seen as particularly vulnerable.

“They don’t comply with minimum health standards even in the best of times,” said Daniel Berlin, a deputy director for rights group Asylum Access. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that people are extremely frightened.”

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Last week, Asylum Access wrote to the INM, asking about its plan to contain the spread of coronavirus in the facilities but has yet to receive a response, Berlin said, adding that he did not know the specifics of the situation at the Tapachula center.

In recent weeks, some advocates have suspended their visits to detention centers as a precaution against COVID-19, “which leaves people even more vulnerable,” Berlin said.

The conflict in Siglo XXI arose on March 23 when 50 to 70 migrants, mostly from Honduras and El Salvador, gathered to protest long detention times, the rights groups in southern Mexico said.

“People expressed fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus and announced their intention to start a hunger strike if they were not released,” the rights groups said. National Guard and INM officers deployed poles, water hoses, pepper spray, and tasers against migrants, according to the groups.

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