Last Updated: Friday, 21 October 2016, 15:45 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Mexico

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1998
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Mexico, 1 January 1998, available at: [accessed 23 October 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Mexico hosted about 30,000 Guatemalan refugees at the end of 1997. UNHCR recognized about 60 individual refugees from 14 countries, including Colombia, Iran, and Liberia. The agency assisted 3,560 Guatemalan refugees to repatriate from Mexico during the year. An estimated 15,000 Mexicans were internally displaced.

Refugees from Guatemala The situation for Guatemalan refugees in Mexico changed significantly after Guatemalan insurgents and the Guatemalan government signed a peace accord in December 1996. The accord has not ended all of Guatemala's ills, but it has allowed the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico to consider returning home safely. Nevertheless, only about one-tenth of the Guatemalan refugees who remained in Mexico at the beginning of 1997 repatriated, leaving more than 30,000 in Mexico at year's end. However, that figure includes more than 17,000 children, many of whom were born in Mexico have Mexican citizenship.

Most Guatemalans said they will accept the Mexican government's offer of permanent residence. Although Mexico has made and retracted that offer in recent years, it has now begun to grant refugees residence permits and citizenship.

Some 4,500 Guatemalan refugees in Mexico, mostly those in settlements in the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo, had applied for permanent residence, and 162 had been granted Mexican citizenship, UNHCR reported.

Applicants for permanent residence receive an "FM2" visa, which they must renew annually for five years. They may then convert it to a permanent residence permit. Some 8,150 refugees in Chiapas, Campeche, and Quintana Roo have applied for FM3 visas, which must be renewed yearly and do not lead to permanent residence. Many who applied for such visas are still considering repatriation. They may apply for FM2s if they decide to remain permanently.

Refugees have many reasons for deciding not to repatriate: they have been in Mexico for 15 years or longer and are economically and socially integrated; their children have been born and grown up there; young adults may feel more Mexican than Guatemalan; and refugees and indigenous local people often share the same culture and language.

Many refugees also fear what awaits them in Guatemala. Some returnees have encountered hostility and economic difficulties in their home areas. Such hardships caused about 10 percent of the returnees to go back to Mexico. The Mexican government no longer considers these "returned returnees" as refugees, but as illegal aliens subject to deportation.

These options of repatriation and permanent local integration have led UNHCR to wind down its programs for Guatemalans in Mexico, particularly in Campeche and Quintana Roo. Mexican government agencies now provide water, electricity, and other services UNHCR once managed.

UNHCR is helping Mexican authorities to ensure that the refugees in Campeche and Quintana Roo can purchase land on which they live and work. Much of that land was purchased by the international community years ago and can easily be sold and legally transferred to the refugees. Some of the land belongs to the government, however, and purchasing and gaining title to that land has proved more difficult.

Helping the refugees in Chiapas to settle permanently is harder. Refugees in the other two states live in large settlements on land owned by the government or the international community, but the refugees in Chiapas are widely dispersed. Half live in 10 large settlements, but the others are spread out in 96 other settlements, some consisting of only a few families. These small settlements are on private or church-owned land.

Conflict between indigenous insurgents and the Mexican government complicates efforts to help the Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas to integrate locally.

Internal Displacement Conflict first broke out in Chiapas in early 1994, when the Mexican army launched an offensive against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (the EZLN, or "Zapatistas"), an indigenous insurgent group, which had gained control of some rural areas of Chiapas.

The EZLN sought to bring attention to indigenous Mexicans, whom it said rich landowners exploited and national and local authorities discriminated against. The Mexican army's 1994 offensive against the Zapatistas displaced some 2,000 people. Most returned home later that year.

Indigenous and other insurgent groups have since become active in other areas of Mexico, particularly in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, as have paramilitary groups that oppose them. These paramilitary groups are often comprised of poor young indigenous men, allegedly funded and controlled by rich landowners and conservative local government officials who want to suppress indigenous people's calls for greater rights.

The government and EZLN have talked sporadically, but have reached no firm solutions. The EZLN has reportedly lost significant political support. Meanwhile, the government has increased financial assistance to the region, largely in communities that do not support the Zapatistas. This has fueled rivalries between and within communities, making Chiapas a powder keg, according to some observers.

Acts of violence against the indigenous population continued unabated during 1997. Some 500 peasants have been killed in Chiapas since 1995. According to Human Rights Watch, government officials in Chiapas facilitated much of that violence. Insurgents also committed acts of violence.

Beginning in May, some 6,000 indigenous people in the Chenalho area were displaced by violence between the EZLN and government supporters.

In November, gunmen attacked Father Samuel Ruiz, a Catholic bishop known for his defense of the rights of indigenous people. Ruiz was returning from a religious gathering with some 60 followers. The attackers, allegedly paramilitaries, injured three of the worshippers.

On December 22, paramilitaries associated with a group called the "Red Mask" attacked Acteal, a village in the municipality of Chenalho. They killed 45 displaced Tzotzil Indians who lived there and injured 25 others. The dead, who were shot or hacked by machetes, included 21 women and 16 children, one a new-born baby. Survivors claimed that although a police post was just 200 meters from the site of the massacre, the police did not intervene.

The massacre prompted thousands of people in nearby villages, many who supported the EZLN, to flee. Estimates of those displaced varied widely, from 3,500 to more than 8,000. Mexican federal prosecutors investigating the massacre arrested more than 40 people, some with links to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governs Chiapas and has governed Mexico for more than 70 years (though it lost control of the lower house of the Mexican congress in elections in July 1997). The governor of Chiapas resigned shortly after the massacre.

Mexico's attorney general initially implicated local government officials and PRI members in the massacre, but later recanted, saying that the massacre resulted from a dispute between communities.

According to Project Counselling Service, an international NGO working in Chiapas, an estimated 15,000 people were displaced throughout Chiapas at the end of 1997. Of those, some 5,000 were in the northern part of the state, with the remainder in the Chenalho area. The largest group, some 3,600, were in the village of Polho. Local and international NGOs assisted the displaced.

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