At the end of 1998, USCR estimated the refugee population in Mexico to number 7,500. Of those, some 5,800 were Guatemalans. The remainder were from more than a dozen countries worldwide, including 1,300 Salvadorans, 200 from other Latin Americans countries, and about 30 each from the Middle East and Africa. During the year, 3,900 Guatemalan refugees repatriated from Mexico. An estimated 15,000 Mexicans were internally displaced.


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 accelerated Guatemalan refugees' repatriation, which had begun en masse in 1993, following the signing of a repatriation agreement in October 1992.

UNHCR and the Mexican government reported that some 26,500 Guatemalan refugees remained in Mexico at the end of 1998. USCR no longer regards the vast majority of these 26,500 Guatemalans as refugees because they are firmly resettled in Mexico and are either Mexican citizens through birth or naturalization, or permanent residents with the possibility of becoming citizens.

More than half of the 26,500 are children born in Mexico who are Mexican citizens. The government of Mexico has granted permanent residence to the vast majority of the adults who were refugees. They are eligible to become Mexican citizens; 640 have already obtained Mexican citizenship and more than 2,400 others have applied.

According to UNHCR, the government of the state of Campeche has approved the incorporation of the settlements that are home to some 7,700 Guatemalans into the state's political and administrative structures. The government of the state of Quintana Roo is considering adopting a similar measure for the 2,700 Guatemalans living there. In 1998, the Mexican government extended long-term residency and the right to apply for citizenship to the 13,500 Guatemalans living in the state of Chiapas. Formerly, the government only granted them one-year residency permits. Since the government extended its offer late in the year, not all of the Guatemalans who wished to apply for long-term residency were able to do so.

The 5,800 Guatemalans whom USCR still considered to be refugees included 1,000 persons who lived in urban centers and whose future status remained unclear; the 3,500 persons living in Chiapas who were unable to apply for long-term residence and still held one year residency permits; and the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Guatemalans who had indicated that they did not wish to settle permanently in Mexico and planned to repatriate in 1999.

UNHCR has wound down its programs for Guatemalans in Mexico, particularly in Campeche and Quintana Roo. It is helping the Guatemalans there gain permanent title to the 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 proven more difficult.

Internal Displacement

Internal displacement began when conflict broke out in the southern state of Chiapas in early 1994. The conflict between the Mexican army and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (the EZLN, or Zapatistas), an insurgent group seeking rights for indigenous people, displaced some 2,000 people that year. Since that time, other insurgent groups have become active in Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico. Paramilitary groups opposing them have also emerged. The paramilitary groups are allegedly funded and controlled by rich landowners and conservative local government officials who want to suppress indigenous people's calls for greater rights.

In 1998, local NGOs estimated that some 5,200 persons remained displaced in northern Chiapas because of continuing conflict between government forces and the EZLN. According to Project Counselling Service, new displacement took place between December 1997 and January 1998 in the Chenalho district of Chiapas.

The displacement followed a massacre in the village of Acteal in December 1997. Paramilitaries attacked the village and killed 45 displaced ethnic Tzotzils who had sought shelter there. They injured 25 others. Survivors claimed that although a police post was just 200 meters from the site of the massacre, the police did not intervene.

Thousands of people fled Acteal and other nearby villages in the wake of the massacre. The ICRC estimated that by the end of January 1998, 6,000 displaced persons were in Chenalho in need of assistance. Other sources put the number of displaced at nearly 10,000.

Following the massacre, the Mexican government dispatched additional military forces to the region, ostensibly to disarm the paramilitaries and to assist the displaced. However, in May, the military forces launched an offensive against the EZLN.

In July, the Mexican government proposed a five-point plan for negotiating an end to the Chiapas conflict. However, negotiations were delayed because the government refused to accept the EZLN's demand that the military withdraw from the conflict areas as a precondition to negotiation. Negotiations eventually began in late November but proved unsuccessful.


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