Darah Hansen, Vancouver Sun, March 28, 2009
Professionals on the run from Mexico’s brutal drug wars are beginning to appear in Vancouver in search of a safe haven.
This new class of would-be refugee includes lawyers, doctors, police officers and businessmen who say they are being chased out of their country by warring drug cartels whose members have resorted to torture, execution, dismemberment and decapitation to warn their enemies.
An estimated 1,100 people have died in the heated conflict already this year, following 5,300 deaths recorded last year.
As fears mount, record numbers of Mexican nationals are fleeing over the border into the United States and Canada.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the number of asylum requests filed at U.S. border entries by Mexican nationals nearly doubled in the last fiscal year, and the pace continues to increase. In Canada, 8,069 Mexican nationals requested refugee status last year, up from 7,028 in the previous year, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Statistics provided by the Canadian Border Services Agency to a French-language newspaper, meanwhile, put the 2008 number higher at 9,456–a figure representing nearly one-quarter of all asylum requests made that year.
The sudden spike in refugee applications from Mexico is a direct consequence of the drug wars between cartels, as the Mexican government tries to break up crime rings, CBSA documents provided to La Presse state.
Vancouver, like the rest of the country, has seen a steady rise in the number of asylum-seekers arriving from Mexico over the past few years. Refugee-assistance agencies say they now are seeing more professionals, including doctors, nurses and lawyers, coming through their doors looking for help.
All of them have terrifying stories about the drug wars back home, said Mario Ayala of the Inland Refugee Society.
Some health professionals have told him they became targets for violence after a gang member in their care died, Ayala said.
Others said their lives were put in danger after cartel members identified them as wealthy and began demanding cash in return for their safety.
Until last year, Ayala said it was “quite unusual” to see Mexican professionals among those seeking asylum in Canada. Typically, individuals in this particular economic category would seek entry as business investors, family-sponsored immigrants or as students, he said.
It remains unclear how many asylum requests based on fear of drug violence will be approved. Refugee claims in Canada can take 17 months or longer to work their way through the system, according to Ayala. To date, only about 10 per cent of all refugee claims from Mexico have been accepted. The vast majority of asylum seekers are returned home.
Successful applicants will be required to prove that, because of their profession, they are being persecuted by the drug gangs and that their own government is either unable or unwilling to protect them.
Mexico has been the No. 1 source country for refugee claimants in Canada since 2005. Mexican nationals do not require a visa to enter the country.
Mexico’s drug violence made headlines in B.C. earlier this month after Attorney-General Wally Oppal met with his counterpart from the Mexican state of Baja California, Rommel Moreno Manjarrez. The pair agreed to share more information about multinational organized crime groups smuggling drugs across the borders.
Moreno Manjarrez told reporters at the time his country is “at war” with drug cartels, whose murder victims have included judges, prosecutors, police officers and lawyers.
He said the agreement with B.C. was “a very important step in the new way to confront organized crime that operates beyond traditional boundaries.”
In B.C., gang violence has escalated in recent months, though it remains well below Mexico’s levels. Most of it is linked to the lucrative drug trade and disputes over turf and product. B.C. gangsters have been using Mexico as a place to vacation and meet. Two members of a notorious B.C. gang–the United Nations–were gunned down in Mexico last summer.