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Mexico a hazardous path for migrants

Bonello and Ellingwood are Times staff writers.

Ada Marlen was 17 and already the mother of two children when she set out from her home in Honduras to seek work in the United States. That was in 1989; her family hasn’t heard from her since.

“Nineteen years ago my daughter started her journey, in search of her American dream, and to this day I don’t know anything about her,” said her mother, Emeteria Martinez.

The 70-year-old was among a group of 15 Hondurans who traveled to Mexico recently to search for missing relatives and draw attention to the perils Central American migrants face en route to the United States.

Tens of thousands of Central Americans traverse Mexico illegally each year on their way to the U.S. border. The trek, which can involve perilous journeys by boat and through isolated countryside and mean city streets, often ends unhappily.

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Migrants have been maimed or killed hopping aboard freight trains. Others are robbed or raped. Often, they are arrested, and held in squalid cells or denied medical care. In hundreds of cases, Central American families never hear from their relatives again.

In a sign of Mexico’s worsening crime problem, kidnapping gangs are increasingly targeting Central American migrants, officials and migrant rights activists say.

“We’re seeing an increase in organized crime against migrants,” said Mauricio Farah, who monitors migrant affairs for Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

Armed attackers prowl the migrant trail from Mexico’s southern border, often with the collusion of crooked police.

“They know the migrants’ route,” Farah said. “They assault them, pull weapons, threaten them and take them to safe houses.”

Townspeople in the central state of Puebla made headlines in October when they came to the rescue of dozens of Central Americans who had been seized, with the help of local police, in an apparent effort to extort money from relatives in the United States.

“The authorities don’t fulfill their duty to protect rights,” said Paolo Martinez, spokesman for Sin Fronteras, a nonprofit group in Mexico City that works with migrants and asylum seekers. “Many times, they are part of the problem.”

Mistreatment of Central American migrants is a delicate topic in Mexico, which has long protested human rights abuses against its own citizens by U.S. authorities.

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Precise figures are difficult to come by. The Mexican human rights commission said it has logged 1,600 cases this year alone of alleged improper detention of migrants by police, as well as threats, robberies and other abuses.

But activists say the Central Americans rarely report crimes because they would rather keep moving than stop and deal with Mexican authorities.

Mexican federal officials detained 92,000 Central Americans last year, the largest number of whom were from Honduras, according to the government’s immigration agency. Most of those arrests took place in the southern states of Tabasco, Oaxaca and Veracruz and in the state of Tamaulipas, on the border with Texas.

Mexican officials say they are sensitive to the plight of migrants and try to safeguard their rights. A change in the law this year means it is no longer a crime to be caught in Mexico without papers, which migrant rights advocates say reduces chances for corrupt officials to extort money from undocumented border crossers.

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During a weeklong trip to Mexico, the Honduran group had the names of nearly 600 people whose families considered them as missing. Among the group’s stops was a rundown neighborhood in Mexico City where activists say Central American girls and women have been pressed into prostitution.

Ada Marlen’s mother, Martinez, a diminutive, copper-skinned woman with a shock of white hair peeking from her brimless hat, said she tried to dissuade her daughter from leaving Honduras.

She would have to leave behind her two children to be raised by their grandmother. And trying to reach the United States without papers was sure to be difficult, the mother recalled telling her.

But her daughter would not be deterred. She set off with a family friend, who turned back after they reached southern Mexico. The friend said she last saw Ada Marlen on a bus headed for Mexico City.

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After nearly two decades of silence, a Honduran neighbor who had been in Los Angeles told Martinez in September that she believed she had seen Ada Marlen there.

However flimsy, that partial lead is a source of hope for Martinez. She dreams of the day when her daughter tells her, “Mama, here I am.”

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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