E.g., 03/02/2024
E.g., 03/02/2024
Women Migrants in Transit and Detention in Mexico

Women Migrants in Transit and Detention in Mexico

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Mexico is one of the world's principal countries of transit migration, particularly for the thousands of Central Americans who travel to reach the United States each year.

Since 2000, Mexico has further intensified efforts to detain and deport irregular migrants through increased law enforcement efforts and the construction of additional detention facilities. Human rights abuses, corruption, smuggling, and trafficking have also increased.

This article analyzes the participation of women migrants in these flows by presenting general characteristics of the women migrants who were detained in Mexico and some impacts the law enforcement approach has had on them.

Irregular Migration in Mexico

While it is impossible to determine the dimension of irregular migration in Mexico, the Mexican Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración or INM) estimates that in 2004, over 2 million migrants crossed the Guatemala-Mexico border, approximately 400,000 of whom were Central Americans entering without authorization.

Other indicators of irregular migration through Mexico include the number of apprehensions made in Mexico each year, which in 2005 totaled 240,269 according to INM, and 117,595 "other than Mexicans" along the Mexico-U.S. border according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that approximately 400,000 non-Mexicans enter the United States every year in an irregular manner, mostly through Mexico.

While INM does not yet process national statistics disaggregated by sex, it estimates that 20 percent of irregular migrants transiting through Mexico are women. This estimate fits with Mexico City Detention Center statistics that indicate an average of two women out of every 10 detainees in 2005.

However, between 2003 and 2005, the number of women migrants detained in the Mexico City Detention Center increased from 16.7 to 21.3 percent. Although the reason is not known, this increase could mean there are more women migrating through Mexico, that the Mexican government has changed its detention procedures and record-keeping, or a combination of both.

Detention Centers

The number of detention centers increased between 2002 and 2006 to 52 with the construction of seven new centers; two more are currently under construction and 11 others are in the planning stages.

The detention centers are located throughout the country with a concentration of small centers in southern Mexico, three large centers in the north, a center in Mexico City, and one near the southern border in Tapachula, Chiapas, that INM inaugurated in April 2006 and that can hold 1,450 migrants (see map).

Map: Locations and Types of
Detention Centers in Mexico, 2005

In 2005, of the 240,269 apprehensions made, 98 percent resulted in deportations. The length of detention depends on the location of the apprehension, the migrant's nationality, identy documentation, and whether or not there is a pending legal claim, including an asylum application.

Central American migrants with identity documents are commonly deported within days, while migrants from countries such as China may remain in detention for three to six months or longer.


The information presented is based on research conducted in 2005-2006 on women migrants in detention in Mexico City that included documentary research as well as interviews with 90 women migrant detainees, government and consular officials, and NGO staff.

Interviews were conducted in the Mexico City Detention Center because all migrants from countries outside of Central America are concentrated in this center. In addition, all Central American migrants apprehended in central or northern Mexico are transferred to the Mexico City Detention Center for processing, making it possible to interview these women as well.

The interview pool was selected based on the percentages of nationalities of women detainees in the Mexico City Detention Center during 2004, but the sample framework was variable (each day the population was different). It was not a random sample as there was some control over the nationality, age, and place of detention of the women interviewed.

Nonetheless, the 90 women interviewed are a representative sample of the women detained in the Mexico City Detention Center during the spring of 2005. The information from the interviews, supported by the documentary information, may be used to discuss trends of women migrants in transit and detention in Mexico.

Ninety-one percent of the women (2,674 of 2,912) in the Mexico City Detention Center in 2005 were Latin American. Those from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras made up nearly half of the Latin American female population and 42 percent of the total female detainee population.

The remaining 9 percent of women detainees came from countries outside of Latin America, including Bulgaria, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Hungary, Sri Lanka, the Ukraine, and the United States.

Although women from 22 countries were interviewed, 93 percent of the interviewees were from Latin American countries (see Figure 1). Of these, 49 percent were from Central America, 34 percent were from South America and 10 percent were from the Caribbean. The remainder were from Europe (3 percent), Africa (3 percent), and Asia (1 percent).

Only eight of the women interviewed had previously spent time in the Mexico City Detention Center.

Figure 1. Detained Women Migrants Interviewed in the Mexico City Detention Center by Country of Origin
Source: Information obtained from interviews with women detainees between May and June 2005.

Characteristics of Women Migrants in Detention in Mexico

On a global scale, the number of women migrants has been as large as the number of men migrants since the 1960s. However, migration scholars including Monica Boyd and Elizabeth Grieco, Arlie Hochschild, Nana Oishi, Patricia Pessar, and Saskia Sassen point out that some of the changes that have occurred in recent migration trends among women are qualitative:

  • Women are migrating to find work, either because they are alone or because their partners are underemployed and they need additional income to support their families. This has been defined as the "feminization of migration."
  • A growing number of women with small children are joining migration flows, often leaving their children behind in the country of origin with members of their extended family.

The information provided by the women interviewed in detention in Mexico City confirmed these trends. While each woman's story was unique, some commonalities were identified.

Women migrants were young and often lived without a husband or partner.

Excerpt from Interview with 21-Year-Old Honduran Detainee
In Guadalajara, we were arrested by six municipal police. One of the men who rode the train with us paid the officials $30 and they let him go. The police took us to a jail where we were detained for two days. After this we were taken to Mexico City by bus and now I'm waiting to be deported.

What will I do next? I will keep trying because in Honduras it's just going to be worse — I'm not going to have a job, I don't have a house, I'm in debt, and I have to give a future to my daughters.

I have to make sure that my girls will never have to do the things I have done, and the only way to offer them an education is by reaching the U.S.


One of the common sociodemographic traits of the migrant women interviewed was their youth — all were women of working and reproductive age. Almost 70 percent were between 18 and 29 years of age; in fact, 46 percent were younger than 24. (While we did not interview women under 18, the Mexico City Detention Center statistics show that 16 percent of women migrant detainees were minors in 2005, while 58 percent were between the ages of 18 and 29).

The marital status of the women interviewed varied. Sixty percent of the women were single, separated, or widowed while 40 percent were married at the time of the interview (either by formal or common law). However, only 24 percent of the women were living with her partner before migrating.

In the group of women from the countries with the greatest transit through Mexico (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), the number of women who were living with a partner was even lower (20 percent). Most were women living independently of the fathers of their children.

The majority of the women migrants were mothers, and most of the mothers left their children behind in the country of origin.

Sixty-four percent of the detained women migrants had children. Almost half left behind at least one child under the age of 5, and 63 percent of the children who remained were between 5 and 12 years old. Only 13 percent of the women interviewed were traveling with a child.

In fact, among the Central American women, a full 94 percent left their children behind. This study, like the one by sociologist Nicola Piper, demonstrates that one of the highest costs of migration is separation from one's children.

The women migrants were employed workers seeking better-paying jobs.

This study shows that it is not the poorest women who migrate, nor the unemployed. Three-quarters of the interviewees had worked at least once in their country of origin, and, during the month prior to their departure, two-thirds were working.

The women were active in a broad range of jobs with 33 percent in the service sector. The next most popular sector was agriculture. A smaller group worked as professionals, while others were employed in factories or maquilas (factories that assemble products with imported raw materials). Their average annual income was US$3,875.

The decision to migrate was primarily motivated by a desire to provide a better education and material conditions for their children.

Close to 80 percent of the women interviewed and all of the mothers stated that the principal reason for traveling was to work and save money to send home. Those without children were migrating to support other dependents, such as parents, brothers, and sisters. However, they also mentioned other factors, such as conditions of violence and insecurity in both the private and public sphere.

Some migrant women referred to family violence in which insults, physical abuse and, in some cases, sexual abuse were part of their daily lives. While some of the women affirmed that migration provided an escape from this violence, only one claimed it as her principle reason for migrating.

Outside of their homes, the women expressed fear of being robbed or assaulted, or discussed a general environment of public insecurity. In the case of women from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, much of the violence was related to gang activity.

Even within the traditional category of family reunification (women migrating in order to reunite with their husbands) only three of the 14 women who planned to meet up with their husbands stated that reunification was the sole reason they decided to migrate. Rather, the women explained that, in addition to reuniting with their husbands, they planned to work because an additional income was needed.

The women decided autonomously to migrate.

Seventy-one percent of the women decided to migrate on their own, most of them supported by their families. But for one-third of them, the decision to migrate was a cause of conflict in their homes. Many chose to leave without having resolved the problem, often in secret, while others tried to completely avoid conflict by never disclosing their plans to migrate.

Women headed toward the United States had family networks that assisted with information and travel costs.

Seventy-nine percent of the interviewed women had relatives in the destination country and 93 percent of the Central Americans had relatives in the United States. Most family members were brothers and sisters, although a quarter mentioned a mother or father, and one-fifth had a husband or partner. Almost half had a more-removed relative (uncle or cousin) or friend abroad.

These family members helped the women migrate by hiring the smuggler, wiring money to them along the route, and promising to help them find work upon their arrival.

Women migrants planned to stay temporarily.

The majority of the women interviewed stated they planned to remain in the destination country for a period of three to five years. In their minds, this would be sufficient time to save money to provide their children with a better education and perhaps to build a house back home.

Mexico's Policy toward Irregular Migrants in Mexico

While the Mexican government is aware that the vast majority of migrants in Mexico are migrant workers in search of better economic and social conditions in other countries, it has continued to intensify its law enforcement strategy to detain and deport them.

The reasons for this approach include North American concerns for "national security" and the integrity of the rule of Mexican law, as well as cooperation with the United States to deter Central American migration in hopes of securing the regularization of unauthorized Mexican migrants.

The law enforcement approach has resulted in a notable increase in the number of apprehensions during the last five years (see Figure 2). This is due to a probable increase in migratory flows, an increase in detention agents and facilities, as well as changes in INM record-keeping.

Figure 2. Number of Detainees in Mexico by Year, 2001 to 2005
Source: INM. "Extranjeros asegurados en México, 2001-2005" (Foreigners detained in Mexico, 2001-2005).

According to the Mexican National Population Law, INM agents and Federal Preventative Police agents are the only two forces explicitly authorized to detain migrants who have violated the law. However, irregular entry is both an administrative violation as well as a crime. Law enforcement officials at the national, state, and municipal levels have the duty to arrest criminals who are in the process of commiting the crime — officials justify their participation in ongoing migration enforcement on this basis.

The potential participation of any law enforcement authority increases possibilities for corruption as it is virtually impossible for a migrant to identify which of the more than 300 police forces on a national level committed the abuse. In addition, migrants usually do not want to denounce acts of extortion and violence, particularly if they can pay to continue their journey.

Consequences of the Law Enforcement Strategy

Current law enforcement practices have caused migrants to travel into and through Mexico in a more clandestine way, making the journey both more expensive (as migrants hire smugglers and make extortion payments) as well as dangerous. Depending on the route, migrants cover approximately 2,000 miles with over 35 official checkpoints along the highways.

The risks of travel include illness, accidents (particularly death and the loss of limbs for migrants riding on trains), robbery, extortion, and physical abuse. In addition, women described situations of sexual harassment and sexual violence throughout the trip that put them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Before women migrants start their journey, some of them inject contraceptives to prevent pregnancy because they know they may be raped. However, such contraceptives do not decrease their risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, making this a serious public health issue. Because of their irregular status, very few women who are raped get medical care or report the rape to police. Therefore, the actual number of sexual abuse victims is not known.

Due to the risks involved, the majority of the migrant women interviewed used smugglers for at least certain segments of the trip. Those smuggled mentioned other dangers such as being abandoned in unpopulated areas; being held in an unidentified place while smugglers bribed family members in the United States for additional funds; and being subjected to dangerous travel conditions in boats, trucks, and train compartments.

In addition, the women reported that smugglers often separated women from their children during attempts to circumvent roadblocks or while trying to cross the borders, and, on occasion, the women lost contact with both the smuggler and their children.

In total, 43 percent of the women said that they had been victims of extortion in Mexico. In the case of the Central Americans, this figure increased to more than half.

The main authorities they mentioned as perpetrators were state highway police, municipal police, and INM agents. In addition, many women were forced to give money to civilians, such as taxi and bus drivers, who threatened to turn them over to the authorities if they refused to pay.

The amounts that the women paid to avoid apprehension ranged from $10 to $100 per incident, with some women paying between five and 20 times before being detained.

Although the interviewed women were reticent to talk about physical or sexual violence during the journey, 26 percent said they had suffered it, including rape by freight-train security guards.

In the majority of these cases, the person inflicting the violence was an authority figure, although smugglers and civilians were also identified. The sexual violence often occurred while being robbed, as "payment" for transportation, or in exchange for not being detained by authorities.

These human rights violations have been documented by the UN and Organization of American States Special Rapporteurs, the Mexican Human Rights Commission, and NGOs, as well as in documentaries, nonfiction books, and the international press.


Personal assets such as initiative, courage, and hard work were apparent in the women detainees interviewed. The majority of those traveling to the United States stated they were planning to attempt again should they be deported, in spite of the adverse conditions they had experienced in their travels through Mexico.

This type of determination shows why irregular migration poses an ongoing challenge to Mexican policymakers. Longer-term solutions will require regional cooperation with both the United States and Central American countries.

In the meantime, Mexico can improve its treatment of irregular migrants by complying with human rights agreements it has already signed, particularly the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its two protocols on trafficking and smuggling; and the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

It must also curtail corruption and confront organized crime. To address these problems, the new President, Felipe Calderón, may choose among a series of proposals that range from simple policy modifications to major legislative reform.

This article is based on information from a report entitled Globalization, International Security and Human Security: Experiences of Women Migrants Detained in Mexico. The research was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


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