Seven top officials were fired Thursday from Mexico's National Immigration Institute, part of a wider cleanup effort at the embattled department amid rampant migrant kidnappings and accusations that some agents have been involved.
The officials directed operations in seven states most traveled by Central American migrants trying to reach the United States and where some of the worst atrocities against migrants have occurred, the Interior Department announced in a statement.
They include the director in the northern state of Tamaulipas, where a group of Central American migrants recently accused immigration agents of pulling them off buses and handing them over to criminal gangs. Six agents from the immigration institute were arrested after migrants identified them in photographs.
The Central Americans were among 120 migrants, both Mexicans and foreigners, rescued last month by soldiers in separate raids at houses in Tamaulipas.
The dangers for migrants crossing Mexican territory controlled by drug gangs have increased dramatically in recent years. In August 2010, 72 Central and South American migrants were found massacred at a ranch in the Tamaulipas town of San Fernando, allegedly because they refused to work for the Zetas gang.
Last month, authorities unearthed 183 bodies from clandestine graves in Tamaulipas, many of them believed to have been snatched from passenger buses by the Zetas. It is unclear how many of the victims might have been migrants. Just six bodies have been identified _ five Mexicans and one Guatemalan. Several municipal police officers have been arrested in the mass killings, but investigators have given no indication that immigration agents were involved.
The plight of migrants is a source of discomfort in Mexico, which regularly lobbies for better treatment of its own immigrants in the United States. The government says it has taken many steps to help migrants, including passing a law in recent years establishing that it is no longer a crime to be in Mexico illegally. Mexico also provides humanitarian visas to migrants found to be victims of abuse and has signed agreements with Central American countries promising safe passage during deportations.
But despite many efforts to root out corruption, Mexican immigration officials and police are often found to be involved in the kidnapping of migrants, who are regularly extorted for money and, more recently, targeted by drug gangs trying to forcibly recruit them as traffickers.
At least 11,333 foreign migrants were reported kidnapped between April and September in 2010, most of them Central Americans, according to a recent report by Mexico's National Commission of Human Rights.
Also fired was the immigration director in Oaxaca state, where more than 40 Central American migrants were kidnapped from trains in December. Some escaped but many remain missing.
Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest who runs a migrant shelter in Oaxaca and first reported one of the kidnappings there, dismissed the firing of seven immigration directors as "putting a Band-Aid" on the problem. In an interview with Milenio Television, Solalinde said immigrant agents should be subject to criminal investigations.
The Interior Department said the dismissals were only the start of a wider cleanup effort. Replacements for the fired directors will conduct an overhaul of their offices, dismissing employees believed to be involved in corruption, the department said in its statement.
At least 168 of the immigration institute's 5,000 employees have already been fired or suspended since September for abuse and corruption.