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Human rights panel claim cartels have kidnapped about 20,000 migrants

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) says that it is going to release a devastating report detailing how armed gangs linked to the country's major drug cartels kidnap and hold for ransom each year an estimated 20,000 migrants as they make their way from Central America toward the United States through Mexico.

Raúl Plascencia Villanueva, the head of the CNDH, said on January 6 that his organization has evidence that between April and September of last year, Mexican gangs carried out at least 214 collective kidnappings, each involving around 50 people.

The CNDH says that most migrants are kidnapped in southern Mexico, many of them hidden aboard the freight trains that leave from Chiapas, the Mexican state that borders Guatemala, heading north. It says it has testimonies that implicate the Mexican migration authorities in the kidnappings, with witnesses saying that trains are regularly stopped by officials who are on the gangs' payrolls. When the migrants flee, they are quickly rounded up by the gangs, or are simply handed over by officials and police officers. The gangs demand between $5,000 and $15,000 in ransoms. If the families are unable to pay, the migrants are murdered.

At the request of the foreign ministries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the Mexican authorities have suspended the stop-and-search operations for the time being. And the Mexican government has denied the accusations that many of its officials are involved in the kidnapping.

Salvador Beltrán del Río, the head of the National Migration Institute, told leading Mexico City daily El Universal that the CNDH's figures were "not real" and that "they do not coincide with ours."

But Beltrán del Río was unable to provide figures on how many migrants are kidnapped and held ransom each year. NGOs and human rights groups have been drawing attention to the tragedy for several years, and have also accused the police of involvement.

Impunity

The groups say that among the main gangs carrying out the kidnappings are the Zetas, originally formed by renegade Mexican army personnel organized to protect the Gulf drug cartel. The heavily armed gang operates with virtual impunity in northern Mexico and is active in the United States. The Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang is also believed to be involved in the kidnappings.

On January 7, several NGOs organized a so-called Caravan of Peace to accompany one of the freight trains that leave Chiapas in a bid to call further attention to the plight of migrants.

In December, the El Salvadoran authorities reported the kidnapping of 40 of its nationals in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Almost a month later, the Mexican authorities have yet to report any progress in their investigation.

Human rights groups say that some 400,000 migrants cross Mexico each year.

The plight of these highly vulnerable people has largely been ignored, only making the news in cases such as the discovery in August last year of the bodies of 72 migrants at a ranch in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas. They were believed to have been murdered by the Zetas.

Body count bodes ill

The body of a murdered man was found on January 10 on the main highway to Acapulco, bringing to 31 the number of people killed in the Pacific resort city in an ongoing turf war between drug cartels there.

Violence increased in the southern Guerrero state as factions of the Beltrán Leyva cartel began fighting for territory after its leader was killed by Mexican marines in December 2009. Messages left with 14 of the decapitated men said they were killed by "El Chapo's People," a reference to the Sinaloa cartel headed by Joaquin El Chapo Guzmán.

The decapitations were the largest single group of such victims found in Mexico in recent years. In 2008, 12 decapitated bodies were piled outside the Yucatán state capital of Mérida. The same year, nine headless men were discovered in Guerrero's capital, Chilpancingo.

On Monday, police said that Abraham Ortiz Rosales, the mayor of Temoac, Morelos state, located south of Mexico City, was attacked and killed by a group of gunmen.

More than 30,000 people have died in drug violence nationwide since President Felipe Calderón launched a crackdown on drugs cartels after taking office in December 2006 by deploying thousands of soldiers and federal police.

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