Feature / Fellowship Southwest / General CBF

Turf-war refugees: Cartel violence in southwestern Mexico propels migrants to U.S. border

By Elket Rodríguez

All along the U.S.-Mexico border, the pastors who comprise Fellowship Southwest’s Immigrant Relief Ministry are facing a nuanced and complicated migratory flow. The number of Mexicans fleeing violence has skyrocketed, due to an ongoing cartel turf war in the southwestern states of Michoacán, Veracruz, Guerrero and Chiapas. 

The increase in Mexicans fleeing cartel persecution multiplies stress on already-overcrowded shelters in northern Mexico. For several years, those shelters have been flooded with migrants primarily from Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Venezuela. 

Near the Pacific Ocean, Pastor Juvenal González continues to feed migrants in the El Chaparral tent camp in downtown Tijuana—across from San Diego. But the faces of the migrants have changed. 

“The majority of migrants we used to feed were Haitians,” he reported. “Now, the majority are Mexicans from Guerrero and Michoacán.”

Now, 60 percent of the 450 migrants González’s ministry feeds are Mexicans fleeing the turf war between the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel and the Familia Michoacana, he said.

“The area is being fought over drugs and the control of kidnappings,” he explained. “Most of those fleeing are families with abused children. They are leaving their lands before they get killed.”

The cartels are fighting over control of the Lázaro Cárdenas seaport—the largest Mexican port and a point of entry from China for chemicals used to make meth and fentanyl. The turf war is so intense, the Mexican government has focused on protecting the gangs’ territories instead of targeting illegal activity.  

And 750 miles east of Tijuana, in Ciudad Juarez—across from El Paso—Pastor Rosalío Sosa is experiencing the same dynamic. 

“About half (of the migrants) in all the shelters in Juarez are Mexican … primarily from Michoacán,” said Sosa, who operates 22 migrant shelters in the state of Chihuahua through the Red de Albergues para Migrantes, or Migrant Shelter Network. “They are very scared. They have to flee because criminals harass them and threaten to kill them.”

Many migrants fled their homes in the middle of the night to avoid getting killed, he reported. 

“They had their jobs, lived steady lives and were born there,” he said. “They thought they would be able to stay there, but when the gangs killed their relatives for not handing over their properties or paying ransom, they were forced to leave everything behind.”

In Piedras Negras—across from Eagle Pass, Texas, and 480 miles southeast of Ciudad Juarez—Pastor Israel Rodríguez of Primera Iglesia Bautista is shocked by the number of Mexican nationals who are requesting shelter.  

“Since mid-October, the number of Mexicans from Veracruz seeking refuge has increased,” said Rodríguez, who operates the only migrant shelter in the city. “There is a rebound in Mexican migrants. At this moment, we have 47 migrants, and among them we have a group of about 18 Mexicans, most of them from southern Mexico.”

Similarly, about 120 miles southeast—across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, in Nuevo Laredo—Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz’s shelters are full, with many of the residents Mexican nationals.

“Of the 400 migrants we are sheltering, 200 are from southern Mexico,” he noted. “In one of the shelters, everyone is from Michoacán.”

Ortiz—who leads El Buen Samaritano Migrante, a ministry that operates four shelters in Nuevo Laredo, plus one in Saltillo, deeper into Mexico—affirmed the circumstances residents of southwestern Mexico face are “difficult to process” with “several people being massacred or dead.”

“Most of the families (fleeing from southwestern Mexico) have had their husbands or children killed,” he reported. “The towns are becoming ghost towns.”

Near the Gulf of Mexico, Pastor Eleuterio González and Iglesia Valle de Beraca are trying to keep up with the pace of migrants arriving in Matamoros—across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. 

“Many are coming from Chiapas and Guerrero,” he said. “Just yesterday (Tuesday), 180 people from Tapachula (Chiapas) showed up in the city.”

González—who along with Valle de Beraca feeds, shelters, transports, relocates and protects migrants in the city—echoed the other pastors, explaining most displaced Mexicans are fleeing persecution and violence. 

“Organized crime is fighting for the control of the streets, the territories and the coyotes,” González said. 

Fellowship Southwest provides ongoing financial support to every ministry and every pastor—Juvenal González, Sosa, Rodríguez, Ortiz and Eleuterio González. You can support these pastors and their ministries by donating to Fellowship Southwest’s Knox Fund for Immigrant Relief by clicking here.

Elket Rodríguez is Fellowship Southwest’s and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s immigrant and refugee advocacy and missions specialist.

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