Overflowing Toilets, Bedbugs and High Heat: Inside Mexico’s Migrant Detention Centers

ACAYUCAN, Mexico — Migrants have been held in a wrestling arena, at a fairground and in government offices. They’ve been forced to sleep in hallways, on an outdoor basketball court, even directly on the hard ground.

Mexico’s detention centers have at times reached triple, quadruple and even quintuple their capacity. Detainees at some centers have endured extreme heat, bedbug infestations, overflowing toilets, days without showers, and shortages of food and decent health care.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador campaigned for the presidency last year on promises that his migration policy would break from his predecessors’ emphasis on enforcement and focus instead on respecting migrants’ human rights and treating them with dignity. But under threat from the Trump administration, he has reversed course and overseen a sharp increase in migrant detentions and deportations.

This iron-fisted approach has helped lower the number of migrants trying to cross the southwest border of the United States. But it has also resulted in a crisis in Mexico’s detention centers that, critics say, is subjecting adults and children to inhumane conditions, exposing the Mexican government’s lack of preparedness and serving as a glaring rebuke of Mr. López Obrador.

From April to June, the Mexican authorities detained about 73,400 migrants, well over double the number detained during the first three months of the year.

The sudden increase has created “unsustainable conditions” in many of Mexico’s approximately 60 centers, said Salva Lacruz, a coordinator at the Fray Matías Human Rights Center, a migrants’ advocacy group in the southern city of Tapachula.

“Everything’s a disaster,” he said.

Under pressure from critics, including the government’s human-rights ombudsman, the López Obrador administration has acknowledged in recent days the sorry state of the detention system and has promised improvements.

ImageMigrants resting on the ground at the Siglo XXI detention center in Tapachula.
CreditPedro Pardo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the meantime, however, things remain grim.

Interviews with several asylum seekers released in recent days from a large detention center here in Acayucan, a small city in southeastern Mexico, painted a picture of hardship and scarcity.

People slept on thin mattresses wherever they could find space. Others didn’t even have that, and stretched out on the ground. They spoke of poor-quality food — and not enough of it. And some said that even the drinking water would frequently run out.

One Cuban migrant said that right before he was detained, he had been mugged and injured in southern Mexico. But in the detention center, he said, he was denied medical attention for eight days. He was eventually taken to a hospital, he said.

The migrants described filthy conditions, which would improve only when delegations of human-rights observers or others were scheduled to drop by. In advance of the visits, the detention center’s staff would scour the facility.

“You could get sick from being there,” said a Honduran asylum seeker who gave only his surname — Escobar — out of concern for his safety.

Conditions within the detention system have been criticized for years. But the failings have become more evident in recent months amid the enforcement crackdown.

In April, after overseeing a sharp drop in detentions and deportations during his first four months in office, Mr. López Obrador suddenly started to get tough on illegal immigration. Spurred by President Trump’s threats to close the border with Mexico to thwart illegal immigration, the Mexican government moved quickly to increase detentions and deportations.

These efforts accelerated in June when Mr. Trump threatened to impose punitive tariffs on Mexico.

But while the Mexican government may have been quick to respond to Mr. Trump’s demands, it apparently made little effort to prepare its detention network for the resulting stress.

CreditLuis Antonio Rojas for The New York Times

The National Migration Institute, which oversees the migrant detention system, had already been struggling in the face of Mr. López Obrador’s effort to bring down the cost of government. As part of this austerity program, the agency’s budget was cut by 23 percent this year.

Since the spring, reports of the deteriorating conditions have multiplied.

“There is concern about the violation of rights for people who will inevitably go to immigration stations,” the Citizens Council of the National Migration Institute, a group that advises the migration agency, said in a statement in mid-June. “Due to the increase in immigration containment, the stations become saturated, causing overcrowding and precarious conditions.”

Yet the situation has barely improved.

In an interview in his office, Edgar Corzo Sosa, rapporteur for migrant issues at the National Human Rights Commission, an autonomous government agency, said that in “a normal migration flow,” space in the system would be sufficient. But Mexico is experiencing what he called “an intense migration flow.”

Mr. Corzo picked up a document — the government’s daily population count for each of the detention centers — and began citing statistics. Some of the facilities were way over capacity.

In the northern border city of Reynosa, 210 migrants were crowded into a facility designed for 50, Mr. Corzo said. In a center in Palenque, there were 210, nearly double the capacity. Some 86 migrants were jammed into another center fit for 30.

During a recent visit to a center in the southern state of Chiapas, Mr. Corzo documented about 400 detainees in a space meant for no more than 80. Another Chiapas shelter, Siglo XXI in the city of Tapachula with a capacity of about 960, saw a daily average of more than 1,400 in recent months, at times reaching about 2,000, according to government statistics from the first six months of the year.

“Tell me if this isn’t problematic,” he said. “There are many complications.”

A few days earlier, a Salvadoran migrant had died while being held in an improvised detention center in the offices of the National Migration Institute in the northern city of Monterrey. It was a rare death of a migrant inside the nation’s detention system. Mr. Corzo said the authorities were investigating the cause.

Migration officials have also been wrestling with a large and increasing number of child migrants traveling either unaccompanied or with families.

CreditAlfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

About 130 percent more migrant children from Central America were detained during the first six months of the year than during the same period last year, according to the National Migration Institute.

In May, a 10-year-old Guatemalan girl died after falling from a bed bunk in a major detention center in Mexico City, officials said. The authorities are still investigating the cause and whether she received adequate medical attention.

Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign secretary, owned up to the poor conditions of the detention centers: “They are very bad,” he said during a news conference.

“The assessment presented to us is terrible — the drains do not work, the abandoned bathrooms,” he said. “An immense, enormous effort has to be made. It’s not so much the money but the commitment.”

The López Obrador administration has earmarked some $3.1 million to improve several major detention centers in southern Mexico and says it intends to renovate centers in the north as well.

But migrants’ advocates point out that the government has not made an equivalent commitment to expanding the resources of the government’s overburdened asylum agency, which was on the verge of collapse even before the surge in detentions.

“In the budget allocations, you can measure the political will,” said Ana Saiz Valenzuela, general director of Sin Fronteras, a migrants’ advocacy group in Mexico City.

Mr. Corzo said he hoped the López Obrador administration follows through on its promise to improve conditions in the centers and its treatment of detainees.

“It’s a new government,” he said. “It’s a new opportunity to make big changes.”

But, he acknowledged, “there are big challenges.”

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