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by Luis Ortiz Monasterio

The case of Mexico may be of special interest when studying the issues of asylum and sanctuary, as this country has practised the different forms of these humanitarian procedures in both a universal and a regional context.

For diverse historical reasons, and especially in the present century, successive Mexican governments have had the custom of offering sanctuary, or asylum as it is known internationally - an eminently Latin American procedure.

In the strict sense of the word - protection of the rights of those who, fleeing intolerance, take refuge in our territory - this first occurred during the dark days of the war between Mexico and the United States, exactly 150 years ago. During the difficult peace treaty negotiations, the Mexican delegation had indisputable instructions: they should not sign the treaty unless there was a guarantee that slavery would not be imposed on the recently conquered territories.

This explains Article 2 of the Mexican constitution that says textually: "Slavery is forbidden in the United States of Mexico. Foreign slaves who enter national territory will automatically obtain their freedom and be protected by the laws of the land."

Although, to an uninformed reader, this article might seem to be an archaism, it is not.

With regard to diplomatic asylum, Mexico not only took part in the codification of the three inter-American conventions presently in force (La Havana 1928, Montevideo 1933 and Caracas 1954), but has applied these instruments, in the context of both individual and mass asylum.

During the decades of political instability in Latin America, the procedure of diplomatic asylum successfully achieved its goal by saving the lives and liberty of a considerable number of activists who approached our diplomatic missions.

The Mexican Embassy in La Havana in the 1960s witnessed the most notable cases of massive diplomatic asylum as a result of the suspension of relations between all the countries of the Americas and the island of Cuba.

The Mexican government inherited almost one thousand people who had sought asylum in the embassies of other countries.

In the history of Mexico, there have been five cases of asylum being granted on a massive scale:

  1. As a result of the Spanish civil war: 76,000. Middle and end of the 1930s.

  2. Following the exodus caused by McCarthyism in the United States. End of the 1940s.

  3. Chile. Beginning of the 1970s.

  4. Originated by the civil war in El Salvador: 180,000. End of the 1970s.

  5. Resulting from the counter-insurgency war in Guatemala: 80,000. Beginning of the 1980s.

This paper is devoted to the case of the Guatemalan refugees who arrived in Mexico in the 1980s, because of the high degree of vulnerability of the groups, mainly composed of Indians, because of their topographical location in the jungles of Chiapas and because of their geographical proximity to the zone of conflict.

The presence and the treatment of the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico put to the test not only the deep-rooted tradition of non-devolution but also, at least in the case of Mexico, allowed the accumulation of a vast experience of innovations in the successful treatment of this complex phenomenon.

The aim of this paper is to document an exemplary case. Even under extremely adverse conditions, it is possible to endeavour, with relative success, not only to receive refugees but also to prepare them for eventual repatriation. There is no exile without an eventual return.

When the first Guatemalan refugees arrived in Mexico on May 11, 1981, at the Ejido Arroyo Negro in Campeche, a process was unleashed that continues to this day. The arrival of the first 470 refugees from La Caoba was a clear symptom of the beginning of a new strategy in the Guatemalan counter-insurgency war: destruction of the land.

Most countries do not feel totally secure when one of their borders adjoins a civil war. Least of all when groups tend to cross that border as part of the military strategy.

Although Mexico had experienced its own revolution, the geographical remoteness of its southern border had resulted in a sharp dichotomy: the revolution had never reached Chiapas. It was evident that federal and state authorities were apprehensive about the contagious nature of Central American civil wars. The Mexican armed forces, knowing full well the border situation, looked with misgiving on the possibility of becoming involved with either the Guatemalan rebels or their adversaries, the Guatemalan army and its elite troops, the "Kaibiles".

The case under analysis precisely illustrates the saying that, if anything bad is going to happen, it will happen at the worst moment. The main body of the groups of Quiche Indians arrived at the Puerto Rico Camp at the very same time as the 1982 devaluation and the now legendary debt crisis.

Evidently, this was not the optimum moment to win the support of public opinion. Moreover, the Mexican media, with honorable exceptions, expressed great reluctance to involve Mexico in a war that was felt to be far away and completely alien.

Seventy thousand Guatemalan Indians, most of them women and children, divided the opinions of the Mexican authorities. After prolonged negotiations, a consensus was reached and common sense reigned: the refugees would be received, not in camps, but in settlements that they themselves could choose.

In traumatic sessions, headed by the Minister of the Interior, policies were designed that ended up being enormously beneficial, not only to the refugees, but also to Mexican indian populations of the same ethnic origin.

I would like to underline one of these policies, in particular: respect for the integrity of the community. Promotion of the establishment of settlements by village of origin ensured that the unit of traditional authority within a community was preserved; thus the refugees were given a basis for self-government.

These directives were very effective in avoiding bureaucratization of the operations of medical, food and educational assistance. The meagre budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugees would not have allowed them to have a presence in each of the settlements. A system of self-regulation of food and assistance was allowed, reposing on the traditional organization of the indian communities, according to which the authority of the elders is supreme.

In the same sessions, it was agreed to accept the presence of the United Nations in the conflict zone. In 1981, the government of Mexico and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) signed the Agreement allowing the UNHCR to set up its offices (el Convenio de Sede). The Organization's presence and accumulated experience were an essential part of the effort to understand the phenomenon and systematize aid. The UNHCR was a first-hand witness to the way in which the refugee problem was brought under control, triggering a new human rights culture. The consequences within the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which emerged in the heat of the conflict, remain to be studied.

Relations between the UNHCR and the Mexican authorities were exceedingly complex. Although an understanding was reached with the Mexican Commission for Refugees (COMAR), natural differences stemmed from a different perception of very delicate issues relating to sovereignty. The dispute centered on the level of presence of the United Nations. The last thing that the COMAR wanted was a Blue Berets scenario.

If the truth be told, the humanitarian organization, which has twice been awarded the Nobel Prize, showed en enormous amount of flexibility and understanding with regard to Mexico's particularities in this area. A directive which contradicted its usual norms was the key to the success of the programmes with Mexico: to accept the establishment of projects, even though the refugees were not classified as such, because the figure of refugee did not exist under Mexican legislation. The UNHCR's acceptance that resources for the refugees could also be used for the attention of Mexican populations neighbouring on the settlements, is evidence of an international bureaucracy that is able to adapt to the most diverse challenges in the field. An anonymous admirer of the United Nations put it this way: "Tape at the United Nations is blue rather than red."

Nonetheless, an evident point of friction between the UNHCR and the Mexican Government was the issue of temporality.

In this case, the Mexican administration were concerned that the principle of "there is nothing more definitive than that which is temporal" would take effect; while, from the point of view of the United Nations, a mechanism was necessary that guaranteed a certain degree of integration.

In the long run, and with the passage of time, this complex phenomenon has without doubt had a happy ending. Voluntary repatriation has permitted about 35,200 Guatemalans to return home. This represents nearly 50% of the refugee population that entered Mexico 15 years ago. During the next 12 months, 14,000 more are expected to return to Guatemala. The Guatemalan Government has established an office to facilitate repatriation, attached to its Consulate in Comitan, Chiapas.

Fifty-two per cent of the refugee population remaining in the camps were born in Mexico and are thus Mexican by right of birth and Guatemalan by jus saguinis (right of blood).

In recognition of the interests of families that wish to remain in Mexico, our Government has offered those Guatemalan refugees who married Mexican nationals, or who have children born in Mexico, the option of applying for naturalization, on a preferential basis.

Some refugees have preferred to remain in Mexico as immigrants - or non-immigrants, in the case of those who hope to return to Guatemala eventually.

While the process to resolve the refugee phenomenon is being completed through both repatriation and assimilation, the work of assistance will continue with the invaluable support of the UNHCR.

Educational coverage is provided to the whole school-age population. Refugees enjoy the same level of welfare as their Mexican neighbours.

The arrival of the Guatemalan refugees not only enriched Mexico with the contribution of outstanding descendants of the Mayas. Their sudden advent also triggered permanent dynamics in the context of the emergence of a robust civil society in contemporary Mexico.

As public opinion learned about this at-risk group, a remarkable current of solidarity arose. International and national agencies started to materialize, some born in the heat of the refugee problem. The phenomenon attained such dimensions that the COMAR authorities devoted more time to attending the NGOs than the refugees themselves. In the long term, these events resulted in the blossoming of a strong and welcome NGO movement that today forms the backbone of the movement for civilian monitoring of human rights. Civilian personalities such as Adolfo Aguilar Zinzer, Sergio Aguayo and Oscar Gonzalez, President of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights, emerged from those times.

During the time of confusion, coordination between NGOs, sympathetic journalists and public officials committed to the principle of asylum resulted in the establishment of a network of solidarity in favour of the refugees. Following arduous negotiations and numerous congressional audiences, this same combination of forces obtained the reform of the Ley General de Poblaci�n in order to recognize the figure of the refugee. The result was a very clear message - for the first time in the history of Mexico's Congress, an initiative originating from the NGO community was approved by all parties and all members.

This event, which might appear symbolic, convincingly demonstrated that Mexicans may be divided on many issues, but not on that of asylum.

Another of the elements that turn the sanctuary offered to the Guatemalan Indians into a source of lasting lessons is the promotion of the self-esteem of the refugees.

Without doubt, no one on the face of the earth is as dispossessed as a refugee, especially if he is an indian on foreign soil.

Thanks to a fortunate convergence of resolve and resources, recovery of the archeological ruins at Edzna was implemented with the refugees in the state of Campeche. The underlying principle was simple: recover Mayan ruins with Mayan hands.

The physical result is there to be seen. A small but magnificent plaza of the Classical period together with a majestic pyramid that were buried for centuries have been recovered and will enhance the patrimony of both Mexico and the world.

But the spiritual result was even greater. Nothing has remained of the timid refugee, humiliated and displaced from his ancestral community. Following the handing over of the first stage of the recovery work, the refugees recovered their pride and their sense of belonging to a robust culture of builders and astronomers. The motor force generated by this return to their roots could well explain their successful exile on Mexican soil and their surprising re-insertion in today's Guatemala.

Depending on how it is handled, an event such as the one we have described can be either a social catastrophe or a controlled phenomenon. In the case of refugees, all governments, and especially security forces, imagine they are faced with a Lebanon in their own backyard.

The key to the judicious handling of a socio-political conflict of these dimensions consists in information.

Common sense recommends that, from the outset, the event should be de-dramatized. Exaggerated terminology should be avoided and the conflict should be reduced to a simple occurrence.

Despite internal economic problems, public opinion in Mexico was very open to the analogy between the country's northern and southern borders.

A growing interest in Mexican migrations to the United Stated can be perceived in Mexico. These began 150 years ago when the first Mexicans settled there, following the loss of over 2 million square kilometers of Mexican territory.

By underlining the moral force which was acquired by accepting and helping refugees from the south, the Government gained, if not overwhelming enthusiasm, at least acquiescent tolerance, and so the issue of the Guatemalan refugees did not divide the country.

A low informational profile allowed almost 200,000 urban Salvadorean refugees, installed in the Valley of Mexico, to remain unnoticed by the major organs of the press and to be accepted by the more modest communities of Mexico City. They have been in Mexico for almost ten years and, during all this time, there has never been a case of a Mexican reporting a Salvadorean for questions relating to immigration.


  1. Migrations are the circulatory system of history. Migration is not a pathology. Any static conception of demography is condemned to failure. Barriers, swift-flowing rivers, ramparts and walls have failed. The last of these fell in Brandenburg, chipped away stone by stone.

  2. Although Mexico has never had a policy of attracting new immigrants, its historical experience has persuaded it not to shut its doors to those persecuted by intolerance, whether they be Leon Trotsky, Jose Marti or Hollywood filmmakers persecuted by McCarthy. Spaniards, Levantines and Latin Americans have all received the protection not only of the Mexican State but especially of its citizens.

  3. Mexico does not consider that granting asylum is a burden. In the long term, it has been extremely beneficial for its institutions. The Spanish migration left a lasting impression in the fields of business and the academy. The North American asylum-seekers, mainly filmmakers, are closely linked to the cinematography boom known as the Golden Age. The modest Quiche Guatemalans have left us the recovered ruins of Edzna in Campeche as a heritage. Moreover, Guatemalan refugees contributed 12% of the total harvest during the 1996 agricultural cycle in that state.

  4. In order to deal successfully with the massive arrival of refugees, it is most important to work towards achieving a favourable Government consensus.

  5. The presence of a highly specialized international organization should be nuanced by the cultural, historical and political characteristics of the host territory. Guatemalan refugees cannot be treated in the same way as Ugandan refugees. The United Nations process should always be subordinate to local sensitivities.

  6. It is advisable not to locate refugee settlements in the proximity of border zones where there is a conflict. Military temptations that could attract hostile consequences and that denaturalize asylum are avoided by removing settlements from the scene of operation.

  7. One of the requirements of a really successful refugee policy is that, at no time, should the phenomenon be used for political or propaganda purposes. The use and abuse of human rights throughout the world has denaturalized their humanitarian essence.

  8. Today, there is an urgent need to give greater importance to those countries that receive refugees. Some of us feel that humanitarian organizations are more inclined to highlight the work of donor countries than that of the countries who are faced with the real problem in their own territory; very often in dangerously tense border zones. Countries that receive refugees know that one day they will receive the visit of the High Commissioner.

  9. A format that not only permits preservation of the principle of non-intervention but which also facilitates and depressurizes the refugee phenomenon is the principle that the state which receives refugees should not judge the causes of the phenomenon in the country of origin.

  10. The venerable institution of asylum works the miracle of converting those who are persecuted into citizens.
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