By Rebekah F Ward
MEXICOCITY (Reuters) – Overcrowding, prison-like conditions, bed bugs and illness are among the complaints of migrants in a Mexico City detention centre that holds dozens of minors two months after a court ruled it was unconstitutional.
Under the threat of economic sanctions from U.S. President Donald Trump, Mexico has stepped up migrant detentions this year to stem a surge in asylum-seekers from Central America.
Known as Las Agujas, the Mexico City holding centre enclosed by spike-topped walls in the eastern district of Iztapalapa held about 108 minors as of this week, some of whom are unaccompanied, said Jesus Quintana, who monitors the station for the Mexican human rights ombudsman’s office (CNDH).
In June, a court ruled it unconstitutional for Las Agujas to hold children after a 10-year-old Guatemalan girl died in its custody. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), which runs the centre, has not appealed the decision, but told Reuters it observes the laws protecting migrants in “each and every case”.
Las Agujas is part of a network of centres the government has vowed to upgrade. The detention of minors has increased concerns about treatment of migrants by the Mexican government in its push to reduce the flow of people north.
“What they have are facilities similar to prisons,” said Ana Saiz, director of Sin Fronteras, one of four migrant advocacy groups that took Las Agujas to court after the Guatemalan girl died in May. “This practice (of detaining children) goes against human rights and is illegal in Mexico.”
The government said the girl, who was held with her mother, died in official custody after falling out of a bunk bed at the centre, which has a capacity of 464 people.
On June 10, a panel of judges ordered Las Agujas to stop holding children, citing migration laws and minors’ rights.
On July 24, an administrative court said the director of Las Agujas, Miguel Angel Hernandez, had not heeded the order, referencing five unaccompanied minors from India at the centre.
Hernandez told the court he had complied by re-housing 38 minors identified by the groups that brought the case, court documents seen by Reuters show. The INM said on July 27 that it “at no time failed to comply with a court order”.
In a statement, the INM said it prioritised family unity, and that unaccompanied minors are only in the centres “temporarily.”
Hernandez could not be reached directly for comment.
Mexican government figures show 32,507 migrating minors were detained between January and June 2019.
The migration authority picks up minors along with adults, said Rosalba Rivera, migrant children’s coordinator at the Institute for Migrant Women.
Rivera said the INM sometimes contacts the national agency for family development to find alternative housing for children, such as shelters, once they are in facilities like Las Agujas.
But Mexican law is explicit that migrant children should not spend “even a day” in detention, she added.
In the United States, unaccompanied minors can be held in border patrol custody for 72 hours before being transferred to children’s shelters.
Detainees and visitors told Reuters that minors are still being brought to Las Agujas.
Guarded watch towers overlook the four corners of the high-walled compound in the heart of a residential neighbourhood. Its concrete walls and green metal spikes contrast with a flower-muraled elementary school down the block.
Detainees often cannot leave for weeks or months before they are deported or file for asylum, according to monitoring groups.
A July report from a federal watchdog found the centre to be over capacity, ridden with bed bugs and short of food.
The INM told Reuters that each of the centre’s detainees is given basic hygiene equipment, drinking water and three meals a day. It did not respond to the bed bug or capacity claims.
“The kids cry all the time,” said a Venezuelan migrant in his 30s who left Las Agujas recently. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from authorities.
He described a crowded, “prison-like” facility and said he often saw a long line of mothers and their kids waiting to see a doctor, since children often fell ill.
Sister Maria Josefa Martinez, a nun who visits the centre weekly, said children “have a hard time,” often getting stomach and throat infections, and have little to do.
Saiz of Sin Fronteras said her staff learned of a chicken pox outbreak among children in the centre on a visit in July.
Without commenting on the illnesses, the INM said Las Agujas provides free medical assistance to detainees 24 hours a day.
(Reporting by Rebekah F Ward; additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg in New York; editing by Dave Graham and Cynthia Osterman)