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Migrant detentions in Mexico up 73 percent since 2014

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico detained 73 percent more migrants in the first year since the announcement of an operation to shore up security on its southern border, according to a study released Wednesday by human rights groups and migrants' advocates.

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The study found that about 168,000 migrants were detained in Mexico from July 2014 to June of this year, up from some 97,000 during the previous 12-month period, and activists said the crackdown has been accompanied by rising crimes and abuses against migrants - including by security forces.

"The Southern Border Program has been a huge success for (the government), of course. The numbers, they trumpet them with great pride," said Tomas Gonzalez, a friar who runs a migrant shelter in Tabasco state. But "I think for us it must be the great failure of Mexican society and the Mexican state in its responsibility to our Central American brothers."

Mexican Interior Department officials referred questions to the National Institute of Immigration, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mexico launched its Southern Border Program in the summer of 2014, a time when the United States was experiencing a large spike in unaccompanied child migrants arriving at its own southern border. Many were Central American children fleeing violence in their home countries.

The Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, a U.S.-based advocacy group which helped prepare the report, said the increased enforcement has "worrying implications" for human rights.

Activists said the crackdown has led migrants to abandon established northward routes such as the train known as "the beast," and resort instead to riskier, clandestine avenues such as traveling by foot or sea. That makes them more vulnerable to becoming victims of assault, kidnapping, rape, extortion and other crimes that have been common for many years along the migrant's trail toward the United States.

Alberto Donis, who heads a shelter in the southern state of Oaxaca, noted "an increase in violence along the entire route."

The report said the crackdown has also increased the fees and "tolls" that migrants pay to people-smugglers and organized crime gangs to cross territory, and migrants are reporting more assaults and robberies including by security forces during detentions and deportations.

Meanwhile mass deportations are sweeping up people who could potentially apply for refugee status after being threatened with death by Central American gangs, activists said.

"If Mexico is assuming this role as sort of the main, at this point, apprehender of Central American migrants, they need to take more responsibility in how they're doing that," said WOLA'S Maureen Meyer, one of the study's authors. "And that means protecting those that could be eligible for refugee status in Mexico and making sure that their agents are doing it in a way is respectful of rights, instead of what you see which is widespread abuse."

WOLA noted that punishment for abuses of migrants is rare, with just four of the more than 1,600 complaints received by the National Human Rights Commission during a three-year period through this past June resulting in formal recommendations to government entities implicated in possible abuses.

Mexico is not alone in experiencing issues trying to control the flow of migrants at their border. Earlier this month, there was conflict over migrants between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Nicaraguan soldiers forced 2,000 Cuban migrants to halt their journey north at the border it shares with Costa Rica.

A Costa Rican official proposed what was termed a "humanitarian corridor" for migrants travelling north.

The study on Mexico's detention of migrants released Wednesday was based on government data, case documentation from migrants' shelters, interviews with authorities, migrants and advocates and other sources.

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