Mexico’s bloodiest election in history sends new asylum-seekers to the US border

Norma regrets ever having called the police.

A shop owner and local coordinator for a political party on the outskirts of Mexico City, Norma called authorities in November to file a complaint about noise coming from the building next door to her house. The building was being used by a rival political party, she believes.

Norma doesn’t know what resulted from the police investigation, but the 35-year-old began receiving intimidating threats. Strange men began to approach her in the street and warn she didn’t have long to live, she said.

She tried moving to a relative’s house, but noticed that she was being followed on the way.

When that rival party won the municipal elections two weeks ago, Norma decided to leave town, she said, fearing that she would be further targeted. “After the vote, it got ugly in my city,” she said. CNN is using only her first name due to concerns for her safety.

CNN met Norma on a dusty road in southern Arizona, just moments after she and her three children – 13, 8 and 2 years old – climbed across the low fence that separates Mexico from the United States.

They are among several migrant families on the border who told CNN they were fleeing the fallout of Mexico’s bloody national elections, which saw dozens of political candidates assassinated and hundreds threatened on the campaign trail.

All said they hoped for asylum from the US government. And all said they had not heard of a new executive order by US President Joe Biden blocking asylum requests from most people illegally crossing the southern border during periods of high volume.

A few miles east along the border, CNN met several more Mexican families who had been sheltering for days in a tent erected by a local humanitarian group. Bottles of water had been left out for them, along with signs warning to wait for Border Patrol agents to show up, rather than attempt to walk any further under the hot sun.

Some were fleeing general violence, a lack of jobs, kidnapping threats made to their families. Two men with a family sitting on the ground in the stifling heat said they too had fled Mexico following the elections. They had received threats for supporting the wrong candidate in their town, one said.

“We didn’t vote for the candidate – they were forcing us to.”

A family fleeing political threats waits to be apprehended after crossing the US-Mexico border into Arizona. - Norma Galeana/CNN
A family fleeing political threats waits to be apprehended after crossing the US-Mexico border into Arizona. - Norma Galeana/CNN

A wave of political killings and threats

US officials have been keeping watch for new migration surges this summer. The violence surrounding Mexico’s election this month is just one of many factors pushing some families to try to cross the border.

“Whether we’re talking about elections in Mexico or here in the US, it always provokes a level of uncertainty with everyone, generally, but especially in the migrant population,” a Homeland Security official previously told CNN.

The June 2 vote was the biggest and most violent in Mexico’s history. With 20,000 electoral positions up for grabs, the scale of bloodshed committed by those attempting to influence the vote was massive; at least 34 political candidates assassinated by criminal organizations during the campaign season.

A May 28 report by research group Integralia identified 749 victims of political violence in Mexico, including 231 killings. Hundreds of candidates reported being threatened, and many dropped out of their races, fearing for their lives.

Intimidation was particularly pervasive in local-level elections, experts told CNN, where races could hand the winners broad control over small communities’ police and fiscal resources.

“The violence and threats were being done specifically to have the impact of saying that this party or these people or this group – whatever it may be – is in control here. To create that environment of fear,” said Carin Zissis, a Mexico expert and editor-in-chief of the Americas Society/Council’s website.

Zissis told CNN she was not surprised political violence might be displacing some Mexicans from their homes today, given a broader security crisis in the country, where the homicide rate is one of the highest in the world.

Hundreds of people faced threats during the election campaign, she said. “We’re talking the candidates themselves, politicians in the parties, officials in the parties, violence against family members of candidates. So you can imagine that the issue of violence in general in Mexico – which is potentially getting people to leave their communities and flee – this could overlap with political violence as well,” she said.

Even while ballots were being counted, the attacks continued. One mayor, Yolanda Sánchez Figueroa of Cotija in Michoacán state, was assassinated the day after the election, while she was walking from a gym back to her house with her bodyguard. Both were shot dead by people in a white van, the state attorney general said in a statement.

US-Mexico cooperation on border control

Mexico has worked closely with the US to ease migratory pressure at the border, with multiple state agencies working to block or redirect asylum-seekers from around the world away from the US-Mexico border. But conditions at home appear to be pushing some Mexican citizens to join the northward flow.

Salvador Guerrero, director of the Alaide Foppa Refugee Legal Clinic in Mexico City, said he worries the government’s commitment to serving as a migration buffer for its northern neighbor has siphoned away resources and attention from interior security work.

“For example, the National Guard was created to protect Mexico,” he told CNN. “But for each criminal that the National Guard present to a judge, there are 80 migrants that they also present to relocate people from the north to the south,” he said.

Meanwhile, impunity reigns in Mexico, where in addition to the high homicide rate, more than 100,000 people have gone missing with no explanation of their fate. According to think tank Mexico Evaluaaround 95% of all crimes nationwide went unsolved in 2022.

And while outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s social welfare programs have lifted many Mexicans out of poverty, the erosion of democratic guardrails and institutions under his watch are piling pressure on those who find themselves on the wrong side politically.

High on Lopez Obrador’s agenda before he leaves office is a list of reforms, many of which are expected to have a weakening effect on the day-in, day-out work of democratic institutions in the country, pointed out Zissis, the AS/COA editor.

These include eliminating proportional representation of legislators, gutting of autonomous regulatory agencies, and direct election of Supreme Court justices. The ruling Morena party says such measures are designed to create a more direct democracy, but critics say they will erode checks and balances in the government.

“These may seem like tedious questions but they have a real impact on the country’s democracy and the ability of opposition parties to still have a voice,” Zissis said.

President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum will begin her presidency on October 1. Widely seen as the protégé of Lopez Obrador, whether she will continue in his footprints on security, border control and government reform are key questions amid historic levels of migration through North America.

Sent back with little fanfare

To reach Arizona, Norma’s family took a flight to Hermosillo, and then a truck to a frontier town in the scorching Sonoran desert before eventually crossing the border on foot.

She said they walked through dry scrub and mesquite trees for about 20 minutes before reaching a ditch filled with the abandoned water bottles, diapers, ID cards and clothing – left by the hundreds of migrants who had already reached the land of the free.

Her children were protective as Norma stopped to chat with CNN, her 13-year-old worried that people in Mexico would see her mother’s picture on television. Even the two-year-old hugged her leg and pulled at her shirt, trying to hurry her along. “Mama,” the toddler squeaked. “Vamos.”

But the tent at the end of the road would be a long walk for little legs. The temperature was 111 degrees Fahrenheit (43.8 Celsius). They would find no food, water, or air conditioning there – just dozens of other dazed looking families sprawled on the floor, waiting to be apprehended so that they could tell someone why they were there.

A sign left by humanitarians warning migrants and asylum seekers not to leave the isolated desert shelter. - Norma Galeana/CNN
A sign left by humanitarians warning migrants and asylum seekers not to leave the isolated desert shelter. - Norma Galeana/CNN

For most people crossing that border illegally today, requesting asylum is no longer an option, no matter what their circumstances. US President Joe Biden’s proclamation bars migrants who cross the border illegally from seeking asylum once a daily threshold of illegal crossings is met. Though asylum seekers can still use a Customs and Border Protection app to request an appointment to present their asylum claim at a port of entry.

It’s a controversial measure. Critics argue the change doesn’t go far enough in stemming the vast numbers of people entering the country that far exceeds the capacity of US immigration systems. Immigrant rights advocates warn closing the border to asylum seekers endangers vulnerable people and ultimately makes the border less safe.

Norma and her kids were detained by Border Patrol on Friday after entering the US. By Monday, they had been deported to Mexico, where she says they are afraid to leave the house, and her kids are not going to school.

They were treated with respect by the US agents, she told CNN, who swabbed them for DNA – likely to ensure that the children were really hers.

But she never got a chance to explain what she was running from, she said.

“They just said that wasn’t an option,” she told CNN on Monday, speaking on the phone from her home in Mexico.

Previous reporting by CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez, Tara John and David Shortell.

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