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'Social Cleansing' in Mexican Cities: Homeless People and Panhandlers Targeted by Police

Activists say the removal of homeless and poor people to places outside city limits violates their human rights.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Tomas Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

Non-governmental organisations in Mexico are presenting a complaint Friday Nov. 2 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about government mistreatment and “social cleansing” of thousands of people living on the street in several of the country’s cities.

Among the cases cited by the plaintiffs are Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, on the U.S. border, where they allege that homeless people and panhandlers are being removed outside the city limits by the police.

The same practice, with variations, is occurring in the western city of Guadalajara, which has an urban planning programme designed to remove the homeless from the centre of the city, and in Mexico City itself, where they are being taken from the historic centre of the city and forced to live under bridges, viaducts or elevated highways, increasing their vulnerability.

Activists say the common denominator of all these actions is the violation of the rights of street people, a sector for which the outgoing Mexican government of conservative President Felipe Calderón lacks specific policies.

The session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights “will make the state give an appropriate answer, and will open up a long-term process for human rights violations to be redressed as part of a public agenda,” Juan Martín Pérez, the executive director of the Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico (REDIM), told IPS.

Pérez, whose coalition is made up of 73 child rights advocacy groups, will attend the hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

Reliable official statistics on children, young people and adults living or working on the streets of Mexico’s large cities are hard to come by.

For instance, the Institute of Social Assistance and Integration, an agency of the Secretariat of Social Development of Mexico City, recorded 3,467 men and 547 women living on the street last year, based on attendance at their shelters.

But NGOs estimate the number of people on the streets of the Mexican capital at between 15,000 and 30,000. Children, teenagers, adults and the elderly can daily be seen wiping windshields, selling sweets or cigarettes or simply begging.

In spite of several years of economic growth, 52 million of the country’s 112 million people were living in poverty at the end of 2010, according to the latest figures published by the state National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy. Approximately 23 percent of these, or 11.7 million people, were extremely poor.

Mexico City “is a paradigmatic case, because it prides itself on being an avant garde city that respects human rights, but it is characterised by social cleansing,” activist Luis Enrique Hernández, the director of El Caracol, a local NGO, who has worked since 1994 with street people and will be part of the mission to Washington, told IPS.

The Federal District Commission for Human Rights (CDHDF) defined the practice as “the removal of personae non gratae from certain places, without any legal justification, just because they live on the streets.”

REDIM and the Mexican Alliance of Street Populations requested this special hearing by the Commission, which has also invited the ministries of foreign relations and social development, as well as the leftwing government of Mexico City.

At the hearing, the organisations will denounce the living conditions in nine Mexican cities where, they allege, the rights to personal integrity, equality, non-discrimination, freedom from human trafficking, due process and freedom are being violated.

People living on the street often suffer harassment from city government officials or the police to remove them from their places of work or where they sleep, they say.

The CDHDF has received at least 65 complaints of abuse against street people since 2009.

“There have been limited actions and temporary programmes, but they have not made up for the absence of a public policy,” Pérez said.

Activists like Pérez have received threats because of their work, and will also ask the Commission to take special measures to protect them, said Hernández.

The Mexico City government of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, of the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution, is preparing to implement an Information System for Street Populations, that will make it possible to monitor the care afforded these groups, and the Multidisciplinary Care Protocol for First Contact with Street Populations.

But experts criticise the way these programmes have been designed.

“The Protocol is merely palliative. It should have been the product of recognition of the successful efforts of NGOs. And why weren’t the street populations invited to take part as active participants?” asked Alicia Vargas, general director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social Development (CIDES), who will also be attending the hearing.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed “concern at the still high number of street children” in Mexico, in its final observations in the 2006 report on Mexico’s compliance with the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It said “insufficient measures” were taken by the government “to prevent this phenomenon and to protect these children,” and recommended the state “undertake regularly comparative studies on the nature and extent of the problem.”

In particular, the Committee, made up of 18 independent experts, regretted “the violence to which (street) children are subjected by the police and others.”

After the hearing, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will analyse the information provided by the parties and issue recommendations for the Mexican state.

 
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