Mexican internal forced displacement gains salience

Originally published

Violence has triggered an increase in the number of people forced to leave their homes and migrate to other places within Mexico. The phenomenon is an example of unexpected effects that probably were not factored in as a consequence of the war against organised crime. It could also open broader debate about whether the state should take responsibility for victims of internal forced displacement.


  • If forced internal displacement continues, the focus will move from the magnitude of the problem to policy responses.

  • A law is possible on internal forced displacement.

  • While restrictive legislation would not meet the needs of displaced people, a very ambitious law could cause controversy.

What next

The issue of internal forced displacement is likely to become more prominent over coming months. There may well be discussion of local and/or federal laws and pressure from international agencies and sectors of civil society. While it is not clear to what extent debate will lead to concrete legal and policy instruments, the issue could reopen wounds and trigger heated debate in other areas such as conflict resolution, infrastructure and urban planning.


According to recent media reports, the number of people forced to leave their homes due to violence could exceed 200,000. This figure is debatable because the government does not keep systematic records of people forced to leave their homes against their will. However, human rights activists, academics and international observers like the International Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva agree that conflict between drug cartels and the military has exacerbated problems of forced displacement.

Most victims are in northern states such as Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. Those who cannot cross the border to the United States choose to move to places that the war against drug cartels seems to affect less, for example Mexico City and other central cities such as Queretaro.

Considering policy responses

If the phenomenon continues to grow debate is likely to intensify over the real figures, and necessary policy responses. For example, one question that might arise is whether Mexico should pass specific laws to safeguard basic human rights in the context of forced displacement. The aim of such legislation would be to recognise state failure to prevent forced displacement and thus protect basic rights such as the right to a safe life, the right to personal integrity and the right to an economic livelihood, among others.

This kind of instrument would entail a number of problems and is likely to trigger heated debates in other policy areas:

  • The definition and causes of forced displacement included in this kind of legislation are not necessarily restricted to generalised violence. Other causes might include social, political and religious conflicts; natural disasters; and development plans in areas such as infrastructure, tourism and energy.
  • A second challenge would be to define to what extent, and until when, the state has a responsibility to compensate a victim of forced displacement.
  • A systematic register would have to be kept to identify those who may qualify as 'displaced', and there would have to be debate on whether legislation should apply to those who were displaced in the past. Although the task is enormous, other Latin American countries have done it in the context of similar security challenges. Three examples are Colombia, Guatemala and Peru.

Law on forced displacement

Several factors affect the prospects for a law on forced displacement in Mexico. Legislation would be difficult, but not impossible. In fact, the governor of the state of Chiapas has promoted an initiative for a local law on forced displacement, which is currently under discussion in the local congress. However, the initiative seems dissociated from the problem of generalised violence:

  • The governor may want to leave a political mark by implementing a law that addresses hundreds of thousands displaced in Chiapas because of political, religious and other social conflicts since the Zapatista uprising in 1994.
  • Alternatively, the governor of may seek to legitimise forced displacement resulting from a number of planned development projects. These include hydroelectric dams and so called 'ciudades rurales' (rural cities), which aim to resettle people and create new urban centres.

No matter the underlying motivations, discussions about this legislation are likely to include other debates, including the issue of displacement due to violence between drug cartels. If approved, legislation on forced displacement in Chiapas eventually could enliven debate in other states, including those most affected by organised crime.

Furthermore, UN Development Programme (UNDP) Mexico has sponsored a group of scholars from different academic institutions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) representatives to draft a counterproposal to the Chiapas initiative. While it is not yet known when this second proposal will be ready, given that it is UNDP-sponsored and based on international experiences, it will probably be more comprehensive and include a larger list of possible causes of forced displacement.

Either through discussion of a local law or the work of academics and international agencies, a broader national debate is increasingly likely, particularly if violence keeps escalating across the country and forced displacement continues to grow. The eventual outcome of any national debate would depend on the kind of proposal that is taken to states beyond Chiapas and/or the federal Congress.

Oxford Analytica
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