Mexican family threatened by drug cartels in Mexico have been refugees for 6 months in a church in Canada so as not to be deported

It was 2009 when news like these began to appear more frequently:

“Mexico: they find 9 dismembered bodies”

“Mexican police find 14 bodies in a drug grave”

towards that year violence escalated in Mexico at the hands of drug cartels and murders increased in different regions of the country.

Decapitated corpses publicly exhibited on pedestrian bridges became frequent, with warnings of cartels fighting among themselves for the control of drug trafficking.

The civilian population began to be affected, especially those who had income that could attract the attention of the cartels, and that caused many Mexicans to start fleeing to protect themselves.

And that was the context. in which the Pérez family (whose identity we protect with a fictitious surname) feared for their future and decided to flee.

But, How did this family that tried to escape before it was too late end up sheltered for months in a Protestant church in Canada?

BBC World tells his story.


In 2009, when everyday life began to feel very dangerous, the Pérez, like many other Mexicans, made the decision to emigrate.

They first arrived in the United States and from there tried to cross into Canada through the land border. What they did not know at the time is that, since 2005, there is the safe third country agreement between those two countries.

So, with a few exceptions, if someone has previously passed through the US, they cannot apply for asylum upon arrival in Canada.

And that’s what the Canadian authorities told the Pérez, they didn’t listen to their case, they just sent them back.

The family attempted to cross overland into Canada from the US. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

They ended up back in Mexico coping. They opened a food business near an educational campus and, like others, began to perceive violence as part of the landscape.

Until, 9 years later, the situation became unsustainable.

The cartels began to force civilians to collaborate with their illicit activities and those who refused faced death.

That was the case of the Pérez. in 2018 “They tried to force them to sell drugs in the family business and since they refused, they received strong threats,” Stewart Istvanffy, the lawyer who today represents the family, explains to BBC Mundo.

They called them warning them that if they did not collaborate, they would have to pay a periodic fee to the cartel. The family remained on the sidelines, they never agreed to be accomplices or pay extortion.

Until the intimidations became reality. One night while they were resting at home, the cartel set fire to their business.

The Pérez knew they had to flee. Some acquaintance had recommended them to go to an intermediate city in Quebec, the French-speaking province of Canada, and they decided to listen to him.

They planned the trip in no time and this time they flew directly to Canada.

flags of canada, usa and mexico
Canada, the US and Mexico share the T-MEC, a free trade agreement that in July 2020 replaced Nafta. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Second try

Upon arrival at the airport, they received a temporary stay permit for 6 months, to which they are entitled as Mexican citizens.

A few weeks later, when they were settled, they contacted a lawyer who had been recommended to them, and with her advice they submitted an official asylum application.

But there they found another surprise: the Pérez did not know that, in 2009, when they were returned to the United States, a rejection of their asylum request had been recorded and that, in Canadian law, prevents them from making a new request.

“What they were entitled to was something called Risk Assessment Before Return (ERAR for its French acronym),” explains Istvanffy.

They sent documents for this evaluation, but they did not include the most important evidence and they avoided talking about the cartel that threatened them. They were afraid that they might do something to their relatives who were still in Mexico.

While Canada was reviewing the case, it granted them a temporary employment permit.

That was how for almost 3 years the family managed to have a daily life. They got a job, a house, a son went to school, took language classes and paid taxes.

During that time, another family member tried to pick up the business in Mexico.

More than a year had passed since the fire and when the cartel discovered that they were serving the public, the threats and intimidation began again.

As they refused again, “they locked them in a bathroom in the house [a una pareja con un menor de edad]They tied them hand and foot, poured gasoline everywhere and set fire to the house. They tried to burn them alive,” says Istvanffy.

They did not die because one of the people managed to loosen the shackles on his hands and free the others. The house burned down completely and “they were left with strong post-traumatic stress and anxiety,” explains Istvanffy.

Today, that part of the family is also in Canada and hopes to receive asylum.

Man with gun
The posters burned down the business and the family’s house. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

The decision

The evaluation of the case coincided with the arrival of the pandemic and everything was delayed, so it was not until the end of 2021 that the Pérez received the official response to their asylum request.

For the Canadian authorities, the family’s documentation did not show that they were at risk in Mexico, so They sent an extradition order for them to leave the country shortly after.

“The Canadian government argues that they are not obliged to return to that specific site, but the reality is that the cartels are very strong and are present throughout the Mexican territory. Unfortunately, there is a narco-state there”, adds Istvanffy.

“It is very sad. We are facing a great risk if we return to Mexico, a great risk that they will kill us, that they will assassinate us,” one of the family members told the CBC network.

And that is precisely one of the criticisms that the Canadian community has made of the government: why is it telling this family that they are not at risk in Mexico, but at the same time recommending that Canadian citizens not travel to that country given the insecurity situation? .

The church as a last option

In the midst of the anguish of having to return and confront the cartel that has attacked and threatened them, the family made the decision to take refuge in a church and appeal to the “sanctuary”, a tradition that is not inscribed in the legal code, but that goes back “to canon law prior to the constitution of Canada as a country, when the church had the power to protect those who took refuge there,” explains Istvanffy.

As reported by the Canada Border Services Agency to CBC: “while there is no legal restriction for you to enter a place of worship to execute an arrest warrant, the Agency prefers to engage with people subject to the application of the laws of arrest. immigration and the institution providing sanctuary for the purpose of achieving voluntary compliance.”

The Pérez’s were taken in by a Protestant church.

Protestant church

“We do not wish to contravene the immigration laws of our country, but rather to take advantage of the ancient and canonical practice of offering refuge to people who are under threat or persecution. We want to give the family the time they need to stay in this country legally and properly, while protecting them from the very real threat to their lives and safety if they return home,” the congregation said in a statement. a statement.

There is a committee from the local community that accompanies them and ensures that they do not lack what is necessary and that they receive psychosocial support while they remain in the church. They themselves took it upon themselves to put them in contact with Stewart Istvanffy, a human rights defense attorney, who took on the case since November 2021.

Istvanffy found that the Pérez do have enough evidence to demonstrate the danger they are in in their country, but that there were flaws in their case: “there was a problem and that is that in the ERAR process, the family did not present all the evidence of the danger” .

The lawyer who advised them before did not attach all the documentation and now, when the situation is even more critical, they hope that this evidence will be taken into account, as well as that the family will be heard, because so far in the process they have never had the possibility of giving their testimony to the authorities.

“What we hope is that the Canadian Immigration Minister will give them a temporary status and then permanent residence. This is based on the support they have received from the Canadian community”, adds lawyer Istvanffy.

It refers to various solidarity events that have taken place in Quebec. There was, for example, a march in solidarity with the family in which more than 200 people participated. They have also received the support of some local politicians.

“I am very optimistic. Because they have managed to mobilize a large part of the community. I think we’re going to win eventually, I don’t know when,” she added.

The mayor of the city where the Pérez are located, for her part, has told the Canadian press that she is moved by the story and noted that they would discuss it internally.

Meanwhile, the federal deputy who represents the city in parliament met with the family and lamented their dramatic situation. She also told CBC that although she cannot comment on details of the case, she is in communication with the Minister of Migration.

Mexican passport
Mexican citizens can spend six months in Canada. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

political background

Canada has historically been noted for hosting refugees from various regions of the world and regularly appears on the list of nations that show solidarity in the midst of war.

Although it has received refugees from Europe, Africa and Asia, its proximity to Latin America makes it a viable destination for that population.

Proof of this is that, after Ecuador and Spain, Canada is the third country that has received more Colombians as refugees during the internal conflict.

There is also a significant population of Chileans who fled the Pinochet military regime, as well as Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Venezuelans.

But the biggest challenge has come with Mexico. “The problem is that there is quite strong discrimination against Mexicans because for the Canadian system, Mexico represents an important challenge: they can enter without a visa, they are members of the free trade agreement with the US and Canada. They are our closest neighbors in Latin America”, explains Istvanffy.

And he adds, “10, 12 years ago, more than a quarter of the people who applied for refuge in Canada were Mexicans. So they looked for a system of barriers to prevent Mexicans from easily entering Canada.

Meanwhile, the Pérez have already completed six months sheltered in the church and, although they are safe, their daily life has not been easy in the middle of the confinement.

Such is the fear that they feel that they do not want to give interviews because they fear that the cartel will retaliate in Mexico. They know that having denounced them in another country is a very dangerous challenge.

“Most likely, they will die in Mexico. They have nowhere to go. One of the most dangerous cartels has threatened them. It is a very violent group, it is death that awaits them”, concludes Istvanffy.

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