Irineo Mujica, a former Phoenix resident and migrant-rights activist, headed to court on Wednesday in Chiapas, Mexico, for a hearing in a criminal case for allegedly aiding migrants that could put him in prison for more than 20 years.
He almost didn't make it.
According to Mujica, an immigration officer tried to have him arrested as he boarded a bus, a move activists believe is yet another sign of Mexico's crackdown on border aid workers following pressure from the Trump administration.
Mujica, director of the transborder rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, said in an audio recording he made on Wednesday that he had been on his way to Cintalapa, Chiapas, at about 8 a.m. for the afternoon hearing. An officer with the National Institute of Migration, the government agency in Mexico that controls and supervises migration in the country, stopped him as he entered a bus station in Arriaga, Chiapas, about an hour's drive from Cintalapa. The officer accused him of being in the country illegally and called to nearby officers of the National Guard and Federal Police, urging them to detain Mujica.
"The immigration officer told me, 'Go back to your country,'" said Mujica, who has citizenship in both the United States and Mexico.
Wednesday's scheduled hearing was Mujica's second in a little over a month. It's part of an ongoing case the Mexican government has brought against the activist, who stands accused of smuggling two Central American migrants into the country in exchange for money.
Mujica said that he told officers he was a member of a human rights organization on his way to a hearing, and showed papers indicating his Mexican citizenship. The immigration officer continued to insist he be taken into custody, this time on charges of "resisting arrest."
"That's probably one of the number one charges they use to put human rights advocates in prison in Mexico," Mujica said. But the National Guard and Federal Police officers refused to detain him without evidence. Mujica was eventually allowed to go. He missed his bus due to the interaction, but was able to catch a later one and arrived in Cintalapa just before his hearing.
"The fact that he was harassed like that, it was a clear indication that at the very least, some members of law enforcement in Mexico are still following orders from somebody to make his life difficult," said Alex Mensing, a California organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras. The group entered the public spotlight last year after its work with the migrant caravans that made their way to the United States.
Mensing added that the incident appeared to be an "attempt to impede in an investigation" by trying to delay him from the hearing.
Mujica recounted the exchange in an audio file, which he then sent to Pueblo Sin Fronteras organizers.
Two Pueblo Sin Fronteras colleagues who were traveling with him, Tristan Call and Rodrigo Abejas, had their bags searched twice, and subsequently began recording the incident.
"If they had not been there with me, the officers could have taken me and no one would have known," Mujica said. "And then the hearing would have been about why I was not there — the outcome might have been very different."
Mujica was originally arrested on June 6, along with another longtime migrant rights activist, Cristóbal Sánchez, on charges of illegally transporting Honduran migrants across Mexico for money. The pair underwent a 20-hour hearing in Tapachula, Mexico, last month, but the judge presiding over the case freed them from pretrial detention after finding the evidence against the two men insufficient.
Activists within the international human rights community allege that the criminalization of Mujica is part of a larger crackdown on humanitarian workers who provide aid to migrants heading to the United States — and a direct result of Trump's pressure on Mexico to impose harsher immigration policies.
The arrests came as officials in the United States and Mexico met to negotiate an immigration enforcement deal that would prevent threatened tariffs on Mexican imports. One of the measures in the resulting agreement, announced the next day, was “taking decisive action to dismantle human smuggling and trafficking organizations as well as their illicit financial and transportation networks.”
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Irineo Mujica's second hearing began at 11 a.m. Arizona time on Wednesday. The federal judge in this case, Carlos Arteaga Álvarez, listened to the arguments of Mexico's federal prosecutor office and announced he'd issue a written decision on the case within three business days, according to Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
If Álvarez decides to overturn the original judge's decision and grant the federal prosecutor's request, Mujica could be detained for over a year while he awaits trial. If Mujica is ultimately convicted of human smuggling, he could serve up to 24 years in a Mexican prison.
Mujica has residences both in Phoenix, where he grew up, and Sonoyta, Sonora, where he runs a migrant shelter across the border from Lukeville, Arizona, he told Phoenix New Times.
He said last week he will not leave Mexico until the case is resolved — unless he's called to the United States to testify in humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren's retrial in November. That he'll gladly do, he said.
Warren stands accused of similar charges of "harboring an undocumented immigrant" in the United States after the No More Deaths volunteer provided water and shelter to a pair of Central American migrants at a humanitarian base in Ajo, Arizona. If the U.S. government prevails and Warren is convicted, he could face up to 20 years in federal prison.