Reyna Torres Mendivil's goal is to ensure the rights of Mexican citizens abroad are protected. [Photo by María Inés Zamudio]

In 2012, more than 120,000 deportations of Mexican nationals were made to three cities along the Texas-Mexico border — Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo — more than 62,000 to Matamoros alone. These are the front lines of the Mexican drug war, where cartels fight over territory and violence is rampant. Without enough money to return to their hometowns, deportees become prime targets of theft, extortion and kidnapping.

Reyna Torres Mendivil is trying to curb this trend. A career diplomat, she was appointed last year as Mexico’s Director General for Protection of Mexicans Abroad. One of her responsibilities is negotiating terms of deportations with United States immigration officials.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Torres Mendivil in her office in Mexico City to talk about deportation policy and her efforts to help Mexican nationals to return to their cities of origin safely.

Have you asked the Department of Homeland Security to reconsider repatriations to violent border cities?

Repatriations are one of the most important issues for us. But there are some conflicts. The American government has the right to enforce its immigration laws. What concerns us is, in the process of enforcing those laws, the rights of our citizens are not violated, especially the rights of vulnerable groups, like women, families and children. We have emphasized [to DHS] that immigrants being deported who are sick or disabled should be deported to Mexico City [using the Interior Repatriation Initiative].

This [concentration in violent cities along the border] has been without a doubt an element that has been brought up during the negotiations of the interior repatriations program. This program will benefit our citizens by helping them get back to their communities of origin.

We work with various groups in border cities that participate with the consulates in the U.S. and with Mexican officials. We also have the Grupo Beta [a governmental organization that provides limited free transportation to immigrants] to make sure our citizens are not vulnerable to crime when they return. We also encourage civic organizations to get involved. There are many organizations that run shelters and whose mission is to help our citizens. These organizations are active parts of the dialog.

A recent report found that many deported immigrants reported abuse and harassment by immigration officials. They also said their belongings were missing. What has the Mexican government done to address these issues?

Yes, one of the topics we have been persistent about is the belongings of our citizens. This is a very complex situation for many reasons. From the minute [Mexican immigrants] are detained, while their immigration status is determined and the immigration authority is contacted, they move from custody to custody until they are repatriated. Their belongings stay behind sometimes and, after a while, if no one claims those belongings, they are lost.

We’ve had positive advances about these issues, especially with repatriations to the interior. Another issue we’ve addressed nighttime deportations. Our consular network continuously works to make sure that if there are going to be nighttime deportations, that women are not included. But let me be clear, we reject these operations.

Activists and critics say the Mexican government doesn’t do enough to protect the rights of Mexicans being repatriated. What do you say to that?

The attention from the Mexican government comes in two parts. Institutional scaffolding has been built so we have contact with immigration officials and access to the citizens being repatriated. Mexicans are interviewed by staff from our consulate. That’s our protocol and practice. Even if we didn’t have time to meet with each one individually, we still inform them about their rights, ask about health concerns, if they have been separated from their families or have a complaint against immigration authorities.

Also, during the winter, every Mexican repatriated to the country receives winter clothes. We’ve received complaints about immigration detention centers being cold — to the point it creates inhumane conditions. We buy pants and jackets and ship it to them.

Tell us more about the Interior Repatriation Initiative. The U.S. flies Mexican nationals to Mexico City and the Mexican government ensures a safe return to their hometowns. It accounted for only five percent of deportations in 2012. Are there any plans to expand it?

There are no plans at the moment. Two flights a week have been renewed. It is a good start to the program, which started as a pilot. The American government also has budgetary restrictions.

This interview was conducted in Spanish, translated by the reporter and edited for clarity.

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...