Migrants ride through Ixtepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, on a train… (Eduardo Verdugo, AP )
Reporting from Mexico City — Mexican authorities fired seven regional directors of the country's immigration agency Thursday after allegations that its officers in northern Mexico had delivered Central American migrants to kidnapping gangs.
Commissioner Salvador Beltran del Rio described the firings as part of a wider effort to weed out corruption at the National Institute of Migration, or INM, the agency that enforces Mexico's immigration laws. Mexican officials have pledged to fight armed groups that kidnap migrants to extort money or recruit them for drug trafficking.
Beltran del Rio announced steps to tighten and speed screening of immigration agents and other functionaries in states traversed most often by Central American migrants en route to the United States.
Regional directors were replaced along a wide swath where migrant smuggling and allegations of rights abuses run rampant: the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Mexico, San Luis Potosi and Quintana Roo.
The new supervisors "will have as an immediate task carrying out a cleanup of personnel who work for them, to strengthen migration operations with strict respect for migrants' human rights," the agency said in a statement announcing the firings.
Migrant rights groups here have long accused police and Mexican immigration agents of colluding with kidnappers.
Six INM agents in the northern border state of Tamaulipas were placed in detention last month on suspicion of detaining migrants and delivering them to kidnappers.
A group of Central Americans rescued in Tamaulipas last month identified INM agents as those who had seized the migrants from a northbound bus and handed them to kidnappers. The migrants were among 120 people, mostly from Mexico, freed by Mexican soldiers in operations in Tamaulipas.
Officials have not said whether Mexican immigration agents might have played a role in the kidnappings of 72 Central and South American migrants who were found slain in a rural stretch of Tamaulipas last year.
Federal authorities said at the time that the kidnappings and killings were carried out by the Zetas, a brutal gang that is engaged in drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. Authorities said the gang was seeking to recruit helpers by force.
More recently, nearly 200 victims, most believed to be Mexican, were discovered in a series of mass graves in the same area after reports emerged that bus passengers were being seized en masse by gunmen.
Authorities also blamed the Zetas in the recent case, but arrested 16 local police officers from the town of San Fernando on suspicion of helping the gunmen.
The moves come during a week when President Obama traveled to the Mexican border to press anew the case for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, changes Mexico has long advocated.
By some estimates, 400,000 migrants cross through Mexico each year on a risky northward trek that has grown more perilous as armed drug gangs increasingly target migrants, often in order to demand money from relatives in Central America or the United States.