By Stefanie Eschenbacher
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Venezuela's deepening political and economic crisis has provoked a surge of asylum seekers to Mexico this year, government figures show, with applications to stay in Mexico setting a record pace.
During just the first six months of this year, 1,420 Venezuelans have sought asylum in Mexico, a nearly four-fold jump compared to the 361 total Venezuelan asylum applicants for all of 2016.
No Venezuelans applied for asylum in Mexico in 2014 or 2015.
- PHOTOS: Massachusetts residents make first retail marijuana purchases 12 Pictures
- Prepare for GoT season 8 with this Game of Thrones whisky 8 Pictures
"It's not normal for so many Venezuelans to come here," Socorro Flores, Mexico deputy foreign minister for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Reuters in an interview.
Venezuelans made up 21 percent of total asylum seekers in Mexico during the first half of this year, compared to just 4 percent during the same period in 2016.
About 40 percent of the Venezuelan asylum applicants have received approval, making them eligible for other protections and benefits including the possibility of obtaining a work visa, while the rest are still being processed.
Flores said the ongoing social upheaval in Venezuela is behind the trend.
In the latest twist in the slow-motion crisis, Venezuela's chief prosecutor was fired on Saturday and ordered to stand trial, less than 24 hours after a newly elected legislative superbody was installed with sweeping powers to strengthen President Nicolas Maduro's grip on power. [nL1N1KR08Q]
"Venezuela is a divided country, it is a polarized country, and it will require a lot of vision and a lot of international support to sit down and have a dialogue that can find a solution," said Socorro.
"The region does not want to see a Venezuela plunged into violence and chaos."
Street protests since April in the South American nation have left more than 120 people dead as rock-throwing protesters have been met by rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas.
Also on Saturday, South American trade bloc Mercosur indefinitely suspended Venezuela, adding to international pressure on Maduro to dismantle the newly created assembly and restore democracy. [nL1N1KR0B6]
(Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by David Alire Garcia and David Gregorio)