Until this summer, very little attention was paid to the 714-mile border that Mexico shares with Guatemala and Belize. But an unprecedented increase in Central American migrant children crossing the US border, primarily in south Texas, changed that. Amid growing concern about the plight of these children and the capacity of US institutions to care for them, the US Congress and the media debated whether “push factors,” especially violence and poverty, or “pull factors,” particularly modifications made in 2008 to a human trafficking law, were primarily responsible for the increase in child migration. Some members of Congress also called on Mexico to do more to stop migrants from crossing through its territory.
In August, apprehensions of Central American migrant children dropped dramatically, going back to levels not seen since February 2013. The reasons for this decrease remain unclear and are likely complex: fewer migrants cross the US-Mexico border in the summer because of the heat, and the Central American and US governments have run aggressive publicity campaigns in an effort to dispel rumors of new permits available to migrants. But the Mexican government has also mounted a new campaign to stop migrants from crossing Mexico.
At the onset of his presidency in December 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto had announced his government’s intentions to strengthen security and controls along Mexico’s southern border. At the border between Chiapas and Guatemala, migrants and local residents frequently cross the Suchiate River in inner tube boats or on foot, often in plain view of Mexican authorities at the official port of entry; other parts of the border are even less defined, with the border simply marked by a post or short fence. As WOLA researchers documented in a February 2014 field visit to the border, additional checkpoints have been set up along the main highways in Mexico’s southern border states, efforts are underway to strengthen the country’s official border crossings and customs facilities, and more federal security agents, both the police and the military, have been deployed, particularly to the state of Chiapas.
However, it was not until the recent increase in the flow of migrants crossing into Mexico over the summer that the Mexican government took additional measures to strengthen migration enforcement. Authorities finally took steps to prevent migrants from riding as stowaways on freight trains, something that will likely force more migrants to rely on smuggling networks. Checkpoints and raids also increased dramatically, leading to a higher number of deportations. The Mexican government has not released information about the number of Central Americans that it deported in June, July, and August, but Secretary of the Interior Osorio Chong has been quoted as saying that 30,000 Central Americans have been deported “since the beginning of the crackdown.”
In early September, elements of Mexico’s new Gendarmerie – a 5,000-strong new division of Mexico’s Federal Police with military and police training – also arrived in the southern border state of Chiapas, complementing the 400 Federal Police deployed there in 2013. Press reports indicated that the Gendarmerie in Chiapas would focus on border security and that in its first weeks it helped rescue nine victims of human trafficking, leading to the arrest of six suspected members of a network of human smugglers and human traffickers.
A flurry of media stories from leading US outlets depicted the dangerous journey of migrants and the Mexican government’s new efforts to stop them. And the US government seemed to approve of these measures; US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said on September 8 that “we are also pleased that the Mexican government has itself taken a number of important steps to interdict the flow of illegal migrants from Central America bound for the United States.”
But in Mexico, the government’s efforts have been controversial. Sergio Aguayo, a prominent scholar and activist in Mexico, recently told NPR that “[w]e are now the servants of the U.S. in this role.” Zoe Robledo, a Mexican Senator from Chiapas, spoke up in Mexico’s Congress, calling on the INM to provide more information about the Southern Border Plan and about the Mexican government’s measures to ensure the rights of detainees and whether using alternate routes would expose migrants to danger. And civil society organizations have widely rejected the plan for its lack of clarity of vision and for not placing proper emphasis on protecting migrants’ human rights.
These concerns are well-founded. For the past several years, migrants in transit through Mexico, principally from Central America, have been the victims of widespread crimes and human rights violations. In particular, kidnapping has occurred with shocking frequency; a 2011 report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) found that 11,333 migrants were kidnapped in a six-month period between April and September 2010. Moreover, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, “Mexico is a large source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.” Human rights violations against migrants are also common: a 2014 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report on migration through Mexico acknowledged the involvement of, or tolerance by, public officials in the abductions of migrants in transit through Mexico perpetrated by organized criminal groups; CNDH received 454 complaints of human rights violations by agents of Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) in 2013.
Most crimes and human rights violations in Mexico go unpunished; migrants rarely report human rights violations or crimes, and few investigations are initiated. In response to a recent freedom of information request, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office admitted that it has only opened 48 preliminary investigations for kidnappings against migrants since 2010.
Furthermore, while there are visible actions on the ground, there has been little transparency about Mexico’s new Southern Border Plan itself. In April, Mexico’s Federal Institute for Access to Information ordered the INM to make public documents describing the long-awaited plan. The INM responded by saying that it had no such documents. The plan itself was finally announced in July, but no document describing the plan has been published. In discussing the plan, President Peña Nieto was careful to emphasize both human rights and security, stating that “in Mexico we are convinced that migration should be addressed with a regional perspective, with co-responsibility, and above all, humanely; but we are also aware that every nation needs to do its part” [translation by authors]. On July 15, the government announced a new agency dedicated to border security, the “Coordinator for Southern Border Issues,” directed by former Senator Humberto Mayans.
When President Enrique Peña Nieto submitted his budget request for 2015, it included 102,011,743 pesos for this new agency. (Meanwhile, the budget for the INM actually fell 9.5 percent in real terms, from 2,173,000,000 pesos to 1,966,000,000.) But the proposal provided scant details about the agency’s budget; about half of its budget, 56 million pesos, is designated for salaries, but without a specification about how many positions it plans to create. Nor is the budget clear about how the Coordinating Office will spend the other 46 million pesos. It is striking that the new office will have 70 percent more money than the Migration Policy Unit, which is technically the government body responsible for designing and coordinating migration policy in Mexico.
As Mexico moves forward with its plan to improve security and human rights on the southern border, it is essential that it do so in a manner that is transparent and inclusive of civil society. There are three relevant precedents for such a process: the consultation process that led to the creation of the National Development Plan 2013-2018, the process drafting Mexico’s first Special Migration Program for 2014-2018, and most recently the Regularization Program that the government will launch this year.
If the Mexican government is serious about bringing security and order to the southern border, it should prioritize institutional reform, especially accountability and anti-corruption measures, in its efforts to strengthen the agencies tasked with immigration enforcement, and increase efforts to investigate and sanction criminal groups operating in the border region. And if the Mexican government continues with its stepped up migration enforcement strategy, it must ensure that due process and human rights are not violated in the process.
Maureen Meyer and Clay Boggs work for the Mexico program at the Washington Office on Latin America; Rodolfo Cordova is a Researcher at Fundar: Centro de Análisis y Investigación in Mexico City.
This is an abridged version of a post previously published by the Washington Office on Latin America and is republished here with permission.