Stories from the U.S.-Mexico border have dominated the news for weeks: the separation of 2,000 children and teenagers from their parents, the Trump administration’s executive order requesting that families be detained together, the slow pace of reunifications, and other potential policy changes aimed at narrowing the path to asylum.
But there is another southern border of interest to U.S. immigration policy. While national attention has focused on the United States’ border with Mexico, I spent a few weeks this past month hopping on and off colectivos (small buses) along the 700-mile boundary that separates southern Mexico from Belize and Guatemala. For Central American migrants and asylum seekers heading north to the United States, this is the launching point for their journey through Mexico.
This article and the three dispatches to follow come from my journey along the length of the Mexico-Guatemala border. While no single trip can ever fully describe Mexico’s southern border area, this series of articles aims to provide snapshots into the region and its relationship with irregular migration.
Like the U.S.-Mexico border, the Mexico-Guatemala border cannot be summed up by a single description. It includes the thick Lacandon jungle, where jaguars still roam wild, howler monkeys provide 5 a.m. wake-up calls, and alligators lie with one eye open on the banks of the Usumacinta River, which separates the two countries. The jungle is home to many indigenous communities, marginalized and ignored for centuries, and has even served as the training ground for the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Ranchers have also cut back the jungle and expanded into these once-remote areas, and the main streets of the border town Benemérito de Las Américas are lined with stores selling cowboy boots and hats. Move even further south and the rolling ranches slowly give way to the Chiapas highlands, where the jungle transforms into cool pine forests on towering mountains, which themselves gradually transition into the tropical coastal lowlands.
It is a region of abundant geographic beauty and cultural and historical importance. Yet U.S. officials have long zeroed in on Mexico’s southern border for another reason: national security. Mexico’s southern border is the entry point for an estimated 90 percent of the cocaine from South America—and nearly all Central American migrants—destined for the United States. These movements have piqued the interest of U.S. officials, many of whom have taken the view that it is better to pursue a perimeter security approach, which means identifying and stopping potential migrants or threats before they ever approach U.S. territory. As such, Mexico’s southern border has emerged as a critical geographic area.
Since 2001, the United States has supported both traveler screening and enforcement efforts within Mexico. Travelers arriving to Mexican airports and also leaving en route to the United States are compared against U.S. criminal and national security traveler lists, and U.S. officials have helped boost Mexican authorities’ intelligence and migratory enforcement capabilities along Mexico’s southern border. Since 2013, U.S. officials have also worked with Mexican authorities to establish a three-band security network along the southern border: Security checkpoints are located along the physical border 10 to 30 miles out and approximately 100 miles out.
Still, the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States from Central America continued to rise, peaking in June 2014, and the focus on stopping irregular migration at Mexico’s southern border intensified. During this “surge,” President Barack Obama spoke on the phone with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto regarding collaborative solutions to what he perceived as a crisis. Less than three weeks later, on July 7, 2014, Peña Nieto and his team announced Programa Frontera Sur, or Mexico’s Southern Border Plan. The program ambitiously promised to foster orderly migration, protect migrants and spur economic development in southern Mexico.
Four years later, it’s hard to point to visible results beyond increased deportations. From January 2014 to May 2015, the number of migratory raids in the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco more than doubled—from 796 to 1,785 raids per month. Increasingly, these raids were undertaken not just by unarmed agents of the National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, or INM) but in collaboration with Mexico’s Federal Police, military and other government agencies. The results included a doubling of migrant apprehensions in these three southern states—from 25,314 between January and May 2014 to 53,891 during that same period the following year. Reports of abuse by these authorities also rose during this time. And while the immigration enforcement efforts were easy to spot, the Mexican government’s promised investment in 187 economic programs across the region never appeared.
Meanwhile, U.S. funding for the region did show up. Three days after Peña Nieto announced the Southern Border Plan, then-State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon testified before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee that the Obama administration was providing $86 million to support the plan. Congress also stepped up, allocating $100 million through the bilateral Mérida Initiative. While some of the funding has been slow to arrive, the money has been allocated toward a $75 million telecommunications project to improve secure communications among Mexican government agencies in its southern states. For residents, though, many areas along the border still lack cell service and Guatemalan providers offer the only connection. Funds were also earmarked for providing biometric data-collection kiosks, equipment for INM agents, and training for both INM agents and prosecutors in southern border states.
Mexico does not focus as much of its migration enforcement efforts at the physical border as the United States does. For most of the territory, a river serves as the dividing line of its southern border, and a series of white concrete posts, set roughly 15 meters (about 50 feet) apart, mark the territory on land. Boats and rafts shuttle people back and forth, at times right next to the official ports of entry. Along the land borders, Guatemalans and Mexicans walk back and forth across dirt paths to visit relatives, head to work or go shopping.
I checked out one of these paths a year ago while at the El Ceibo crossing in Tabasco. A nine-year-old boy offered to cross me into Mexico on a path for 20 pesos (about $1 U.S.). His companion, an even younger boy, undercut him by 10 pesos, and I followed the littlest coyotito along a dirt path that was, at most, 150 feet from the Guatemala customs building and in plain view of Mexican authorities. Although I was walking on an open, clearly visible path into Mexican territory, not one person attempted to stop me. In fact, someone sitting across the street from the Guatemalan customs office even waved.
Hundreds of Central Americans cross the border every day with similar ease. Yet it’s not that Mexican officials don’t care about irregular migration but, rather, that they focus most of their enforcement efforts further from the border. INM officials have set up checkpoints along the country’s major highways heading north; agents board the local buses to visually identify people they suspect of being irregular migrants and ask for their papers. Over the past five years, the Mexican government has also built five multiagency customs checkpoints (Centros de Atención Integral al Tránsito Fronterizo, or CAITF), functioning somewhat like internal ports of entry, and northbound traffic is routed through high-tech buildings that house the INM, navy, army, Federal Police, prosecutors, customs officials, and municipal and state representatives.
This leaves migrants with several options. They can walk the roads and circumvent checkpoints; they can go through checkpoints and take the risk that agents won’t identify them; or they can rely on smugglers to set up deals with authorities at the checkpoints. Each of these options has its own set of consequences and risks. Walking around checkpoints means that migrants are in isolated areas, where the locals know the geography and help is a long way off, making them more vulnerable to crimes. The second option, simply boarding buses and hoping for the best, is akin to playing migratory Russian roulette. The third option, hiring a smuggler to take care of the logistics behind the scenes, is the one most commonly taken. It is generally safer for migrants but is more damaging to Mexico’s rule of law.
Yet as the security buildup has intensified along Mexico’s southern border, the government has allocated far fewer resources to the communities in the border states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco. The southern border area remains Mexico’s most impoverished zone, and Chiapas is the country’s poorest state. According to Mexico’s independent poverty measurement agency, CONEVAL, an estimated 77 percent of the population of Chiapas lived in poverty in 2016, compared with 70 percent of Oaxaca’s population and 51 percent in Tabasco. (Mexico’s overall poverty rate was 43 percent that year.) Some 30 percent of all Mexicans living in extreme poverty reside in one of these three southern border states. It is no coincidence that Chiapas and Oaxaca have some of the largest indigenous populations in the country and that historically they have been hot spots for domestic discontent against the government (a status quo that continues today).
This lack of economic opportunity has historically fostered migration, with Chiapas residents moving to bigger cities or to the United States. While this resettling never reached the levels in other Mexican states, such as Puebla and Michoacán, the legacy of migration remains embedded in small towns and large cities across Chiapas. More recently, however, the focus has turned toward indocumentados; those coming from Central America and beyond. These hundreds of thousands of migrants are following well-trodden paths to reach the United States but reflect only the most recent phase in this area’s long history of migration. The next three dispatches in this series will trace these migrants’ footsteps along Mexico’s southern border and seek to understand how they fit into the region’s history and current dynamics.