WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
20 Aug 2014 | Commentary

Five Questions about Mexico’s New Southern Border Program

By Clay Boggs

Last month, the number of child migrants detained by U.S. authorities fell by nearly half, from about 10,000 in June to 5,000 in July. The causes for this decline are still unclear. Is it the weather? (It is more dangerous to cross U.S. borderlands in the summer heat, and border crossings generally slow down during these months.) Have the intense propaganda campaigns in Central America—which are aimed at dispelling myths of a permiso (permit) for children who arrive in the United States—been successful? Or have Mexican authorities stepped up their efforts to detain and return unauthorized migrants from Central America?

In all likelihood, the (perhaps temporary) reduction in the arrival of children at the U.S. border is due to a variety of factors. But increased enforcement by Mexican authorities is almost certainly one of them. WOLA has received reports from migrant shelters and civil society organizations in Mexico of increased enforcement in the country’s southern border zone, noting a growing presence of the Army (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) and the Federal Police (Policía Federal). According to these reports, in recent weeks there has been an uptick in coordinated operations involving the Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR), Army, Federal Police, and even Mexico’s intelligence agency (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional, CISEN). Moreover, undercover agents from Mexico’s National Institute for Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) have boarded cargo trains to detain migrants, part of a series of (only partially successful) efforts by authorities to keep migrants off the trains. On August 6, Mexican media reported that dozens of agents raided hotels and restaurants in Arriaga, Chiapas, a southern border town. The agents detained an estimated 150 migrants, as hundreds of migrants fled into the countryside to evade capture.

Mexico’s border buildup surprised few observers; as WOLA’s new report, Mexico’s Other Border: Security, Migration, and the Humanitarian Crisis at the line with Central America, made clear, President Enrique Peña Nieto had promised to focus on the southern border since the beginning of his administration, and U.S. officials had already expressed interest in expanding cooperation with Mexico along the border with Guatemala and Belize. However, the debate about child migrants in the United States has clearly served as a catalyst and has intensified pressure on Mexico’s government to step up enforcement. Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI), and Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) have called for aid to Mexico to be conditioned on increased immigration enforcement. These proposals have received little support and are unlikely to become law, but Obama administration officials have also indicated backing for a Mexican border surge: Tom Shannon, Special Counsel to the Secretary of State, told a Senate panel in July that the State Department had a “five-point strategy” to address child migration, one of which was “improving the ability of Mexico and Guatemala to interdict migrants before they cross into Mexico and enter the established smuggling routes that move the migrants to our border.” Shannon further stated that the State Department intended to spend an additional US$86 million in Merida Initiative funds to help Mexico secure its southern border. It is also likely that, in private, U.S. policymakers have strongly encouraged Mexican counterparts to do more to stop unauthorized immigration.

On July 7, Peña Nieto finally announced the long-awaited Southern Border Program (Programa Frontera Sur) and called for the creation of a new agency within the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB) to coordinate southern border issues. (On June 15, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Mexico’s Interior Minister, named former Senator Humberto Mayans, who previously served as the head of the Senate’s Commission for Southern Border Issues, as the new Southern Border “Coordinator.”) Peña Nieto has said that the program will include elements such as humanitarian assistance; an expanded temporary visa program for visitors from Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador to work in Mexico’s four southern border states; and improvements in the conditions in migrant detention centers and shelters for children. It will also include a greater focus on the biometric registration of migrants (a focus of U.S. assistance to the INM) and enhanced intelligence operations to attempt to break up criminal groups that abuse migrants.

We expect to learn more about the Mexican government’s immigration plans and priorities in early September, when President Peña Nieto will submit his 2015 budget request to Congress. For the moment, however, there is little clarity about the budget, scope, or operational strategy of Mexico’s new Southern Border Program. In the meantime, as Mexico moves forward with its plans to secure the southern border, here are five key questions:

What role is given to Mexico’s armed forces? The only agencies authorized to participate in immigration enforcement in Mexico are the INM and the Federal Police, but WOLA has received multiple reports of the armed forces participating in immigration enforcement. The Mexican government should not encourage the use of the military for immigration enforcement or other public security tasks along the border with Guatemala and Belize. As WOLA research has demonstrated, military training is a poor preparation for public security tasks. Soldiers are trained for combat against an enemy, not law enforcement. Therefore, the participation of Mexico’s military in maintaining checkpoints or carrying out searches, detentions, interrogations, or other missions that involve frequent contact with migrants should be avoided and minimized wherever possible.

How is the Mexican government working to screen migrants to ensure that refugees and victims of human trafficking are protected? If raids and detentions continue to increase, it will be important to assess how the Mexican government plans to ensure that individuals are properly screened, so that refugees, human trafficking victims, and other individuals in need of protection are not sent back to dangerous situations. Strengthening Mexico’s Commission to Assist Refugees (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR) and expanding the role of United Nations H
igh Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) in Mexico, along with providing INM and Federal Police agents with adequate training and clear guidelines for screening refugees, will help Mexico determine whether detained individuals are in need of protection.

What steps will the Mexican government take to investigate and dismantle the criminal networks that kidnap migrants? After the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, President Felipe Calderón’s government announced a new multiagency strategy to combat the kidnapping of migrants. This strategy was never fully implemented, and the Peña Nieto government has given little indication as to whether it intends to continue with the strategy or develop another. (In January 2014, Peña Nieto announced a new plan to address the problem of kidnapping in Mexico, but public documents about the plan make no specific mention of the kidnapping of migrants). Meanwhile, migrant shelters continue to report widespread kidnapping of migrants and extortion, and Mexican media frequently publish reports of kidnapped migrants being “rescued” by the military. But investigations and prosecutions of kidnappers are rare. Progress in this area will take real political will and the dedication of significant investigative and judicial resources.

How is the Mexican government sanctioning officials that abuse migrants? Government officials, including Federal Police officers and INM agents, have been implicated in the kidnapping and abuse of migrants. Migrant shelters have documented numerous cases of extortion by members of the Federal Police, and the INM has been investigated for complicity in human trafficking rings. In 2013, the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) received 454 complaints of human rights violations committed by INM agents; this was the eighth-highest number of complaints received by the CNDH against any agency in Mexico. But few agents are sanctioned for abuse or investigated for corruption. A comprehensive assessment of the INM by the Mexican nongovernmental organization Institute for Security and Democracy (Instituto para la Seguridad y la Democracia, Inysde) found that agents accused of corruption or abuse are often transferred within the agency rather than dismissed. If more aggressive steps are not taken to sanction officials that commit abuses against migrants, increased enforcement will almost certainly result in more incidents of abuse. Strengthening internal and external controls in Mexico’s INM and Federal Police is the key to ensuring that officials who abuse migrants are properly sanctioned and to dissuading future abuse.

How is the U.S. government cooperating with Mexico in the areas of immigration enforcement and border security? U.S. assistance has thus far been focused on equipment deliveries, such as US$6.6 million for Non-Intrusive Inspection Equipment and US$3.5 million for biometric kiosks and training for Mexican military forces involved in border security operations. Recent press reports suggest that future U.S. border security and immigration funding is likely to continue to prioritize equipment deliveries to the Federal Police, the INM, and the Mexican military. But simply providing more scanning equipment, boats, and training will do little to address the institutional weaknesses of agencies charged with immigration and border enforcement, even if it leads to seizures of drugs and migrants. Meanwhile, U.S. support for the Mexican military’s role in border security will only reinforce the continued militarization of public security in Mexico. Instead, U.S. assistance should prioritize combatting corruption and abuse in law enforcement, immigration enforcement, and judicial institutions, as well as strengthening communities and preventing violence.