Until this summer, very little attention was paid to the 714-mile border that the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo share with Guatemala and Belize. But an unprecedented increase in Central American migrant children crossing the U.S. border, primarily in south Texas, changed that. Amid growing concern about the plight of these children and the capacity of U.S. institutions to care for them, the U.S. Congress and the media debated whether “push factors,” namely violence and poverty in Central America, or “pull factors,” especially modifications made in 2008 to a U.S. 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 U.S.-Mexico border in the summer because of the heat, and the Central American and U.S. 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 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 a greater number of migrants to rely on smuggling networks. (Photos showing dozens of migrants atop these trains had long been an embarrassment for the Mexican government and a powerful illustration of the plight of Central American migrants in transit through Mexico.)
Checkpoints and raids have 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 Minister of the Interior Miguel Osorio Chong has been quoted as saying that 30,000 Central Americans have been deported “since the beginning of the crackdown.” (It is not clear exactly what period of time Mr. Osorio Chong is referring to, but July through August is likely.)
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 U.S. outlets like The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, and NPR depicted the dangerous journey of migrants through Mexico and the Mexican government’s new efforts to stop them. And the U.S. government seemed to approve of these measures; U.S. 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.” (The Central American governments have also undertaken efforts to stem migration. Honduras has carried out border security operations involving soldiers to prevent unaccompanied children from starting their journey, and Guatemala has established two army-police Joint Task Forces to combat organized crime and contraband at its borders with Mexico and Honduras.)
But in Mexico, the government’s efforts to crack down on irregular immigration have been controversial. Sergio Aguayo, a prominent scholar and activist in Mexico, recently told NPR that “We 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 (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) found that 11,333 migrants were kidnapped in a six-month period between April and September 2010. (The Federal Police also recently disclosed that it rescued 71,415 kidnapped migrants between 2007 and 2014.) 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 2013 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 crime groups; in 2013, Mexico’s CNDH received 454 complaints of human rights violations by agents of the INM.
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 (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) admitted that it has only opened 48 preliminary investigations (averiguaciones previas) 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 transparency agency, the Federal Institute for Access to Information (Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos, IFAI) ordered the INM to make public documents describing the long-awaited plan, in response to various inquiries. The INM responded by saying that it had no such documents. (Our research located a series of documents issued by the Mexican government in the past year on southern border policy, including the Integrated Development Plan for the South-Southeast Zone; the Border Zone Support Program; the Customs Modernization Program; the Migration Program for the Southern Border of Mexico; and the “Safe Passage” Program, but none of these documents provided a satisfactory description of the Mexican government’s plan for the southern border.) The allegedly more comprehensive Southern Border Plan was finally announced in July, but documents detailing the plan have yet to be published. In describing 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 government agency dedicated to border security, the “Coordinator for Southern Border Issues” (Coordinación para la Atención Integral de la Migración en la Frontera Sur), directed by former Senator (and former head of the Senate’s Southern Border Issues Commission) 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 budget proposal provided scant details about the agency’s budget; over half of its budget, 56 million pesos, is designated for salaries, but the budget does not specify 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 (Unidad de Politica Migratoria), 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 of drafting Mexico’s first Special Migration Program (Programa Especial de Migración 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.
*Update: Following the original publication of this commentary, INM released numbers of deportations for June, July, and August 2014. According to the INM’s statistics, 24,924 individuals were deported during this period.
- “Mexico’s New Southern Border Security Plan and New Police Force: An In-Depth Podcast with WOLA’s Adam Isacson and Experts on the Ground,” September 18, 2014.
- Clay Boggs, “Five Questions about Mexico’s New Southern Border Program,” August 20, 2014.
- Maureen Meyer and Clay Boggs, “The Other Crisis: Abuses Against Children and Other Migrants Traveling through Mexico,” June 27, 2014.
- Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer, and Gabriela Morales, Mexico’s Other Border: Security, Migration, and the Humanitarian Crisis at the line with Central America, June 2014.