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Latin America & Caribbean

As Trump takes office, uncertainty along Mexico's southern border

Mexico has increased detentions and deportations of Central American migrants, creating a first line of defense for the United States. But experts say migration won't stop without a comprehensive solution to the crisis in the Northern Triangle.
19 Ene 2017 – 08:02 AM EST
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A man rests in a migrant shelter in Chiapas, Mexico, in December 2016. Crédito: Jessica Weiss/Univision

TAPACHULA, Mexico – It's been three weeks, and David de Jesus, a 33-year-old woodworker from El Salvador, still hasn't been able to find work. In this town 20 miles north of the Guatemalan border, he sits on the curb outside the Belén migrant shelter, where he and his wife and their two young children are staying. He wears a white tank top, a red t-shirt draped over his shoulder. At 9 a.m. it's nearly 90 degrees.

"It hasn't been easy since we got here," de Jesus says, his voice unsteady. "We left fleeing but here we face other risks for being immigrants. For being undocumented."

In November, members of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang came to the family's house in San Miguel, El Salvador, in the middle of the night and demanded de Jesus pay "rent" at $400 per month. When he refused, they threatened to kill him and his family, including his newborn baby.

That's when he began to make plans to leave for the United States, perhaps to join an aunt. But then, plans changed. Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, and de Jesus decided they would try to make a life in Mexico.

"Trump says he’s going to kick out everyone and send us back to our countries," de Jesus says. "So we run the same risk. What's the good of going to the United States if they deport me and then I'm killed in El Salvador? I don't want that. I don't want to see my kids die."

President-elect Trump enters the White House Friday with promises of major changes to U.S. immigration policy. But for all the talk of an enhanced wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, there's another much-less discussed border in the United States' strategy.

For the last three years, Mexico's southern border, 1,700 miles south of El Paso, has served as the United States' first line of defense against the flow of migrants. That's made the journey north more difficult and turned Mexico into the new destination for people fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

"Migrants are more fearful of immigration now," says Sister "Dona" Olga Sanchez, who has worked with migrants in Tapachula since 1991, and runs a shelter called Jesus el Buen Pastor. "The will to continue forward has diminished."

During the first seven months of 2016, nine of every 10 Central Americans presented to Mexican migration authorities were deported. Between July 2014 and July 2016, Mexican authorities detained over 425,000 migrants. Though that's fewer than the number of migrants U.S. authorities detain and deport each year, it marks a significant shift in Mexico's treatment of Central Americans.

That response has been made possible due to close cooperation with the United States. Now, it's anyone's guess how a Trump presidency might impact Mexico's policies towards the desperate Central Americans fleeing north across its soil. Experts say the Mexican authorities who Trump insulted during his campaign could, feasibly, decide to stop cooperating on southern border issues.

"That's one of the challenges for Mexico today," says Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2013. "How do we make sure we have a modern migration policy that reflects the values and rights we want observed?"

A shifting Mexican strategy

Though Trump focused his campaign around illegal Mexican migration, the number of Mexicans entering the United States is actually way down. In fact, more Mexicans left than came to the United States between 2010 and 2014. Meanwhile, the number of migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle, now surpass Mexicans. In 2015, 229,178 Mexicans and 257,473 Central Americans were arrested and deported from the United States.

Over the last decade, murder rates in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have skyrocketed amid clashes between warring street gangs, known as maras. Young girls are being forced into prostitution and sex trafficking rings, while young boys are forced into gangs. Small business owners are threatened, extorted and killed. Families lock themselves in their homes, afraid to go out past dark. And corrupt police and government officials make it nearly impossible to denounce threats.

"People are no longer leaving in search of a better life," Sister Sanchez says. "They're fleeing to live."

Though Mexican authorities long turned a blind eye to the thousands of Central Americans who crossed the nation in hopes of reaching the United States, that began to shift under President Felipe Calderón, who served from 2006 to 2012.

Incidents like the 2010 San Fernando massacre, when 72 undocumented Central American immigrants were murdered in Tamaulipas by the Zetas drug cartel, showed the Mexican government it needed to channel more resources to take control of the southern border.

"Mexico could no longer wag its finger at the U.S. about the fundamental human rights of migrants if it was violating the rights of Central Americans going through Mexico," Sarukhan says.

Under Calderón, Mexico began to modernize security along its southern border, investing in more customs-oriented equipment and facilities with support from the U.S. counter-drug Mérida Initiative. In 2011, the U.S. Defense Department provided as much as $50 million for "patrol boats, night vision equipment, communications equipment, maritime sensors, and associated training" along Mexico's southern border.

By 2012, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for International Affairs Alan Bersin declared that "the Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border."

Then, after an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle in 2014, the Obama administration launched a campaign to deter migrants from making the dangerous trip. It also put more pressure on Mexico to secure its southern border.

That July, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced Plan Frontera Sur, or the Southern Border Plan, which promised to protect migrants' rights and provide "order" to the migration process.

Immediately, Mexican authorities beefed up their presence, not along the porous 714-mile border itself – a blend of river, lush forest and mountains – but at numerous checkpoints north of the border, namely on highways. They began more raids and patrols along migrant routes, including the infamous train, La Bestia, or "The Beast," which had long been the primary mover of migrants through Mexico. And they built a number of modern mega-facilities that combine immigration, security and customs functions.

Right away, apprehensions rose sharply in Mexico. While 80,000 Central Americans were deported in 2013, that number more than doubled in 2015, to nearly 180,000.

"If before there were two raids on the highway, now we're talking about eight or nine," says Hector Sipac, the Guatemalan consul in Tapachula, who assists Guatemalans along the journey north. "You’ve got the federal police, municipal police, state police and migration authorities. Everyone participates, everyone detains."

Though it’s difficult to know how much the U.S. has contributed to the Mexican strategy, a February 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service said that the State Department had spent at least $15 million on equipment operated by Mexico's National Migration Institute (INM) as well as training assistance, with plans to spend up to $75 million.

"We are committed to our partnership with Mexico and to advancing common goals," a State Department spokesperson tells Univision.

Formerly tasked with mostly administrative work, INM now works as more of a law enforcement agency, similar to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In Chiapas, border police dress in all black and wield large guns to patrol migrant routes and city streets. That's sent migrants further into the shadows, driving smugglers to craft new, dangerous routes, and ennobling criminals who prey on migrants.

The iconic images of packed cargo trains have all but disappeared. Migrants now travel largely on foot and, increasingly, by sea – on a route traditionally used by drug smugglers. In July, three Honduran children drowned when trying to cross into Mexico on a raft.

"Here we’re running from criminals and migration agents," says Juan Antonio, a 17-year-old from Sonsonante, El Salvador, who narrowly escaped a run-in with authorities in La Arrocera, just north of Tapachula, after he was assaulted, robbed and stripped naked by bandits. In El Salvador, he and his brother, 23, had been forced to join a gang.

In Tapachula, Sanchez says Central Americans arrive to her shelter with ever more horrific stories. "People come here after being raped; children are raped, trafficked and kidnapped," she says. "Immigration is very dangerous and migrants come staring at death in the face. They are not more protected."

According to Doctors without Borders, two-thirds of migrants interviewed at shelters across Mexico last year reported suffering at least one violent attack during the journey.

And it's not just at the hands of criminals. Between 2014 and 2015, complaints of abuse by Mexican immigration agents increased by more than 50 percent. Last year, there were almost 500 human rights complaints against INM agents.

In January 2015, Obama praised the southern border collaboration with Mexico during a meeting with Peña Nieto, thanking Mexico for making the situation more "manageable" for the United States. Maureen Meyer, the senior associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that reflects poorly on the United States, which long knew about the Mexican authorities' track record of abuse.

"I think the [Obama] administration should be ashamed of asking Mexico to do what it did, knowing how weak institutions are and how rife with corruption and abuse," she says. "That’s a troubling aspect of Obama’s legacy."

The Dream is no longer American

For de Jesus, returning to El Salvador is not an option.

"If they tell me here that I can't get papers, we're still not going to go," he says. "I don’t know what I’m going to do but there is no way I can go back. Many people go back and get killed."

Even though immigration is harder now than ever, many in the Northern Triangle prefer it to the alternative. The number of Central Americans seeking to make a home in Mexico is rising. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of asylum applications increased by 577 percent. This year, applications have risen by about nine percent each month, says the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR. Though there were just 3,424 asylum applications in 2015, officials predict that figure could rise to over 20,000 by the end of 2017.

Eric Olson, who heads the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, says the days of Mexico being considered a "transit country" are over.

"The situation in Central America is so dismal that more and more people are settling in Mexico. They may not be making the $15 an hour they could in Boston but they’re not being killed either, or not as faced with levels of violence they’re faced with in Honduras or El Salvador."

On a hot December morning, 100 Central Americans waited outside a government office for refugees, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, known as COMAR. They were there for a weekly check-in, part of the 90-day process for asylum requests.

"Here in Mexico you feel the peace," says Hugo, a 32-year-old carpenter from Guatemala.

Mexico is taking in more refugees. While just 39 percent of asylum applications for Central Americans were accepted in 2014, that number rose to 46 percent in 2015 and surpassed 60 percent in 2016, UNHCR says.

But experts point out that Mexico, like the United States, continues to spend far more on security enforcement than humanitarian assistance for migrants. COMAR has only three offices in the country, in Tapachula, Veracruz and Mexico City, with few employees and a lackluster budget of less than $2 million. INM, on the other hand, will receive $86 million in 2017.

For its part, the Obama administration has tried to get to the source of the problem. Late last year, the United States allocated $750 million in aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The administration also set up the Central American minors program to allow children to be reunited with parents who are in the U.S. lawfully. To date, more than 2,000 minors have come to the U.S. through the program.

"The United States remains committed to working with the Mexican government as well as civil society to support Mexican efforts to protect human rights, strengthen the rule of law, and promote transparency and accountability," the State Department spokesperson says. "Including the rights of migrants."

Meyer says she had hoped the next U.S. president would continue its aid to Central America as well as discuss with Mexico ways to support increased accountability of INM agents and strengthen the capacity of prosecutors charged with investigating crimes against migrants.

"Now there are many unknowns," Meyer says. "How much will engagement with Mexico be a priority for the Trump administration? Will the focus shift entirely to the U.S.-Mexico border? Trump himself hasn’t mentioned anything about Central American violence but others in Congress have. Hopefully we'll continue to see bipartisan support for Central America but we'll just have to see.”

November and December saw record numbers of Central Americans try to squeeze through the U.S. southwestern border in advance of Trump's arrival. In total, fiscal year 2016 – which ended in September – saw more than 400,000 immigrants apprehended there.

Sarukhan says Mexico, too, will continue to grapple with its future as a destination country. It could decide to use its own southern border enforcement as a bargaining tool, should Trump continue his stance toward Mexico, he says.

"This has been an issue that has created a lot of pressure, a lot of soul searching and a lot of debate in Mexico," he says. "You see this conversation happening all over the world, from Europe to the United States to Mexico. Nations are going to have to work together to come up with holistic policies to continue to uphold the values that allow refugees and asylum seekers to flee persecution."

During his fourth week in Mexico, de Jesus finally finds a job, laying bricks near the shelter where he's staying. Although he'll be making just a few dollars a day, he says he is relieved.

"We just want a life with peace and security, to get established," he says. "Maybe we can find it in Mexico. Maybe we'll wait four years until Trump's out and then go to the United States."

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Jessica Weiss’ reporting from Mexico as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.