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Central American migrants walk along the railroad tracks as they wait to board a train known as "The Beast" to reach the border with the US, in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, Mexico on 3 April 2018. ULISES RUIZ / AFP

Mexico’s Southern Border: Security, Violence and Migration in the Trump Era

Mexico stops hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing northward to the U.S. Many are deported, and many more are stuck in the country’s south, vulnerable to crime and rising xenophobia. With U.S. and European help, Mexico should work harder to protect migrants and foster economic development.

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What’s new? Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets to the contrary, Mexico is vigorously policing its southern border, stemming the northward flow of Central Americans escaping poverty and violence. It is deporting thousands and accepting thousands more as refugees, though many remain in legal limbo.

Why does it matter? Central Americans have long contended with abuse on their way north. Today they run a gauntlet of threats from criminals and corrupt officials. If Mexico is not better equipped to handle the influx, the human costs and the risk of conflict will rise. Already xenophobia and violence are increasing across Mexico’s south.

What should be done? Mexico should stop using migration policy as a bargaining chip with the U.S., and instead redouble efforts to protect migrants and refugees, fight crime and promote development in the southern states. The U.S. and EU should provide material assistance for refugee processing and protection, and support efforts to reduce poverty and crime in Central America so that fewer people are compelled to flee.

Executive Summary

The relationship between Mexico and the U.S. is most fraught in the domain where cooperation between the two countries is the closest. At its border with Central America, some 1,500km south of the line where U.S. President Donald Trump wants to build a wall, Mexico effectively acts as an operating arm of U.S. immigration control. It stops hundreds of thousands of Central Americans from travelling north, deporting more of them than the U.S. since 2015, while also granting thousands refugee status. For Mexico, control over its southern border offers some protection from the spasmodic blows of the Trump presidency. But as Central Americans continue to flee poverty and violence at home, Mexico’s buffers are turning into bottlenecks. Xenophobia and criminality make southern Mexico increasingly perilous for refugees and migrants. The Mexican government, with the support of Central American states, the European Union (EU) and Washington itself, should strive to reinforce refugee protection, crime prevention and development in the area.

Understaffed and overstretched, the Mexican system for adjudicating asylum cases is close to collapse.

Elected in part on a tough anti-immigration stance, President Trump has planted deep uncertainty in the minds of many who might seek to enter the country. After falling sharply in 2017, arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol are again on the rise. Humanitarian workers and migrants themselves report acute anxiety over what lies in wait for those who do get across. For many of those leaving Central America, their final destination is now closer, and often less welcoming. The number of Latin Americans applying for refugee status in Mexico jumped 66 per cent in 2017. Understaffed and overstretched, the Mexican system for adjudicating asylum cases is close to collapse: when two earthquakes struck Mexico in September 2017, the national refugee agency was briefly paralysed. Many applicants, including children, languish in detention centres, awaiting the verdict as to whether they will be granted protection.

Moreover, Central American refugees’ escape from violence is far from assured. In 2017, Mexico tallied its highest number of murders since the country’s modern record-keeping began. Homicide rates in the southern states of Oaxaca, Quintana Roo and Veracruz are above the national average and rising. Kidnappings have soared across the south since 2015. Not only are the border states now the main conduit for cocaine trafficked from Colombia’s Pacific coast, but violence is fuelled by the fragmentation of the once dominant Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, combined with the rise of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the spread to southern Mexico of Central American street gangs, notably the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). The proliferation of cartels and gangs has intensified turf battles over protection rackets. Long the victims of crime while travelling north, Central Americans must now run an extended gauntlet of criminal organisations ready to kidnap, physically and sexually abuse or kill them. Gangs have even staged raids on migrant shelters.

Yet, in many border towns, locals perceive Central Americans themselves as responsible for the rise in crime, prompting a backlash, including calls for southern Mexico to build a wall of its own. Refugees and migrants face increasing discrimination and are often trapped between erratic state institutions, predatory criminals and alarmed locals.

Mexico is entitled to secure its borders and manage migration flows to ensure refugees’, migrants’ and host communities’ lives and well-being are not endangered. But the realities of its southern frontier impede effective and judicious migration management. The long and porous border, unceasing flight from Central America, and the presence of potent trafficking groups make border control fitful and ineffective. Combined civil and military operations to seal the border have not halted the flows, and the coercive measures Mexico relies upon appear not to identify adequately those in need of protection, or ensure those in transit are free from threats and abuse by criminal groups and corrupt state officials.

The geopolitics of migration must not delay or dilute attempts to lessen the perils that refugees and migrants face.

As southern Mexican states become assembly points for migrants and refugees from the region, Mexico, with the support of Central American countries, the EU and potentially the U.S., should strive to mitigate the risks of those in transit coming to harm and of friction between them and Mexican host communities. With a new president due to be elected on 1 July, the Mexican state, supported by foreign donors, should redouble crime prevention efforts; ensure that all national and international bodies engaged in refugee and migrant protection, including UN agencies and Central American consulates, coordinate efforts and target areas where threats are most acute; and promote a realistic regional approach to the migration issue that helps Northern Triangle countries deter emigration through greater economic opportunity and a reduction in crime and violence. Latin American governments should expand their efforts to distribute refugees more evenly across the region, building on existing initiatives to strengthen shared regional responses to the challenge.

Mexico’s border policy, currently part of the government’s efforts to get what it wants in negotiations with the U.S., should turn instead to preventing the festering local resentments, crime and violence that lurk along its southern frontier. The geopolitics of migration must not delay or dilute attempts to lessen the perils that refugees and migrants face.

Mural at "La 72" migrants' shelter , Tenosique (Tabasco), October 2017. Crisis Group (Froylán Enciso)

Recommendations

To prevent the spread of organised crime, violence and xenophobia, and to support security and development on the Mexico-Central America border:

To the governments of the United States and Mexico:

  1. Enhance bilateral cooperation and partner with Central American countries to ensure orderly migratory and commercial flows and spur local economic development on the border, without making these steps conditional on the outcome of commercial or other bilateral negotiations.
  2. Refrain from supporting the further militarisation of Mexico’s southern border as a means to halt migrant flows and combat rising crime.
  3. Foster exchange of knowledge between the U.S., Mexico and Central American countries on gang prevention and gang members’ rehabilitation in vulnerable cities and neighbourhoods on Mexico’s southern border.

To the government of Mexico:

  1. Provide sufficient financial and human resources to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), so it can coordinate with the National Institute of Migration (INM) in providing attention to those seeking protection, including:
    1. Improving security for those whose lives are endangered by transnational organised crime according to gender-specific and age-appropriate needs; and deterring their recruitment by these groups through employment and community development programs.
    2. Giving information about the right to seek asylum to every non-Mexican national detained by any Mexican authority and ending extended detention, especially of children and adolescents.
  2. Support local government efforts to accommodate migrants and refugees in the border region; and reinforce state-level attorney general’s offices specialised in crimes against migrants.

To the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala:

  1. Provide the necessary infrastructure, financial and human resources to existing consular offices, and expand their services and geographical reach in Mexico, reducing their dependence on donations and infrastructure provided by the Mexican government.

To the European Union and the United States:

  1. Support through technical assistance Mexican and Central American governments’ efforts to provide oversight of security agencies and state institutions working on migrant and refugee issues; increase technical support to expand asylum case processing in Mexico and neighbouring countries, especially of children; and provide technical assistance and capacity building to Central American consulates to ensure protection for those in transit.

Mexico City/Bogotá/Brussels, 9 May 2018

I. Introduction

The border snaking between Mexico and Guatemala was demarcated in the 19th century, but only in recent decades has it experienced mass migration. In the latter stages of the Cold War, thousands of Central Americans arrived in the border area after escaping civil wars. At that time, Mexico ramped up its support for peace talks in El Salvador and Guatemala, leading to the voluntary repatriation of refugees in the 1990s.[fn]Manuel Ángel Castillo, Mónica Toussaint Ribot and Mario Vázquez Olivera, Espacios diversos, historia en común: México, Guatemala y Belice: la construcción de una frontera (Mexico City, 2006); Manuel Ángel Castillo, Mónica Toussaint Ribot and Mario Vázquez Olivera, Centroamérica (Mexico City, 2011); Natalia Armijo and Mónica Toussaint Ribot, Centroamérica después de la firma de los Acuerdos de Paz: violencia, fronteras y migración (Mexico City, 2015). Hide Footnote Today, streams of migrants and refugees are fleeing poverty and violence in the countries to Mexico’s south. But this time, control of the southern frontier is not a local issue. Mexico’s most important bilateral relationship – with the U.S. – depends to an unprecedented extent on the country’s capacity to stem the tide of northward migration.

Mexico’s southern border policy, and its strain on ties with the U.S., has evolved in phases. Before the 11 September 2001 attacks, former Presidents Vicente Fox and George W. Bush intended to broker an agreement on immigration.[fn]Jorge Castañeda Gutman, Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants (New York, 2009).Hide Footnote After the attacks, they abandoned those plans in favour of enhanced security cooperation with a counter-terrorism focus between the U.S., Mexico and Central American countries.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official of the National Commission of Human Rights, Mexico City, 21 March 2017.Hide Footnote Mexico adapted its immigration policy to the new security priorities by establishing Plan South, a system of police and military surveillance, and by deferring to the U.S. on every major issue related to the southern border.[fn]Manuel Ángel Castillo, “Fronteras, migración y seguridad en México”, Alteridades, vol. 15, no. 30 (2005), pp. 51-60.Hide Footnote

Plan South aimed to deter Central American emigration to the U.S. with reinforced roadside inspections of vehicles in search of undocumented migrants across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the neck of land where the distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean is shortest. Simultaneously, President Fox sought to spur economic growth in Central America with Plan Puebla Panamá.[fn]Plan Puebla Panamá was launched in 2001 with the aim of strengthening regional integration and promoting economic and social development. The governments of Mexico and the seven Central American countries converted it into the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project in 2008. See “Portal oficial del Proyecto Mesoamérica”, Proyecto Mesoamérica. Crisis Group interview, María del Pilar Fuerte Celis, former official of the National Institute of Migration, Aguascalientes, 7 July 2017.Hide Footnote Neither scheme had adequate resources or realistic targets. Both were superseded by the Mérida Initiative, signed between the U.S. and Mexico in March 2007 to support the purchase of military equipment and training as part of Mexico’s newly declared “war” on drugs and crime.[fn]Sonja Wolf, “La guerra de México contra el narcotráfico y la Iniciativa Mérida: piedras angulares en la búsqueda de legitimidad”, Foro Internacional, no. 206 (2011), pp. 669-714.Hide Footnote

The number of Central Americans coming to the U.S. has surpassed the number of Mexicans, prompting a new bilateral emphasis on containing the flow.

President Enrique Peña Nieto, who came to power in 2012, when Barack Obama was in the White House, oversaw another sharp turn in cooperation on migration and security. At least since 2014, the number of Mexicans leaving the U.S. has exceeded the number of Mexicans arriving, in part because the total number of Mexicans heading north has dropped to an historical low.[fn]“More Mexicans leaving than coming to the U.S.”, Pew Research Center, 19 November 2015.Hide Footnote In the same period, the number of Central Americans coming to the U.S. has surpassed the number of Mexicans, prompting a new bilateral emphasis on containing the flow.[fn]Andrew Selee, “A New migration agenda between the United States and Mexico”, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 2017.Hide Footnote Coinciding with a crisis of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America, this shift pushed Peña’s administration to announce a new Southern Border Plan in 2014.[fn]David Nakamura, “Obama thanks Mexico for ‘absorbing’ Central American refugees. His own administration wants to turn them away”, Washington Post, 20 September 2016. The U.S. supported the Southern Border Plan through the Mérida Initiative, donating $24 million in equipment and training for air mobility and surveillance. See Christopher Wilson and Pedro Valenzuela, “Mexico’s southern border strategy: Programa frontera sur”, Wilson Center, Mexico Institute, 2014.Hide Footnote

The 2016 Crisis Group report Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration examined the causes of this exodus from the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), in particular the epidemic violence that drives many to leave. It also analysed the mistreatment Central Americans endure during their journey through Mexico. In highlighting the role that Mexico has played as both a “buffer state” against migrants – deporting more Central Americans than the U.S. since 2015 – and a destination for asylum seekers, Easy Prey stressed the need for a coordinated regional approach to migration.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°57, Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration, 28 July 2016.Hide Footnote

This report focuses on the latest southern border dynamics and their connection to the chill in U.S.-Mexico relations. It examines the initial consequences of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and Mexican reactions to it for border control and the well-being of refugees and migrants in southern Mexico. In effect, the Mexican government has threatened to condition its deterrence of drug smuggling and Central American migration on the favourable renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although leading U.S. officials generally praise Mexican cooperation on border security, Trump himself has also berated Mexico for supposed lax controls over migrants.[fn]President Trump in March called cooperation with Mexico “another crucial element of border security”. Less than three weeks later he attacked Mexico in a tweet for “doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S.” “Remarks by President Trump after review of border wall prototypes”, White House, 13 March 2018; “This US-bound migrant caravan sparked a Trump twitterstorm”, CNN, 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote

The report takes measure of the rising tide of xenophobia on the southern border, and the difficulties faced by the Mexican government and society in integrating Central Americans. It also analyses violent crime along Mexico’s southern border, including the emergence of transnational gangs, which locals argue are created by incoming migrants. It is based on fieldwork along Mexico’s southern border, particularly in the regions of Tapachula, Ciudad Hidalgo, Frontera Comalapa, La Mesilla and San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas; Tenosique and Villahermosa, in Tabasco; and Minatitlán, Coatzacoalcos, Acayucan and Medias Aguas, in Veracruz. Around 100 interviews were carried out in these areas between July 2017 and March 2018, as well as in Aguascalientes, Oaxaca and Mexico City, with government officials, migrants and refugees, human rights activists, victims of violence and specialists in migration.

II. The Trump Effect

Since launching his presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump has frequently resorted to anti-Mexican bombast.[fn]When announcing his candidacy, Trump said: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people. It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably – probably – from the Middle East”. “Here’s Donald Trump’s presidential announcement speech”, Time, 16 June 2015.Hide Footnote He has threatened to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, deport immigrants en masse, terminate or revise NAFTA, and use military force against drug cartels, making some progress toward the first three of these goals.[fn]Shannon O’Neill, “The Mexican standoff”, Foreign Affairs, September-October 2017.Hide Footnote The Mexican government has reacted to the president’s statements by keeping open its channels of dialogue with Trump and his inner circle even at the prickliest moments.[fn]Adriana González, Arturo Magaña Duplancher, Ana Margarita Martínez Mendoza, Inés Carrasco Scherer and Emerson Segura Valencia, “El presidente Donald Trump suscribe órdenes ejecutivas en materia migratoria y de seguridad fronteriza en el contexto de un primer esfuerzo de diálogo con México: la controversia sobre la renegociación del TLCAN y la construcción del muro”, Centro de Estudios Internacionales Gilberto Bosques, Mexican Senate, 2017.Hide Footnote Mexican political and economic elites are determined to preserve a close working relationship for the sake of financial stability, the value of the peso, and the flow of investment and bilateral trade.[fn]Crisis Group interview, director of a consultancy firm that interacts with the president’s office, Mexico City, 23 May 2017. Jon Lee Anderson, “How Mexico deals with Trump”, The New Yorker, 9 October 2017.Hide Footnote Mexican leaders have stressed the benefits of this relationship to the U.S. government, notably through cooperation on border control and drug trafficking. But their approach has come at a cost in Mexico, above all to the popularity of senior government figures.

A. Central Americans as a Tactical Bargain

Peña Nieto kicked off the diplomatic strategy toward Trump by inviting him to visit Mexico when he was still just a candidate. Peña did himself no favours in public opinion with this move.[fn]Ioan Gillo, “Why did Peña Nieto invite Trump to Mexico?”, The New York Times, 1 September 2016; Eric Martin and Rafael Gayol, “Trump invite marks Mexican president’s top mistake, poll shows”, Bloomberg, 21 September 2016; Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Oye Trump: propuestas y acciones en defensa de los migrantes en Estados Unidos (Mexico City, 2017).Hide Footnote But he had decided it was essential to stabilise the currency markets, which had the jitters about Trump’s heated attacks on trade with Mexico, and to dampen uncertainty about the future of NAFTA.[fn]“Transcript of a press briefing on update of the World Economic Outlook”, International Monetary Fund, 16 January 2017.Hide Footnote The interdependence of the Mexican and U.S. economies gave Peña Nieto – in the view of a substantial part of the Mexican business elite, including telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim – a strong hand in negotiations with Trump.[fn]“U.S.-Mexico Economic Relations: Trends, Issues and Implications”, Congressional Research Service, 4 November 2016; Jorge Carrasco Araizaga, “Trump y Slim, más cercanos de lo que parece”, Proceso, 28 January 2017.Hide Footnote

The architect of the meeting between Peña Nieto and Trump was Luis Videgaray, then secretary of finance and an acquaintance of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Amid outrage over Trump’s visit, Videgaray was forced to resign. But he returned to become secretary of foreign relations in January 2017, soon after Trump’s victory.[fn]David Agren, “Mexico appoints ex-minister behind Trump’s visit as new foreign minister”, Guardian, 4 January 2017.Hide Footnote His reappointment confirmed Mexico’s readiness to engage in transactional politics with the U.S., prioritising macroeconomic stability and untouched trade flows through a series of tactical bargains on other issues.[fn]James Fredrick, Peter Campbell and John Paul Rathbone, “Mexico tries to cut a deal with Trump”, Financial Times, 5 January 2017.Hide Footnote The fundamental aim, which Videgaray has acknowledged in public, is to treat the main issues in U.S.-Mexico relations – migration, security, commerce and investment – as a package, in order to gain leverage in the renegotiation of NAFTA.[fn]Eric Martin, “México negociará seguridad con EU en paralelo al TLCAN”, El Financiero, 12 December 2017.Hide Footnote Critics in the Mexican media have rebuked Videgaray for portraying Central America as the root of U.S. grievances and Mexico as the remedy for that region’s economic woes.[fn]Gerardo Esquivel, “México y Centroamérica en la era Trump”, El Universal, 24 February 2017.Hide Footnote

After strengthening consular resources to protect Mexican nationals in the U.S., Videgaray has stressed Mexico’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on migration and security.[fn]In 2017, Peña Nieto budgeted an increase of $58.7 million (1,070 million Mexican pesos) for consular protection, though in financial year 2016-2017 the number of protection and assistance requests fell 15.8 per cent. Carolina Rivera and Israel Navarro, “Baja 15.8% la atención consular a paisanos”, Milenio, 2 September 2017.Hide Footnote In particular, he has tried to convince his U.S. counterparts that Mexico will beef up its military efforts to control migration. Following high-level military contacts, Videgaray announced that reducing Central American migration and securing the Mexican southern border were the prime areas of common interest for the Trump and Peña Nieto administrations.[fn]On 31 January 2017, Lori Robinson, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and Kurt Tidd, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, met José Antonio Ortiz Guarneros, commander of the 14th Naval Zone in Puerto Chiapas; Jens Pedro Lohmann Iturburu, commander of the 36th Military Zone in Tapachula; and Socorro Flores, undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, among other Mexican officials, in Tapachula, Chiapas. Rubén Zúñiga, “Supervisa EU frontera sur de México”, El Heraldo de Chiapas, 1 February 2017. “U.S., Mexican officials meet in Mexico, discuss security – sources”, Reuters, 1 February.Hide Footnote During a meeting with then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then Department of Homeland Security head John Kelly in Mexico City on 23 February 2017, he stated that:

The migratory phenomenon today has its main origin in the sister countries of Central America, normally those that make up the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. We have agreed that the governments of Mexico and the United States must assume a shared responsibility, with an approach that not only includes migration control, but also addresses the real causes of migration, such as the development and stability of these nations.[fn]See original at “Mensaje a medios del Canciller Luis Videgaray Caso con los Secretarios de Estado y Seguridad Interior de EUA”, Secretariat of Foreign Relations, 23 February 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Military Cooperation and Migration

Over the course of 2017, Mexico confirmed its interest in consolidating military co-operation with the U.S. and embracing a newly assertive foreign policy in the region. After the two countries co-hosted, for the first time, the Central America Security Conference in Cozumel on 23-25 April, U.S. officials applauded Mexico for its willingness to project military power. In a Senate hearing, General Lori Robinson, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, described “an evolution of the Mexican military from an internally focused force to one that is willing and increasingly capable of providing security leadership in Latin America”.[fn]“Statement of General Lori G. Robinson, United States Air Force commander, United States Northern Command, and North America Aerospace Defense Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee”, 6 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Engagement of the Mexican armed forces in efforts to control migratory flows from Central America dates back several years. The Mexican navy created a Southern Border Program in 2013, establishing three security cordons on or close to the border. These cordons included security checks right on the border; a system of checkpoints in areas close to it, where so-called Comprehensive Border Transit Centres were located, bringing together personnel from the navy, army and federal police, as well as prosecutors, customs officials, municipal and state authorities, and representatives of the National Institute of Migration (INM); and a containment zone along a line between Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz and Salina Cruz, Oaxaca (ie, across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), through the establishment of joint operation bases to fight human trafficking and smuggling.[fn]Mathieu Tourliere, “Ejército mexicano, artífice de la contención migratoria en la frontera sur”, Proceso, 18 February 2017.Hide Footnote

The military already has the pre-eminent role in running the Southern Border Plan, and the civilian component is getting smaller still.

This program evolved into the Southern Border Plan, coordinated by the Secretariat of the Interior since 2014. The boundary is guarded by a dozen naval bases on rivers, and preserves the security cordons that now reach more than 100 miles north of Mexico’s border with Guatemala and Belize. The plan stipulates that migration officials are to work closely with the military, as well as federal and state police, to enforce controls.[fn]Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin Finklea, “U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond”, Congressional Research Service, 2017, p. 21.Hide Footnote In addition, the plan provides for issuing registered migrants a Mexican regional visitor card and a worker visitor card, which guarantee them health care and other social services.

The military already has the pre-eminent role in running the Southern Border Plan, and the civilian component is getting smaller still. According to the Secretariat of the Interior, responding to a freedom of information request sent by Crisis Group, the plan’s civil coordination budget fell from around $3.1 million (51 million pesos) in 2015 to around $1.6 million (30 million pesos) in 2016. More than half of the 97 posts in the plan’s civilian administration departments were vacant.[fn]“Freedom of information request no. 0000400270717”, Secretariat of the Interior, answered 10 January 2018.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, the Mexican navy, responding to another freedom of information request, sent documents showing that, in August 2014, marines helped set up security cordons to remove immigrants from freight trains, while the navy, at least until 2016, was organising new border surveillance projects.[fn]“Freedom of information request no. 0001300102317”, Secretariat of the Navy, answered 3-13 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The Mexican government reaffirmed its readiness to deploy military units to seal its frontiers by announcing in April that it would dispatch the recently created National Gendarmerie to the southern border.[fn]The announcement that the National Gendarmerie, a militarised wing of the Federal Police created in 2014, would be deployed to Chiapas came days after President Trump’s Twitter attacks on Mexico’s border control. “¿Al estilo Trump? México aumenta el despliegue de gendarmes en la frontera sur para frenar la migración”, Animal Político, 10 April 2018.Hide Footnote But the prominent role of the Mexican military in border control has prompted acute concerns about migrants and refugees’ rights and well-being. Reports by migrant and refugee defenders have pointed to the military’s alleged maltreatment of Central Americans, including the indiscriminate and brutal policing of those travelling on the freight trains known as the “Beast”, as well as the knock-on effects of military patrols and roadblocks pushing migrants and refugees toward more remote and dangerous transit routes, especially in rural Chiapas.[fn]Alice Driver, “The mutilated and the disappeared”, Longreads, January 2018; “Peña prometió protegerlos, pero delitos contra migrantes en la frontera sur se disparan 200%”, Animal Político, 13 January 2017.Hide Footnote At the same time, the limited progress made in efforts to ensure civil legal jurisdiction over military crimes and human rights violations stokes fears that abuses of power in border control by the armed forces will go unpunished.[fn]“Overlooking Justice: Human Rights Violations Committed by Mexican Soldiers against Civilians Are Met with Impunity”, Washington Office on Latin America, November 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Central American Development

In addition to stressing bilateral military cooperation, Videgaray has sought to dispel U.S. migration fears.[fn]See Videgaray’s and Tillerson’s statements after their first meeting, in which Videgaray discussed an agreement on “joint responsibilities” to tackle development and stability in the Northern Triangle, the “real causes of the migratory phenomenon”; “Statements to the press”, U.S. Department of State, 23 February 2017, at https://bit.ly/2rsX3wF.Hide Footnote The balm to soothe these complaints, he says, is economic development in Central America spurred by Mexico. Videgaray and Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, then secretary of government, joined a June 2017 conference on Central American “prosperity and security” in Miami with the promotion of this approach in mind. Kelly and Tillerson also attended.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Julián Escutia, chief of staff of the undersecretary for North America, Mexico City, 30 May 2017.Hide Footnote

Mexico committed itself to supporting regional development through the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project, a regional mechanism including Central America, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.[fn]The Mexican government invested $129.7 million in infrastructure projects, especially roads in the Northern Triangle, between 2012 and 2016. “Fondo de Infraestructura para países de Mesoamérica y el Caribe”, Agencia Mexicana de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo, 8 February 2017.Hide Footnote It also undertook to coordinate its efforts with the Alliance for Prosperity – a partnership set up by the three Northern Triangle countries and funded through the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America with the aim of reducing migration through economic growth and a crackdown on criminal gangs.[fn]“Conferencia sobre prosperidad y seguridad en Centroamérica: comunicado conjunto SRE-SEGOB”, Secretariat of Foreign Relations, 16 June 2017.Hide Footnote

A central element of economic cooperation is the plan to integrate energy markets, an issue highlighted during Tillerson’s trip to Latin America in February 2018 and on which certain U.S., Mexican and Central American private-sector actors are aligned.[fn]See Tillerson’s speech at the start of his trip to Latin American countries in February 2018.“U.S. engagement in the Western Hemisphere”, remarks at the University of Texas at Austin, U.S. Department of State, 1 February 2018, at https://bit.ly/2EbffCr. An example of private-sector actors’ alignment is the plan to export natural gas from Texas and Louisiana via Mexico. Noé Cruz, “Será México vía de paso para gas natural de EU”, El Universal, 19 November 2017.Hide Footnote The Inter-American Development Bank pledged to support ongoing efforts to connect the electricity grids from Colombia to Mexico. Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries also expressed support for the integration of gas markets in the region.[fn]“Conferencia sobre prosperidad y seguridad en Centroamérica: comunicado conjunto SRE-SEGOB”, Secretariat of Foreign Relations, 16 June 2017.Hide Footnote

Deeper economic cooperation is also what senior U.S. government officials recommend. Speaking at the May 2017 launch of a report on the effect of job creation in Central America on U.S. security, Kelly stated that he and President Trump believe securing the south-western border “begins 1,500 miles south” in partnerships with Mexico and countries further afield.[fn]Ashish Kumar Sen, “To secure the United States’ southern border, look to Central America: US Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly says improvement in conditions will reduce unauthorized migration”, The Atlantic Council, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote

D. Threats to Stop Cooperation

The U.S. and Mexico both say they recognise the importance of cooperation on issues such as terrorism, organised crime and migration. But both countries also threaten to hold progress in these areas hostage to desiderata in other crucial talks, such as the renegotiation of NAFTA.

Videgaray made it clear during a Senate hearing on 28 February 2017, months before the first round of NAFTA renegotiation started in the week of 16-20 August, that ending this trade agreement would not be the “end of the world” for Mexico. He warned, however, that cancelling NAFTA could be harmful to U.S. national interests:

We know that Mexico is an important country for [Americans] in commercial matters. We also know that for the United States Mexico is an important country in terms of security, in the fight against organised crime, prevention of terrorism and, of course, immigration cooperation. All these issues are important for both parties, a reality that arises from the coexistence that geography has given us. However, at this moment of decision, faced with the challenge posed by the new position in the United States, the position of our country has been clear, expressed in private and in public repeatedly, about the principle of “integrality”; that is, all the issues are on the table simultaneously.[fn]“Versión estenográfica de la comparecencia del Secretario de Relaciones Exteriores, Luis Videgaray Caso (primera parte)”, Senado de la República, 28 February 2017.Hide Footnote

None of these threats, however, seems to have tempered Trump’s hostility to the trade pact. On 10 October, he stated in an interview that “NAFTA will have to be terminated if we’re going to make it good”.[fn]Randall Lane, “Inside Trump’s head: An exclusive interview with the president, and the single theory that explains everything”, Forbes, 10 October 2017.Hide Footnote In a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he said: “If we can’t make a deal, it’ll be terminated and it will be fine”.[fn]Vicky Needham, “Trump again threatens termination of NAFTA in meeting with Trudeau”, The Hill, 11 October 2017.Hide Footnote Videgaray, speaking before the Mexican Senate once again, responded with a note of impatience: “I believe that the willingness of Mexico – and we have made it known to the government of the United States – to continue in other areas of cooperation, naturally, would be seriously affected. This is a variable that the government of the United States has to take into account and, in addition, I believe that the effect would be lasting. Beyond the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, I believe that, understandably, the attitude of Mexicans toward any kind of cooperation with the United States would be seriously affected”.[fn]“Versión de la sesión ordinaria del 10 de Octubre de 2017”, Senado de la República, 11 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Mexicans bitterly resent Trump’s verbal assault on immigrants ... Antipathy for Trump is translating into distrust of the U.S. as a whole.

Whatever the fate of NAFTA, Mexicans bitterly resent Trump’s verbal assault on immigrants. In the run-up to the 1 July presidential election in Mexico, they question every aspect of the bilateral relationship. Current opinion polls strongly favour the left-leaning, nationalist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, while many Mexicans lambast the Peña Nieto administration for what they see as its conciliation of the White House, among other perceived flaws.[fn]John Lee Anderson, “How Mexico deals with Trump”, The New Yorker, 9 October 2017. Peña Nieto’s approval rating, according to the polling firm Parametría, dropped from 22 per cent in August 2016, when he invited Trump as candidate to Los Pinos, to 15 per cent in January 2017. It has marginally recovered since then, but Peña is still the least popular Mexican president since the 1990s and probably in Mexican history. “Carta paramétrica: evaluación presidencial. Quinto informe de Gobierno”, Parametría, 5 September 2017; Francisco Abundis, “Evaluación presidencial; quinto informe de gobierno”, Milenio, 5 September 2017.Hide Footnote By large margins, Mexicans dislike Trump. Among the 85 per cent who have heard of the U.S. president, 89 per cent view him negatively, according to the consulting firm Buendía and Laredo. Antipathy for Trump is translating into distrust of the U.S. as a whole. The same pollster found that 66 per cent of Mexicans had a favourable opinion of the U.S. in 2015, a figure that dropped to 30 per cent at the start of 2018.[fn]Craig Kafura, Dina Smeltz, Duncan Wood, Esteban Guzmán Saucedo and René Bautista, “For first time, majority of Mexicans hold unfavorable view of United States”, Chicago Council of Global Affairs, Wilson Center-Mexico Institute and Buendía and Laredo, January 2018.Hide Footnote Yet there is still nuance in popular opinion, and dislike for the White House incumbent is intermixed with repudiation of Mexico’s own authorities. One protester at an anti-Trump march explained as follows:

I admire the American people very much …. The problem in Mexico is that our leaders have stolen so much that now we have little left to fight back against Trump and his policies.[fn]Patrick McDonnell, “Thousands march against Trump in Mexico City: ‘Pay for your own wall!’”, Los Angeles Times, 12 February 2017.Hide Footnote

III. Migration Dynamics and the Trump Presidency

Following President Trump’s inauguration, the number of Central Americans passing through Mexico to the U.S. fell, though recent months have seen an uptick. Enhanced enforcement and surveillance explain part of the decline, as does a resort to more remote and dangerous routes by those travelling north. But observers agree that Trump’s caustic rhetoric has heightened fears of arrest, deportation or abuse en route.

Xenophobia is spreading across the southern states as anger festers about the arrival of unprecedented numbers of Central Americans insufficiently supported by the state.

The Trump administration has shown itself determined to curb arrivals from Mexico, the Northern Triangle and the Caribbean. Over the next year and a half, the U.S. will revoke the residency rights of 59,000 Haitians and 200,000 Salvadorans who had enjoyed the Temporary Protected Status (TPS).[fn]The U.S. government gave Haitians until July 2019 and Salvadorans until September 2019 to leave the country or be forcibly repatriated., “Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen announcement on Temporary Protected Status for El Salvador”, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 8 January 2018; and “Acting Secretary Elaine Duke announcement on Temporary Protected Status for Haiti”, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 20 November 2017.Hide Footnote On 5 September 2017, Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created by the Obama administration to provide work permits for 800,000 undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors. A decision in late February by the U.S. Supreme Court not to reverse a lower-court ruling that halts Trump’s repeal of DACA will delay the start of deportations of DACA residents, known as the “dreamers”. As of late April 2018, negotiations between the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress over DACA’s future had reached no agreement, though President Trump indicated earlier that month that his approach to dreamers’ residency rights might be hardening.[fn]The White House offered protection for DACA beneficiaries until 202o in exchange for Democratic support for $25 billion to fund border security, above all for the construction of a border wall. Democrats appear willing to back the funding proposal, but only in exchange for full permanent protection, which should include a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, including DACA beneficiaries. Congress approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act that provides only $1.6 billion for border security on 23 March. On the Supreme Court ruling see, Joseph P. Williams, “SCOTUS: DACA recipients can stay for now”, U.S. News & World Report, 26 February 2018; on the negotiations to approve the appropriations bill, see Lauren Fox et al., “Congress unveils $1.3 trillion spending package, includes background check bill”, CNN, 22 March 2018. On Trump’s early April remarks, see “Trump says DACA is ‘dead’, and calls on Mexico to enforce border security”, The New York Times, 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, Mexico is absorbing migratory pressure from its southern neighbours, but not without repercussions. Xenophobia is spreading across the southern states as anger festers about the arrival of unprecedented numbers of Central Americans insufficiently supported by the state.

People crossing the Guatemalan-Mexican border near Tapachula (Chiapas), Mexico. June 2016. Crisis Group (Mary Speck)

A. Fear and the Reduced Flow of Central Americans

After the wave of unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S. border in 2014, President Obama strove to protect Central American minors while negotiating with Mexico to restrict the flow. Due largely to increased surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border and containment further south via the three security cordons, Mexico deported more Central Americans than the U.S. from 2015 onward.[fn]In 2014, the Obama administration repatriated 122,298 migrants from the Northern Triangle. That figure fell to 75,478 in 2015 and 76,472 in the last year of his term. During fiscal year 2017, the U.S. deported 74,789 individuals from the Northern Triangle. Along Mexico’s southern border the trend of deporting more Northern Triangle citizens than the U.S. has continued since 2015. Mexico increased repatriations from 91,067 to 165,524 in 2015 and 149,209 in 2016. During the fiscal year 2017, Mexico deported 20,000 more Northern Triangle citizens than the U.S., ie, a total of 94,561 people. “ICE Statistics”, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, last reviewed/updated 2 April 2018; and “Boletines estadísticos de la Secretaría de Gobernación”, Secretariat of the Interior, consulted 22 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Tougher border enforcement and detention regimes have also led to widespread abuse of those in transit by authorities and criminals. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported that two thirds of Central Americans surveyed who were journeying through Mexico to the U.S. had fallen victim to violence.[fn]“Forced to Flee Central America’s Northern Triangle: A Neglected Humanitarian Crisis”, MSF, 11 May 2017.Hide Footnote Almost one third of the women surveyed by MSF had been sexually assaulted while in transit.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The Mexican government has endeavoured to reduce impunity for such crimes by creating special local prosecutors’ offices and a federal unit at the Attorney General’s Office. But one study shows some 99 per cent of the perpetrators get away scot free: of the 5,821 crimes against migrants reported in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Sonora, Coahuila and at the federal level, the Washington Office for Latin America found evidence of only 49 court sentences.[fn]“Access to Justice for Migrants in Mexico: A Right That Exists Only on the Books”, Washington Office on Latin America, July 2017.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group gathered testimony about typical abuses on a visit to Medias Aguas, a small town in the state of Veracruz where the migrant route from Tenosique, in the Tabasco jungle, joins the route from Tapachula, near the Chiapas coast. Most of those in transit whom Crisis Group encountered were Honduran citizens. Two had arrived in Medias Aguas walking and hitch-hiking after the train in which they were travelling derailed. One left Honduras looking for opportunities in the U.S., but had reportedly lost all his money to blackmail by police and was unsure he could go on. Another migrant said he was fleeing violence, but also doubted he would make it to the U.S., having already been repatriated once after a failed attempt to apply for asylum in that country at the Laredo border crossing in southern Texas.

Fears of Trump’s policies – actual, potential or imagined – are repeatedly invoked to explain the decline by human rights activists, migrant shelter workers, UN officials and Central American consuls in ... key points along the migration routes

These and other Central Americans reported that the main danger on the freight trains they use to travel north, the so-called Beast, is the numerous migration officials who stop and board the trains to detain undocumented migrants. Migrant and refugee activists have recorded reports of verbal and physical abuse allegedly committed by INM officials using Taser guns to threaten and control the travellers. Central American gang members who board the trains and charge fees in sections of the route between Tenosique and Palenque also threaten those in transit, as do raiders who jump into the train in the tunnels between Orizaba and Puebla.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Central Americans using the Tenosique route of the Beast, Medias Aguas, Veracruz, 26 September 2017. On the accusations against INM officials, see for example “En los límites de la frontera, quebrando los límites: situación de los derechos humanos de las personas migrantes y refugiadas en Tenosique, Tabasco”, Hogar refugio para personas migrantes La 72, April 2017, p. 20; and Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer and Hannah Smith, “Mexico’s Southern Border: Security, Central American Migration and U.S. Policy”, Washington Office for Latin America, June 2017, p. 12.Hide Footnote

As these cases suggest, greater numbers of Central Americans have decided to stay in Mexico, in some instances applying for refugee status there, especially since Trump took office.[fn]A total of 14,596 people from Northern Triangle countries and Venezuela applied for asylum in Mexico in 2017, the highest ever figure recorded by COMAR and an increase of 66 per cent over 2016. “Estadísticas 2013-2017”, Comisión Mexicana de ayuda a refugiados. See also Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer and Hannah Smith, “Mexico’s Southern Border: Security, Central American Migration and U.S. Policy”, op. cit.; and Daniella Burgi-Palomino and Emma Buckhout, “‘Does My Story Matter?’ Seeking Asylum at Mexico’s Southern Border”, Latin American Working Group Education Fund, July 2017.Hide Footnote During his first 100 days as U.S. president, migration to the U.S. across the Mexican border reportedly dropped to its lowest level in seventeen years.[fn]“US-Mexico illegal border crossings fall to 17-year low”, BBC, 5 April 2017.Hide Footnote Fears of Trump’s policies – actual, potential or imagined – are repeatedly invoked to explain the decline by human rights activists, migrant shelter workers, UN officials and Central American consuls in Tapachula, Frontera Comalapa, Tenosique, Acayucan and other key points along the migration routes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locations across southern border, July 2017-March 2018.Hide Footnote One Central American consul in Acayucan, a town in Veracruz state just under 50km from Medias Aguas, said: “Trump’s wall is psychological, because he inserted the idea [of the wall] in everyone’s mind”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Acayucan, Veracruz, 27 September 2017.Hide Footnote

The White House trumpets its view that fear is the most effective deterrent of undocumented immigration.[fn]Overall, deportations by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency fell from 240,255 in 2016 to 226,119 in fiscal year 2017. ICE enforcement and removals operations’ arrests, however, jumped around 30 per cent from 110,104 in 2016 to 143,470 in 2017. The number of migrants arrested without a criminal record has more than doubled since 2016, increasing from 5,498 to 13,600 in 2017. “Southwest Border Migration FY2018”, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 9 January 2018. On the established use of fear as a migration deterrence policy on the U.S.-Mexico border, see Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Oakland, 2015). Hide Footnote “Now, people aren’t coming because they know they’re not going to get through, and there isn’t crime”, the president asserted in an interview.[fn]“Transcript of AP interview with Trump”, Associated Press, 23 April 2017.Hide Footnote According to John Kelly, “the message is, ‘If you get here – if you pay the traffickers you will probably get here – you will be turned around within our laws relatively quickly and returned. It is not worth wasting your money’”.[fn]“A new strategy for US engagement with Central America”, Atlantic Council, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote

Migrants and refugees along the routes to the U.S. seem to believe Trump and Kelly are sincere – and many are staying put as a result.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants in transit, Frontera Comalapa, Chiapas, 1 October 2017; migrants in transit, Medias Aguas, Veracruz, 26 September 2017; refugee applicants, Tenosique, Tabasco, 24 July, 2017; migrants in transit, Tapachula, Chiapas, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote In the countries that individuals are leaving, there is likewise ambient dread of what might await them in the U.S.[fn]Kirk Semple, “Central Americans ‘scared of what’s happening’ in U.S., stay put”, The New York Times, 3 July 2017.Hide Footnote Rather than head for the Rio Grande, many Guatemalans use regional visitor cards for safe, legal entry to Mexico, and then look for jobs in the tourism industry in Quintana Roo, on the Yucatán Peninsula.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Guatemalan consular official, Tenosique, Tabasco, 24 July 2017.Hide Footnote

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, the number of apprehensions of undocumented migrants at the border fell significantly during fiscal year 2017, from a monthly average of 57,736 apprehensions before Trump took power to an average of 23,031 afterward. The first five months of fiscal year 2018 (October 2017 to February 2018) have seen an uptick, however, with a monthly average of 37,373 apprehensions – though this number is still far from the highs recorded in 2014 and 2016.[fn]“Southwest Border Migration FY2018”, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 8 March 2018.Hide Footnote

Altered patterns in remittances sent by foreign residents in the U.S. also point to a profound change in attitudes toward migration. According to the World Bank, the continuous increase in remittances from the U.S. to Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala since Trump’s inauguration is connected to the fear of deportation.[fn]“Migration and Remittances: Recent Developments and Outlook Special Topic: Return Migration”, Migration and Development Brief no. 28, World Bank, October 2017, p. 23.Hide Footnote Instead of paying smugglers to bring family and friends into the U.S., Mexicans and Central Americans are investing in their home countries, possibly with a view to their potential return.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ramón Márquez, director of the La 72 migrant and asylum applicant shelter, Tenosique, Tabasco, 26 July 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Rising Xenophobia

Policies and social attitudes in Mexico have long discriminated against its indigenous people, accounting in large part for the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994.

Mexico is frequently portrayed as a country that celebrates mestizaje (miscegenation) and cultural hybridity. But policies and social attitudes in Mexico have long discriminated against its indigenous people, accounting in large part for the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. Nationalist reactions to Trump’s anti-Mexican bluster have also incited a racist and xenophobic backlash against Central Americans all over Mexico, but especially on the southern border.

“Trump’s idea [of building a wall] is good, but rather than on the northern border of Mexico the wall should be built on the south-eastern border to slow the migration of Central Americans to both countries”, declared the editorial page of a major regional newspaper in Mexico’s north-east, El Mañana de Reynosa, in 2016.[fn]“Sí al muro fronterizo… pero en el sur de México”, El Mañana de Reynosa, 24 July 2016.Hide Footnote A year later, public acceptance of discrimination against Central Americans was widespread in towns such as Tapachula, the main border city near Guatemala and economic hub of the wealthy agricultural region of Soconusco.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diego Lorente, director of the Centre for Human Rights Fray Matías de Córdova, Tapachula, Chiapas, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote “There has been a redefinition of the public image of the criminal into a Central American. Even if they do nothing wrong, they are represented and treated like criminals in the media and socially”, said one UN employee in Tapachula.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tapachula, Chiapas, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Neftalí del Toro Guzmán, mayor of Tapachula, seemed to blame Central Americans and poor locals who associate with them for looting, vandalism and other crimes during January 2017 protests against petrol price hikes.[fn]Efraín Ramírez and María Sánchez, “Maras participan en saqueos en las tiendas de Tapachula”, Noticias Voz e Imagen, 6 January 2017.Hide Footnote Yet reports indicate that of the 401 people arrested for these offences in the state of Chiapas, only 25 were not Mexican;[fn]“Más de 400 personas detenidas por saqueos, vandalismos y daños en Chiapas”, Quadratin Chiapas, 7 January 2017.Hide Footnote residents also said participation of locals was not limited to the poor.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of downtown Tapachula, Chiapas, 20 July 2017.Hide Footnote Part of the local business community has continued to denounce the presence of Central Americans in criminal gangs, even though many members are said to be Mexican. For example, in the February 2017 arrest of 103 suspected members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang (Barrio 18, or B-18), more than three quarters (80 of them) were reportedly Mexican.[fn]“Detiene a 103 ‘Maras’ en Chiapas, 80 son mexicanos”, Milenio, 15 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Central American consular staff in Tapachula recognise that some co-nationals are indeed involved in crime, but they report that at public events, Mexican local officials point the finger at Central Americans for most of the insecurity and economic problems on the southern border.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tapachula, 17 July 2017.Hide Footnote This sentiment appears to be shared by the local press and part of the population. Residents of Tenosique, for example, were quick to accuse Central American migrants for the 31 May 2017 strangulation of a well-liked butcher.[fn]Hilario Paredes, “Matan a carnicero para robarle ganancias, en Tenosique. Los colonos señalan que los posibles homicidas son centroamericanos que vagan por la zona en busca de dinero”, Tabasco Hoy, 31 May 2017; Francisco Díaz Ballina, “Carnicero es asesinado por presunto migrante”, El Sol del Sureste, 31 May 2017.Hide Footnote The murder sparked two anti-migrant marches in Tenosique, with protesters demanding the immediate expulsion of Central Americans.[fn]José Manuel Soberano, “Marcha contra migrantes en Tenosique. Colonos exigen la expulsión de los indocumentados que violentan la ley, ante más robos y crímenes”, Tabasco Hoy, 7 June 2017.Hide Footnote Some residents zeroed in on an Afro-Caribbean Honduran man as the suspect, although evidence has since indicated that Central Americans were not involved in the killing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN employees, Tenosique, Tabasco, 24-25 July 2017.Hide Footnote

One deputy in the Tabasco state Congress asserted that 300 crimes committed by Central Americans had been reported from January to August 2017, producing “terror” in the region.[fn]Josué Pérez Hernández, “Aumentan delitos cometidos por ilegales en Tabasco. Más de 300 centroamericanos se han visto relacionados en diversos hechos delictivos”, Tabasco Hoy, 11 October 2017.Hide Footnote This figure amounts to 0.72 per cent of the total number of crimes reported in the state in that period.[fn]Crisis Group calculations using data from the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security and the Attorney General’s Office of Tabasco.Hide Footnote

Refugee and migrant support organisations have denounced what they see as harassment and bureaucratic obstacles from the INM. The INM representative in Tabasco lodged a formal legal complaint against Fray Bernardo Molina Esquiliano of the La 72 migrant shelter for supposed human trafficking in June 2017. The shelter says the clergyman was accused because he picks up Central Americans on the road between the El Ceibo migration station and the shelter to protect them from dangers including rape, robberies, forced disappearance, murder and kidnapping.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ramón Márquez, director of the La 72 migrant and asylum applicant shelter, Tenosique, Tasbaco, 26 July 2017; Friar Tomás González, founder of La 72, 24 July 2017. La 72 was the main organiser of the Viacrucis Migrante 2018 march, which President Trump denounced in early April as an effort to flout border controls. “Trump arremete con furia contra México y el Viacrucis Migrante”, AFP, 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote The head and founder of the shelter, Tomás González Castillo, dismisses the suit as intimidation.[fn]“Refugio de migrantes La 72 acusa que el gobierno criminaliza su labor y quiere intimidarlos”, Animal político, 26 June 2017.Hide Footnote

Low-key efforts by public officials to block the work of groups supporting migrants and refugees reportedly are also frequent. The Centre for Human Rights Fray Matías de Córdova recounted that a series of bureaucratic obstacles hinder its personnel from monitoring conditions and giving legal advice to migrants in the 21st Century migratory detention centre in Tapachula.[fn]Isaín Mandujano, “El INM obstaculiza derecho a la defensa de migrantes en Tapachula: Centro Fray Matías”, Proceso, 7 December 2017. See the centre’s statement at “El INM debe facilitar el acceso del CDH Fray Matías al centro de detención migratoria de Tapachula”, Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova, consulted 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote

C. Local Resentment

Locals are irritated when they see an international NGO or UN agency providing refugees or migrants with aid while giving little consideration to the native-born poor.

Resentment of efforts to protect Central Americans is also spreading in districts along the southern border that are home to such shelters. Poor neighbours of the Albergue Belén shelter in Tapachula have repeatedly requested its relocation, arguing that the shelter exposes them to the predations of Central American gangs. During the day the shelter puts its occupants out in the street, where neighbours believe they are loitering with ill intent.[fn]Marvin Bautista, “Por enésima vez colonos protestan para exigir el cierre del albergue Belén”, Agencia Intermedios, 6 June 2017.Hide Footnote Locals complain that the authorities are more interested in defending migrants’ rights than attending to impoverished citizens’ needs. One resident expressed gratitude to the state for newly installed sewers, but she was indignant that the shelter offers facilities that she and her neighbours lack – such as a sidewalk, street lighting and a playing field. She worried that the lack of safe public spaces would make her children vulnerable to criminal recruitment.

Another Tapachulan, a naval officer, said his neighbours do not expect their voices to be heard as those of migrant activists are. He expressed acute concern about illegal drug transactions in the streets close to the shelter. “The government should listen and support us, because many of the people arriving in the shelter are not migrants but mareros [members of the MS-13], and when the government decides to take them out they will not be able to”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of San Antonio Caohacán and Venustiano Carranza, Tapachula, Chiapas, 18-19 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Some locals, especially the less well-off, feel that migrants and asylum applicants have “more rights” than they do. According to one municipal official in Tenosique, locals are irritated when they see an international NGO or UN agency providing refugees or migrants with aid while giving little consideration to the native-born poor.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Directorate of Economic Development, Tenosique, Tabasco, 25 July 2017.Hide Footnote A local tourist guide summed up the deepening resentment as follows:

I talk as someone from Tenosique, who wants his kids to grow up here – not as a “citizen of the world”, as a UN guy told me we have to think like …. We are becoming a filter, a barrier, so Trump does not have to build the wall, but this is no guarantee my kids will grow up in the Tenosique I grew up in. There are a lot of strange people arriving with different cultures, and there is no guarantee that we and our lifestyle will have security. All the guarantees are for the refugees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tenosique, Tabasco, 25 July 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Criminal Organisations in Flux and the Threat to Migrants and Refugees

Across Mexico, transnational criminal organisations have been fragmented by a “war” on drugs that targets supposed kingpins. But the highly militarised campaign has not improved security. The south of Mexico is no exception. Even as the army and police kill or capture crime bosses, there is just as much intra- and inter-cartel violence, if not more, in Tabasco, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Chiapas, Veracruz and Oaxaca.

Homicide has risen across the nation, with murder totals in 2017 the highest since modern criminal record-keeping began in 1997. Across the south, the diversification of illicit economies has led to a sharp rise in various violent offences. Oaxaca, Quintana Roo and Veracruz have murder rates that exceed the national average and are rising.[fn]“Semáforo delictivo en México, diciembre 2017”, consulted on 25 January 2018; Carlos Vargas Sepúlveda. “Semáforo: el deterioro del país se ha generalizado; 26 estados tuvieron aumento de homicidios”, Sin Embargo, 23 January 2018.Hide Footnote The incidence of kidnapping in southern states is far above the national average and has skyrocketed since 2015.[fn]These figures were calculated by Crisis Group based on data from the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security and the National Population Council. See Appendix F.Hide Footnote Cases of extortion in Tabasco were over twice the national average in 2017.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote According to Renato Sales Heredia, commissioner of national security in the Peña Nieto administration, the biggest reason for the rise in violence is the battle between fractured criminal organisations over trafficking of opiates (heroin and fentanyl), and a glut of Colombian cocaine destined for the U.S.[fn]J. Jesús Esquivel, “La violencia por factores geopolíticos: Renato Sales a Proceso”, Proceso, 13 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Violence in the region stems primarily from struggles among criminal groups over local protection rackets ... rather than transnational trafficking.

But the southern border region does not produce opiates, and there is not much commerce in these substances there. Evidence suggests, furthermore, that it is scarcity – more than abundance – of a valuable illegal drug such as cocaine that leads to more violence.[fn]Juan Castillo, Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo, “Scarcity without Leviathan: The Violent Effects of Cocaine Supply Shortages in the Mexican Drug War”, working paper no. 356, Center for Global Development, 2014; Juan Carlos Garzón and John Bailey, “Displacement Effects of Supply-Reduction Policies in Latin America: A Tipping Point in Cocaine Trafficking, 2006-2008”, in Henry Brownstein (ed.), The Handbook of Drugs and Society (Hoboken, 2015).Hide Footnote Andean cocaine is doubtless one of the many illicit goods crossing the southern border, maybe in greater quantities than ever.[fn]Colombian police and judges warn of a larger Mexican cartel presence in Colombia, particularly along the Pacific coast, from where an estimated 60 per cent of the country’s booming national cocaine production ships out. “En estos diez departamentos hacen presencia los carteles mexicanos”, El Tiempo, 29 January 2018. Much of this cocaine is reported to go ashore in Central America, and then transported overland into Mexico. Crisis Group interview, senior government official, Guatemala City, 11 December, 2017.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, Crisis Group fieldwork along the main migratory and commercial routes suggests that violence in the region stems primarily (though not always) from struggles among criminal groups over local protection rackets, involving small businesses but also migrant smuggling, rather than transnational trafficking.

A. The Fall of the Zetas and the Rise of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in the Tenosique-Medias Aguas Route

Until 2016, the Zetas cartel was reportedly the dominant force in the extortion of those in transit along the route from Tenosique to Medias Aguas. But it is now common to hear that Central American gangs have broken the Zetas’ former monopoly, charging $100 along sections of the track travelled by the Beast. Other major criminal organisations are making inroads as well. Once a strict hierarchy controlling illegal migration and the drug trade across southern Veracruz and Tabasco, the Zetas are now a network of unstable cells with interests in oil theft, train robbery, kidnapping, protection rackets, human trafficking for sexual or child exploitation, and work as mercenaries for new and bigger players.

The town of Tenosique exhibits the increased diversity in criminal actors. Migrant rights activists, who had long suffered abuse at the Zetas’ hands, report that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has taken over most trafficking in the town.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tenosique, Tabasco, 24-25 July 2017; Crisis Group interviews, Colonia Pueblos Unidos, Tenosique, Tabasco, 26 July 2017. There is other evidence of Jalisco New Generation Cartel’s involvement in drugs. In June 2017, for example, the Tabasco state police asked for military assistance to raid a house next to the railroad in Tenosique, where they seized 300kg of marijuana and a weapons cache. Hilario Paredes, “Decomisa Ejército 200 kilogramos de marihuana en Tenosique”, Tabasco Hoy, 29 June 2017; “Cerca de 300 kg. de marihuana asegurados en Tenosique, en operativo de FGE junto al ejército”, Boletín informativo no. 1697, Fiscalía General del Estado de Tabasco, Tabasco, 29 June 2017.Hide Footnote According to Friar González, founder of the La 72 migrant shelter, Central American gang members are also arriving in the guise of refugees escaping violence, but do not regroup in Tenosique.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Friar Tomás González, founder of La 72 shelter, Tenosique, Tabasco, 24 July 2017.Hide Footnote Other residents said that local gangs are trying to recruit teenagers in poor neighbourhoods.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tenosique, Tabasco, 26 July 2017.Hide Footnote

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel’s efforts to seize drug trafficking routes from the Zetas, and the emergence of other smaller criminal players, have brought a high tide of fear and insecurity to Villahermosa, capital of Tabasco, since 2016.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Villahermosa, Tabasco, 10 July 2017.Hide Footnote On 21 June, twelve members of a cartel cell were arrested for the murder of five people. Among the suspects are two minors who confessed that they had been forced to eat the flesh of their victims as an initiation rite, according to local prosecutors.[fn]Armando Guzmán, “Comer carne humana, el rito de iniciación en el CJNG: fiscal de Tabasco”, Proceso, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote In Villahermosa, as Crisis Group witnessed, families no longer allow children to play outdoors; residents avoid wearing jewellery or taking walks at night.[fn]“Encuesta nacional de victimización y percepción sobre seguridad pública (ENVIPE) 2017. Principales resultados Tabasco”, INEGI, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote According to the National Survey of Urban Public Security, 98.4 per cent of locals believe Villahermosa is unsafe – the highest proportion with such a perception in any Mexican city.[fn]Armando Guzmán, “Percepción de inseguridad en Villahermosa ‘pega’ al turismo en Tabasco”, Proceso, 19 October 2017.Hide Footnote

According to the same survey, residents of Coatzacoalcos, a port city in Veracruz, have the second highest perception of insecurity, in large part because of a bloody fight for supremacy between the Zetas and Jalisco New Generation Cartel.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Until 2012, the city had a low homicide rate by Mexican standards, but the murder rate has since risen to 27 per 100,000 people, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), slightly higher than the national rate.[fn]These figures were calculated by Crisis Group based on data from INEGI.Hide Footnote On 10 March 2017, the Jalisco cartel announced in a “narco-message” that it would “cleanse” Coatzacoalcos of Zetas.[fn]Narco-messages are pieces of paper left on corpses or in other visible spots by criminal organisations and aimed at rival gangs, the government or society. In the past, Mexican criminal organisations communicated exclusively through violence and the choice of victims. But as these organisations became stronger between 2007 and 2011, they started to sign their messages. Laura Atuesta, “Narcomessages as a Way to Analyse the Evolution of Organised Crime in Mexico”, Global Crime, vol. 18, no. 2 (2017), pp. 100-121.Hide Footnote In subsequent months, alleged members of both gangs have been killed in the port city and elsewhere in Veracruz, while civilians have received more and scarier threats.[fn]The narco-message is here: “Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación anuncia ‘limpia’ en Veracruz”, video, YouTube, channel Grillonautas2, 11 March 2017; Noé Zavaleta, “Con ejecutado y narcomensaje, Los Zetas Vieja Escuela unido al CDG declaran la guerra al CJNG en Veracruz”, Proceso, 21 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Migrant smuggling is becoming more transnationally integrated, sophisticated and expensive.

Westward on the highway, residents in the town of Acayucan also note the diminishing clout of the Zetas and the growing power of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Local media reported a spate of homicides in 2017, an average of ten per month between January and October, in Acayucan’s vicinity.[fn]“Terrorífico el mes de octubre en la zona de Acayucan; contabilizan 17 muertes con violencia”, Imagen del Golfo, 1 November 2017.Hide Footnote One journalist cited the competition among cartels, as well as the emergence of a new generation enlisted as children by the Zetas for small tasks, but who are now establishing their own lines of illicit business.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Cecilio Pérez, editor, El Diario de Acayucan, Acayucan, Veracruz, 25 September 2017.Hide Footnote

These shifts in power in the underworld reverberate in the realm of migrant smuggling. A man from Acayucan said he used to bill a smuggler from Palenque, Chiapas, 500 pesos (around $25) to sneak migrants through checkpoints in his car. But in 2017 the smuggler stopped offering him work and then disappeared. Some months later, the driver found out the smuggler had been killed.[fn]Crisis Group interview, driver, Acayucan, Veracruz, 28 September 2017.Hide Footnote Numerous observers underline that migrant smuggling is becoming more transnationally integrated, sophisticated and expensive. In May 2017, smugglers were reportedly offering to transport migrants from El Salvador to the U.S.-Mexico border for $12,000 to $15,000, with no guarantee of crossing into the U.S. Just a few months before Trump’s inauguration – so only about half a year earlier – the cost was $7,000 to $10,000, including three attempts at crossing.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ramón Márquez, director of the La 72 shelter, Tenosique, Tabasco, 26 July 2017. This information is similar to data from journalistic reports and the Secretariat of Social Development in Mexico. Oscar Martínez, “Los coyotes del norte están aumentando las cuotas por Trump”, El Faro, 9 February 2017; Daniel Blancas Madrigal and Hugo Ruvalcaba, “Polleros cuadriplican su tarifa para cruzar a E.U.”, Crónica de Hoy, 20 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Hondurans, who generally cannot afford these fees, are now the main travellers on the freight train called the Beast. Hondurans are also the most vulnerable to discrimination and attacks, in part because of the Afro-Caribbean ethnic heritage of many of those travelling, according to Central American diplomatic sources.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats from Guatemala and Honduras, Tapachula, Chiapas, Tenosique, Tabasco and Acayucan, Veracruz, July and September 2017.Hide Footnote One Honduran among a group disembarking from a train from Ixtepec said he had been robbed in Tapachula, but forged ahead to Arriaga. There he met another group of migrants, one of whom also had been held up on the railroad. They decided to walk five days to Reforma de Pineda, where they ate for the first time in days before boarding the Beast for Ixtepec. He said he felt lucky because an earthquake in southern Mexico had distracted officials and criminals from their usual extortion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Central American migrants using the Tapachula route of the Beast, Medias Aguas, Veracruz, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Central American Gangs in Chiapas

Reports have pointed to Central American gangs’ criminal activities in Mexico, in coordination with local drug trafficking organisations, since at least 2010.[fn]Óscar Martínez, “Secuestro masivo de migrantes en México apunta a Los Zetas y MS”, El Faro, 23 December 2010.Hide Footnote But there has been little clarity as to the organisational structure behind these operations. The expansion of gangs into southern Mexico appears primarily to be a profit-driven response to the opportunity of preying on extraordinarily vulnerable people, or a flight from crackdowns by the authorities in their home countries. Members active in Mexico remain part of the Central American groups from which they come, but it is unclear if their presence is part of a gang-approved effort to exploit migrants’ and refugees’ vulnerabilities or the work of individuals who happen to be part of gangs. In either case, gangs are negotiating space for their activities with drug trafficking cartels, even though the more alarmist accounts exaggerate the extent of their presence.[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group interviews, Chiapas, March 2018.Hide Footnote

There are three main reported types of Central American gang presence in Mexico. First, gang leaders from El Salvador flee persecution from security forces in their country due to conflict with other gangs or rivalries within their own groups, and seek safety in Mexico. Howard Cotto, the Salvadoran police chief, acknowledged this and said the fugitives continue ordering criminal actions in El Salvador from abroad.[fn]Roberto Valencia, “Asesinan en Ciudad de México al Shyboy, el vocero de la MS-503”, El Faro, 3 March 2018. Increasingly, members of the Salvadoran security forces are being detected among migrants as they flee violence back home. At least two such cases are detected monthly in the monitoring carried out by the NGO Voces Mesoamericanas. Crisis Group interview, Miguel Ángel Paz, director, Voces Mesoamericanas, Chiapas, 29 March 2018.Hide Footnote This movement of gang leaders seems to have produced little violence in Mexico until recently, when Shyboy, as the alleged head of a purported splinter group from the MS-13 is known, was killed in Mexico City in March 2018.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Gang members, allegedly in cahoots with Mexican officials, have infiltrated detention centres and migrant shelters to identify who is migrating and from where.

A second group comprises lower-ranking Central American gang members who flee to Mexico with the aim of defecting,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chiapas, March 2018.Hide Footnote while a third group produces violence in a systematic way, preying on migrants’ and refugees’ vulnerabilities by stealing, extorting, kidnapping and raping them. They reportedly coordinate with Mexican criminal groups to traffic humans and physically, psychologically or sexually exploit their most unfortunate victims.[fn]Daniel Blancas Madrigal, “La mara domina ruta de migrantes CA-México”, Crónica, 25 April 2017.Hide Footnote Defenders of migrants’ rights say gang members, allegedly in cahoots with Mexican officials, have infiltrated detention centres and migrant shelters to identify who is migrating and from where.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Miguel Ángel Paz, director, Voces Mesoamericanas, Chiapas, 29 March 2018.Hide Footnote

The growing cross-border presence of Central American gangs has been made possible by the demise of the Sinaloa Cartel, which once ran most of the drug trafficking across the Guatemalan border, especially cocaine from Tapachula to Medias Aguas via Ixtepec, but has now largely vacated the region. In total, the cartel is estimated to have ceded control of over half the Mexican territory it dominated before the 2017 extradition to the U.S. of its leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, or El Chapo. These areas have been taken over by splinters of the Zetas, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, local criminal groups and the expansionist Central American gangs, above all the MS-13 and the Barrio 18. In Tapachula, Frontera Comalapa and Metapa, arrests of suspected members of MS-13 and Barrio 18 increased from fourteen in 2016 to 148 during the first half of 2017, according to the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection of Chiapas. Media sources report an increase from fourteen murders by gangs in the whole of 2016 to 28 in just the first half of 2017.[fn]Saúl Hernández, Omar Escamilla and Miguel Rojas, “Los maras acorralan a Chiapas”, El Sol de México, 17 July 2017.

Aside from their reported involvement in the drug trade, the gangs’ primary objective has been to target the centres where migrants and refugees cluster. In March 2017, Father Flor de María Rigoni, founder of the Albergue Belén shelter, said gangs had occupied the building twice, demanded payment from individuals seeking entry and stripped men naked to check for rival gang tattoos. “Their plan is to take advantage of the fall of El Chapo and certain weaknesses of the Gulf Cartel [Sinaloa’s traditional rival] to open their own criminal route”, said Rigoni.[fn]Rubén Zúñiga, “Maras buscan crear su propio cartel”, Diario del Sur, 23 October 2017.Hide Footnote In response, Albergue Belén managers asked local authorities to install eighteen cameras around the shelter and requested the guards be allowed to carry weapons.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Irmi Pundt, administrator of Albergue Belén shelter, Tapachula, Chiapas, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote These measures have not stopped gangs from robbing migrants and refugees or from selling drugs (especially marijuana) near the shelter.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of San Antonio Caohacán, Tapachula, Chiapas, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Gang intimidation proved even worse in the Jesús el Buen Pastor de Pobres shelter, a place known for accepting individuals who are badly injured – even mutilated – by attacks on or falls off the Beast.[fn]Zoé Robledo A., “Olguita no se dio por vencida: una chiapaneca”, Siempre! Presencia de México, 11 March 2017.Hide Footnote Director Aracy Matus Sánchez first took note in early 2016 when occupants started to complain of being robbed nearby. She realised that a gang had bought two houses across the street to monitor the shelter. After she sounded the alarm, the government sent an army detachment, as well as INM officials and the prosecutor for crimes against migrants, to investigate.

The gang appeared to retreat. But following other episodes when she thought the shelter was being watched, Matus requested periodic inspections from state prosecutors and invested in sixteen cameras around the shelter. As an added security measure, she published photographs of migrants she suspected had worked for Central American gangs or the Zetas. This generated friction with Mexican authorities, human rights defenders and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which considered Matus’s action a way to reinforce the perception that all migrants are potential criminals. Amid these tensions, the shelter stopped receiving migrants and asylum applicants and closed its doors in October 2017.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Aracy Matus, director of Jesús el Buen Pastor de Pobres shelter, Tapachula, Chiapas, 4 October 2017; UN worker, Tapachula, Chiapas, 26 October 2017 (electronic communication). The notice announcing the closure of the refuge is available here: http://www.alberguebuenpastor.org.mx/2017/10/26/cierre-del-albergueHide Footnote

Policies have led to prison overcrowding and communities alienated from local police forces, while failing to curb violent crime.

Meanwhile, in the border municipality of Frontera Comalapa, Central American gangs appear to have the sole stake in the extortion and exploitation of migrants and refugees. Efforts by the Jesuit Services for Migrants and Refugees to erect a series of shelters are now under threat. In under four years, the Jesuits have built two shelters (one for migrants and another for asylum applicants, financed by the UNHCR), a dining room, and a centre offering legal, psychosocial and administrative advice to migrants and refugees.[fn]Crisis Group interview, scholar specialised in migration, Tapachula, Chiapas, 3 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Just months after opening a wing of the shelter for families, the managers obtained proof of criminal activities by Central American gangs supposedly working for a “Mexico program” near the shelter.[fn]A “program” is an intermediate part of the gang structure usually between the ranfla or highest level of national leadership, and neighbourhood-level clicas. Each clica and program seeks its own means of income, providing for diverse sizes, activities and power. See Douglas Farah and Kathryn Babineau, “The Evolution of MS-13 in El Salvador and Honduras”, PRISM-National Defense University, 14 September 2017.Hide Footnote The same happened in June and July 2017. As a preventive measure, the Jesuits decided to close their service for families. But the priests live in fear of being spied on by gang members. They also worry that their services for vulnerable groups will be abused by the gangs as an instrument to expand in Mexico, and at times even speculate that the government could use the gangs’ presence to justify a militarised response.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the Jesuit Service for Migrants and Refugees, 30 September 2017; Carlos Martínez, “Lo que es necesario saber sobre la MS-13 para entender la Operación Jaque”, El Faro, 8 November 2017.Hide Footnote According to José Luis González, leader of the project:

Letting the maras settle in the border area helps create public support for militarisation. It increases both the fear of migrants and the fear felt by migrants, who are afraid of being here with the same maras who persecute them there. This would help to stop refugee status applications and migration flows in a very cheap way, simply creating these fears.[fn]Electronic communication, José Luis González Miranda, director of the Frontera Comalapa project, Jesuit Service for Migrants and Refugees, 29 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Numerous media reports of crimes committed by Central American gangs have led to coordination between local and federal security forces and an exchange of information with Guatemala, especially its military.[fn]Ildefonso Ochoa, “Persecución de Maras y Barrio 18 en Centroamérica provoca que huyan peligrosamente a esta región”, El Orbe, 8 July 2017; Saúl Hernández, Omar Escamilla and Miguel Rojas, “Los Maras: vuelve la pesadilla al sur de la frontera de México”, El Sol de México, 17 July 2017; Rubén Zúñiga, “Delincuentes y ‘mareros’ se apoderaron de Suchiate: regidora”, Diario del Sur, 10 July 2017; “Las Maras están invadiendo México por la frontera sur”, Cultura Colectiva, 20 July 2017; “Maras azotan en la frontera sur”, Insurgentes Press, 17 July 2017; Jesús Suárez, “Acuerda Chiapas cooperación bilateral con Guatemala para reforzar seguridad”, Insurgentes Press, 13 July 2017; “Se reúnen altos mandos de los ejércitos de México y Guatemala”, Insurgentes Press, 15 July 2017; “Combate frontal de pandillas centroamericanas Mara Salvatrucha 13 y Barrio 18 en la frontera sur”, El Orbe, 25 July 2017.Hide Footnote The risk of this approach is that Mexico will follow the Central American states in meeting the spread of gangs with expanded mano dura (iron fist) policies in the south of the country, such as the militarisation of public security and mass arrests based on physical appearance. Where applied, these policies have led to prison overcrowding and communities alienated from local police forces, while failing to curb violent crime.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America and Caribbean Report N°62, Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America, 6 April 2017; Crisis Group Latin America and Caribbean Report N°64, El Salvador’s Politics of Perpetual Violence, 19 December 2017; Sonja Wolf, Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador (Austin, 2017).Hide Footnote

V. A Dangerous Destination for Refugees

Current U.S. immigration policies are barring the door to a large number of people trying to escape violence in Central America. Although many have abandoned all hope of reaching the U.S. and are seeking asylum in Mexico instead, there are compelling reasons to doubt whether this country offers a safe alternative. The frequency of crimes against migrants and refugees, the deportation of many with protection needs, and the lack of a properly resourced national system of asylum case adjudication stand out among the concerns over Mexico’s new role as a refugee haven. More often than not, those fleeing violence find themselves trapped in places that expose them to new criminal threats rather than offer them greater security.

Mexican map identifying safe and risky routes at "La 72" migrants' shelter , Tenosique (Tabasco), October 2017. Crisis Group (Froylán Enciso)

A. Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In 2016, Mexico received 8,788 requests for refugee status, of which 3,079 were granted. In 2017, the total number of requests reached 14,596, with 1,907 granted.[fn]“Recomendación no. 35/2017. Sobre el caso de violaciones a los derechos humanos a la seguridad jurídica y legalidad, libertad personal, así como al principio del interés superior de la niñez en agravio de un grupo de personas en contexto de migración que solicitaron el reconocimiento de la condición de refugiado”, National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH), 2017; “La CNDH hace un llamado urgente al gobierno federal ante el posible colapso del sistema de protección a refugiados en México”, CNDH, 25 February 2018, at https://bit.ly/2wnRsfV.Hide Footnote According to Mark Manly, UNHCR representative in Mexico, from January 2015 to August 2017, the number of monthly asylum claimants grew 1,114 per cent, but after the earthquakes that hit Mexico in September 2017, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) effectively stopped working for a while.[fn]UNHCR calculation based on data from COMAR, published in Tweet by Mark Manly, UNHCR representative in Mexico, @MarkManly, 31 October 2017; Crisis Group interview, COMAR official, Acayucan, 27 September 2017.Hide Footnote The number of applications from the Northern Triangle has risen steadily since 2013, while applications from Venezuela have soared because of that country’s economic, political and security crisis.[fn]“Estadísticas 2013-2017”, COMAR, consulted 2 April 2018. Apparently, the number of approvals of Venezuelan applications has risen because COMAR officials recognise Venezuela is suffering generalised violence, a situation they do not discern in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. Crisis Group interviews, Tenosique, Tabasco, 25 July 2017; and Acayucan, Veracruz, 27 September 2017.Hide Footnote

Human rights organisations have asserted that Customs and Border Protection agents have unlawfully turned away an undetermined number of asylum seekers.

U.S. policies have placed huge obstacles in the way of refugees seeking to arrive by land from Mexico. On 25 January 2017, an executive order on “border security and immigration enforcement improvements” proposed to return non-U.S. citizens or nationals seeking entry to the U.S. from a contiguous territory “to the territory from which they came”, mainly Mexico, where they were to wait “pending a formal removal proceeding”.[fn]“Executive Order: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements”, White House Office of the Press Secretary, 25 January 2017, Section 7.Hide Footnote This provision was never negotiated with the Mexican government. A few weeks after the executive order’s publication, Videgaray stated that Mexico would not accept returns of any non-Mexican nationals or, for that matter, any other unilateral decision by the Trump administration.[fn]“Mensaje a medios Canciller Luis Videgaray al término de la reunión con la Junta de Coordinación Política de la Cámara de Diputados”, Secretariat of Foreign Relations, 22 February 2017. Crisis Group interview via electronic communication, Vidal Llerenas, federal deputy, 23 February 2017.Hide Footnote The effect of this executive order, as well as measures purportedly aimed at preventing terrorists from abusing U.S. immigration laws, has been to harden U.S. law enforcement agencies’ approach to those seeking protection at the border.[fn]“Executive Order: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements”, White House Office of the Press Secretary, op. cit.; “Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, White House Office of the Press Secretary, 27 January 2017; “Crossing the Line: U.S. Border Agents Illegally Reject Asylum Seekers”, Human Rights First, May 2017.Hide Footnote Human rights organisations have asserted that Customs and Border Protection agents have unlawfully turned away an undetermined number of asylum seekers.[fn]“Audio Recording Reveals Border Agents Turning Back Asylum Seekers”, Human Rights First, 13 July 2017; “Crossing the Line: U.S. Border Agents Illegally Reject Asylum Seekers”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Some seeking asylum in the U.S. have been stranded in Mexico, among them thousands of Haitians, who have been allowed by the Mexican government to stay in the border cities of Tijuana or Mexicali until the U.S. government processes their applications.[fn]Rafael Alarcón Acosta and Cecilia Ortiz Esquivel, “Los haitianos solicitantes de asilo a Estados Unidos en su paso por Tijuana”, Frontera Norte, vol. 29, no. 58 (July-December 2017), pp. 171-179; Kirk Semple, “As migrants strain border towns, pressure builds on Mexico to act”, The New York Times, 27 January 2017; Ariadna Estévez, “As U.S. closes borders, thousands of Haitian refugees trapped in Mexico lose hope”, The Conversation, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote The late 2017 announcement of TPS termination for Haitians dashed many of these people’s hopes of getting to the U.S. Some have decided to apply for refugee status or other means of staying legally in Mexico, such as the humanitarian residence permits granted, until December 2017, to 2,890 Haitian citizens by the state of Baja California.[fn]Rosela Rosillo, “2mil 890 haitianos se legalizaron en BC”, El Mexicano, 15 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Congress have attempted to give the secretary of homeland security authority to declare Mexico a “safe third country” for asylum applicants, despite evidence to the contrary.[fn]“Crossing the Line: U.S. Border Agents Illegally Reject Asylum Seekers”, op. cit.; and “Dangerous Territory: Mexico Still Not Safe for Refugees”, Human Rights First, July 2017.Hide Footnote On 26 July 2017, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee approved for consideration by the full House a bill that would do just that.[fn]“Markup of: 5 H.R. 391, The ‘Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act’; and 6 H. Res. 446, the ‘Resolution of Inquiry’”, House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, 26 July 2017.Hide Footnote The bill has attracted opposition from human rights activists concerned about the U.S. abdicating its responsibilities to protect refugees, as well as the diplomatic conflicts it could spark with Mexico, which lacks a system of asylum case adjudication with sufficient resources to respond to the sharp rise in applications and the needs of applicants.[fn]Eleanor Acer, “U.S. should stop pretending Mexico is a safe third country for refugees”, News Deeply, 25 August 2017.Hide Footnote The U.S. government, however, has reportedly raised the prospect of reaching a bilateral agreement with Mexico that would classify it as a safe third country for asylum seekers.[fn]“Democrats: Speed up DACA processing”, Politico, 8 March 2018.Hide Footnote

B. System Failures

According to Mexican official procedures, all applications for refugee status in Mexico must be filed before either COMAR or the INM within 30 days of arrival in the country.[fn]For relevant legal procedures and requirements, see Mexican Chamber of Deputies, “Ley sobre refugiados, protección complementaria y asilo político”, 30 October 2014, https://bit.ly/1GoSuSk ; and “Reglamento de la ley sobre refugiados y protección complementaria”, 21 February 2012, https://bit.ly/2FVC3CX ; “Procedimiento para ser reconocido como refugiado en México”, Mexican government, consulted 30 March 2018. There are some exceptions to the noted timeframes.Hide Footnote The process should not last more than 45 days, during which the applicant cannot be removed from Mexico and must provide evidence to support his or her petition. Applicants are entitled to legal representation during the process, at the end of which COMAR must issue a resolution justifying its decision to grant or reject refugee status or complementary protection. Applicants can ask for a hearing if rejected. If refugee status or complementary protection is granted, the person is entitled to request permanent residence in Mexico.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Despite the UNHCR’s and other organisations’ best efforts, many of the people fleeing violence through Mexico do not know they have the right to apply for refugee status.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tapachula, Chiapas, July 2017; refugee applicants, Tenosique, Tabasco, September 2017; migrants fleeing violence, Medias Aguas, Veracruz, September 2017.Hide Footnote Although it should be possible to file applications with any migration officer, the fact that COMAR has no offices at the border means that applicants must go to its offices in Mexico City, Tapachula (some 40km from the main border crossing at Ciudad Hidalgo-Tecún Umán) or Acayucan, or to a detention centre for migrants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, collaborators of the La 72 shelter, Tenosique, Tabasco, September 2017; collaborators of the Jesuit Service for Migrants and Refugees, Frontera Comalapa, Chiapas, September 2017.Hide Footnote

From the perspective of people escaping violence, the Mexican government seems intent on wearing down their willpower.

In 2017, the National Commission of Human Rights reported rights violations by both the INM and COMAR in processing asylum applications. According to the commission, the INM held claimants, including children, in detention centres while their requests were being considered, in some cases for as long as 150 days.[fn]“Recomendación no. 35/2017. Sobre el caso de violaciones a los derechos humanos a la seguridad jurídica y legalidad, libertad personal, así como al principio del interés superior de la niñez en agravio de un grupo de personas en contexto de migración que solicitaron el reconocimiento de la condición de refugiado”, National Commission of Human Rights, 2017, pp. 62-77. See also “Dangerous Territory: Mexico Still Not Safe for Refugees”, Human Rights First, July 2017; “Overlooked, Under-protected: Mexico’s Deadly Refoulement of Central Americans Seeking Asylum”, Amnesty International, 2018. Crisis Group interviews, Central American diplomats, Tapachula, Chiapas, Tenosique, Tabasco and Acayucan, Veracruz, July and September 2017.Hide Footnote

Even applicants who manage to get help from UNHCR, or shelter and legal assistance from the Catholic Church or human rights organisations, must navigate a tortuous application process, which ends up recognising the request in well under half of all cases.[fn]In 2016, 37 per cent of applications were successful. “Estadísticas 2013-2017”, COMAR, consulted 2 April 2018.Hide Footnote From the perspective of people escaping violence, the Mexican government seems intent on wearing down their willpower. For Mexican officials, on the other hand, the problem is the lack of human and financial resources needed to deal with a larger pool of applications.[fn]Burgi-Palomino and Buckhout, “‘Does My Story Matter?’ Seeking Asylum at Mexico’s Southern Border”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview, COMAR official, Acayucan, Veracruz, September 2017.Hide Footnote

This increase in applicants has also generated basic security problems for refugees and migrants, as well as for civil society initiatives aimed at protecting people in transit. Managers of migrant shelters and Central American diplomats complain that COMAR has granted refugee status to criminals and suspected gang members.[fn]According to the director of one refuge in Tapachula, 30 per cent of suspected gang members from Central America apply for refugee status. “Maras buscan crear su propio cartel”, Diario del Sur, 27 March 2017.Hide Footnote The agency has tried to avoid these mistakes, and it is working with the INM, police and the Mexican intelligence service to screen applicants for criminal backgrounds. But heightened security concerns appear to further depress the number of applications that are granted.

At the same time, COMAR lacks the resources to confront organised crime or prevent other forms of violence against those applying for protection. As a local COMAR official in Acayucan commented: “Security is affected for the migrant community, as it is for everyone else. We and every Mexican citizen feel the same anger they feel”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Acayucan, Veracruz, 27 September 2017.Hide Footnote Despite current limitations, a priority for the agency and other relevant state bodies should be to improve security for those whose lives are endangered by organised crime according to gender-specific and age-appropriate needs, and deter the threat of recruitment by criminal groups through employment and community development programs.

C. International Support

The risks faced by migrants and refugees in southern Mexico, as well as the failings of the current Mexican asylum adjudication system, should spur urgent international efforts to improve the country’s ability to handle its new role as a magnet for people fleeing Central America. Six countries in the region, including Mexico and five Central American states, have already taken a step in this direction by signing up late in 2017 to a UNHCR-backed program aimed at protecting refugees and migrants in transit and sharing the responsibility for handling migration flows.[fn]“Comprehensive regional protection and solutions framework”, UNHCR, October 2017.Hide Footnote For now, limited cooperation between Mexico and the source countries of migrants and refugees is hindering effective responses to threats faced by people in transit.

While the U.S. government clearly is intent on buttressing its own southern border against Central Americans, it should compensate for the resulting pressure on Mexico’s institutions and resources by supporting Mexican and Northern Triangle authorities’ efforts to strengthen the oversight of security agencies and state institutions working on migrant and refugee issues, including the state-level attorney general’s offices for crimes against migrants. U.S. and European Union (EU) technical assistance and capacity-building support for under-resourced Central American consulates on the migrant route through Mexico would help ensure better protection for migrants and refugees, especially at a time of increasing xenophobia in southern states.

In the same spirit, the U.S. and the EU should intensify support for violence prevention and economic development in the communities of southern Mexico that are most affected by the arrival of Central Americans. They should urgently assist the three Northern Triangle countries and Mexico in developing new programs to help them reintegrate deportees in their home countries and refugees abroad, including through initiatives to help them get access to health care, training, employment and psychosocial support when necessary.

To spread the burden of migration flows, the U.S. and the EU could also boost technical support to expand the processing of asylum petitions filed by Central American nationals in neighbouring countries (mainly Belize and Costa Rica), particularly minors, and ensure governments and NGOs in the region provide adequate shelter to those awaiting decisions. Financial and logistical support to neighbouring countries such as Panama and Costa Rica, as well as to other Latin American countries that agree to take a share of refugees, would help cushion the impact of increasingly restrictive immigration policies in more traditional destinations.

VI. Conclusion

Mexico has sought to draw the Trump administration’s sting by complying with U.S. demands regarding security, migration and economic development along its southern border. At the same time, both sides of what is now a tense bilateral standoff have threatened to suspend cooperation on those matters if they do not get what they want from an overall renegotiation of their relationship.

The visceral anti-immigration tone of the Trump presidency has helped turn southern Mexico into a warehouse for people escaping poverty and violence.

Migrants, refugees and native-born residents along the southern Mexican border are the principal victims of the troubles in this partnership. Since 2014, Mexico has served as the main buffer against flows of Central American migrants, a haven for refugees from the same countries and a willing ally in the U.S. security strategy for the region. Yet the visceral anti-immigration tone of the Trump presidency has helped turn southern Mexico into a warehouse for people escaping poverty and violence. More applications for refugee status than ever were filed in Mexico in 2017, as already dire security conditions worsened across the southern states. Towns aggrieved by the arrival of newcomers from Central America, among them members of violent street gangs, have lurched toward xenophobia, while migrant shelters have found themselves forced to adopt tougher security measures.

A more lenient U.S. stance toward Central American refugees and migrants appears a remote prospect any time soon. In the absence of such a shift, Mexico must look to other nations, including its Central American neighbours, for help in handling the migration flows, preventing migrants suffering harm, providing protection to refugees and distributing the burden across various countries. Over the long run, only the reduction of chronic violence in the Northern Triangle countries, above all El Salvador and Honduras, will help reduce levels of flight. As Crisis Group has argued, both of these countries will continue to need support for programs to bring development to afflicted communities, rehabilitate jailed gang members, and enhance employment and educational opportunities for young people at risk of drifting into gang life.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America and El Salvador’s Politics of Perpetual Violence, op. cit.Hide Footnote

With Mexico as a whole facing its worst homicide rates for at least twenty years, no easy solutions to the current insecurity of the southern states are at hand. But in these areas, where increasingly large numbers of migrants and refugees are clustered, it is essential to reinforce crime prevention in localities blighted by intra-cartel disputes or rising gang activity, adequately equip local communities to absorb new arrivals, toughen legal responses to migrant abuse, ensure refugees’ protection needs are met and avoid any moves toward heavy-handed, militarised policing either of migrant flows or local crime waves. In neighbouring countries, this last measure has served only to heighten violence and strengthen the command-and-control structures of organised crime. While mounting insecurity in southern border regions is not a problem entirely of Mexico’s making, it will worsen if the country continues to treat a major humanitarian concern as a diplomatic chip in a high-stakes contest with its northern neighbour.

Mexico City/Bogotá/Brussels, 9 May 2018

Appendix A: Map of Mexico's Southern Border

Map of Mexico's Southern Border INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP/KO/MAY 2018

Appendix B: Map of the Northern Triangle

Map of the Northern Triangle INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP/KO/MAY 2018

Appendix C: Deportations of Northern Triangle Nationals by U.S. and Mexico 2013-2017

Deportations of Northern Triangle Nationals by the U.S. and Mexico 2013-2017 Secretariat of the Interior 2012-2017 (http://politicamigratoria.gob.mx/es_mx/SEGOB/Boletines_Estadisticos) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (https://www.ice.gov/statistics)

Note: Deportees by Mexico include the total number of returnees, assisted returnees and assisted minor returnees. Deportees by the United States is based on the total number of annual removals by the ICE according to the U.S. fiscal year (October of the previous year until September the following year). 

Appendix D: Applications for Refugee Status and Refugees Accepted by Mexico 2013-2017

Applications for Refugee Status and Refugees Compilation based on statistical information from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) 2013-2017.

Appendix E: Total Illegal Alien Apprehensions on the U.S. Border 2010-2017

Total Illegal Alien Apprehensions on the U.S. Border 2010-2017 Compilation based on information supplied by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Appendix F: Rates of Serious Crime in Mexico’s Six Southern States

Homicide Rates 2017 Compilation based on information supplied by the Executive Secretary of Public Security and CONAPO.

Annual Homicide Rate 2000-2017 

Annual Homicide Rate 2000-2017 Compilation based on information supplied by the Executive Secretary of Public Security and CONAPO.

Extortion Rates 2017 

Extortion Rates 2017 Compilation based on information supplied by the Executive Secretary of Public Security and CONAPO.

Abduction Rates 2017 

Abduction Rates 2017 Compilation based on information supplied by the Executive Secretary of Public Security and CONAPO.

Appendix G: Acronyms

COMAR Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance

DACA Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

ICE Immigration and Customs Enforcement

INEGI National Institute of Statistics and Geography

INM National Institute of Migration

MS-13 Mara Salvatrucha

NAFTA North American Free Trade Agreement

TPS Temporary Protected Status

UNHCR United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee

Venezuelan citizens enter Cucuta, Norte de Santander Department in Colombia, from San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, at the Simon Bolivar international bridge on 26 July 2017. AFP/Luis Acosta

Containing the Shock Waves from Venezuela

Venezuela’s socio-economic implosion is dragging in neighbours as hundreds of thousands of people flee the country, epidemics spread and violent crime spills over borders. International humanitarian support is needed and regional powers should push for a negotiated transition, including through threats of targeted sanctions.

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What’s new? As Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro prepares to seek re-election, the country’s socio-economic implosion has become a major problem for its neighbours. Venezuelans are fleeing hunger and poverty by the hundreds of thousands, while disease and crime are spreading across borders.

Why did it happen?  Lower oil prices, corruption and mismanagement have devastated the economy. A deeply unpopular government, aware that it can no longer win competitive elections, has opted for repression. Attempts to negotiate an agreement between the government and opposition have foundered.

Why does it matter?  Financial collapse and hyperinflation make Venezuela an economic disaster zone. The crisis is no longer confined to one nation: refugees and migrants are streaming into neighbouring countries. Epidemics and violent crime are spilling over borders, endangering Colombia’s fragile peace process in frontier regions.

What should be done?  The priority is international support for humanitarian assistance along the borders. A negotiated transition is essential to restore representative politics and socio-economic well-being. This requires outside pressure, including threats of targeted sanctions and realistic demands on the Maduro government, from a coalition led by regional governments in the Lima Group.

Executive Summary

As Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro looks to cement his hold on power, his country is sinking into a trough of misery. Hyperinflation has compounded the scarcity of food and medicines. Epidemics of preventable diseases and a child malnutrition crisis are increasingly deadly. Violent crime has spiked. An estimated four million Venezuelans have emigrated, with tens of thousands crossing the border with Colombia each month in search of a new home. Venezuela’s neighbours, once bystanders to its domestic tensions, face a catastrophe on their doorsteps. Latin American governments, the UN, European Union and U.S. must redouble efforts to manage the humanitarian crisis, including by ensuring neighbouring countries have the resources to cope. They also should lobby, ideally together with China, for renewed government-opposition talks aimed at reforms enabling more representative politics and economic recovery; threatening further sanctions might help push the government toward concessions.

The turbulence of 2017 has magnified Venezuela’s hardship and the difficulty of finding remedies. While the government has snuffed out months of civil unrest, stripped the opposition-run National Assembly of its power and established a new Constituent Assembly with authority over all Venezuelan institutions, it has made little effort to ameliorate the country’s economic woes. Instead, it claims to be protecting the Venezuelan public against foreign powers and their domestic allies, decrying reports of the very real humanitarian crisis as lies aimed at prompting an “imperialist intervention”. It is also blocking efforts to provide food and medical aid.

The turbulence of 2017 has magnified Venezuela’s hardship and the difficulty of finding remedies.

The creeping authoritarianism of the latter years of former President Hugo Chávez’s rule and the first years under Maduro has metastasised into full-blown partisan exploitation of state and judicial institutions. Information that challenges official accounts is brushed aside: the state publishes neither reliable economic data nor credible health statistics. A full-scale default on the foreign debt appears but a matter of time. Scarcity and hunger have led to increased, albeit still sporadic, looting.

The public sector’s degradation has left a deep mark in peripheral regions. In its quest for hard currency, the government has set aside over 100,000 square kilometres for mining. Its lack of regulation breeds collusion among the military, criminal gangs and Colombian guerrillas. Migrants heading to Colombia must dodge competing state security forces and armed irregulars in border areas. After crossing, the poorest are left to eke out a living in a region with one of Colombia’s highest unemployment rates. Malaria is again common and spreading across borders. Diseases that had been eradicated, such as measles and diphtheria, have returned.

 There was modest optimism at the start of talks between the government and opposition during December 2017 and January 2018. Latin American powers, concerned by the gravity of the crisis, its spread into neighbouring countries and Maduro’s subversion of the rule of law with the creation of the Constituent Assembly, stepped up their involvement. The talks yielded hints of compromise, notably in the government’s agreement in principle to a reform of electoral authorities and the presence of international observers at the presidential election.

But the government’s announcement of early polls – before any agreement on a date or conditions had been reached – in effect scuppered the talks, which ended acrimoniously with rival texts of an accord in circulation. The Lima Group, a body of thirteen Latin American and Caribbean governments, plus Canada, established to find an end to Venezuela’s crisis, rejected Maduro’s unilateral call for elections.

Despite its dismal economic record, the government occupies a strong position. The Venezuelan opposition is divided and rudderless. A sizeable segment of the electorate will vote for Maduro, either out of loyalty or due to dependence on the government for food rations and other subsidised goods. The electoral authority remains under executive control, and has proven itself willing to bend the rules in the ruling party’s favour and even, in one instance, seemingly to commit outright fraud.

Latin American governments, together with Western and other powers, should take advantage of the strong international and regional consensus that exists on Venezuela’s plight to intensify efforts to resolve the crisis.

Harder-line opposition factions hope for a U.S. oil embargo or foreign intervention as a shortcut to a transition, but the dangers such actions entail in a country besieged by violence and hunger are too great to countenance. Instead, Latin American governments, together with Western and other powers, should take advantage of the strong international and regional consensus that exists on Venezuela’s plight to intensify efforts to resolve the crisis.

The first priority is to alleviate the human suffering. The Maduro government should accept the creation of a tripartite group, proposed by humanitarian groups, comprising representatives of the Venezuelan state, civil society and specialised UN bodies, which would coordinate the provision of humanitarian assistance. Such a body should address the government’s fears that allowing aid groups to deliver food would enable outside interference. The UN should work with Venezuela’s neighbours to help them provide for Venezuelans leaving their country.

The second priority is to revive talks between government and opposition. Ideally, the government would postpone forthcoming presidential elections, but even if the polls go ahead, the priority afterward should be a swift return to meaningful negotiations. The U.S., Canada and the EU have sanctioned the government, and several regional leaders are considering following suit. In themselves, such sanctions rarely prove effective. But in Venezuela’s case, the threat of further sanctions, especially those imposed by Latin American governments, might improve prospects for negotiations, provided that threat was accompanied by reinvigorated diplomacy and tied to specific, realistic concessions demanded of the Maduro government.

Talks should focus not only on specific electoral reforms, but on wider transitional measures, including opposition representation in key state institutions, economic reform and guarantees for top regime officials were they to eventually lose power. While past rounds have failed, negotiations between the regime and opposition, facilitated by regional or other leaders, backed by concerted international pressure and aimed at establishing a more inclusive political order and restoring checks and balances, remain the only way out of the crisis.

Recommendations

To address the humanitarian crisis stemming from the scarcity of food, medicines and other basic goods, and the consequent mass migration to neighbouring countries:

  • The Venezuelan government should facilitate the provision by international humanitarian organisations of food, medicines and other supplies vital for saving human lives, inter alia by relaxing import and exchange controls, and cease the persecution of those seeking to alleviate suffering.
     
  • It should also agree to the formation of the tripartite group proposed by humanitarian organisations, comprising representatives of the state, civil society and specialised UN bodies, and having no agenda other than coordinating the provision of humanitarian assistance, based on principles of strict neutrality.
     
  • The UN should follow up on Secretary-General António Guterres’s commitment to provide assistance to Venezuela’s neighbours to help them cope with the migration crisis; it should also provide clear and public information on issues such as health, welfare and social programs.
     
  • Venezuela’s immediate neighbours should work with multilateral bodies, particularly the UN, to ensure the needs of migrants are adequately met and those at risk of trafficking, including women and girls, are protected as best possible.
     
  • Colombia should adapt its migration law and regulations governing educational and health services to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to their provision for migrants.

To help resolve the political crisis and reduce the risk of further political bloodshed:

  • The Lima Group (with the U.S. and the EU in a supporting role) should take advantage of the strong international and regional consensus that exists on the gravity of the crisis and redouble efforts to bring both sides back to the negotiating table. Those governments and organisations that have already imposed sanctions – namely, the U.S., Canada and the EU – could threaten to intensify those sanctions against individuals already listed, and to impose additional individual sanctions.
     
  • Latin American governments in the Lima Group are considering their own sanctions. The threat, from governments in the region, of sanctions similar to those of Western powers, potentially including financial restrictions, assets freezes and travel bans on individuals, would be almost unprecedented. It could represent additional pressure on the government, which already has appeared rattled by U.S. and EU sanctions.
     
  • Any threat of sanctions must be clearly tied to realistic steps the government would need to take to avoid such measures and, potentially, have existing sanctions lifted. These would include, first, the government’s return to internationally facilitated talks and might include additional measures such as releasing political prisoners and ending arbitrary bans on political leaders and parties participating in elections; guarantees of integrity and neutrality in key electoral and judicial institutions, which would mean opposition representation in those bodies; the restoration of the powers of parliament; and measures to stabilise the economy.
     
  • No foreign country should impose wide-ranging embargoes, for example on the oil industry, which would be more likely to harm the public at large than change the incentives of Venezuelan leaders.
     
  • The Lima Group should encourage China, with whom many have close economic ties, to use its leverage over the Maduro government to persuade it to enter into genuine negotiations with the opposition, on the understanding that political and economic stability in Venezuela cannot be achieved by a government lacking broad popular consensus.
     
  • Renewed talks between the government and opposition should focus not only on electoral reforms, but on transitional measures to include opposition representation in government institutions, economic reforms and guarantees for top officials were they to lose power in elections.
     
  • All outside powers should be ready to support such a transition with financial aid, both bilateral and multilateral.

Caracas/Brussels, 21 March 2018

Video: Containing the Shock Waves from Venezuela

Crisis Group's Senior Analyst Phil Gunson explains how Venezuela’s socio-economic implosion is dragging in neighbours as hundreds of thousands of people flee the country, epidemics spread and violent crime spills over borders. CRISISGROUP

I. Introduction

Venezuela’s long-running political crisis, which until recently had been treated by most foreign powers as an internal matter, has evolved into a multifaceted social and economic emergency with increasingly troubling consequences for the region.[fn]A rare exception was the period from April 2002, when Chávez was briefly overthrown in a coup, to August 2004, date of the presidential recall referendum. During much of these two years, the secretary general of the OAS, César Gaviria led an intensive mediation effort. For an account of this process, see “Venezuela roundtable of negotiations and agreements”, UN Development Program, January 2005.Hide Footnote Under the rule of President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), the government consolidated its grip on power, subordinating the country’s nominally autonomous state institutions to the executive. This erosion of constitutional checks and balances was not only tolerated by leaders across the continent, but in some cases emulated.[fn]Five years ago, governments ideologically sympathetic to Chávez’s “21st century socialism” and/or appreciative of benefits, in cash or kind, derived from Venezuela’s burgeoning oil income, held power across much of the region. Internally, this income helped ensure social peace and repeated victories at the ballot box for the government.Hide Footnote

Over the past five years, however, regional and global concern over Venezuela’s internal affairs has mounted. The change began with Chávez’s death from cancer in early 2013 and the subsequent fall of the global oil price. External support waned under Chávez’s chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, particularly after two key regional allies – Presidents Cristina Kirchner of Argentina and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil – lost power in 2015 and 2016. The election of former Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro as secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2015 also intensified regional scrutiny. Though Almagro had been elected with the votes of Venezuela and its allies, he would plot a different course from that of his predecessor José Miguel Insulza. While admitting that Venezuela was in violation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Insulza claimed he could do nothing without member states’ support.[fn]“Insulza no ve ‘ambiente’ para hablar sobre Venezuela en OEA”, Agencia EFE, 30 May 2013.Hide Footnote In contrast, Almagro campaigned to hold the Maduro government accountable for what he saw as its increasingly undemocratic behaviour.

When, in March 2017, the Venezuelan Supreme Court voted to strip the opposition-dominated National Assembly of its powers, the OAS Permanent Council promised action under the terms of its democratic charter.[fn]The Maduro government immediately announced that it would leave the organisation, accusing Almagro of carrying out an interventionist plot at Washington’s behest. The charter’s ultimate sanction – suspension of membership – was thus rendered irrelevant, and the two-thirds majority required for such a move was in any event unobtainable. The Permanent Council resolution remained merely a statement of intent. “Resolution on the recent rvents in Venezuela”, OAS Permanent Council, 3 April 2017.Hide Footnote But regional pressure has neither checked the Maduro government’s authoritarianism nor remedied the economic problems that underlie a deepening humanitarian disaster. Other Latin American countries are now buffeted by shock waves emanating from a country in the grip of hyperinflation and chronically deteriorating living conditions.

Based on field research in Caracas, on the Venezuela-Colombia border and in the mining districts of the Bolívar and Amazonas states, this report examines the latest twists of the Venezuelan crisis and their impact on the region. It outlines how major and regional powers might respond to help minimise violence and suffering, and create the conditions for a restoration of economic health and a more inclusive and stable body politic in Venezuela.

II. Disappearing Checks and Balances

Over nearly two decades in power, the self-styled “Bolivarian revolutionary” government in Venezuela has packed the Supreme Court, the electoral authority and other branches of state with supporters ever more unconditional in their loyalty, thereby eroding checks and balances. The process has intensified greatly in the past three years.[fn]See especially Crisis Group Latin America Briefing N°31, Venezuela: Dangerous Inertia, 23 September 2014; Crisis Group Latin America Briefing N°35, Venezuela: Edge of the Precipice, 24 June 2016; and Report N°59, Venezuela: Tough Talking, 16 December 2016.Hide Footnote The hollowing-out of the public sector has left the rule of law in tatters, as the dissident attorney general acknowledged weeks before heading into exile in August 2017.[fn]Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, subsequently removed from office by the National Constituent Assembly, said there was “no rule of law” in Venezuela. “Ortega Díaz: Aquí no hay Estado de Derecho, hay Estado de terror”, El Nacional, 20 June 2017.Hide Footnote Under Chávez, when the oil price was high, the government could win elections without overt fraud, although the playing field was heavily tilted in its favour.[fn]See Crisis Group Latin America Report N°42, Dangerous Uncertainty Ahead of Venezuelan Elections, 26 June 2012.Hide Footnote The first parliamentary elections under President Maduro, in December 2015, saw the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition win two thirds of seats, posing an unprecedented challenge to the government and forcing a recalibration of its means of political survival.

The government subsequently used a series of legalistic subterfuges to render the National Assembly impotent.[fn]Luis Almagro, “First report on Venezuela to the Chairman of the OAS Permanent Council”, 30 May 2016, pp. 40-62.Hide Footnote It blocked an opposition attempt to trigger a recall referendum against Maduro and suspended sine die regional and local elections that should have been held in 2016.[fn]Art. 72 of the 1999 constitution states that any elected official can have her mandate revoked once half of it has elapsed, subject to a referendum. Art. 160 specifies that state governors will serve four-year terms.Hide Footnote In late October that year the Vatican sought to broker negotiations between government and opposition, which collapsed after a few weeks amid mutual recriminations.[fn]On 1 December 2016, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, sent a letter to President Maduro “demanding” that the government fulfil four key promises made at the negotiating table: steps to address the humanitarian crisis, establishment of an electoral timetable, restoration of the functions of the National Assembly and release of political prisoners.Hide Footnote When the Supreme Court moved to assume all functions of the assembly the following year, the MUD announced it would mount mass demonstrations in a bid to force the government to honour commitments it had made during the negotiations. The protests, which took place across the country several times per week for four months, left over 125 people dead and thousands more injured and imprisoned, amid widespread allegations of torture and excessive use of force by security officers.[fn]“Crackdown on dissent: Brutality, torture and political persecution in Venezuela”, Human Rights Watch/Provea, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote

“Crackdown on dissent: Brutality, torture and political persecution in Venezuela”, Human Rights Watch/Provea, 29 November 2017.

Hide Footnote

The protests petered out after the government held elections for a National Constituent Assembly, purportedly in order to reform the 1999 constitution. The MUD boycotted the contest on the grounds that Maduro had called it without consulting the electorate, and that the voting system had been manipulated to give the government an automatic majority.[fn]Jennifer L. McCoy, “Venezuela’s controversial new Constituent Assembly, explained”, Washington Post, 1 August 2017. Art. 347 of the constitution states that “the people” are sovereign and can convene a constituent assembly, while Art. 348 grants the president, among others, the “initiative” to begin the process. The MUD argued that this provision meant calling a referendum to consult the electorate first. See Crisis Group Latin America Briefing N°36, Power without the People: Averting Venezuela’s Breakdown, 19 June 2017. The voting system ensured the over-representation of the government’s rural strongholds by assigning each municipality a seat regardless of size. It also reserved seats for population groups, such as students and peasants, susceptible to government control.Hide Footnote On 16 July the opposition-dominated National Assembly organised an unofficial referendum in which opposition leaders claimed more than seven million people participated.[fn]Alfredo Meza, “La oposición asegura que logró casi 7.2 millones de votos en la consulta contra Maduro”, El País, 17 July 2017.Hide Footnote Well over 90 per cent of those who voted rejected the Constituent Assembly elections and backed the “renovation” of state institutions and the creation of a “national unity government”.[fn]“El 98% de votantes en plebiscito opositor rechaza constituyente de Maduro”, Agencia EFE, 16 July 2017.Hide Footnote

Talks between senior MUD leaders and representatives of Maduro [...] failed to bring the two sides together.

This unofficial vote failed to halt the Constituent Assembly elections. Talks between senior MUD leaders and representatives of Maduro, in which former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero played a role, failed to bring the two sides together. On 30 July, the vote saw 545 pro-government representatives elected to the Constituent Assembly. The government claimed that over eight million votes had been cast. Detailed results were never published, however. The Smartmatic company responsible for the election software estimated that the true number was “at least one million” fewer. Other sources cited still lower figures.[fn]“Statement on the recent Constituent Assembly election in Venezuela”, Smartmatic, 2 August 2017. Girish Gupta, “Venezuelan vote data casts doubt on turnout at Sunday poll”, Reuters, 2 August 2017.Hide Footnote With neither opposition witnesses nor independent observers at the polls, the real turnout was impossible to gauge.

The Constituent Assembly – which according to the government has supra-constitutional powers and authority over all existing institutions – soon proved an asset in the government’s bid for control. The assembly called regional elections for October, and electoral authorities instructed political parties to register their candidates within 48 hours, later refusing to remove from the ballot those who lost subsequent MUD primaries. This manoeuvre led to many invalid votes being cast, but it was only one of a series of irregularities that, according to one national election observation group, made it “impossible to consider [the result] a faithful expression of the citizens’ will”.[fn]“Elección de gobernadores del 15 de octubre 2017: Informe Preliminar”, Red de Observadores de la Asamblea de Educación, 18 October 2017. Among the issues cited was the decision to eliminate or “relocate” at the last minute some 350 polling stations in opposition-dominated districts, affecting over 700,000 people. The official reason was that protests earlier in the year in these areas meant there was a “risk of violence”, even though protests had ceased in July and the army is always deployed at election time to protect polling stations.Hide Footnote

Official tallies gave eighteen of the 23 states to the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) on a 61 per cent turnout, inverting the predictions of most polling organisations.[fn]Elizabeth J. Zechmeister and Noam Lupu, “Did Maduro’s party really dominate Sunday’s election in Venezuela? These polls should make you skeptical”, Washington Post, 20 October 2017. The opposition held only three states going into the election: Miranda, Lara and Amazonas.Hide Footnote The reasons for the opposition’s defeat remain a matter of debate, but in essence the government maximised its own vote – in part by apparent coercion and vote buying – while many previous MUD supporters stayed at home.[fn]“¿Qué pasó el domingo?”, Observatorio Electoral Venezolano, 19 October 2017.Hide Footnote In particular, the explicit linkage of a government identity card (known as the carnet de la patria) to the provision of subsidised food handouts and other social benefits, as well as to the voting process, made many fearful that a vote against the ruling party could cost them benefits.[fn]Some 15-16 million Venezuelans now have these identity cards, which include a scannable QR code and are now obligatory for recipients of benefits. The government requires its supporters to scan the cards after voting, at “red points” set up near polling stations. Héctor Pereira, “El chavismo vigila de cerca la fidelidad de sus adeptos durante la elección de la Constituyente”, Agencia EFE, 30 July 2017. “Maduro: de ahora en adelante, todo se hará con el carnet de la patria”, El Nacional, 3 December 2017. While there is no evidence that the vote is not secret, a 2017 regional survey by Latinobarómetro showed that only 45 per cent of Venezuelans believe their vote is secret, the lowest figure in the whole of Latin America. “Informe 2017”, Corporación Latinobarómetro, 2018, pp. 40.Hide Footnote

In the south-eastern state of Bolívar, the result took days to announce, and for the first time in the chavista era, clear evidence emerged that the electoral authority’s electronic count did not match the number of votes registered on paper tally sheets produced by voting machines. In other words, authorities appear to have altered the result, transforming a narrow opposition victory into a slimmer win for the government candidate.[fn]PSUV candidate Justo Noguera was declared the winner by just 1,471 votes. Francisco Toro, “PSUV steals Bolívar state governor’s race”, Caracas Chronicles, 19 October 2017.Hide Footnote Protests were to no avail, and the electoral authority declined even to respond to a formal opposition challenge.

Many fear[ed] that a vote against the ruling party could cost them benefits.

Bolstered by victory in regional elections, the Maduro government moved promptly to schedule long-delayed mayoral elections for 10 December. Most major opposition parties boycotted the poll, and the government won 308 of the 335 town halls at stake. This series of defeats for the opposition brought its popularity and cohesion to their lowest ebb. The decision by the leaders of the biggest four parties in the MUD, the so-called G4, to enter fresh negotiations with the government – in a bid to obtain better conditions for a presidential election due in 2018 – led to bitter accusations from other opposition leaders that they intended to negotiate a form of “cohabitation” with the government.[fn]The MUD alliance has eighteen member parties, most of which are tiny. It has suffered splits in recent months and rarely meets. Even the G4 group of leading parties finds it difficult to reach consensus. Luis Mendoza, “Quién liderará la oposición tras la ‘implosión’ de la MUD?”, Caraota Digital, 26 October 2017. By February 2018, all but three member parties (including two G4 members), as well as the MUD itself, had been barred by the electoral authority from taking part in elections.Hide Footnote

In late November, a group of politicians opposed to what they saw as the MUD’s betrayal of the mandate from the 16 July plebiscite broke away to launch Soy Venezuela, a movement formally committed to “restoring the republic as soon as possible”.[fn]Luisana Solano, “Con qué se come ‘Soy Venezuela’?”, Runrunes, 17 November 2017.Hide Footnote Soy Venezuela opposes negotiations between the government and opposition, unless talks are preceded by the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the release of all political prisoners, and focus exclusively on terms for the government’s removal. Its most visible leaders are María Corina Machado of Vente Venezuela, the exiled former mayor of metropolitan Caracas Antonio Ledezma and Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations resident in New York. They have received some international support for their stance, notably from OAS Secretary General Almagro.[fn]“Almagro y Ledezma critican al sector de la oposición que negocia con Maduro”, Agencia EFE, 28 November 2018.Hide Footnote

III. The Economic Impact

Once the richest economy in Latin America, Venezuela has suffered a precipitous economic decline under President Maduro. Strangled by rigid price and exchange controls, the economy has shrunk by over one third since 2012, while inflation has begun to climb almost vertically. Corrupt and inefficient state-run companies swallow resources while producing little of value. Most individuals and businesses have no means of obtaining hard currency, while a default of Venezuela’s foreign debt appears ever more likely. Trade is diminished, affecting other Latin American economies. Some, including Colombia and Brazil, had seen exports to Venezuela rise sharply during the 2003-2013 oil boom, only to watch them collapse as the recession bit. Others benefited from energy subsidies the government can no longer afford to maintain at previous levels, partly because of plunging oil production.[fn]Most are Caribbean and Central American countries belonging to the Petrocaribe group (Petrocaribe is an energy cooperation agreement, launched by the Chávez government in 2005, whereby Venezuela supplies oil on preferential terms to countries in and around the Caribbean; there are currently fourteen beneficiary countries). Cuba, which is a member of Petrocaribe but enjoys its own energy deal with Venezuela, has had to turn to countries like Russia and Algeria to make up the shortfall.Hide Footnote

The central bank stopped publishing GDP and inflation figures some time ago, but according to the finance commission of the opposition-led National Assembly, the monthly rate passed the 50 per cent mark – conventionally regarded as the threshold of hyperinflation – in October 2017. The opposition puts accumulated inflation for 2017 at 2,616 per cent. The International Monetary Fund projects 2018 inflation of 13,000 per cent, although some estimates are even higher.[fn]Report by Alejandro Werner, head of IMF Western Hemisphere Department, 25 January 2018.Hide Footnote Despite half a dozen increases in the minimum wage in twelve months, by January 2018 its purchasing power had fallen to a fifth of its value over that time. In the same period, oil production – which accounts for almost all export earnings – fell by 29 per cent.[fn]“Ante la grave situación que aqueja hoy al pueblo venezolano”, open letter to President Maduro from 100 leading economists, 12 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Venezuela is on the brink of a major default on its foreign debt, which would be the first in the region since the Argentine debt crisis of 2001. In early November 2017, President Maduro announced that he would seek to “restructure and refinance” the country’s debt and invited bondholders to a meeting in Caracas. But he has put forward no plan and negotiations have not begun. The chances of an orderly restructuring are close to nil, because U.S. sanctions in place since mid-2017 make it an offence under U.S. law to loan money to the Venezuelan government or to Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil company, except under certain, highly limited circumstances.[fn]Executive Order No. 13808, Presidency of the United States, 24 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Venezuela is on the brink of a major default on its foreign debt, which would be the first in the region since the Argentine debt crisis of 2001.

So far, bondholders have been reluctant to call in debts, at least so long as Venezuela continues to meet some payments. But a point of no return is likely to arrive at which a full-scale default – either on sovereign bonds or those of PDVSA or both – becomes unavoidable. Nearly $10 billion in repayments is due in 2018, and despite oil prices clawing back above $60, fast-declining production and other structural problems mean Venezuela will continue to run a massive budget deficit. Unable to sustain itself without outside aid, the country will be pushed into ever greater dependence on a handful of allies – primarily Russia and China.

Debt crises are destabilising events for financial markets, particularly when a relatively large economy is involved. In the case of Venezuela, the financial ripple effect abroad may be limited because the rest of the region is in much better shape and the likelihood of default has been priced into the market for years. With the country’s enormous potential for attracting investment in oil and other basic industries, its domestic recovery could be fairly rapid. But that – and indeed even an initial restructuring deal for Venezuela’s debt – would require the government taking steps to reform the economy. Under Maduro, and with sanctions in place, such a reform is virtually unthinkable. The president insists the economic problem is one of external aggression aimed at regime change, while sources of fresh finance are sharply reduced by lack of access to the U.S. financial system.

Venezuela’s foreign trade has slumped, too. In the first quarter of 2017, trade between Colombia and Venezuela contracted by 58 per cent, according to the binational chamber of commerce, Cavecol. The principal cause was the sharp decline in Colombian exports to Venezuela due to the latter’s economic depression. Venezuela’s imports from Colombia were worth just $70 million, compared with $255 million in the first quarter of 2016.[fn]In January-October 2017 bilateral trade was down almost 40 per cent from the year before. “Intercambio Comercial entre Venezuela y Colombia, Octubre 2017”, Cámara de Integración Económica Venezolano-Colombiana (Cavecol).Hide Footnote By 2008, with annual bilateral trade running at over $6 billion, Colombia’s growth rate was 5-6 per cent per annum; it is now around three points lower, due partly to the massive reduction in trade with Venezuela.[fn]Cited by Juan Carlos Mora Uribe, chairman of Bancolombia, in a speech at a Club Diálogos por la Democracia conference, Madrid, 14 October 2017.Hide Footnote

In the case of Argentina, exports to Venezuela fell by nearly 70 per cent between 2013 and 2017. That drop followed a period of extraordinary growth from 2003-2013 – the governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner had developed close ties to Chávez – in which exports had risen from a mere $139 million to $2.15 billion. The leap in exports turned Venezuela into Argentina’s fifth most important foreign market, but also brought a rash of scandals involving a multibillion-dollar bilateral fund.[fn]Hugo Alconada Mon, “Gobierno cerró un polémico fideicomiso con Venezuela”, La Nación, 24 August 2016.Hide Footnote

A similar pattern affected other members of the Mercosur trading bloc, which Venezuela joined in 2012 but from which it was suspended indefinitely in August 2017 when the other four members (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) declined to recognise the Constituent Assembly.[fn]Silvio Cascione, “Mercosur suspends Venezuela, urges immediate transition”, Reuters, 5 August 2017.Hide Footnote Trade between Venezuela and Mercosur countries fell by 66.7 per cent between 2012 and 2016.[fn]“Comercio entre Mercosur y Venezuela disminuyó 67% desde su ingreso”, Agencia EFE, 4 August 2017.Hide Footnote

A. Fleeing from Disaster

Of a population of approximately 31 million Venezuelans, an estimated four million live abroad, with more leaving daily.[fn]A poll by Consultores 21 carried out in November-December 2017 produced an estimate of four million, based on the number of families reporting emigrant members. 40 per cent of respondents indicated a desire to emigrate. The economic situation was the main reason given, but 29 per cent cited political reasons (rising to 35 per cent for those over 45). Sociologist Tomás Páez, who has studied the diaspora, says that by mid-2018 as much as 15 per cent of the population (4.5 million) could be outside Venezuela. “Sociólogo Tomás Páez: ‘Oleada de venezolanos ha sido masiva en los últimos dos años’”, Miami Diario, 11 December 2017.Hide Footnote Departures have shot up in the past two years, especially since mid-2017, because of both the economic crisis and the increasing sense that the government has closed off the electoral route to change. Even countries that do not border Venezuela have begun to see significant influxes.

Large-scale emigration is a previously unknown phenomenon in contemporary Venezuela, which saw successive waves of immigration in the twentieth century. Professionals began leaving early in the Chávez years, particularly after the mass sacking of PDVSA employees in 2003. Only recently have large numbers of urban poor started to exit, mostly by land or, in some cases, by sea in fragile boats; they are leaving, in other words, by whatever means available. Authorities in Curaçao say they intercepted 60 Venezuelan “boat people” in 2016; in 2017 the number rose to 300. In January 2018, a boat carrying over 30 Venezuelan refugees capsized off the Curaçao coast; at least four passengers are thought to have drowned.[fn]Raquel Chirinos, “Navegar a Curazao o morir en el intento”, Revista Climax, 22 January 2018.Hide Footnote Similar tragedies have occurred in the waters between Venezuela and Trinidad. Sudden inflows are placing considerable strain on neighbours. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has described a mass exodus of Venezuelans as his “worst nightmare” because of its impact on Colombia and in particular the peace process.[fn]“Juan Manuel Santos: mi peor pesadilla es Venezuela”, Agencia EFE, 10 November 2017.Hide Footnote

B. A Spike in Numbers of Migrants and Asylum Seekers

If Venezuela is unaccustomed to emigration, Colombia has little experience of mass immigration. In 2010, an estimated 100,000 foreigners of all nationalities lived in Colombia.[fn]“Colombia migration profile 2010”, International Organization for Migration.Hide Footnote In December 2017, the country’s authorities said 552,000 Venezuelans were now living there, an increase of 57 per cent since July. Of these, 374,000 were estimated to be in the country illegally.[fn]“El éxodo de más de medio millón de venezolanos a Colombia”, El Espectador, 27 January 2018.Hide Footnote Colombia faces by far the largest inward migration in its history, with authorities estimating in early February that 15,000 Venezuelans were arriving legally to stay each month, as were many thousands of other undocumented migrants. Colombian authorities have since sought to stiffen controls over undocumented migration across the border.[fn]Border and migration control measures announced by President Santos on 8 February, including dispatching over 3,000 troops to the border to patrol illegal crossings, are estimated by authorities to have reduced daily legal crossings from Venezuela to Colombia by 10,000. “Cancillería: Desde Venezuela entran 10.000 personas menos diariamente”, El Espectador, 18 February 2018. See also “‘Migración venezolana, en el máximo nivel de importancia’: Canciller”, El Tiempo, 31 January 2018; “Venezolanos: la migración más grande en la historia del país”, El Tiempo, 30 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Many Colombians have reacted with sympathy and solidarity, and some business leaders stress that immigration has long-term benefits. But the country is ill-prepared for the potential short- to medium-term disruption. There have been protests over alleged health threats and rising crime.[fn]“Habitantes de Cúcuta protestan por la llegada de 900 venezolanos”, El Espectador/Agencia EFE, 22 January 2018.Hide Footnote Growing xenophobia, especially in border regions, is a risk. Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín has expressed worry over migration’s impact on the country’s post-conflict development. She said in January 2018 that the government treats the issue as one of “maximum importance”.[fn]“‘Migración venezolana, en el máximo nivel de importancia’: Canciller”, op. cit. At a press conference in Washington, Holguín had said the cost of dealing with large numbers of Venezuelan migrants “complicates” the task of fulfilling commitments under the peace agreement with FARC rebels in health, education and economic development. “Crisis en Venezuela ‘complica’ paz en Colombia: canciller desde EE. UU.”, El Espectador, 21 November 2017.Hide Footnote That same month, as the government stepped up efforts to deal with the influx, Venezuelan migrants were evicted from a makeshift camp in Cúcuta – and 120 of them deported – following protests against their presence by local residents, although President Juan Manuel Santos has stressed that migrants entering legally are welcome.[fn]“Desalojan a venezolanos alojados en parque de Cúcuta”, La Opinión/Colprensa, 24 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Colombia faces by far the largest inward migration in its history.

Other neighbours also feel the effects of the exodus. The southern Caribbean hosts some 60,000 Venezuelan emigrants, two thirds of them in Trinidad and Tobago, amounting to nearly 3 per cent of the country’s population.[fn]For the latest figures, see “Situation update – Venezuela”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.Hide Footnote The Curaçao government said in early 2018 it would set up a tent camp for refugees, estimated by some sources to number as many as 1,000. About 40,000 Venezuelans have headed south to Brazil, where their first port of call is the country’s poorest and least populated state, Roraima. They include at least 2,000 indigenous Warao from the Orinoco delta. In December, faced with unprecedented strain on health and welfare services, the Roraima state governor declared a social emergency, while a UN official said shelters were “crowded to their limit”.[fn]Anthony Boadle, “Venezuelan migrants pose humanitarian problem in Brazil”, Reuters, 11 December 2017.Hide Footnote Even countries further afield are affected. Some 62,000 were reported to be living in Ecuador by late 2017 – up from less than 5,000 as recently as 2011.[fn]“La inmigración venezolana a Ecuador”, El Nacional, 13 January 2018; “Perfil migratorio del Ecuador”, International Organisation for Migration, 2012.Hide Footnote An average of one Venezuelan migrant arrived in Argentina every 20 minutes in the latter half of 2017.[fn]Carlos Frías, “La llegada de venezolanos creció 140% en 2017: entró 1 cada 20 minutos”, Clarín, 14 January 2018.Hide Footnote  In neighbouring Chile, Venezuelans were reportedly among the fastest-growing immigrant communities.

The corrosion of the political climate in mid-2017 has also triggered a rise in the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum, especially in neighbouring countries. Some were former political prisoners or dissidents, including prominent politicians, forced into exile by persecution. Others may have seen asylum as a means of circumventing immigration laws, regardless of the validity of their claims.[fn]Yeganeh Torbati, “U.S. immigration agency to review newest asylum cases first in bid to detain fraud”, Reuters, 31 January 2018.Hide Footnote The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 34,000 requests for asylum by Venezuelans worldwide in 2016, but in mid-2017 said the figure for the year had already reached 39,000. Top destinations were Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Spain and the U.S. (where, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as of mid-2017, one in five asylum seekers was Venezuelan).[fn]“Overview of UNHCR’s operations in the Americas”, Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, 19 September 2017. UNHCR now has a Venezuela situation office based in Bogotá to monitor developments and make recommendations. The UNHCR reports 145,322 asylum requests from Venezuelans between 2014 and March 2018 (see Appendix D), including over 20,000 each in Brazil and Peru, over 2,000 in Ecuador, nearly 2,000 in Trinidad and 679 in Curaçao. “Asylum seekers from Venezuela 2014”, UNHCR, 7 March 2018. For U.S. figures, see Patrick Gillespie, “Thousands of Venezuelans fleeing to the U.S.”, CNN Money, 23 May 2017.Hide Footnote

 

C. Living on the Street in Cúcuta

The Colombian border city of Cúcuta feels the deterioration of living conditions in Venezuela particularly acutely. A commercial hub in the department (province) of Norte de Santander, Cúcuta’s economic well-being is tied to events on the other end of the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that links it to the Venezuelan town of San Antonio del Táchira. In September 2015, President Maduro closed the entire border, claiming it was the only way to deal with the contraband that was bleeding Venezuela of food, petrol and other basic goods. Smuggling continued to flourish, however: over 70 trochas, or informal border crossings, are estimated to mark the segment of the border in Norte de Santander alone. But legitimate businesses were hit hard. Thousands of Colombians resident on the Venezuelan side of the border were expelled. Thousands more fled, fearing persecution. Both domestic and international critics of the government argued that Maduro was primarily seeking a scapegoat for problems of his own making.[fn]“La crisis en la frontera es para encontrar un chivo expiatorio”, interview with former Colombian president César Gaviria, El Universal (Cartagena), 4 September 2015.Hide Footnote

In August 2016, following bilateral talks, daytime pedestrian traffic via official border crossings was restored. Since September 2017, vehicles have been allowed to cross the bridge into Colombia between 8 pm and 12 am, most of them carrying raw materials, including petrochemicals produced in Venezuela. The trucks are unloaded during the day and return empty: almost nothing is now exported to Venezuela via this route.[fn]Crisis Group interview, business leader, Cúcuta, 12 December 2017.Hide Footnote A study carried out by the Colombian foreign ministry and the International Organization for Migration showed that until December 2016, almost three quarters of those crossing the border to stay were Colombians or people with dual Colombian-Venezuelan nationality.[fn]“Matriz de monitoreo de desplazamiento en la frontera colombo venezolana”, Colombian foreign ministry/International Organization for Migration, 5 July 2017.Hide Footnote The proportions changed suddenly and dramatically after the Constituent Assembly election in Venezuela, suggesting that – as polling also indicates – the exodus is driven partly by the sense that a political settlement to the crisis is stalled.[fn]See, for example, the Consultores 21 poll cited in footnote 33.Hide Footnote On 2 August 2017, the border crossing was inundated: 90 per cent of those entering Colombia were Venezuelans, and such was the volume of traffic that people queued for up to seven hours at immigration. Since then, the ratio of Venezuelans to Colombians among those entering is put by Colombian authorities at 70:30.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Defensoría del Pueblo, Cúcuta, 11 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Venezuelans line up to receive a free lunch at La Parada, Cúcuta, in December 2017. Kyle Johnson/CRISISGROUP

Most continue to other parts of Colombia or to countries further south. Bus companies have doubled or tripled the number of daily departures on some routes, including the service to Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border. In December 2017, one company reported attending to around 200 Venezuelan passengers a day, of whom around 125 bought tickets to Ipiales.[fn]Crisis Group interview, bus company employees, Cúcuta, 11 December 2017.Hide Footnote But many, particularly those without funds to pay for further travel, remain in Cúcuta. One survey found that among Venezuelan residents in the city, 30,000 had arrived in the previous two years, contributing to urban sprawl and poverty in a place that now has the highest unemployment rate in Colombia.[fn]“Cúcuta superó a Quibdó como la cuidad con la tasa de desempleo más alta del país”, La República, 1 March 2018. Crisis Group interview, multilateral agency, Cúcuta, 12 December 2017. The most recent unemployment figures for Colombia’s regions show that Norte de Santander has the second highest rate after Quindío. “Mercado laboral: por departamento”, Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística, March 2017.Hide Footnote In another survey – conducted by the local chamber of commerce – 96 per cent of business owners said Cúcuta was not prepared to cope with the influx.[fn]“Encuesta de Percepción Empresarial”, Cámara de Comercio de Cúcuta, 17 August 2017.Hide Footnote Over 80 per cent said the social and economic impact was negative, and 97 per cent that crime rates would climb.

In January 2018, after a meeting of the foreign ministry, the immigration service and the local authorities in Cúcuta, the government announced it would consult the UNHCR as to how to deal with some 1,200 undocumented Venezuelans – half of them children or pregnant women – who were homeless in the city.[fn]“Canciller buscará asesoría de la ONU sobre situación de venezolanos en Cúcuta”, La Opinión, 11 January 2018.Hide Footnote Colombian laws and regulations are not set up to deal with mass immigration. Many children, for example, risk becoming stateless, either because they were born in Venezuela to Colombian parents or because they were born in Colombia to illegal Venezuelan immigrants. Reproductive health provisions and safeguards are limited.[fn]Women and girls are typically at greater risk of abuse when displaced by conflict or economic hardship. See Isabelle Arradon, Crisis Group Commentary, “A Hidden Face of War”, 7 March 2018.Hide Footnote The state school matriculation system, moreover, only allows Colombian birthplaces to be entered, limiting educational rights. On 8 February, during a visit to Cúcuta, President Santos announced the opening of a migrant shelter, with UN assistance.

Local church groups and NGOs do their best to cope. At an improvised kitchen a few hundred yards from the border, the parish priest provides lunch for more than 1,000 people a day, almost all of them Venezuelans, with help from the diocese and the Catholic charity group Caritas. Priority is given to the most vulnerable, and able-bodied men are usually left without. Some said they had occasionally gone two or three days without eating.[fn]Crisis Group interviews with parish priest and with Venezuelan migrants, La Parada, Cúcuta, 12 December 2017.Hide Footnote

The impact is also felt in the Cúcuta education sector. More than 70 per cent of children applying for a place in school in 2018 – an estimated 2,000 – were Venezuelan, and although authorities insist they can manage, other sources suggest that five more large schools would be needed to meet the demand.[fn]“Hay 6 mil cupos disponibles en escuelas de Cúcuta”, La Opinión, 28 November 2017.
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The annual cost to the Colombian state of educating this number of children is put at 3,848 million pesos ($1.36 million).[fn] While Cúcuta is on the front line, almost all major Colombian cities, and many towns, feel some impact from the Venezuelan exodus.[fn]Most of those passing through Cúcuta but intending to stay in Colombia head for Bogotá, Medellín or Barranquilla. “Cuántos venezolanos se quedan en Colombia?”, infographic, Semana, 22 January 2018.
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IV. Organised Crime

Venezuela is among the most violent countries in the world. According to official figures, more than 21,000 people were murdered in 2016 – a rate of over 70 per 100,000.[fn]“Informe Anual de Gestión 2016”, Ministerio Público. Attorney General Luisa Ortega, in her annual reports for 2015 and 2016, broke with the official policy of concealing crime statistics. She was removed from office in August 2017 by the National Constituent Assembly. No annual report more recent than 2009 is now available on the website of the Public Ministry of Venezuela. Independent crime experts claim the murder rate is even higher than the figures released by Ortega. The precise figure is a matter of dispute, however. “Is violence in Venezuela levelling off?”, Insight Crime, 4 July 2016. In 1998, the year before Chávez came to power, there were fewer than 5,000 murders.Hide Footnote Independent experts suggest that as many as half these murders are connected to organised crime, whose main activities are drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, smuggling and money laundering.[fn]Marcos Tarre Briceño, “Cómo afecta la delincuencia organizada al ciudadano?”, Observatorio del Delito Organizado, October 2015.Hide Footnote According to one specialist NGO, the third quarter of 2017 saw an 80.5 per cent increase in reported instances of organised crime compared with the previous year, with extortion the most common. Disturbingly, a majority of suspects were police.[fn]“La extorsión fue el delito más denunciado en el 3er trimestre del 2017”, Observatorio del Delito Organizado, 28 November 2017.
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“La extorsión fue el delito más denunciado en el 3er trimestre del 2017”, Observatorio del Delito Organizado, 28 November 2017.

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One of the manifestations of this increase is the proliferation of “mega-gangs” (megabandas), a score of which now exist. These large criminal groups, with dozens of heavily armed members, often work closely with prison-based crime bosses, who control around half of the country’s jails and use them as hubs for multiple rackets.[fn]Ibis León, “19 megabandas dedicadas al crimen organizado operan en el país”, Efecto Cocuyo, 10 March 2017. “Venezuela Prisons: ‘Pranes’ and ‘Revolutionary’ Criminality”, Insight Crime, 11 September 2017.Hide Footnote One specialist speaks of the Venezuelan crisis’s “ripple effect” in the region, saying Venezuelan organised crime outfits are expanding to other parts of the region, in particular smaller Caribbean states where they have a comparative advantage and can make alliances with local gangs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Venezuelan crime reporter, Caracas, 6 October 2017.
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By one estimate, crime and violence cost the Caribbean around 3 per cent of its GDP, and the problem has been worsening for some time. Increasing lawlessness and poverty in Venezuela is acknowledged by crime and security experts to be contributing to the deterioration.[fn]“Venezuela’s crisis spills over to the Caribbean”, Caribbean Economic Report, June 2017. R. Evan Ellis, “Defense and security challenges in the Dominican Republic”, IndraStra Global, vol. 4, no. 2 (February 2018). See also the 2017 Inter-American Development Bank report, “Restoring paradise in the Caribbean: Combatting crime with numbers”, which puts the cost of crime and violence to the Caribbean region at 3 per cent of GDP; and the “Caribbean human development report 2012”, UN Development Program.
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The government recognises the existence of organised crime. But it attributes the proliferation of these groups to what it calls a policy of “asymmetrical warfare” against Venezuela by its international and domestic enemies, including the U.S. and opposition political parties.[fn]“Bandas criminales y corredores desarticulados por la OLP”, Misión Verdad, 20 June 2016.Hide Footnote It has mounted joint police and military operations, known as OLPs, or Operations to Free the People, particularly in urban neighbourhoods believed to harbour such gangs, which the government says are inspired and/or directed by “Colombian paramilitaries” as part of a counter-revolutionary plot.[fn]Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde, “Venezuelan government blames Colombian paramilitaries for violence, contraband and protests”, Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, 24 August 2015. In response to criticism of human rights violations during OLPs, Maduro added an H for “humanistic” to the title. He conceded that there had been “errors and … abuses” in some cases, and promised a “purge” of the police. “Maduro reestructurará las OLP con sentido ‘humanista’, depurará la PNB e incorporará 10 mil nuevos efectivos de nivel universitario”, Alba Ciudad, 15 January 2017.Hide Footnote These operations have been criticised by domestic and international human rights groups, who accuse the security forces of hundreds of extrajudicial killings, as well as thousands of arbitrary evictions and the destruction of dwellings.[fn]“Unchecked power: Police and military raids in low-income and immigrant communities in Venezuela”, Human Rights Watch/Provea, 4 April 2016. By September 2016 Provea estimated that over 700 people had been killed in OLP raids. “Extra-judicial killings accompany Venezuela security raids”, Insight Crime, 12 September 2016.Hide Footnote The initial motivation may have been to show the government was serious about tackling violent crime. But exiled Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, removed from office in August 2017 after serving nine years in that post, alleged in November that the OLPs became “social cleansing” operations.[fn]“Ortega Díaz denuncia a Maduro y funcionarios por asesinato sistemático de civiles”, Runrunes, 16 November 2017.Hide Footnote Others have claimed they at times served as cover for officers to carry out personal vendettas, and to substitute one preferred gang for another.[fn]“OLP: La máscara del terror oficial en Venezuela”, Runrunes, 2017. “Report: More than 500 people were killed in two years in Venezuelan government’s anti-crime campaign”, Washington Post, 5 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Recent investigative reporting has pointed to the presence in Venezuela of criminal organisations from other parts of the world and the regional expansion of Venezuelan organised crime.[fn]Jonathan Franklin, “Venezuelan pirates rule the most lawless market on earth”, Bloomberg, 30 January 2018. Foreign organised crime groups, including Mexican drug cartels, reportedly have established a presence in Venezuela. Silvia Otero and José Guaderrama, “Narcotráfico mexicano rebasa las fronteras del continente”, El Universal (Mexico), 7 October 2012. Mike LaSusa, “Massive bust shows Italian mafia role in LatAm drug trade”, Insight Crime, 30 June 2016.Hide Footnote Research has also addressed the suspected involvement of active and retired members of the Venezuelan security forces in the transit of drugs and other contraband through Venezuelan territory.[fn]Mildred Camero, “El tráfico de drogas ilícitas en Venezuela”, Observatorio del Delito Organizado, 26 January 2017. See also: “Report charts evolution and militarization of Venezuela’s drug trade”, Insight Crime, 22 March 2017.Hide Footnote

A. Violent Competition over Smuggling Routes

Venezuela’s economic crisis and the opportunities presented by price and exchange rate differentials have brought an exponential increase in smuggling of all kinds. As many as 250,000 head of cattle are smuggled across the border into Colombia each year, to take advantage of meat prices that are three times higher than in Venezuela. The trade may be worth $135 million, according to the Colombian ranchers’ federation.[fn]Gideon Long, “Smuggled cattle and petrol join exodus from Venezuela”, Financial Times, 9 January 2018. “El lucrativo negocio del contrabando de leche y carne de Venezuela”, CONtexto Ganadero, 26 May 2017.Hide Footnote It is the origin of up to 80 per cent of the meat sold in Norte de Santander.[fn]Eleonora Delgado, “80% de la carne que se come en el Norte de Santander sale ilegal del país”, El Nacional, 7 November 2017.Hide Footnote Butchers in the Venezuelan city of San Cristóbal, just an hour from the border, report difficulty in obtaining meat because cattle in transit are often diverted across the border, sometimes at the behest of National Guard soldiers manning highway checkpoints.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic from Táchira state, Caracas, 8 October 2017.Hide Footnote Cattle ranchers say guerrillas and former paramilitaries are also involved.[fn]Grace Oria, “Ganaderos de Colombia y Venezuela: guerrilla está detrás del contrabando de carne”, Ultimas Noticias, 23 February 2017.Hide Footnote

But livestock is just one of an array of products, including everything from cement to car parts, that evade customs controls. The Colombian police admit that what they seize represents a “minimal” part of the trade.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior police officer, Norte de Santander, 11 December 2017.Hide Footnote The biggest business is contraband petrol, of which the equivalent of 100,000 barrels is estimated to leave the country each day. An entire tanker-full of petrol costs just a few dollars at the subsidised Venezuelan price. In Colombia petrol is thousands of times more expensive, even at the official exchange rate, making petrol contraband more lucrative than smuggling illegal drugs (which also cross the border in large amounts, but in the other direction). As economic asymmetries across the border grow, so do the incentives for and the volume of illicit trade.[fn]“Venezuela: crimen sin frontera”, El País, 2017.Hide Footnote

“Venezuela: crimen sin frontera”, El País, 2017.Hide Footnote
In the latter part of 2017, at least half a dozen shootouts took place in the immediate vicinity of the international bridge between Cúcuta and San Antonio.

Contraband trade causes not only considerable economic damage but also violent competition for control of the trochas – a situation described as “criminal anarchy” by human rights defenders on the Colombian side. In the latter part of 2017, at least half a dozen shootouts took place in the immediate vicinity of the international bridge between Cúcuta and San Antonio. The protagonists are said to be the Colombian guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Urabeños, one of the most powerful of the “criminal bands”, or bacrim, that emerged after the demobilisation of the right-wing paramilitaries under the government of Álvaro Uribe.[fn]The Urabeños are also known as the Clan del Golfo, or as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia.Hide Footnote Elsewhere along the border, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL, nicknamed the Pelusos), an erstwhile Colombian guerrilla force of a little over 200, challenges the ELN. The dispute over control of the border intensified with the demobilisation last year of the much larger Colombian insurgent force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), whose 33rd Front used to run parts of it.[fn]Fighting for control of border contraband and drug trafficking has now extended to charging fees (vacunas) to undocumented migrants to use crossings. “Venezolanos, con sitio para pasar la noche en Colombia”, El Colombiano, 7 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Venezuelan territory is a useful refuge. Colombian “irregular groups use the border as a means of evading capture”, says a senior police officer. The dead are often buried on the Venezuelan side, where their relatives have no hope of finding them. Some local officials estimate the number of bodies in unmarked graves runs into the thousands.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Defensoría del Pueblo and senior police officer, Cúcuta, 11 December 2017.Hide Footnote Venezuelans feature in the violence as both victims and perpetrators. Those who cross the border often are easy prey for groups involved in the drug industry and other illicit activities. “The danger, the fear”, wrote one man on a scrap of paper pressed into the hand of a Crisis Group analyst in Cúcuta. “It’s the guerrillas that [recruit] and they’ve fooled many into joining, out of necessity”. Authorities say the Tibú subregion has 12,450 hectares planted with coca.[fn]In 2016, the total for the whole of Norte de Santander was put at 24,831 hectares. “Colombia: monitoreo de territorios afectados por cultivos ilícitos 2016”, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, July 2017.Hide Footnote Venezuelan raspachines (the name given to coca leaf pickers) are paid only 15-20 thousand pesos ($5.20 to $7) for a day’s work, as opposed to 50,000 ($17.5o) for a Colombian.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior police officer, Cúcuta, 11 December 2017. Armed groups fighting for control of various illicit businesses are believed to be behind an estimated seven mass murders on both sides of the border in the period of January-February 2018. “Siete personas asesinadas en zona de frontera en territorio venezolano”, El Tiempo, 28 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interview, senior police officer, Cúcuta, 11 December 2017. Armed groups fighting for control of various illicit businesses are believed to be behind an estimated seven mass murders on both sides of the border in the period of January-February 2018. “Siete personas asesinadas en zona de frontera en territorio venezolano”, El Tiempo, 28 February 2018.

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Although less intense, smuggling also affects Venezuela’s other neighbours. In January 2018, for example, Maduro announced a 72-hour closure of the sea and air borders with the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, accusing the authorities there of failing to curb smuggling “mafias”. The measure remains in force, but as with the Colombian border closure, its primary impact is on legal commerce, while smuggling is barely affected. Once again, there is speculation that the Maduro government simply needed a scapegoat for domestic scarcity and inflation, especially because no prior consultation took place with the islands’ governments or that of the Netherlands.[fn]“Curaçao y Aruba expresan preocupación por cierre de fronteras con Venezuela”, Agencia EFE, 22 January 2018; “Por qué cierran las fronteras de Venezuela con Aruba, Curazao y Bonaire?”, El Nacional, 7 January 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Illegal Mining Breeds Violent Crime

In February 2016, President Maduro signed a decree creating the so-called Arco Minero (Mining Arc), an area larger than Cuba just south of the Orinoco river in Bolívar and Amazonas states. The aim was to open up for exploitation vast deposits of strategic minerals, including gold, diamonds, coltan, copper, nickel, uranium and bauxite. Its four stated objectives were to protect mine workers, bring mining “mafias” under control, boost state revenues and conserve the environment.[fn]“Plan de ordenamiento de la gestión productiva del Arco Minero del Orinoco”, Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Comunicación y la Información, 5 December 2017.Hide Footnote But the mining towns have been taken over by “sindicatos” (literally, unions) – heavily armed gangs with a structure based on that of the criminal groups which control Venezuela’s prisons.[fn]The term for a gang leader is pran, originally coined to describe prison bosses. Like their namesakes, the gang leaders are surrounded by concentric rings of armed henchmen. They extort protection money from the miners and employ extreme violence in order to maintain control. The terms sindicatos and pranes are both used to describe the gangs that control mining areas.Hide Footnote Reports suggest that the sindicatos operate in collusion with security forces and the state government, though clashes between the military and the gangs are frequent.[fn]“Masacres de mineros en Venezuela son resultado de la guerra por el oro entre militares y ‘pranes’”, Insight Crime, 23 February 2018. In March 2016, at least seventeen miners were murdered near the town of Tumeremo and there have been many other massacres, none of whose perpetrators has been brought to justice. Two months before the massacre, a report presented to the interior ministry by local police chief José Gregorio Lezama of the Bolívar Police Special Anti-Kidnap Command accused state police of providing weapons to the gang bosses. Jhoalys Silverio, “Informe de Comisario del Sebin revela nexos de la gobernación con pranes mineros al sur del estado Bolívar”, Correo del Caroní, 12 March 2017.Hide Footnote

“Masacres de mineros en Venezuela son resultado de la guerra por el oro entre militares y ‘pranes’”, Insight Crime, 23 February 2018. In March 2016, at least seventeen miners were murdered near the town of Tumeremo and there have been many other massacres, none of whose perpetrators has been brought to justice. Two months before the massacre, a report presented to the interior ministry by local police chief José Gregorio Lezama of the Bolívar Police Special Anti-Kidnap Command accused state police of providing weapons to the gang bosses. Jhoalys Silverio, “Informe de Comisario del Sebin revela nexos de la gobernación con pranes mineros al sur del estado Bolívar”, Correo del Caroní, 12 March 2017.

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Control of mining by organised crime groups, though hardly a problem unique to Venezuela, has been exacerbated by the weakening and politicisation of institutions over the past few years. Criminal involvement heightens the risk that contraband minerals finance illegal armed groups, money laundering and other illicit activities.[fn]“Organized crime and illegally mined gold in Latin America”, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, April 2016. According to this report, 91 per cent of Venezuelan gold is produced illegally. Illegal mining “funds criminal and terrorist groups, facilitates money laundering and corruption, forcibly displaces local populations, speeds environmental destruction and creates situations of labour exploitation, labour trafficking and sex trafficking”.Hide Footnote Drug-running organisations have moved in force into illegal mining in recent years, using the same networks that transport drugs and taking advantage of illegally mined gold to launder revenue.[fn]Use of illegally mined gold to launder drug money has become common practice for Colombian trafficking groups. See Crisis Group Latin America Report N°63, Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace, 19 October 2017. Crisis Group interviews, Bolívar state, June and October 2017.Hide Footnote The sindicatos reportedly maintain a portfolio of illicit activities, including extortion, money laundering and drug trafficking.

About 250,000 people, according to official estimates, depend directly or indirectly on mining in Venezuela.[fn]“Criminalización mediática deforma la verdad del Arco Minero del Orinoco”, Prensa Digital Mippci/Prensa Minería, 23 October 2017.Hide Footnote Most operate outside the law. The sindicatos are not the only armed organisations said to exploit the miners and the lawlessness associated with the mining region. The National Guard, the army and government officials have been accused of involvement in the illicit business at various levels.[fn]The prans have “direct links to the army [enabling them to] extract minerals such as gold, diamonds and coltan, and smuggle them out of the country with the complicity of the armed forces”. Crisis Group interview, opposition MP Américo de Grazia, Caracas, 28 October 2017.Hide Footnote Both the ELN of Colombia and former FARC rebels who declined to join the peace process are reportedly also involved, particularly in Amazonas. Former state governor Liborio Guarulla, who left office in 2017, said that in his state, “those in control [of illegal mining] are the guerrillas, under an unofficial agreement with the armed forces”. Guarulla says almost 30 per cent of Amazonas has already been taken over by illegal mining and that in addition to 10,000-12,000 miners there are 4,000-4,500 guerrillas.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liborio Guarulla, Puerto Ayacucho, 15 October 2017. Other sources claim the number of guerrillas is as high as 7,000.Hide Footnote

FARC dissident groups recruit adolescents in indigenous communities along the Orinoco, which separates Colombia from Venezuela. The former 43rd Front of the FARC, still controlled by a dissident commander who goes by the alias Jhon 40, dominates the richest mines in Amazonas as well as the drug route from Guainía, Colombia, to the Orinoco delta in Venezuela. The ELN is said to be present both in Amazonas and in Bolívar, buying coltan from indigenous miners living close to the Parguaza river. It operates in the same areas where the government has set up joint-venture mining installations. Representatives of the indigenous communities live in fear of the guerrillas after a number of community members were killed a few years ago. They are forced to sell their minerals for a pittance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, representatives of various indigenous communities in Bolívar and Amazonas, October 2017. At the time, the price paid for a kilo of coltan ore was 80,000-100,000 bolívars, or just a few dollars at the black-market exchange rate.Hide Footnote

C. Trafficking of People and Firearms

In 2017, for the third consecutive year, the U.S. government included Venezuela in its list of countries that do not meet minimum standards for addressing human trafficking and are not making significant efforts to do so.[fn]Human trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” (Protocol to the 2003 UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime). “2017 trafficking in persons report”, U.S. State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.Hide Footnote According to the U.S. State Department, Venezuela “is a source and destination country for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor”. The report points to a particular problem with Venezuelan women and girls forced into prostitution in the nearby Dutch territories of Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire, as well as in Trinidad and Tobago. The pool of potential victims is wide; many are ensnared through ads on Facebook.

Reports from Curaçao and Venezuela tell of small boats leaving daily from the Paraguaná peninsula or the coast near Caracas with young women in particular aboard. A single boat trip can net the operator as much as $4,000.[fn]María José Montilla Lugo, “Detrás de la tragedia de Curaçao navega un negocio en dólares”, El Estímulo, 12 January 2018.Hide Footnote Some also arrive by plane. Loaned the money for air fares, accommodations and the tax levied on Venezuelans by local authorities, the women are then forced to work in the sex trade in order to pay off the debt. Human trafficking afflicts the region as a whole, but poverty, corruption and instability allow it to thrive. As the economic crisis worsens, the number of people falling victim to prostitution networks is increasing.[fn]Maibort Petit, “La trata de personas: un delito que en Venezuela se incrementa por la crisis económica”, Venezuela Política, 4 January 2018.
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Indigenous girls aged thirteen or fourteen, from both Colombia and Venezuela, are traded and abused in the Arco Minero mining enclaves.[fn]Crisis Group interview, retired Venezuelan arms general, Bogotá, 19 November 2017.
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There is also concern in the region that firearms originating in Venezuela, where controls are lax and corruption and smuggling rife, are contributing to even more violent crime.[fn]Bert Wilkinson, “Illicit gun trade”, Caribbean Life, 6 July 2017.Hide Footnote Trafficked guns are often originally imported legally into Venezuela but then find their way onto the black market, frequently sold by police or military personnel. As the value of the bolívar has plummeted, so the attraction of sales to outsiders who pay in hard currency has grown. Security experts have expressed concern over the role that Venezuelan guns could play in Trinidad and Tobago, where 85 per cent of murders are carried out with firearms.[fn]ccording to Trinidad and Tobago’s attorney general, between 2014 and 2017 there was a 129 per cent increase in the number of gangs operating in the country and the number of gang members jumped by 60 per cent. Crisis Group interview, Venezuelan crime reporter, 6 October 2017. Rosemarie Sant, “Murder rate – 40 killings a month”, Trinidad & Tobago Guardian, 26 December 2017. Charles Kong Soo, “Experts warn of guns for food trade with Venezuela”, Trinidad & Tobago Guardian, 29 May 2016. “Trinidad y Tobago: crece venta illegal de armas de Venezuela por comida”, Cuentas Claras, 14 June 2016.Hide Footnote Along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, although the FARC guerrillas have demobilised under the terms of a peace deal with the government, the ELN is expanding, seeking to boost its military capacity in order to strengthen its hand in faltering talks with the government. Between August and November 2016, the Colombian authorities seized almost 500 firearms in the border region.[fn]“Colombia arrest of EPL middleman shows booming Venezuela arms market”, Insight Crime, 28 April 2017.Hide Footnote

V. Unhealthy Neighbours

In the mid-twentieth century, Venezuela was a pioneer in the eradication of tropical diseases. Now, however, as the health service verges on collapse and poverty and malnutrition spread, transmissible diseases threaten an increasing number of people.[fn]Verónica Egui Brito, “Seis epidemias en Venezuela generan alarma”, Diario las Américas, 6 November 2017.Hide Footnote The past few years have seen a malaria epidemic, centred in the Arco Minero, and the return of once eradicated diseases, including measles and diphtheria. The government has sought to downplay these outbreaks. The economic crisis has meant chronic shortages of vaccines. Venezuela’s neighbours not only face the spread of disease across their borders, but must cope with Venezuelans seeking care not available in their own country.

Until recently, only 20,000-30,000 cases of malaria a year were reported, mainly south of the Orinoco river (see Appendix F). But the malaria control program has broken down, just as the conditions for the propagation of the disease intensified. In 2017, the government reported 319,765 cases of malaria to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) up to week 42. The Venezuelan Society of Public Health points out that there was a 22 per cent increase in malaria cases across the region between 2010 and 2016, but that just four countries were mainly responsible. Of these, Venezuela contributed 83 per cent of cases.[fn]By July 2017 it was estimated that there had been a further increase in malaria cases of 63.1 per cent. Crisis Group interview, Venezuelan doctor and malaria expert, Puerto Ayacucho, 2 August 2017. Sociedad Venezolana de Salud Pública, “Análisis preliminar del Informe Mundial de Malaria, caso Venezuela”, 30 November 2017. Daniel García Marco, “Lo que dicen (y lo que no) de la salud en Venezuela las últimas cifras publicadas por el gobierno”, BBC Mundo, 10 May 2017. “Pronunciamiento ante la grave epidemia de malaria en Venezuela”, Acceso a la Justicia, 1 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The Arco Minero is at the heart of the malaria epidemic: the deforestation and standing water associated with it provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Miners sleep in makeshift camps, often in hammocks. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of preventive measures and proper treatment. Lines of more than 100 people can be seen daily outside health clinics in mining areas, and a black market in malaria medicines is thriving. Treatment that should be free often fetches the price of a gram or two of gold; because of the expense patients often do not complete the regimen, selling doses to recover the cost.[fn]Crisis Group interview, foreign aid worker, Caracas, 7 October 2017.Hide Footnote Malaria infection in pregnancy is a significant public health concern and contributes to rising infant and maternal mortality.[fn]“Malaria in pregnant women”, World Health Organization, 25 May 2017.Hide Footnote

Those infected are often transient so carry the disease to other parts of the country or across borders. The incidence of malaria in neighbouring Colombia, Brazil and Guyana is highest near their frontiers with Venezuela due to the cross-border infections.[fn]For the connection between deforestation and malaria, see Kelly F. Austin, Megan O. Bellinger and Priyokti Rana, “Anthropogenic forest loss and malaria prevalence: a comparative examination of the causes and disease consequences of deforestation in developing nations”, Environmental Science, 1 March 2017. Many of the illegal miners are temporary economic migrants from other parts of Venezuela or from neighbouring countries, who take malaria with them upon their return. Crisis Group interview, Venezuelan doctor and malaria expert, 2 August 2017.Hide Footnote In Colombia, 91.9 per cent of the 565 imported malaria cases up to week 41 of 2017 originated in Venezuela. The departments of Guainía, Vichada and Norte de Santander, all of which border on Venezuela, are the worst affected.[fn]Malaria is not the only problem: cases of arbovirus (dengue, chikungunya and zika) in Colombia were put at 2,822 by week 36, most of them in departments bordering Venezuela. “Comportamiento de malaria, dengue, chikunguña y zika en departamentos de frontera”, Instituto Nacional de Salud, Colombia, 2017.Hide Footnote In Brazil and Guyana, too, the vast majority of imported malaria cases originate in Venezuela.[fn]“Malaria crisis in Venezuela”, an open letter by four former Venezuelan health ministers, Red Defendamos la Epidemiología Nacional, 5 September 2016. In 2017 the health authorities in Norte de Santander reported dealing with 80 malaria cases from Venezuela. La Opinión, Cúcuta, 17 January 2018.Hide Footnote

The incidence of malaria in neighbouring Colombia, Brazil and Guyana is highest near their frontiers with Venezuela due to the cross-border infections.

Malaria is not the only concern. Measles has returned to Venezuela in the past two years. In September 2017, the Uruguayan health ministry, citing information received from the PAHO, warned there was a danger of “cases [of measles] imported from Venezuela”. This statement marked the first time Venezuelans heard of the spate of new infections in their country. Their government had said nothing. More than two weeks passed after the Uruguayan minister’s announcement before the PAHO noted the outbreak on its website, and even then only in the eighth paragraph of a measles “update” for the region.[fn]“Epidemiological update measles”, Pan American Health Organization, 22 September 2017.Hide Footnote Measles is highly contagious and spreads rapidly in the absence of adequate vaccination programs.[fn]Measles fact sheet, World Health Organization, January 2018.Hide Footnote

A similar pattern has been evident with diphtheria. Venezuela had been free of the disease for more than two decades when doctors began hearing of fresh cases in the latter half of 2016. Again the outbreak was centred in Bolívar state. The government suppressed the information, although it was reported in Cuba, and in other parts of the region health services learned of the infections via the PAHO.[fn]The Cuban official body reporting diphtheria in Venezuela was the Centro de enlace del Reglamento Sanitario Internacional. María Victoria Fermín, “78% de pacientes con difteria tenía ciclo de vacunas incompleto”, El Nacional, 1 August 2017. Crisis Group interview, former Venezuelan health minister, Caracas, 24 October 2017.
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By late 2017, health activists said the number of cases exceeded 500. In the eighteen months to the end of 2017, 113 deaths were reported.[fn]“Epidemiological update diphtheria”, Pan American Health Organization, 28 February 2018. Diphtheria, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 January 2016.
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The bacteria can release a toxin that leads to irreversible cardiac and neurological damage. The epidemic has reached as far as the north-central state of Carabobo, with no sign of being brought under control. One expert estimated it would take at least two to three years to do so, given inadequate vaccination levels.[fn]Crisis Group interview with Venezuelan infectologist, Caracas, 24 October 2017. In most of the last ten years, vaccination against diphtheria is put at below 80 per cent.
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Not only humans are at risk from cross-border diseases. On 24 June 2017 Colombian authorities detected an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease at a farm close to the Venezuelan border. Colombia had been officially free of the disease since 2009, and the World Health Organization subsequently confirmed that the plague had originated in Venezuela. In June and July 2017, the Colombian ministry of agriculture seized over 130,000kg of meat and slaughtered almost 1,150 head of cattle before the outbreak was declared under control. Preventing a repeat occurrence is extremely difficult, however, because of the lucrative meat smuggling business.[fn]“Por brote de fiebre aftosa, Colombia aumenta presencia militar en frontera”, Agence France Presse, 21 July 2017.Hide Footnote

“Por brote de fiebre aftosa, Colombia aumenta presencia militar en frontera”, Agence France Presse, 21 July 2017.

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The government’s policy of withholding information, and of threatening and even firing health professionals who reveal what is happening, is an aggravating factor.[fn]“Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis: Severe medical and food shortages, inadequate and repressive government response”, Human Rights Watch, 24 October 2016. Human Rights Watch reported “doctors and nurses (…) threatened with reprisals, including firing, after they spoke out publicly about the scarcity of medicines [and] medical supplies, and poor infrastructure in the hospitals where they worked”.Hide Footnote It ceased publishing weekly epidemiological bulletins in late 2014, and when the information for 2016 was eventually released (perhaps by accident, since the government had consistently rejected requests to publish the bulletins), health minister Antonieta Caporale was replaced just days later.[fn]On 12 May 2017, Caporale was replaced, just days after the publication of health statistics which revealed a 76.4 per cent increase in malaria cases from 2015 to 2016. It was the first time since late 2014 the figures had been released. “Venezuela health minister fired over mortality stats”, BBC News, 12 May 2017. “El Boletín Epidemiológico Venezolano: porqué ahora y no antes?”, Observatorio Venezolano de la Salud, May 2017.Hide Footnote Among other things, the figures showed a year-on-year increase of 65 per cent in maternal mortality and a rise of more than 30 per cent in infant mortality. In some cases, the reports of international organisations appear also to have been affected by the government’s refusal to share accurate information. Venezuela’s certification as measles-free by PAHO “cast a cloak over the truth”, according to one specialist.[fn]Crisis Group interview with Venezuelan infectologist, 24 October 2017.Hide Footnote

The government’s policy of withholding information, and of threatening and even firing health professionals who reveal what is happening, is an aggravating factor.

The outbreak of disease over the past few years is related to the collapse of Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves and the government’s prioritisation of servicing the foreign debt, leading to acute shortages of vaccines due to the lack of dollars available for importing vital medicines. By early 2017, specialists were warning the country was suffering a severe vaccine shortage.[fn]“Escasez de vacunas es casi total”, El Universal, 26 July 2017. Epidemiologists say, for example, that more than a million children over the age of one have not been vaccinated against measles. Alexandra Ulmer, “One million unvaccinated Venezuelan kids vulnerable in measles outbreak: Doctors”, Reuters, 29 September 2017. PAHO officially calculates the vaccination rate in Venezuela for measles at under 90 per cent, compared with the recommended rate of 95 per cent, though some specialists believe that even the PAHO figure is years out of date. Vaccination rates for many other complaints, including chicken pox, tuberculosis, hepatitis, pneumococcal disease and diphtheria, are reported to be suboptimal.Hide Footnote The lack of rotavirus vaccines, which protect against diarrhoea, is probably contributing to a sharp increase in infant mortality, which rose by over 30 per cent from 2015 to 2016. The problem is exacerbated not only by the ruination of the health service but by widespread malnutrition, which has left parts of the population less resilient.[fn]Crisis Group interview, foreign medical specialist, 5 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Venezuelan NGOs have made repeated requests to the government to be allowed to bring in vital medicines but have been denied permission. In November 2016 the customs service seized a shipment of medicines and food supplements belonging to Caritas, arguing the charity had not completed the requisite paperwork.[fn]“Venezuela seizes medicines sent for charity”, Agence France Presse, 25 November 2016.Hide Footnote The government insists that talk of a humanitarian crisis is a mere pretext for an invasion.[fn]“Canciller advierte que tesis de crisis humanitaria busca justificar intervención militar”, Radio Nacional de Venezuela, 26 February 2018.Hide Footnote It has not responded to a proposal by Venezuelan NGOs that UN agencies and the government join with them to deliver aid.[fn]Julett Pineda, “Codevida propone en Santo Domingo mecanismo para atender emergencia humanitaria”, Efecto Cocuyo, 1 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Venezuelans seeking medical treatment they can no longer obtain at home are overwhelming public health facilities in Colombian and Brazilian border regions. In the Colombian border state of Norte de Santander, health authorities had run up a ten-billion peso ($3.5 million) deficit by late 2017 they said was due to treating Venezuelan patients.[fn]Figure from Instituto Departamental de Salud, Norte de Santander. Crisis Group interview, official from the departmental ombudsman’s office, 11 December 2017. Kidney dialysis alone can cost 40,000 Colombian pesos ($14 a month). And while hospitals often decline to treat chronic cases, patients have obtained court injunctions obliging them to reverse their stance.Hide Footnote The governor of Roraima state in northern Brazil declared a health emergency in December 2016 after a threefold increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking hospital treatment.[fn]“Venezuela: Humanitarian crisis spilling into Brazil”, Human Rights Watch, 18 April 2017.
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Aid agencies also report an increase in the incidence of HIV/AIDS and syphilis as a result of cross-border prostitution in particular.[fn]Crisis Group interviews with representatives of multilateral agency, Cúcuta, 12 December 2017.
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VI. A Way Forward

The past eighteen months have seen a shift in the way the Venezuelan crisis is perceived abroad and the form international engagement has taken. The U.S., Canada and EU all have refused to recognise the Constituent Assembly and have imposed sanctions of various kinds.[fn]As of 24 August 2017, U.S. citizens and those under U.S. jurisdiction are banned from providing fresh financing to the Venezuelan government or to PDVSA, except for credits of less than 30 days (to the former) or 90 days (the latter). On 22 September, Canada imposed an asset freeze and dealing prohibition on 40 designated Venezuelan officials. On 13 November, the European Council approved an export ban on arms and equipment that might be used for internal repression, as well as on surveillance equipment. On 22 January 2018, it imposed asset freezes and travel bans on seven senior officials. The U.S. has adopted similar measures against a total of 40 top officials. They include President Maduro, Vice President Tareck El Aissami and the interior minister, General Néstor Reverol. See “Venezuela-related sanctions”, U.S. Department of State; “Canadian sanctions related to Venezuela”, Global Affairs Canada, 22 September 2017; Maya Lester and Michael O’Kane, “European Sanctions blog – Venezuela”.Hide Footnote They have begun to coordinate more closely among themselves and with the fourteen members of the Lima Group of Western Hemisphere nations, which had taken the lead in attempting to mediate an agreement between the Venezuelan government and the MUD opposition.[fn]The Lima Group was founded in August 2017 as a response to the inability of the OAS to agree on a course of action toward Venezuela. Its January meeting was attended by representatives of fourteen governments: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and St. Lucia. “Statement of the 4th meeting of the Lima Group”, Santiago de Chile, 23 January 2018.Hide Footnote There now appears to be broad international consensus that the crisis is grave, that it is due mostly to the Maduro government’s actions and that Venezuela’s implosion must be halted. The government has so far refused to bow to pressure by accepting reforms that would restore competitive elections. Nor is it clear how humanitarian assistance can be delivered, given the government’s refusal to acknowledge that there is a crisis, and its insistence that offers of aid are a cover for foreign military intervention.[fn]In January 2018, for example, Maduro declared that the foreign media had published 3,800 negative items about Venezuela and that stories relating to a supposed humanitarian crisis were invented to “justify an imperialist intervention”. “Presidente Maduro denuncia campaña internacional contra Venezuela para justificar intervención”, Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, 8 January 2018. The government has repeatedly rejected offers of food and medical aid.Hide Footnote

Parts of the Venezuelan opposition would look favourably on such intervention, though few openly advocate it.[fn]An exception is Professor Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard University, a former Venezuelan planning minister, who argued in a January 2018 opinion column that the National Assembly should vote to remove Maduro, set up a new administration and call for foreign military “assistance” to restore democracy. Ricardo Hausmann, “D-Day Venezuela”, Project Syndicate, 2 January 2018.Hide Footnote Governments in the region have rejected the idea, with Brazilian foreign minister Aloysio Nunes calling it “delirium pure and simple”.[fn]“El canciller brasileño afirmó que una intervención militar en Venezuela sería un ‘delirio’”, Infobae, 5 January 2018Hide Footnote In August 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump said he would “not rule out a military option” in Venezuela, the reaction to his remarks from regional capitals was uniformly negative.[fn]Javier Lafuente, Xosé Hermida, Ana Marcos and Raúl Tola, “Las potencias de América Latina rechazan una intervención militar en Venezuela”, El País, 12 August 2017.Hide Footnote

A. Can Dialogue Work?

For a little over two months, from December 2017 to February 2018, the government and opposition held talks hosted by the Dominican Republic that focused primarily on the issue of conditions for the scheduled 2018 presidential election. The foreign ministers of Chile and Mexico (both members of the Lima Group) acted as facilitators at the request of the opposition, while Nicaragua and Bolivia did the same for the government. Former Spanish premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero played a prominent role as “mediator”, despite reservations on the part of the opposition, much of which has long seen Zapatero as too close to the government.[fn]Luis Pico, “Oposición desconfía de Zapatero sin cerrarse a negociar salida de Maduro”, El Nacional, 25 July 2017.Hide Footnote

The government released 48 political prisoners just before Christmas, in an apparent bid to improve the prospects for the dialogue. But the human rights NGO Foro Penal, which provides legal services to political detainees, said on 11 January that 214 political prisoners remained in jail, and accused the government of operating a “revolving door” policy, making fresh arrests even as it released some prisoners.[fn]Gabriela González, “Foro Penal denuncia que diálogo detuvo liberaciones de presos políticos”, El Estímulo, 11 January 2018.Hide Footnote

According to opposition sources, the government’s primary concern, in addition to demanding recognition for the Constituent Assembly, was the lifting of existing sanctions and the avoidance of fresh ones, an indication that these penalties had indeed played a part in persuading the authorities to sit down to talks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews with members of opposition party leadership, Caracas, 26 January 2018.Hide Footnote As talks continued, the EU was finalising its own sanctions against government officials; Zapatero sought to persuade EU High Representative Mogherini to delay them, on the grounds that an agreement was close.[fn]Crisis Group interview with EU member state ambassador, Caracas, 28 February 2018. Sanctions were imposed on 22 January against seven top officials, including Diosdado Cabello, as well as a ban on sales of arms and electronic equipment that might be used to persecute dissidents.Hide Footnote

The opposition put forward seventeen demands, including the lifting of bans on their political leaders and parties, to allow them to contest elections, a more “balanced” electoral authority (with representation for the MUD equal to that of the ruling party), international electoral observation, rights for overseas voters, equal access to the media and at least six months’ notice of the election date.[fn]Marta Monteiro, “Oposición exige 17 condiciones electorales para comicios en 2018”, Observatorio Electoral Venezolano/New York Times, 7 January 2018.Hide Footnote The government indicated a willingness to make concessions on a number of these demands. The concessions included permitting international election observers to monitor the polls, improving opposition access to the media and making changes to the electoral authority to provide for some opposition representation, although in each case actual implementation was left vague.[fn]“Lea el acuerdo de garantías electorales firmado por los partidos de cara a las presidenciales”, Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, 1 March 2018.Hide Footnote But on 23 January Diosdado Cabello, vice president of the ruling PSUV, rushed a motion through the Constituent Assembly calling for elections before the end of April. Maduro not only expressed his approval but also announced his candidacy for the presidency.[fn]“Nicolás Maduro: Habrá elecciones pese a saboteo internacional”, Telesur, 25 January 2018.Hide Footnote

“Nicolás Maduro: Habrá elecciones pese a saboteo internacional”, Telesur, 25 January 2018.

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The move dealt a mortal blow to the talks. The Mexican foreign ministry immediately cancelled its participation, saying the announcement was “incompatible” with what was being discussed in Santo Domingo.[fn]Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray declared via his Twitter account on 23 January that the election date was “one of the most important things” being discussed and that no agreement had been reached. He added that the announcement “put an end to the seriousness” of the process.Hide Footnote Chile, which was in the midst of a change of government, announced its “indefinite withdrawal” on 31 January. For another week, government and opposition continued to meet, but despite repeated government claims that they were at the point of signing an agreement, no deal was reached.[fn]The government insisted a “pre-agreement” had been reached, and Maduro declared he would sign it unilaterally: “Este es el acuerdo que LA OPOSICION se negó a firmar en República Dominicana”, Tal Cual, 7 February 2018. The MUD’s version of the agreement also emerged: “Este es el acuerdo que el GOBIERNO se negó a firmar en República Dominicana”, Tal Cual, 7 February 2018. For a discussion of the rival texts, see Eugenio Martínez, “¿Que propuestas discutieron el gobierno y la oposición en República Dominicana?”, Prodavinci, 7 February 2018.Hide Footnote On 7 February, even as last-ditch efforts to rescue the talks were underway, the electoral authority announced the presidential election would take place on 22 April, nearly seven months ahead of schedule and with less than eleven weeks’ notice.

Despite repeated government claims that they were at the point of signing an agreement, no deal was reached.

A comparison of the texts released by both sides after the talks broke down reveals that they were still some way apart. On the crucial issue of the clash of powers between the National Assembly and the Constituent Assembly, for example, the government proposed “coexistence” while the MUD demanded the restoration of the full constitutional rights of parliament and made no reference to the Constituent Assembly. The government regards the Constituent Assembly as a supra-constitutional body, meaning that a president elected while it remains in place would govern under its aegis. At a minimum, a workable transition agreement would have to restrict its role to drafting a new constitution, which in turn would be subject to approval in an internationally monitored referendum.

To improve chances of success, a future round of talks should ideally be preceded by confidence-building measures such as the release of political prisoners and an end to the judicial persecution of certain opposition leaders.

B. Opposition Divided

The collapse of the talks might have restored some unity to the fractured opposition, given that the MUD’s refusal to sign an agreement brought it closer to the position of those who had always rejected these negotiations and those who resented the fact that only the four largest parties – the G4 – had been included in the delegation. But the imminence of the scheduled election forced the opposition to wrestle with the issue of whether to take part in a poll already dismissed by its international allies as “illegitimate”.[fn]“G4 de la MUD aún no llega a consenso sobre las presidenciales”, El Nacional, 10 February 2018.Hide Footnote So deep were the divisions that it took the MUD until 21 February to announce that it would not be fielding a candidate.[fn]“Venezuela opposition to boycott ‘fraudulent’ presidential vote”, Reuters, 21 February 2018.Hide Footnote Each of the main parties was itself split over the decision.

Henri Falcón, leader of Avanzada Progresista (not one of the G4), and former governor of Lara state, broke with the MUD and registered his candidacy, even as last-minute meetings took place between the government’s chief negotiator, Jorge Rodríguez, and some opposition leaders pressing for the election date to be moved back.[fn]“Henri Falcón revela citas de oposición y gobierno para mejorar situación electoral”, Agencia EFE/Runrunes, 28 February 2018.Hide Footnote On 1 March, Falcón signed an agreement with the government postponing the election to late May and introducing some minor improvements in conditions. These included seeking international observation, moving “red points” (where government-issued identity cards are scanned) further from polling stations and not using compulsory presidential broadcasts (cadenas) for campaigning. But other opposition leaders were not convinced.[fn]“Aplazan las elecciones presidenciales en Venezuela hasta el 20 de Mayo”, BBC Mundo, 1 March 2018.Hide Footnote The stage seems set for another opposition debacle, with Maduro able to claim a competitive election against a rival too weak and an opposition too divided to take advantage of his unpopularity. Polls indicate that, while a clear majority wants to see change, few think voting in the presidential election will solve anything.[fn]Jim Wyss, “Poll shows Venezuelans have lost faith in voting, even as Maduro seeks new term”, Miami Herald, 7 February 2018.Hide Footnote

C. The Lima Group, the U.S. and EU

The opposition’s divisions make the task of the international community yet more difficult. Talks have, for now, failed to produce a solution, despite the pressure of sanctions. Nor is one likely to emerge from an election held under current conditions, particularly given the opposition’s disarray. There is disagreement even among members of the Lima Group as to where to go in terms of fresh sanctions. Whereas the government of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, for example, has urged Washington to impose an oil embargo – something former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said was under discussion – the group as a whole has not endorsed the move.[fn]“Macri en EE.UU.: pidió embargar las exportaciones de Venezuela”, Clarín, 8 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The Lima Group governments, EU and U.S. should coordinate their efforts in a number of areas. Latin American countries should assist one another in dealing with the humanitarian crisis caused by mass Venezuelan migration. They should also consider using the threat of their own sanctions against figures in the Maduro government to encourage it back to the negotiating table and toward making meaningful concessions. The imposition by Latin American governments of sanctions similar to those Canada, the EU and U.S. have in place – financial restrictions, limits on weapons sales, and travel bans and asset freezes on top Venezuelan officials – would be almost unprecedented and embarrassing to the Maduro government.[fn]The OAS applied voluntary sanctions against the military leaders of Haiti after the September 1991 overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The decision was taken in the framework of the Santiago declaration, adopted four months earlier, in which the organisation committed itself to defend democracy, and was later reinforced by UN Security Council Resolution 940. See Thomas L. Friedman, “The O.A.S. agrees to isolate chiefs of Haitian junta”, New York Times, 3 October 1991.Hide Footnote The Lima Group also should engage with China over Venezuela, and seek to bring its policy into line as far as possible with their own. Canada, the EU and the U.S. should be prepared to use threats to tighten their sanctions on individuals and potentially sanction others, and combine this with the prospect of lifting existing sanctions as means of pressuring the government toward compromise.

D. The Roles of Russia, China and Cuba

Three important external actors oppose, to varying degrees, the stance taken by most of the region and the EU. Each plays a role in propping up the Maduro government, albeit for different reasons.

The Castro government in Cuba has provided teachers, sports instructors and medical personnel, as well as political and military cadres and an extensive intelligence network. In return, it has received cash and vital material assistance, especially in the form of virtually free oil, which has helped it survive the post-Soviet era. That aid has been cut back as the Venezuelan economic crisis has deepened, but it remains important. And with President Trump, not Barack Obama, in the White House, the hope that closer ties with the U.S. would enable Havana to wean itself from dependence on a collapsing ally has all but vanished.[fn]Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba fell to an average of 72,350 b/d in the first half of 2017, of which some 42,000 b/d were crude oil (down 15 per cent from 2016). At their height in 2008 the shipments averaged 115,000 b/d. Marianna Párraga and Marc Frank, “Venezuela oil exports to Cuba drop, energy shortages worsen”, Reuters, 13 July 2017.Hide Footnote That makes it harder to envisage Cuba nudging the Venezuelan government toward concessions in the near future. While Mexico in particular may be able to help offset the energy losses arising from the Venezuelan crisis, that assistance is unlikely to be enough to encourage Cuba to play a more constructive role.[fn]Gabriel Stargardter, “Mexico studies supplying Petrocaribe oil if Venezuela govt. falls”, Reuters, 23 August 2017. Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray has also offered subsidised oil to Petrocaribe nations.
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Gabriel Stargardter, “Mexico studies supplying Petrocaribe oil if Venezuela govt. falls”, Reuters, 23 August 2017. Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray has also offered subsidised oil to Petrocaribe nations.

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Russia, whose relationship with the Chávez government focused on arms sales, has taken advantage of Maduro’s isolation and straitened financial circumstances to obtain cheap stakes in the oil sector. It has increased its shareholding in joint ventures with PDVSA in the Orinoco belt and has a claim on 49 per cent of Citgo, PDVSA’s U.S. refining arm. In return, Moscow has allowed the Maduro government to restructure its bilateral debt.[fn]James Marson and Kejal Vyas, “Russia offers Venezuela debt relief”, Wall Street Journal, 15 November 2017.Hide Footnote Russia’s relationship with Venezuela has a geopolitical hue; it cannot be viewed in isolation from the complexities of Moscow-Washington relations. In recent years, President Vladimir Putin’s government has reinvigorated ties with other countries in the region whose relations with the U.S. are adversarial, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. While concerned about the social, economic and political turmoil in Venezuela, it is unlikely to abandon a strategic ally.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomatic source, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Like Russia, China is concerned that its interests are adversely affected by the incompetence and corruption of the Venezuelan authorities.

China, too, has moved to strengthen and expand its stakes in oil and other extractive industries in Venezuela. Like Russia, China is concerned that its interests are adversely affected by the incompetence and corruption of the Venezuelan authorities, which have led to a dramatic drop in oil production, affected the quality and reliability of the product, and rendered the national debt – much of it owed to China – unpayable.[fn]Matt Ferchen, “Can China help fix Venezuela?”, Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, 24 July 2017; Crisis Group interviews, Beijing, Hong Kong and Washington, February 2018.Hide Footnote In Beijing’s case, the sheer scale of the bilateral debt (on which some $10-15 billion is outstanding) is an additional concern. In recent years, it has tightened the purse strings, and although it has allowed some flexibility in the repayment terms, it is clearly reluctant to throw good money after bad.[fn]China loaned approximately $60 billion to Venezuela between 2007 and 2016. But in 2017 it made no important fresh commitments, despite repeated visits to Beijing by high-ranking members of the Maduro government. It has also declined to renegotiate the current debt. “China dials back its loans to wobbly Venezuela”, Wall Street Journal, 24 February 2017.
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China loaned approximately $60 billion to Venezuela between 2007 and 2016. But in 2017 it made no important fresh commitments, despite repeated visits to Beijing by high-ranking members of the Maduro government. It has also declined to renegotiate the current debt. “China dials back its loans to wobbly Venezuela”, Wall Street Journal, 24 February 2017.

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Russian and Chinese interests and strategies in Venezuela diverge. While Beijing is as uncertain as other world powers about how to resolve Venezuela’s crisis, its overriding concern is to ensure long-term access to raw materials and strengthen its strategic relationship with Latin America. It would not be much of a stretch, in terms of China’s evolving foreign policy stance, if it were to take into account the views of the Lima Group, which includes Latin America’s most important economies and Chinese trading partners, on the importance of respecting Venezuela’s National Assembly and on the legitimacy of any post-Maduro regime. China’s 2016 policy statement on relations with Latin America explicitly states that it will strengthen co-operation with legislatures and political parties in Latin America.[fn]“China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote

“China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 24 November 2016.

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From the Trump administration’s perspective, Russian and Chinese involvement in Venezuela poses a threat to U.S. interests in the Americas.[fn]“National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, Presidency of the United States, December 2017, pp. 61; Crisis Group interviews, Beijing, Hong Kong and Washington, February 2018.Hide Footnote On both sides of the partisan divide in the U.S., there are voices hostile to the notion that either Russia or China has legitimate interests in Venezuela or could be part of a transition plan. Beijing could, however, be an important part of the solution. The Lima Group and the EU could help Beijing see the advantages of using its influence with Maduro to push for change. China should listen to them and modify its “non-interventionist” stance, along lines already contemplated in its current foreign policy doctrine.[fn]Chinese foreign policy has in recent years moved away from a straightforward doctrine of non-interventionism to a more nuanced stance. See Crisis Group Africa Report N°288, China’s Foreign Policy Experiment in South Sudan, 10 July 2017; Matt Ferchen, “Can China help fix Venezuela”, op. cit.; Miwa Hirono, “China’s principle of intervention”, China Policy Institute, 6 April 2014.Hide Footnote

E. The United Nations and Other Multilaterals

While UN Secretary-General António Guterres has been active behind the scenes in talks on the Venezuelan crisis, the United Nations has largely steered clear of public involvement. The Security Council has shown no appetite to put the crisis on its agenda. That Moscow and Beijing are allies of Caracas and wield vetoes on the council is a complicating factor. The Organization of American States, however, has to date failed to address the crisis adequately, due to disagreements among member states and active lobbying by the Venezuelan government, employing its energy resources as inducement.[fn]The situation in the OAS is changing, albeit very slowly. On 23 February 2018, nineteen countries voted to urge Venezuela to postpone the 22 April elections and hold a free and fair vote with international observation. Only five votes (Bolivia, Dominica, St. Vincent, Suriname and Venezuela itself) were cast against the motion, while two close allies of Venezuela (Nicaragua and Ecuador) abstained.Hide Footnote Notwithstanding efforts by the Lima Group to resolve the crisis, there is a growing sense that the UN will have to play a more active role.

It has already become involved in alleviating the spillover of the humanitarian crisis, and Guterres made an explicit pledge during his 13-14 January 2018 visit to Colombia that the UN would assist Venezuela’s neighbours in coping with the external impact of the conflict. The prospect of a UN election observation mission was raised at the talks in Santo Domingo and presidential candidate Henri Falcón is petitioning the secretary-general to send one, although time appears to be against him.[fn]Daniel Mendez Chacón, “Henri Falcón pidió Misión de Observación Electoral a ONU para comicios presidenciales”, 2001, 2 March 2018.Hide Footnote Given the failure of successive mediation efforts thus far, the UN should prepare to take on the task once the conditions for a resumption of negotiations are met.

VII. Conclusion

The Venezuelan crisis is now seriously affecting the region, and in particular Venezuela’s closest neighbours. The most visible effect is the chronic migration, driven by increasingly intolerable conditions, including hyperinflation, malnutrition, disease and rampant violent crime. It might be at least partially stemmed if the government were to indicate that it is prepared to allow Venezuelans to vote freely on whether