Addressing the Migration Bottleneck in Southern Mexico
Addressing the Migration Bottleneck in Southern Mexico
Central American migrants close to the trains known as "The Beast" in Tenosique, Tabasco in May 2016.
Central American migrants walk close to the trains known as "The Beast" in Tenosique, Tabasco, Mexico, in May 2016. CRISISGROUP/MarySpeck
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 6 minutes

Addressing the Migration Bottleneck in Southern Mexico

Mexico is not doing “nothing” to curb northward migration, as U.S. President Donald Trump claims. In this Q&A, Crisis Group's Latin America & Caribbean Program Director Ivan Briscoe says Washington should help Mexico meet the challenge of migrant and refugee flows from Central America, which are now concentrated in its troubled southern states.

What is the migration crisis in Mexico?

Poverty and violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America (comprising El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) are forcing hundreds of thousands of Central Americans to flee each year to Mexico. Most are heading north due to deep economic insecurity. But 39.2 per cent of Central Americans surveyed in Mexico by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in December 2016 said they left their homes because they or their families were attacked, threatened, extorted or pressured to join criminal gangs; many in such circumstances would likely qualify as refugees, entitled to international protection under applicable laws.

For the past two decades, the U.S. has responded to the movement of people from Mexico and Central America with ever stronger enforcement of border controls: it was in 2000 that the U.S. arrested the largest ever number of undocumented migrants, close to two million, at its southern boundary. But, as a U.S. political issue and matter of intense public concern, migration received a jolt in 2014 when a surge of unaccompanied minors arrived from Central America. During his presidential campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump infamously said that Mexico was “sending” to the U.S. people he described as “bringing drugs”, “bringing crime” and “rapists”. He promised to crack down on their entry into the U.S., including by building a wall on the border with Mexico and pressuring that country to stem the northward flow. With his renewed anti-Mexican bombast in early April, he seeks to make good on those pledges.

Tighter border control, and fear instilled by the Trump administration’s rhetoric, have reduced the numbers of Central Americans reaching the Rio Grande – but swollen the numbers of those staying in Mexico. Mexico has seen an elevenfold increase in requests for refugee status from 2013 to 2017 (see graph), mainly filed by Central Americans. As our forthcoming report on southern Mexico makes clear, authorities in the Northern Triangle and Mexico are struggling to respond adequately to a growing humanitarian emergency. Faith-based and migrant defence organisations provide shelter and support on the road to people in transit, including many children, but they are chronically underfunded. They also must contend with harassment from migratory and security authorities, as well as criminal groups.

Number of Refugee Requests Received and Refugee Status Granted in Mexico (2013-2017) Graph produced with information from the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees (COMAR).

What is Mexico doing about the crisis?

Contrary to Trump’s irate tweets, Mexico has bent to U.S. pressure to stifle the flow of Central Americans, in effect becoming an enforcer of U.S. border control. In every year since 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the U.S. has – and beefed up controls at its own southern border.

The U.S. has supported these efforts with $24 million in equipment and training assistance for southern border control under the Mérida Initiative since 2007, as well as an additional $75 million in support for secure communications between agencies involved in Mexico’s Southern Border Plan since 2014. The boundary is guarded by a dozen naval bases on rivers, and established security cordons that reach deep into Mexican territory. The plan stipulates that migration officials are to work closely with the military, as well as federal and state police, to enforce controls. As a result, far fewer Central Americans are reaching the U.S. border, where arrests have dropped to levels unseen since 1971.

Xenophobia is now spreading across southern Mexico as anger festers over the arrival of unprecedented numbers of Central Americans in towns insufficiently equipped by the state to cope with the influx.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto favours continued involvement of the military in public security. He promulgated an “internal security law” in December 2017 that enables the participation of the military in domestic security operations, although its implementation awaits the Supreme Court’s approval. Human rights groups fiercely oppose the law. Increasing militarisation raises qualms about possible arbitrariness and human rights violations, and threatens to entrench a counterproductive “iron fist” style of policing similar to that in El Salvador and Honduras.

Mexico has proceeded down this path in good part because it fears losing its privileged status as a partner in commerce with the U.S. under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In particular, Mexican leaders see tactical benefits to the long-standing cooperation with Washington on migration: that cooperation sits at the core of the government’s efforts to handle President Trump’s volatility and periodic hostility. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray has made it clear that his country’s critical role in migration control is a bargaining chip in trade negotiations. Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel, aluminium, washing machines and solar panels in March proves his own willingness to play hardball on trade. This show of force could persuade the Mexican government to comply more strongly with U.S. demands to toughen up on undocumented migrants. The results of the 1 July presidential election in Mexico, however, might alter these transactional dynamics.

What is happening to Central Americans in transit through Mexico?

Central American migrants and refugees are increasingly bottled up in southern Mexico. In 2017, 70.7 per cent of foreigners arrested by Mexican migratory authorities were detained in four of Mexico’s seven southern states: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco and Veracruz. The Mexican Commission of Assistance to Refugees (COMAR) is overwhelmed by requests for asylum. Private shelters and migratory stations (detention centres) are overcrowded.

An array of criminals preys upon Central Americans as they trek northward. MSF recounts that two thirds of those surveyed reported being victims of violence during their trip toward the U.S.; nearly one third of women surveyed said they had been sexually abused during the journey. Members of Central American street gangs (maras) now follow the flow of vulnerable people into Mexico to extort and menace them, including by spying on and threatening migrant shelters, collaborating with Mexican organised crime. Some of those fleeing are kidnapped for ransom; others are forced into sexual exploitation; and all are compelled to seek shelter in places that are unprepared and often unwilling to receive them.

Supporting Mexico’s efforts to provide greater protection should also be in the interests of the U.S., in that it may help address security concerns that drive people to leave Mexico

Xenophobia is now spreading across southern Mexico as anger festers over the arrival of unprecedented numbers of Central Americans in towns insufficiently equipped by the state to cope with the influx. Sensationalist media outlets and local politicians often depict the beleaguered migrants and refugees as members of the feared maras, adding stigmatisation and discrimination to their plight.

What should be done?

The U.S. government clearly is intent on fortifying its own southern border. At the very least, it should compensate for the pressure that it creates on Mexico’s institutions and resources to protect the vulnerable people who are being bottled up there by supporting Mexican and Northern Triangle authorities’ efforts to strengthen oversight of security agencies and state institutions working on migrant and refugee issues, above all the COMAR. U.S. and EU technical assistance and capacity-building support for under-resourced Central American consulates on the migration route through Mexico would help ensure better protection for migrants and refugees, especially at a time of deepening anti-migrant prejudice in southern states.

The U.S. and EU should intensify support for violence prevention and economic development in the southern Mexican locales where most Central Americans have arrived. They should urgently assist the three Northern Triangle countries and Mexico in developing new programs to reintegrate deportees in their home countries and refugees abroad, including through initiatives to give them access to health care, employment, education and psychosocial support when necessary.

To spread the burden of the movement of people, the U.S. and EU could also boost technical support to expand refugee processing of Central Americans 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.

From a humanitarian perspective, these steps would help Mexico cope responsibly with the increasing numbers of vulnerable people who, despite its efforts in the south, continue to travel over its borders. Supporting Mexico’s efforts to provide greater protection should also be in the interests of the U.S., in that it may help address security concerns that drive people to leave Mexico and seek protection further north.

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