Mexico's other migrant problem
The government will soon release details of a new plan to prevent Central Americans from crossing the southern border.
Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico
This summer some 200 undocumented immigrants were hidden in a truck compartment when a floor holding more than a ton of bananas collapsed, killing six. The driver reportedly fled the scene.Skip to next paragraph
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For many it was a chilling reminder of another smuggling tragedy, when 19 undocumented immigrants suffocated in a trailer abandoned by its driver in Texas in 2003. Yet this time it was not a case of migrants trying to get into the US, but Central Americans trying to sneak into Mexico.
Mexico spends so much time fuming over its border relations with the US that its own southern frontier – where tens of thousands of Central Americans cross each year in hopes of making it to the US – is quite often an afterthought.
The country has traditionally been just a transit point on the immigration route, and has long been under pressure by the US to step up its security. Shortly after taking office in December, President Felipe Calderón responded to the call by setting up a new border police force with 645 officers.
But his administration is under equal pressure by critics who say Mexico demands of the US what it doesn't give to its own migrants: fair treatment.
Near the top of the list of demands for many immigrant rights activists is the decriminalization of the nation's immigration laws, which, in some cases, call for two years in prison for being undocumented.
"Migration has changed," says Fermina Rodriguez, a human rights coordinator in the southern town of Tapachula. "[Mexican authorities] should view Mexico as a destination, not just a country of transit or expulsion of immigrants."
Mexico's southern frontier is hardly an obstacle at all – at least when comparing it with the censors, radar, and border patrol agents that man the US-Mexico border. Here in the border town of Ciudad Hidalgo, drugs, weapons, and people pass illegally over the Suchiate River at any time of the day.
Jorge Mario Garcia, from Guatemala, recently crossed the river in broad daylight. His friends each paid $1 to ride on inner tubes run as a mini ferry service. He opted to swim the stretch himself. "It's a thousand times easier to cross into Mexico than the US," says Mr. Garcia, who was caught and deported from McCallen, Texas just a few months earlier.
The number of Central Americans caught attempting to get into Mexico rose to 240,200 in 2005 from 138,000 in 2002, according to the National Migration Institute. That number dipped to 182,700 last year, but is expected to rise sharply to 205,000 this year.
But crossing the border is often the easiest part. Surviving along the frontier, paying off bribes, avoiding gangs, and dodging thieves who pray on migrants with cash in their pockets, make up the stories of migrants in shelters in this region of Chiapas.
Mr. Garcia, who was recuperating at a shelter from a 24-hour walk from the Mexico border along washed out railway tracks to Tapachula – during which he and his friends were robbed and beaten – says his intent is to make it to Los Angeles, to meet his mother.
But he says he won't be surprised if he stays in Mexico for a while this time. When his friends and neighbors fail to reach the US, he says, they just set out again.
But it gets tiring, he says, dunking two chickens by their feet into a simmering pot of water. "The goal of all of us is to get to the US," he says. "But to be honest … the US isn't going anywhere. If we can find an opportunity in Mexico to work for a while and save some money, we will."