As Mexico tightens southern border, migrants confront new threats

Deportations and detentions of migrants have risen sharply since Plan Frontera Sur was launched a year ago. Many say the effort is working, but rights groups worry that migrants are taking greater risks.

Tomas Ayuso
Migrants Javier and Jose hail from San Nicolas, Honduras, where they set out at 4 a.m., taking a series of buses through Guatemala until crossing the border to Mexico later that night. In the mayhem that ensued as hundreds of migrants crossed, they were robbed and left scrambling for their lives in the surrounding swamps, where they stayed hidden from the authorities.

When Walter migrated from coastal Honduras to the United States six years ago, the trip was “uneventful,” he says.

He rode a bus across Guatemala, hopped freight trains most of the way through Mexico, and crossed into the United States, where for years he supported his extended family back home through construction work.

To be sure, the journey wasn’t safe or easy. But after returning to Honduras to tend to a family emergency, Walter realized a lot had changed on the migratory path.

“I was robbed, I was beat up. Someone pointed a gun at me and shot, but thank God, it didn’t go off,” he says by telephone from Honduras, where he’s struggled to find work. Walter has tried returning to the US three times  this year – and he’s been deported each time, he says.

Last summer, as tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fled their homes in Central America and headed toward the US, Mexico launched Plan Frontera Sur – in part, it says, to help reduce human rights violations against migrants crossing the 750-mile border with Guatemala and Belize, as well as to build a more systematized patrol system.

A year later, deportations and detentions on Mexico’s southern border have risen sharply: Mexico apprehended 92,889 Central American migrants between October 2014 and April 2015. That’s nearly double the 49,893 apprehended during the same period the year prior.

Some see this is a success – illegal migration is expected to be at its lowest level since 1972 at the US-Mexico border, and Mexico appears to be inching toward more formal southern border entry and exit practices. But it has set off alarm bells for shelter workers and human rights organizations, who worry that migrants are being squeezed into taking greater risks to avoid checkpoints and are increasingly vulnerable to organized crime and corrupt officials. 

“Central American migrants are still coming, but they are more invisible now, even to shelters,” says Jose Knippen, who researches human rights and migration for Fundar, a Mexico-City based think tank. She found that some shelters along the train routes are seeing fewer migrants this year, as Plan Frontera Sur cracks down on “The Beast,” the freight trains that have carried migrants north for decades. 

“Before, there were high risks to traveling on the trains, and gangs would extort migrants to ride,” Ms. Knippen says. But at least it was visible.

Scattering on the road

On a recent afternoon, three men wearing baseball caps and dirt-caked shoes sit on the side of an isolated highway, near the Guatemalan border. Their bodies slump with exhaustion, but when they see a white pickup truck rumbling toward them, they scatter into the sparse pastures that hug the road.

Efrian Rodriguez pulls over his car and calls out to them: He’s there to help. Mr. Rodriguez works for Codehutab, a human rights organization in the southern state of Tabasco. He often drives this road – which used to be crawling with migrants hitching rides or walking in plain sight – looking for those he considers most vulnerable. Men like these are clearly traveling without a “guide” and taking a gamble by sitting in plain sight.

“We were robbed by the guys we paid to take us here,” says Miguel, the most senior of the farmhands from San Nicolas, Honduras, who were eventually coaxed back to Rodriguez’s car with bottles of water and promises that he wasn’t a policeman. Each had paid $5,000 for a network of smugglers to take them north after drought left their families hungry and many in their community without work, Miguel says. 

They’ve slogged through dense swamps and unmarked terrain without food or water for three days, trying to avoid police checkpoints and towns where they might run into criminal gangs.

“I was going to sit in that spot and hope someone found me, dead or alive,” says Miguel. “I can’t do this anymore.”

By many measures, these men are lucky. In June, more than 200 migrants were violently attacked in two incidents in the states of Veracruz and Sonora, leading Amnesty International to label Mexico a “death trap” for migrants.

Such violence is not new, of course. The shelter where Rodriguez drops the men for the night, on the outskirts of Tenosique, is named after 72 mostly Central American migrants who were kidnapped and massacred by a drug cartel in 2010.

“The government uses deportation and violence as a deterrent,” says Rodriguez. And he fears Frontera Sur may be cultivating xenophobia among Mexicans, discouraging locals from lending a hand to migrants in need.

According to public record requests by the Mexican online newspaper Animal Politico at prosecutors’ offices in four southern states, reports of robberies against migrants went up by 81 percent this year. In the state of Oaxaca, robberies and assaults nearly doubled.

And deportations are happening so rapidly that many question whether migrants have the chance to ask for asylum or protection, or report criminal or police abuses.

“The message the government is sending with detaining and deporting migrants quickly is that the migrants aren’t the priority of this policy,” Knippen says. “Nothing will happen to you if you steal from a migrant because they will be deported anyway.”

'Good results'

In May, Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong said Plan Frontera Sur was already showing "very good results."

Beginning last year, Guatemalans and Belizeans became eligible for free visitor’s visas, enabling them to legally cross into Mexico to work or trade for a few days at a time. The move was criticized for not including Hondurans and Salvadorans, whose nations don’t border Mexico but who are highly represented among migrants heading north.

“I’m aware of the criticisms, but I see [Plan Frontera Sur] as a positive development in terms of Mexico getting more of a handle on who is coming into the country,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center, and who visited the border in March this year. “You’ve actually now got a Mexican strategy for the southern border, when before you had a policy vacuum.”

But 17-year-old Manuel, who says he left Honduras because of gang violence, says he was robbed and beaten by border police when crossing into Mexico.

 Standing outside the migrant shelter, Manuel says he and the migrants milling around him have run away from “hell” in their home countries, where violence, poverty, and unemployment are rampant.

We do it, he says, only to “live through another hell on this route.”

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