A couple of months ago, thousands of immigrants from Central America crossed the border between Guatemala and Mexico in their journey to reach the United States of America. The arrival of more than 4,000 people to the bridge between the two countries, their encounter with armed Mexican forces, and the ensuing confrontation made international headlines and turned the world’s attention to Mexico’s Southern border.
The line that separates Mexico from Central America is rarely the subject of media attention, in contrast with the longer line that divides it from the U.S. However, close scrutiny allows one to understand the great geopolitical importance of this place, inseparable from the bilateral relations between Mexico and the United States. According to The Crisis Group, the protection of the southern border by Mexico’s government was used during the NAFTA renegotiation to assure a deal favorable to Mexico. More recently, the U.S. administration threatened to withdraw economic aid to those countries that allow transit to the immigrant caravan, Guatemala and Mexico among them.
The importance of Mexico’s Southern border has shifted over time, increasing significantly over the past couple of decades. Plan Sur was the first political and military system of vigilance over the border. It was established by the Mexican Government following the 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and the increased cooperation in security matters among the two countries.
During the first year of Programa Frontera Sur, detentions of Central Americans in Mexico´s South border increased significantly but then registered a drop after the U.S. elections of 2016; most likely due to the anti-immigrant rhetoric and the strengthening of the border control. However, less detentions do not mean decreased immigration. Ever since 2015 Central Americans have started to use more dangerous and deserted roads, hiring the services of criminal groups thriving on human misery.
In this way, Central American immigrants not only face physical and legal barriers in their journey North, but also an invisible but undeniable truth derived from Mexico’s sociopolitical context: along the road most of them will suffer from physical and psychological harm. To cross the border without the necessary documents, immigrants must pay a “coyote” or “pollero”, who will help them get from Central America to the U.S. Before 2012, this business belonged to people that had done the journey before. Over the years, it has been taken over by the drug-dealing cartels that operate in Mexico; which, apart from charging immigrants rates they can barely afford (12.000-15.000 USD), also use them to smuggle drugs across the U.S. border.
Those who can’t afford the pollero rates take their chances on The Beast, a freight train that crosses all of Mexico from South to North. A well know immigration route, The Beast is constantly raided by Mexican immigration agents who physically and verbally abuse those they find inside. Out of fear of detention and deportation, many immigrants jump from the moving trains, and are dying or getting maimed in the process. Not surprisingly, drug-dealers and Central American gangs also manage to extort immigrants by asking for fines on several sections of the track. Those who refuse are abused, abducted or killed.
Female immigrants are especially vulnerable to violence: human rights organizations estimate that around 60-80% are raped during the journey either by criminal organizations, polleros, immigration officers or other immigrants. Many times, getting though a specific point in the journey requires subjecting yourself to sexual assault.
In more recent years, an anti-immigrant discourse has also risen up in Mexico’s border states mirroring the widely criticized sentiments in the U.S. Particularly among the impoverished neighborhoods in the South of Mexico, there is generalized resentment at the support immigrants (sometimes) get from the Mexican government and other organizations. Immigrants are increasingly being framed as criminals in the public discourse; which inevitably increases their vulnerability.
Despite the reinforced border control as well as the well-known dangers, Central Americans continue to set off on the journey. They flee from homes where poverty and violence is the only reality and where death is even more certain than on the road. The members of the immigrant caravan, currently stationed in the border city of Tijuana, chose to travel in a large group to protect each other against soldiers, immigration agents and criminals.
Their journey and their numbers make visible a problem whose solution is not to be found in building up a wall between the U.S. and Mexico or in securitizing the Mexican border. As the asylum applications pile up in systems that are already overflowing, the North American countries must come together with Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador to find more holistic and long-term solutions. Immigration must not be the only option left, and those who immigrate must not be subject to more suffering and exploitation along the way.