In the town of Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico and Guatemala are connected by a clean, straight bridge that stretches out over the muddy brown water of the Suchiate River. But few people use it.
Instead, most cross on the hundreds of rafts that go back and forth between the countries every day. It is estimated that 400,000–500,000 migrants enter Mexico from the south each year, with hundreds or possibly thousands of them crossing this river to enter the country unofficially.
Many intend to continue on to the United States. But lately the Mexican government, with U.S. support, has invested heavily in preventing people from making onward journeys.
So people seeking to move through Mexico are increasingly going into hiding, taking alternative routes and becoming more dependent on smugglers to ensure they are less visible to criminals and immigration officials.
I have spent the past few months in the southern state of Chiapas researching refugee protection in Mexico’s southern border region. A series of migrant shelters, mostly run by volunteers from civil society and the Catholic Church, provide places to rest. In one shelter that I visited, a man from El Salvador sat looking down at his torn shoes, the sole held on with a piece of string. He had just walked more than 60 miles (100km) in them. Walking was slow and painful, but “you get used to it,” he said. It was the safest way to travel.
Media coverage of migration in Mexico is often filled with images of people precariously perched atop the notorious freight train known as La Bestia, “the Beast,” which traverses the country from south to north. But since 2014, Mexico has stepped up police and immigration patrols on the train and modernized the tracks so that it goes too quickly for people to jump on. Roadblocks have also been established by immigration authorities and federal police along the main highways – hundreds of miles from the border itself.
As a result, migrants have to take diversions through forests and remote villages to avoid being detained, but this increases their vulnerability to assaults and robberies.
In one town in Chiapas, people sleep in the cemetery, among the tombs that provide hiding places from police searches. Elsewhere, they are reportedly housed by smugglers in remote farmhouses outside of the towns. People showed me scars from violence and torture carried out in some of these places, used to extract money from them in order to continue on their way.
The man I met in the migrant shelter had been confronted by hijackers earlier on his route. They saw that he was foreign and demanded money. When he said he didn’t have any, they punched him in the face. His jaw seemed to be dislocated and he wasn’t managing to eat solid food.
The following day, he was pulled from the bus he was traveling on by immigration officers. They knew he was coming, likely having been tipped off by the driver, and demanded more money or they would detain him. He walked the rest of the way.
A recent survey by Medecins Sans Frontieres found that over two-thirds of migrants and refugees had been victims of violence during their journey. The perpetrators included gangs, criminal organizations and also the security forces that should be working to provide them with protection.
Protecting or Controlling?
The Mexican government’s Programa Frontera Sur – Southern Border Strategy – was established in 2014, as thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America traveled the length of Mexico to reach the United States. In response, the U.S. government requested $1.6 billion from Congress for enhanced deterrence and enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border, while reiterating existing support for security along Mexico’s southern border.
Since at least 2011, the U.S. government has been seeking to develop a joint security effort in the border region of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Since 2013, the U.S. has supported the Mexican government to establish naval bases on rivers and security cordons over an area covering more than 100 miles (160km) to the north of the borders with Guatemala and Belize. In 2014 the White House described the new southern border strategy as “a welcome step toward improving Mexico’s ability to exercise greater control along its border with Guatemala.”
The Southern Border Strategy claims to regulate migration from Central America while also protecting migrants and guaranteeing respect for their human rights.
There is now a specific prosecutor for crimes committed against migrants, an office of the Mexican refugee agency, COMAR, in the southern city of Tapachula, and UNHCR has expanded its presence along the border to enable more people to access the asylum system. Decisions on asylum applications in Mexico take a few months – faster than in several European countries. Some 40 percent of applicants in 2016 received either refugee status or a form of humanitarian protection.
These could all be viewed as positive outcomes considering the system’s stretched resources.
Yet the growth in refugee protection has been dwarfed by a dramatic increase in detentions and deportations of migrants, vastly outstripping the number of people applying for asylum. In the region of Chiapas alone, some 90,200 detentions of migrants were recorded in 2015, up significantly from 50,800 in 2014 and 25,300 in 2010. In 2015 there were 80,300 deportations from Chiapas, up from only 45,600 in 2014. Although these figures declined slightly in 2016, they remained far higher than before the Southern Border Strategy.
The majority of people who are detained and deported come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, each mired in epidemics of violence and organized crime and with high levels of poverty. Deportation to these countries poses a serious risk as long as this remains the case.
Many of those who are sent back leave again straight away and can be back in Mexico in just a couple of days, creating a “revolving door” of deportation and re-migration.
Today, Mexico’s southern border doesn’t only run alongside the brown water of the Suchiate River; immigration enforcement measures are found hundreds of miles inland. But increased controls rarely stop people from fleeing their homes as long as conditions remain unchanged. Rather, they push people to take new routes and make journeys more dangerous. As the number of people reaching the United States falls, the human cost of migration in Mexico risks rising.
Simon McMahon received funding from the Academia Mexicana de Ciencias, CONACYT and Newton Fund for his research in Chiapas.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.