GUTIÉRREZ, Mexico — Oscar and Jennifer Cruz knew that crossing the border would
be the easy part.
Salvadoran brother and sister made their way over the international line between
Mexico and Guatemala with the help of a smuggler who guided them through the
jungle. But soon afterward, Mexican immigration officers arrested the clean-cut
teenagers on a bus in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the southernmost Mexican
many other Central American youths who migrate on their own, Oscar, 16, and
Jennifer, 13, were pushed by the danger of street gangs and pulled by hopes of
joining their parents, who left El Salvador when their children were very young
and settled in Las Vegas. The brother and sister embarked on the trek to the
United States despite the horror stories about migrants getting robbed, raped,
kidnapped or killed in transit across Mexico.
wanted to be with my parents," Oscar, a devout Christian, said in an interview at
a detention center. "And there was also the threat from the gangs. Once I
started high school, they tried to recruit me. What worried me most were the
threats. The gangs fight for turf, do extortion, threaten families and deal
drugs. The police are scared of them - kids my age."
and Jennifer crossed a lawless, long-neglected border between Guatemala and
Mexico, a 540-mile boundary snaking through mountains, jungles and rivers. It
is a hotbed of threats: smuggling of people, drugs, arms and cash; abuse of
migrants by criminals and security forces; violence and corruption that menace
institutions and create fertile turf for mafias.
border is also a window into the future. Profound shifts in economics,
demographics and crime are transforming immigration patterns and causing
upheaval in Central and North America. After decades in which Mexicans
dominated illegal immigration to the United States, the overall number of immigrants
has dropped and the profile has changed.
Mexicans remain the largest group, U.S.-bound migrants today are increasingly
likely to be young Central Americans fleeing violence as well as poverty, or
migrants from remote locales such as India and Africa who pay top smuggling
fees. They journey through a gantlet of predators.
southern frontier has become a national security concern for U.S., Mexican and
Central American leaders. Interviews with U.S. and Mexican government officials,
human rights advocates and migrants by a ProPublica reporter visiting the
border showed how these converging trends are raising alarms.
is becoming imperative and urgent to immediately initiate and develop in the
next few years a serious and coordinated regional strategic plan in the areas
of security, control and development to prevent this border from sliding out of
control and generating an experience with enormous gravity for the region," said
Gustavo Mohar, a veteran immigration and intelligence official who ended his
tenure last week as Mexico's interior sub-secretary for migration issues.
same way that it took the United States 30 years to reach a point of physical
control on its border, Mexico needs a medium-range strategy," Mohar said. "But
we will control it better with a strategic vision that part of the problem is
Central American poverty and the drug trade."
new Mexican administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto inherits
repercussions of the transformation at the better-known, aggressively policed
U.S.-Mexico border. Although the U.S. political debate often gives a contrary
impression, illegal crossing at Mexico's northern border has plummeted.
2007, the U.S. Border Patrol made an average of about 1 million arrests a year
at the line, the overwhelming majority of them Mexicans. But there has been a
marked decline since. Patrol statistics through July indicate U.S. agents made
about 355,000 apprehensions at the border in the fiscal year that ended in
September. An expected figure of about 260,000 arrests of Mexicans would be the
lowest in more than a decade.
Caught at the
Border: Nationality of Immigrants Crossing from Mexico
to the U.S.
Note: Federal fiscal years; 2012 projected.
Source: Department of Homeland Security
of people and drugs, especially marijuana, persists across the U.S.-Mexican
border. But the changes seem dramatic. In April, a landmark study
by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., determined that, after accounting
for Mexican immigrants who return to their homeland, the net in-flow of Mexicans
to the United States has dropped to zero. The reasons include tougher defenses,
stepped-up deportations, a long-term decline in Mexican birth rates and the
simultaneous slump in the U.S. economy and growth of the Mexican economy.
if the U.S. economy improves, the demographic and economic evolution of Mexico
appears to have ended the era of massive Mexican migration to the United
States, according to experts and officials.
agrees there's going to be some vacillation in the numbers, but I don't know of
any serious observer or analyst who thinks we are going to revert to pre-2008
levels of Mexican immigration," said Doris Meissner, a former U.S. immigration
commissioner and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in
Washington, D.C. "I don't see any evidence of that happening, not in the
structural changes in Mexico such as birth rates, not in the enforcement at the
border, and not in the forecasts of what kind of economy is to come in the
years, non-Mexicans have accounted for only a small fraction of U.S. border
arrests. The proportion has changed, however, and Central American migration has
surged during the past year. Statistics indicate that U.S. agents caught at
least 90,000 non-Mexicans at the U.S-Mexico border in the fiscal year, the
great majority of them Central American. The number almost doubles the previous
year's tally and equals more than a third of the arrests of Mexicans.
non-Mexicans include a subset of migrants from Asia, Africa, South America and
the Caribbean. The relative numbers are small, but the smugglers are especially
powerful because they charge up to $50,000 per client. Drug mafias have muscled
in on the human smuggling trade. And U.S. counterterrorism officials worry that
corruption and disorder could enable terrorists or foreign agents to use the
region as a gateway to the United States or a base for plots.
Apprehensions of Central American Immigrants in the
Note: Federal fiscal years. Data for 2012 is
through August. Source: Department of Homeland Security
most non-Mexican migrants today come from three small and poor nations:
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions of
Hondurans rose from 12,197 in fiscal 2011 to 27,734 through August; Salvadorans
rose from 10,471 to 20,041; and Guatemalans increased
from 19,061 to 32,486.
authorities this year have detained 40,971 illegal immigrants, most of them
Central Americans, a rise of about 15,000 during the past two years, according
to the Mexican National Institute of Migration, that country's immigration
service. Detentions of unaccompanied Central American minors also increased,
Mexican officials said.
motivations are not just economic. El Salvador and Honduras have the highest
homicide rates in the world; Guatemala is extremely violent. Ingrained inequality,
migration and strife devastate family structures and state institutions. Crime
generates a conflict-driven migration that recalls the refugee exodus from the
region's civil wars in the 1980s.
are expelled from their countries by fear," said Father Flor Maria Rigoni, a cerebral,
bearded Italian priest who directs the Casa del Migrante shelter in Tapachula
on the southwest corner of the Mexico-Guatemala border. "They are seeking the
possibility to survive. The violence there drives them. The migrants don't talk
about the economic situation of the U.S. - they just bet on the future."
American street gangs have become formidable trans-national mafias active in
the United States and allied with Mexico's powerful drug cartels, which are
expanding in Central America. Half the cocaine headed for the United States is
off-loaded at the coast of Honduras, according to intelligence reports cited by
all those reasons, the southern border of Mexico is becoming a priority for
security officials in Washington as well as Mexico City.
"We must continue to work together to prevent illegal flows of drugs,
migrants, contraband, weapons and stolen goods across shared land borders,"
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Central American leaders at a
conference in Panama in February. Her visit was part of a push by the Obama administration
to beef up security, train border forces and improve regional cooperation.
The current immigration debate in Washington
should be based on a realization that both the United States and Mexico are
dealing with a new reality at their borders, officials and experts said.
"Changing demographics in Mexico make this
a ‘new normal' with profound implications for our southwest border," said a
senior U.S. official who monitors Mexico and Central America and requested
anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. "This means that any
demand for labor in the United States in the mid to long term would be met by
other than Mexicans, at the outset principally by Central Americans. Proposals
to reform our immigration laws should take that into account."
Nieto met with Napolitano and President Obama in Washington last week. The
Mexican president's advisers have announced plans to beef up defenses at Mexico's
southern boundary and create an entity whose existence would reflect how much
times have changed: a Mexican border patrol.
westernmost Mexican port of entry at the town of Suchiate accounts for 95
percent of Mexico's commercial traffic with Central America, most of it southbound
exports. Soldiers, police officers and security guards watch the parade of northbound
legal crossers on foot, bikes, motorcycles and vehicles on the bridge over the
Suchiate River, which demarcates the international line.
activity is not hard to spot. Riverbank commerce thrives beneath the hot sun. Authorities
do not interfere with rafts gliding back and forth between Suchiate and the
Guatemalan town of Tecun Uman, where a swan perches on a rooftop and garbage is
piled high beneath the border bridge. Gasoline and food products are smuggled
south because they are cheaper in Mexico; people and drugs go north.
50 miles northeast, colorful ceramic tiles dot the walkways of the modern port
of entry between Talismán, Mexico, and El Carmen, Guatemala. A youthful canine
officer screening trucks for Mexican customs is sharp, trim and presentable; he
was trained by U.S. border inspectors in El Paso.
here too, smuggling takes place at high noon in plain sight. Beneath the border
bridge on the Guatemalan side, smugglers charge illegal immigrants $1.50 to
cross the narrow, fast-moving river on a raft made of giant black inner tubes
with a plank lashed on top. The shirtless smugglers can be seen swimming behind
the rafts, pushing migrants and luggage to the Mexican riverbank, where the
crossers hurry into the underbrush.
option: the aerial route. Smugglers string tightrope-like cables between trees
or buildings on the riverbanks within yards of the port of entry. Illegal
crossers whiz north above the water on these makeshift international zip lines,
authorities do little enforcement on the riverbank. Officials say it would
disrupt a deep-rooted trans-border economy and culture. Moreover, a front-line crackdown
would require a large contingent of specialized law enforcement personnel and
other defenses. That has not been feasible given budget constraints, political sensitivities
about immigration, and the demands of the fight against drug mafias elsewhere,
Mexico's immigration service deploys patrols in strategic spots a few miles from
the border. A major chokepoint: the rail yards of Arriaga, where illegal immigrants
race their pursuers in hopes of hopping a freight train and making the clandestine
trek across Mexico to the U.S. border.
as La Bestia (The Beast), the freight train is a magnet for predators. The
dangers have been documented in accounts such as the book "Enrique's Journey" and the documentary "María en Tierra de Nadie" ("María in
No-Man's-Land"). Smugglers, bandits and corrupt security forces swarm the rail
line. Accidents kill or maim scores of riders who fall off trains or are run
paramilitary-style Zetas drug mafia of northeast Mexico, and lower-level
criminals seeking its favor, terrorize the smuggling corridors.
chiefs give the green light to new recruits to do their business on the train,"
said Father Rigoni of the Casa del Migrante shelter. "They monitor the recruits
in their ability in their turf to handle logistics, strategy, organization.
They are applying market policy. The Zetas choose a little gang in Tapachula: If
you can prove you control the turf, and pay us $500,000, you can rely on us for
shake down smugglers and subject migrants to robbery, rape and extortion. They
kidnap them and demand money from relatives back home or in the United States.
Women and children are forced into sexual slavery. Detention centers and
migrant refuges brim over with horror stories.
increase in young migrants traveling alone comes after years in which Central
American migration fluctuated: It peaked in 2005 and declined for a few years
before the new increase, which analysts see as a result of lawlessness as well
as deprivation. Each year, the Casa del Migrante houses about 5,000 migrants in
transit; the number of Hondurans seeking refuge this year increased 57 percent,
and the number of minors jumped 82 percent.
Rigoni called them "lambs to the slaughter." That phrase comes to mind
listening to the account of Oscar and Jennifer Cruz, the teenage Salvadoran
brother and sister who told their story at the detention center in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
who has a stylish haircut and new red gym shoes, aspires to work in a bank
someday. Jennifer - quiet, polite, wide-eyed - wants to be a secretary. Their
parents left the town of Usulutan when the children were small. The parents
found jobs in Las Vegas, sending back enough money for grandparents to raise
Oscar and Jennifer. Divided families like this are typical in El Salvador,
Honduras and Guatemala. Jennifer said she knows her parents through "Skype,
Facebook and the telephone."
and Jennifer decided to leave when the pressure from street gangs got too
intense for Oscar at school. The family pooled resources to pay smugglers
$10,000 for the trip; the parents insisted the youths travel in Mexico by bus,
not The Beast. The dangers of home and the lure of the north overcame their
fears. They made it across Guatemala unscathed, but were caught on a bus soon
after crossing the line into Mexico.
on our faith, we decided to do it," Oscar said. "It was exciting and scary. I
have two friends from school who left for the United States. Their brothers
were already there. My friends didn't make it. They disappeared."
of migrants, especially Central Americans, is widespread and often involves
corrupt officials. Hard numbers documenting the crimes remain elusive, however.
In a study in 2010, Amnesty International asserted that hundreds of
migrants go missing or are killed in Mexico each year. A Salvadoran advocate
group quoted in the study said that 293 Salvadorans had died or disappeared in
Mexico between 2007 and 2009.
year, a report by Mexico's National Human Rights Commission found that 11,333
migrants had been victims of kidnapping during a six-month period in 2011. Some
officials and human rights defenders think that figure is too high. They cite
the difficulty of gathering accurate data and the ambiguity of kidnapping,
which can result from a voluntary deal with a smuggler that degenerates. But
human rights advocates and Mexican and Central American officials agree about
the dire plight of the border-crossers.
gang members and other criminals who prey on migrants are sometimes fellow
Central Americans. The fast growth of the Zetas has created a demand for foot
soldiers that is filled partly by young Central Americans in states such as
Zacatecas, according to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials. A Honduran
ex-convict was among a group of Zetas gunmen who killed a U.S. agent of
Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a highway ambush in central Mexico last
year. Massacres in northern Mexico have been triggered by incidents in which
Mexican drug traffickers tried to recruit groups of migrants as mules or
henchmen, U.S. and Mexican officials say.
is another Beast. The rail hub at Palenque, 200 miles to the northeast of
Arriaga, also attracts border-crossers. Authorities estimate that up to 500
clandestine passengers ride each freight train coming out of Palenque. The game
is played differently, however.
a sweaty afternoon, hundreds of migrants fill the tumbledown Palenque neighborhood
of Colonia Pakal-Na. They wear caps, bandannas, shirts as headdresses.
Unconcerned by police driving by, the men panhandle, rest in the shade and talk
on cellphones near train tracks strewn with trash. Handwritten signs in the
windows of low-slung, multicolored stores and houses announce the use of bathrooms
for a fee. Clothes hang in the chain-link fence of a basketball court dotted
with sleeping figures. El Sabor Hondureño, a Honduran-owned diner a few yards
from graffiti-covered freight cars, does a brisk business.
drink and take drugs and bother people coming through the area; there have even
been victims of assaults," says José López, an official in Palenque City Hall,
sounding not unlike U.S. residents complaining about immigrant laborers in
their neighborhoods. "There is the problem of gang fights among them. There are
no bathrooms where they can do their necessities, so they go in the open areas.
They are rejected by the residents of the neighborhood."
immigration officials say their hands are tied. They conduct occasional raids. Were
they to arrest migrants on a daily basis, officials say, they would have to
transport them to Tapachula to be repatriated by bus. Resources are lacking.
cannot simply be deported south from Palenque because Guatemalan authorities
cannot ensure safe passage through the jungles of the Petén region, an outpost
of drug traffickers. As at the U.S.-Mexico border, the asymmetry between Mexico
and Central America is dramatic.
cannot ask the Guatemalan government to control its border to prevent people
from crossing when it is battling to maintain national stability and programs
of development, education, rebuilding police and intelligence to fight gangs
and drug trafficking," Mohar said. "For Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,
the departure of their citizens has historically brought remittances that are
fundamental to their economies. This has been also true for Mexico, but
fortunately less and less today. The Central American countries don't have an
incentive to do something at the border. But I'm afraid if they don't, and if
we don't work with them, the problem will overwhelm us."
A study released
by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington found that borders are "porous
and uncontrolled" throughout Central America. Only four of the eight official
crossing points between Mexico and Guatemala operate regularly and secret
landing strips for drug smuggling planes proliferate, according to the study.
Border security suffers from the ills afflicting overall security, according to
the study: insufficient resources, weak institutions, corruption and lack of
continuity between administrations.
has not had a coherent border security strategy or policy for the last four
years," the study states. "The government has ordered increases in police and
military personnel sent to the border without providing these forces any new
resources. As a result, these border build-ups have been short-lived."
is harder than ever to sneak across the U.S.-Mexico border. As a result, Mexican
officials detect a new trend.
we have in the last six months is a very significant increase in the flow of
Central Americans who are not going to the U.S. but rather to stay in Mexico,"
Mohar said. He cites a presence of immigrants in the states of San Luis Potosí,
Jalisco and Querétaro and "an enormous challenge with Central American children
traveling alone who stay in Mexico City and live on the streets and are very
vulnerable to joining gangs or being trafficked."
conditions - namely, the likelihood of getting caught - dictated the deal that the
smugglers made with Marco, an Ecuadoran who wanted to go to United States with
fee I paid included three attempts," said Marco, who asked that his full name
be withheld for his safety. "This was my first try. I paid for a package. And
if I don't want to keep trying, they said they will reimburse me 50 percent."
is a compact 26-year-old with buzz-cut hair and a bemused expression. He was
interviewed at the detention center in Tuxtla Gutiérrez while he awaited
deportation after his arrest for crossing from Guatemala. He had hoped to reach
New York, where his brother had spent six years working in construction,
returned to their hometown of Azogues and bought himself a house and a pick-up
Ecuadoran smugglers dealt with Marco almost exclusively by phone, he said. They
charged $11,000, collecting a $3,000 down payment. Marco and his wife packed
coats and hats because they were told they would spend four days walking
through the desert with a group to enter the United States. They prayed at a
shrine and set off, armed with a phone number and a password, to a hotel in
Guayaquil. A woman facilitator gave them a new number and password and plane
tickets to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, via Panama.
couple took a bus from Honduras to Guatemala City. Local smugglers took charge
of them. Marco and his wife slept in a safe house where the clients came from
as far away as China. After another bus ride, they spent two days by mototaxi
and on foot entering Mexico through the mountains. The group of Ecuadorans and
Guatemalans, using the code name "Eagles," met a Mexican smuggler known as
Chiclet at a cheap hotel in picturesque San Cristóbal de las Casas, according
to Marco's account.
Ecuador, the smugglers had promised that Marco and his wife would travel by bus
in Mexico to avoid the perils of the freight trains. But Chiclet announced a
change in plans.
told me we were supposed to go to Arriaga to catch The Beast, and we would go
to the border and Houston," Marco said. "I had heard all about the train. I
didn't want to go."
Mexican smuggler went out, got drunk and didn't return until 4 a.m., Marco
said. Instead of escorting his clients, Chiclet sent them to Arriaga on their
own. Marco and his wife were arrested on a bus when immigration officials
was the fault of the smugglers," Marco said. "They aren't trustworthy."
is a major industry. Last year, Mexican authorities in Chiapas discovered two
tractor-trailers carrying a total of 500 Central Americans, Indians and Chinese
who had just crossed the Guatemalan border. Smuggling fees for immigrants from
Asia and Africa depend on factors such as the length and risk of the trip and
use of fraudulent documents, but range as high as $50,000 paid by some Chinese
migrants. If they cannot afford to pay upfront, clients borrow from family and
associates or work off debts through indentured labor upon arrival in the
revenue from such valuable human cargo buys allies in government.
immigration investigators broke up a corruption ring last year after arresting
three frightened Indians at the Tapachula airport. The Indians carried
seemingly legitimate visas for Mexico but admitted their intent to sneak into
the United States, according to their statements to Mexican investigators
obtained by ProPublica.
husband and wife named Nareshkumar and Urbilaben Patel explained that
everything was arranged before their departure. They left Delhi for Dubai,
where they spent a month and then flew via Amman and Madrid to Guatemala City.
After the Indians were smuggled across the Suchiate River by raft, a Mexican
lawyer gave them documents and told them to pose as tourists, according to the
arrested the lawyer, a former state prosecutor from Tabasco who obtained
fraudulent visa papers from accomplices in the immigration bureaucracy in
Mexico City. The ex-prosecutor was charged with smuggling and the officials
were fired, authorities said.
smuggling flow changes rapidly. Mexico detained 723 Eritreans in 2010, that year's
largest group of illegals who were not from Latin America. This year has brought
a fourfold increase in Cubans: 2,593 so far. Farther south, the numbers are
similar. In Panama, a gateway for migrants arriving from South America,
authorities arrested 2,117 Cubans in the first 10 months of the year, a fivefold
rise. Many Cubans come through Ecuador, where visa policies are lax, according
to U.S. and Mexican officials.
speaking melodious Caribbean Spanish congregate in the patio of the federal
immigration detention center in Tapachula. A muscular, gray-eyed young man from
the town of Bayamo explains that he voyaged on a makeshift vessel to Honduras.
He waited and worked odd jobs for a year, when his absence from Cuba meant he
had legally renounced citizenship. His goal is to join relatives in Hialeah, Fla.
He chose the route because U.S. refugee law favors Cubans who arrive at a land
I arrive in a raft in Miami and the Coast Guard catches me at sea, they deport
me right back, chico," said the young
Cuban, who asked not to be identified because of his migratory situation.
"Matamoros, Mexico, that's where I want to go."
repercussions of the evolving smuggling patterns bubble up at the U.S.-Mexico
border as well. During a hectic period in March of last year, one in four migrants
arrested in the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector in south Texas were
recent cases have raised concerns about the potential for terrorists or foreign
intelligence operatives to tap into the smuggling infrastructure. Last year, a
Somali was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Texas on immigration charges.
Ahmed Muhammed Dhakane led a ring that smuggled East Africans to the United
States via Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico and admitted that he and some of his
clients had links to Somali terrorist groups, according to
U.S. court documents.
Dhakane boasted that he made as much as $75,000 a day smuggling Somalis,
In a case that startled law enforcement and intelligence agencies,
an Iranian-American pleaded guilty this year in federal court to a plot to hire
hit men from a Mexican cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to
Washington. Intercepts and other evidence showed that the defendant was working
for Iranian intelligence chiefs, who provided $100,000 for the plot. The
Iranian agent lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, and traveled back and forth
frequently to Mexico, where he developed contacts among drug traffickers, according to
officials worry that extremist operatives could establish a presence in Central
America by taking advantage of porous borders, the availability of fraudulent
documents and mafias involved in arms, drugs and people smuggling. Mexican
intelligence works closely with U.S. counterparts to aggressively target migrants
from nations such as Iran or Somalia with hostile governments or active terror
groups - Special Interest Aliens, in the parlance of U.S. border agencies.
officials tend to see the U.S. worries about terrorists as exaggerated,
however. In September, police in the city of Merida acting at the request of
U.S. officials arrested several suspects including a former California imam
wanted for a U.S. parole violation and found that he carried a fraudulent
passport from Belize, which neighbors Guatemala and Mexico, according to
Mexican and U.S. officials. There were initial suspicions that the imam and his
Belizean associates had Hezbollah links, but Mexican and U.S. officials subsequently
downplayed that aspect of the case.
officials say the larger intelligence picture justifies their concerns,
especially about a presence of Iranian and Hezbollah operatives in Latin
A Mexican Border
detention center in Tapachula, run by Mexico's National Institute of Migration,
is the largest facility of its kind in Latin America. It embodies the contradictions
and challenges of the border.
clean, modern complex has a capacity for 950 men, women and children. The
administrators look more like social workers than jailers. It has a game room
and a library, where a small cheerful boy plays on a computer. The boy's mother
is Eritrean; he is stateless, born in South Africa during a yearlong odyssey
that led through Brazil and Guatemala before falling short of the destination:
immigration officers are unarmed, enlisting federal and state officers for support
on investigations and operations as needed. Although corruption and abuse are
longtime problems in the immigration service, it is not a border patrol or even
a traditional police force.
least in theory, Mexican immigration policy is driven by human rights concerns.
A new law passed last year spells out liberal policies toward illegal
immigrants in Mexico and places limits on enforcement.
the United States, the changes at Mexico's borders will have an impact on the
immigration debate. After President Obama's re-election, Republicans looking to
court Latino voters have expressed new interest in immigration reform. The
Obama administration argues that the drop in illegal crossings and the security
buildup at the U.S. border have established a framework for reform. But the
changes at the Southwest border have not necessarily sunk in among politicians
and the public.
the perception has caught up with the reality is not clear," said Douglas
Rivlin, chief spokesman for Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., a leading proponent of
immigration reform. "There's often a big gap between what Congress is talking
about and what the reality is. People probably aren't aware the flow is so
goal of immigration reform will be legal status for more Central Americans,
reducing the number of migrants who transit through Mexico, Rivlin said.
goal is to have an immigration system in which people board a plane in San
Salvador and are not taking the risk of riding on top of a train through
Mexico," he said. "That's what gives the U.S. security; that's what means less
deaths on the border; that's what gives us one labor market rather than
as the United States and Mexico work together more closely than ever against
drugs, there is unprecedented cooperation on border issues. In the United
States, representatives of Mexican consulates routinely visit U.S. Border
Patrol stations and are provided with office space to attend to Mexican
detainees. U.S. agents stationed in Mexico share information in real time with
Mexican aviation security authorities to screen incoming passenger flights.
Similar programs are expanding in Central America.
Mexican human rights advocates and politicians object to measures such as Mexican
police stopping Central Americans from riding the freight trains, saying they
do not want Mexico doing the dirty work of the United States.
still suffers nagging inequality and crime. But last year's Pew study cited the
growth of the middle class, the decline in Mexican immigration, lower birthrates
and higher rates of literacy and education. If those trends continue, Mexico
seems headed toward a transition that could spur social tension - and tougher border
is increasingly finding itself in the most complex situation for a country in
regards to migration: it is simultaneously a sending country, a transit country
and a receiving country," said Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute.
"Those are very different identities to reconcile. They really have to build an
infrastructure on that border."
rise of Central America as a base for drug mafias adds pressure. President Peña
Nieto's aides have announced a plan for the southern Mexican border featuring 10
new ports of entry and legal status for Guatemalan laborers in Mexico's four
southernmost states. The new administration intends to create a Mexican border
police of 5,000 to 8,000 officers to patrol areas between official crossings at
the Guatemalan border, officials said.
mission of the new force will be to prevent the flow of "drugs, arms and to a
certain extent so people don't cross," said Arnulfo Valdivia, immigration coordinator
for the president's transition team, according to a report in El Universal
extent to which this border patrol will intercept illegal crossers remains to
be seen. The plan is part of a larger security restructuring, discussed during Peña
Nieto's visit to Washington that will expand the role of Mexican federal law
the past is a guide, Washington is likely to contribute border-related
training, resources and technology to help Mexico and Central American nations
target organized crime, but will tread lightly to avoid the perception that it
is intervening directly in other countries to block U.S.-bound migration. The
U.S., European Union and United Nations contribute to a number of initiatives
to strengthen security policy in Central America.
aside, the obstacles to controlling Mexico's southern line are daunting. The
geography is rugged. Mafias overwhelm opponents with firepower and corruption.
There are other budget demands in Mexico, let alone in Guatemala and its neighbors.
say the strategy must be smart and targeted. An example: In response to the
surge of illegal migrants from India, most Central American countries have
stemmed the influx by imposing visa requirement on Indians.
the study by the Migration Policy Institute cautioned against a narrow focus.
Because mafias are often stronger than the state in the remote border regions,
reforms should focus on establishing the rule of law and improving safety in
those areas and not just at the international line, the study said.
the veteran Mexican official, calls for a regional approach that addresses
violence and poverty in Central America as well.
enforcement and security are not enough," he said. "The truth is that Central
America is a small region where investment by the international community, the
United States and international entities could be relatively low compared to
the risk of not doing anything. The border is an expression of problems that
exist far from the border."
OSCAR RIVERA/AFP/Getty Images