TAPACHULA, Mexico — “What do you call this?” the immigration agent asked the young man in a taxi-van, pointing to the cap on the man’s head. “Gorra,” the man answered, using the Mexican word, as a dozen officers from the military, army and marines stood close by. If he had answered wrong, he would have been pulled off the bus and deported.
Satisfied that the man's answer proved he was Mexican, the agent waved him through. “In other countries, they call it something else,” he explained.
Such simple questions are a common occurrence here. The military presence is not.
It’s a scene that is playing out across Southern Mexico, as federal police, marines and army members flood the area, conducting raids on hotels and operating checkpoints along the highway in search of undocumented migrants. Such activity is expected to become the norm with the arrival of 6,000 members of the National Guard, a newly formed military force.
The increasingly militarized approach to immigration on the border by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who campaigned on a promise of treating migrants humanely and giving them jobs in Mexico, is part of a very public effort to appease President Trump and avoid a damaging trade war with the U.S. So far, that means slashing the number of Central American migrants reaching the U.S. and cracking down on those who help them.
In recent weeks, Mexican officials have targeted Central American and even Cuban migrants for deportation with unprecedented urgency. The numbers reflect that: Deportations have soared since the beginning of April, and stand to only increase in the coming weeks, as Mexico’s foreign minister has already promised “additional measures” if the number reaching the U.S. doesn’t drop significantly by July.
“Lopez Obrador’s position has been about implementing the law, but with human rights and dignity,” said Gustavo Mohar, who formerly served as Mexico’s top negotiator on immigration with the United States. “After this deal with the Trump administration, that’s going to be a huge challenge for his government to achieve,” he said, adding that Mexico is wholly unprepared to deter such large numbers of migrants.
Mexico’s increasingly harsh response on the border bears Trump’s imprint in other ways, none more striking than the recent targeting of migrant-rights activists, in what critics charge are politically motivated prosecutions.
“We are the first political prisoners of this new policy”
Last week, two longtime organizers of caravans were arrested on charges of trafficking migrants in exchange for money. Their prosecution mirrors the case in the U.S. against Arizona teacher Scott Warren, who was arrested after providing food and water to undocumented migrants. (One of the activists also allegedly helped the same migrants Warren did, according to U.S. prosecutors). The timing of their arrests has also raised alarm that it was a political calculation to underscore Mexico’s hard-line stance, as it came in the heat of emergency U.S.-Mexico negations over Trump’s tariff threats.
After a nearly 24-hour court hearing that lasted until 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, a judge released the activists because he said the government didn’t have enough proof to hold them. None of the victims showed up to the hearing, and the activists presented evidence showing they weren’t anywhere near the places were the crimes allegedly took place. Still, the judge encouraged prosecutors to continue investigating and left the case open.
“We are the first political prisoners of this new policy,” Cristóbal Sanchez, one of the activists, said after being released. “It’s a policy of war against migrants that’s in reaction to the geopolitical interests and desires of Yankee imperialism.”
Sanchez’s co-defendant, Irineo Mujica, also questioned the sudden shift in tactics by López Obrador.
“Most of us voted for [López Obrador] because we wanted a change, not more of the same,” Mujica said. “It’s worrisome because not only has the change not arrived, the situation has gotten worse. Never during the 15 years that I’ve been a human rights defender have I seen the militarization [of the border].”
When López Obrador took office in December, deportations immediately dropped, falling roughly 40 percent in the first four months of his term. But his decision to give widespread humanitarian visas resulted in a surge of Central American migrants who used the visa to safely make their way to the U.S southern border. After the number of migrants reaching the U.S. exploded, he began to backtrack. In May, Mexico deported around 16,500 migrants, roughly triple the 5,600 recorded in January, according to government statistics.
Deportation numbers are expected to climb even more with the arrival of 6,000 members of the country’s National Guard. Across Southern Mexico, people await the arrival of the newly formed military force, which comprises members of the army, marines and federal police. The troops are expected any day now, although no one can say exactly when, despite a string of government press conferences announcing their imminent arrival. Nor can anyone say what exactly they'll do when they get here. Trained to combat violence and organized crime, these troops have been diverted to deter migrants by means that remain entirely unclear.
“Never during the 15 years that I’ve been a human rights defender have I seen the militarization [of the border].”
VICE News asked several officials along the border what they expected from the incoming force; the clearest response was a shrug.
Practically speaking, the heavy presence of the army, marines and federal police here already gives the area a militarized feeling. Yet despite the formal presence given off by an infusion of military forces, the process of identifying migrants remains haphazard and appears to be nothing more than profiling. At times agents appeared satisfied by simply opening the door of the van-sized taxis and glancing at the passengers, while at other times they grilled passengers with several questions.
At one checkpoint outside Tapachula, around a dozen armed officers stood on the side of the highway as immigration agents climbed into commercial buses and scanned passengers looking for people who looked like foreigners. The agents asked those who looked vaguely foreign to see their documentation.
They ordered a pair of Guatemalan parents traveling with young children off their bus after deeming their government-issued paperwork to be false. “Please, no,” the father said, tears in his eyes. But without much of a protest, he and his son followed the agents off the bus and into a van that would take them to a detention center before being deported. The mother and her daughter also quietly followed suit, a small suitcase in hand.
These scenes will grow more common as Mexico ramps up its deportation machine, while erecting new barriers for those claiming asylum. López Obrador has cut funding for the country’s refugee agency, despite a surge in asylum applications. In Tapachula, migrants wait in lines that stretch three blocks for the chance to apply for asylum. Across town, hundreds of Haitian and African migrants stake out the Mexican immigration office to apply for a pass that allows them to travel within the country so they can reach the U.S. (Those passes are generally not being given to Central Americans).
The wait times are so long that one woman, Jaquelina, planned to sleep outside the immigration office so she could be among the first in line the following morning. Jaquelina fled Angola with her three daughters in early February. She said they traveled to Brazil on a cargo ship and then took buses and walked their way through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala, arriving in Mexico last week.
In broken English, she described a harrowing journey in which she was assaulted and lost 30 pounds. She has been in Mexico six days, sleeping at a shelter, but she had no money and was desperate for water. Like thousands of others on the border, she is overwhelmed by the confusion on the border and doesn’t understand exactly what kind of paperwork she needs from Mexican officials in order to move forward. But she is determined to reach the United States. “Big dificil,” she said, as her daughters wrapped their arms around her.
Cover: An officer from the National Migration Institute shines a light to check the validity of visitor's permits for two young Guatemalans, aboard a northbound bus at a checkpoint outside Tapachula, Mexico, Wednesday, June 12, 2019.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)