The Mexican government is looking to implement an array of measures they hope will help stem the flow of undocumented migrants entering the US and impede their travel as they attempt to traverse Mexico atop a dangerous old freight train known as La Bestia — or, The Beast.
Last week, Mexican officials announced they would use satellite imagery to monitor railway lines running through Mexico toward its northern border with the US. For years, these trains have been a vital transportation method for migrants attempting to enter the country.
This new strategy comes on the heels of Mexico's recent federal operations to raid the trains and detain the undocumented passengers. As a result, the number of migrants riding atop these menacing trains — from Mexico's southern border with Central America to its northernmost border with the US — has dropped from an average of 800 per trip, to reportedly less than two dozen in recent weeks.
This recently intensified government tactic involves federal officials hiding on the side of the rails at night and climbing on board when the train stops to round up migrants. Last week, a roundup caught just over a dozen undocumented travelers, on a train that has typically carried up to 1,500 migrants.
Mexican officials claim that the train operation is intended to ensure the safety of migrants, but witnesses say federal officials have also recently begun checking documentation of passengers riding on interstate buses through Mexico, signaling that the strategy goes beyond concerns over migrant safety and could be a result of increased pressure from US officials.
As a result of these measures, migrants have been returning to more dangerous alternative routes, drinking dubious stream water, and traveling through woods and jungles, exposed to animals, police, thieves, and narcos, just to make the trek north. They attempt to avoid urban areas, which might offer them more protection from criminals, but where federal and immigration operations are rounding up any suspicious (read: foreign) looking people.
La Bestia is an easy target in a very complex issue. In addition to the government's attempt to initiate a crackdown on migrants using the train, the train company's private owner, Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab, plans to make significant investments to improve the railway itself so that the trains may operate at faster speeds, which they hope will help deter migrants from hopping onboard.
But this will take years and Mexico is under pressure from the United States to reduce the flow now, as the surge in migrants has been increasingly overwhelming the capacity of immigration detention centers.
This year, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported that more than 66,000 unaccompanied children had arrived at the southern US border — an 88 percent increase compared to last year — which led President Obama to declare "a humanitarian crisis" at the border.
For the same period, from October 2013 to August 2014, CBP reported that "family unit apprehensions" — a fancy term for detaining parents traveling with children — has increased by a whopping 412 percent.
The proposed satellite equipment would be mounted on vehicles that will be deployed ahead of cargo trains at the southern border with Guatemala in order to detect immigrants jumping onboard. The vehicles will also monitor the tracks to relay damaged rails to conductors so that they can run at faster speeds.
Mexican officials have stated that the trains travel slowly to avoid derailments due to damaged tracks, thus facilitating unauthorized use by migrants. Private train operators had previously announced that they would be investing $150 million over the next five years to fix the rail lines, using welded plates instead of screws to deter theft of the metal tracks, which are often stolen and sold as scrap metal.
While the overall amount of migrants traveling to the US has decreased since pre-recession levels, it was the recent surge of unaccompanied children at the border that caught the attention of the public at large and politicians.
In response to the increased volume of Central American migrants being detained at the US-Mexico border, the US deployed a propaganda campaign targeted at the countries where the majority of these unaccompanied minors originate — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — to highlight the dangers of the voyage and attempt to curb the influx.
The number of unaccompanied children detained at the border dropped in July to half the number reported at this year's peak in June, when the Department of Homeland Security registered just shy of 11,000 child migrants attempting to enter the country illegally. Official numbers for the month of August have yet to be published but the Department of Homeland Security expects the figure to be even lower than it was July.
US authorities have also arrested several high-profile criminals involved in human smuggling, part of a law enforcement action dubbed Operation Coyote. On August 20, the DHS announced that 363 smugglers and their associates had been arrested and more than $800,000 in illicit payments to smuggling operations had been seized.
Towns in Mexico that are known for hosting in-transit migrants and human traffickers — such as Arriaga, Chiapas — have seen their streets empty out since the federal crackdown. Locals attribute the changes to word of the initiatives spreading south.
Cities like Arriaga being raided by police targeting people carrying backpacks or sporting tattoos have begun to scare migrants away, and citizens are concerned, as there have been several reports of Mexican nationals being picked up in the mix.
Fewer children and women are now traveling atop La Bestia, and the few remaining travelers are predominantly male. Some are opting to avoid the trip altogether, searching for work in Mexico instead. But these are all seen as temporary solutions as migrants continue to flee unemployment, gang-violence, and poverty in their countries of origin.
It remains to be seen what sort of action will be taken to actually stem migration at the source. But the Mexican government has recently implemented a new southern border crossing initiative called Frontera Sur in an attempt to improve southern border facilities and regional cooperation between Mexico and Guatemala.
The program will include a 72-hour visa that can be obtained by visitors from Guatemala and Belize, and a border worker card that would allow holders to work in Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo — the four states along Mexico's southern border.
US critics labeled the cards as a free pass to allow migrants to make their way into the country, but this initiative, which was proposed by the the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and is backed by the government of Guatemala, is part of a series of measures that were initiated in 2008, and it appears to be unrelated to the unaccompanied minor surge.
President Peña Nieto has stated that this program may soon be expanded to include Honduras and El Salvador, the idea being that it will help bring order to the border flow.
Meanwhile, the immigration debate rages on in the US.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of Mexicans still believe life is better north of the border for those who migrated from Mexico. Roughly 34 percent of those polled said they would move to the US if they had the opportunity, and 17 percent of Mexicans admitted they would do so without authorization.
While it appears that these recent measures are proving somewhat successful, it is difficult to say what the future will be for those who find themselves in the ultimate catch-22 of fearing the situation if they return to their home countries yet not welcome to travel north.
Photo by Marilyn Alvarado Leyva via Flickr