COMITÁN DE DOMÍNGUEZ, Mexico — The soldiers sped through the dusty backroads of this Southern Mexico town in two military trucks. Many of them had come from the front lines of a decade-long war against drug cartels. Just recently they were hunting drug traffickers and training for battle. Now, wearing the same type of ballistic vests and helmets and gripping the same semi-automatic rifles, they roam from town to town in search of a new target: undocumented migrants.
They comprise the vanguard of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s frenetic push to shore up border security or face U.S. President Donald Trump's wrath in the form of damaging economic tariffs. But Mexico’s rush to appease Trump is raising fears of overreach: The National Guard was designed to cope with Mexico's bloody drug war and soaring violence. Murders in Mexico rose by at least 15 percent in 2018, breaking a new, deadly, record — and they are on path to climb even higher this year.
Now, the guard’s deployment has alarmed many migrant activists and security experts, who say that troops trained to fight powerful criminal organizations are ill-fit to handle a humanitarian crisis. They warn that deploying the military to go after non-violent migrants could lead to serious human rights abuses, while taking away resources from other pressing security problems.
“What you have is the military being deployed for immigration enforcement. They are not trained to do this,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City. “You are dealing with children, women, families. My guess is that a lot of mistakes will be committed in the process, like excessive use of force.”
Recent allegations along these lines have underscored those concerns.
Mexican authorities are investigating the death of a 19-year-old migrant from El Salvador who was shot dead earlier this month after the truck she was in sped past a government checkpoint. The attorney general for the state of Veracruz, where the shooting took place, said that people “dressed as police” chased after the truck and opened fire, killing the girl and wounding two others. One of the wounded migrants told the Washington Post that officers in a patrol car first shot at the truck from behind, and then passed it and kept firing through the windshield.
The attorney general’s language suggested that it was possible that the men in police uniforms were criminals posing as police, which has occurred in the past.
Rubén Figueroa, an immigrant rights activist, said he believed police officers shot at the migrants, and that these kinds of incidents could increase as enforcement becomes more militarized.
“Mexico intends to strangle migration with more heavily armed military and police officers along its southern border,” he said. “Migrants flee their countries with a gun pointed at their backs, and when they enter Mexico, they find a police officer with a gun pointed at them.”
The National Guard, which was ratified by Mexico’s Congress in March, will eventually incorporate members of the marines, army and federal police. Jaime López-Aranda, a security analyst in Mexico City, said it’s kind of like if the FBI, Customs and Border Protection, National Guard and Coast Guard operated under a single command.
“The whole fantasy is that there is this vast, unexplored potential for law enforcement in Mexico,” he said. “It’s new, it’s shiny, and it’s got uniforms.”
Except for now, the National Guard doesn’t even have uniforms. They are mostly former army members wearing white armbands delineating their presence in the National Guard. Members of the federal police who couldn’t pass their physical exam to join the National Guard are being pushed to become immigration agents until they can lose enough weight, according to a local news report.
“The whole fantasy is that there is this vast, unexplored potential for law enforcement in Mexico”
López-Aranda said the current administration got pushed into a corner in their efforts to appease Trump. “They had to make this huge statement that they were doing something, and for that, you need people on the ground. It’s what the Americans were doing as well — trying to jack up the number of people who were looking for migrants and deporting them.”
While the deployment of the National Guard may be primarily a show of force, they appear to have had an immediate impact. In Northern Mexico, National Guard members were photographed physically preventing Central American migrants from crossing the Rio Grande River so they could turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents.
In Comitán, Mexicans reported having to show identification while on public transit to prove they weren’t a migrant. Private commercial bus companies have also begun requiring passengers to show an identification card, provoking outrage from civil society organizations, who say that violates the Mexican constitution.
“The Mexican state is restricting the rights of the citizens of Mexico, and giving private companies the power to enforce immigration laws,” the Mexico City-based Institute for Women in Migration wrote in an open letter signed by dozens of immigrant rights organizations and shelters.
Still, many residents of Chiapas expressed support for the National Guard, despite the new ID requirements and armed military officers patrolling the streets.
Their sentiments reflect a growing anti-migrant sentiment throughout Mexico, due to a perception that they are jeopardizing U.S.-Mexico relations and contributing to an increase in crime. In a recent poll by a Mexican newspaper, 63 percent said Mexico should close its border to migrants, a jump from October, when roughly half of Mexicans supported letting them stay in the country.
“Nobody stopped them, until now”
Jesús Hernández Méndez, 28, said convoys of big trucks frequently pass through Comitán at night. He believes they are transporting migrants. “Nobody stopped them, until now,” he said. “If they had sent the police, they wouldn’t have done anything. They are corrupt. They just take bribes and let them go.”
Hernández knows the army has a checkered history of human rights abuses, but he said he was hopeful that wouldn’t happen in this case. “They don’t have orders to attack directly,” he said.
For now, residents of Comitán report fewer convoys transporting migrants since the National Guard arrived — although they're still showing up.
Last week, just before midnight, three black, four-door pickup trucks sped past an immigration checkpoint in Comitán one after another, their headlights turned off. They drove at breakneck speed down a four-lane highway before abruptly turning down a side street and disappearing into the darkness. Nobody stopped them.
Gustavo Mohar, a former high-ranking immigration official in the Mexican government, said Mexican officials are hoping that Central Americans decide that migrating to the U.S. isn’t worth the risks.
“But experience shows that when people are in such desperate situations, they will do almost anything for a better life,” he said.
Cover: Soldiers forming part of Mexico's National Guard board a truck to patrol back roads used to circumvent a migration checkpoint, in Comitan, Chiapas state, Mexico, Saturday, June 15, 2019. Under pressure from the U.S. to slow the flow of migrants north, Mexico plans to deploy thousands of National Guard troops by Tuesday to its southern border region. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)