MEXICO CITY – One year after the arrival in Mexico of the first caravans of Central American migrants trying to reach the United States, the Latin American country has tightened its immigration policy while thousands of people still held onto their American dream.
On October 19 last year about 3,000 people, mostly Hondurans who had left their country a week before, broke a police line on the border between Mexico and Guatemala to access Mexican territory, beginning a migration crisis that continues to this day.
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THE CARAVANS?
Mexico has been a natural migration route to the United States for Central Americans for decades and also for Mexicans themselves, who are looking for an opportunity in the neighboring country.
For 10 years Central Americans were registered arriving in Mexico as a group, but these caravans were made up of women who were looking for their missing children and husbands when they migrated, and then returned to their countries, Eduardo Gonzalez, a migration expert at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, told EFE on Wednesday.
The massive caravans that have crossed Mexico since October last year marked a paradigm shift.
Now they travel as a group with “the intention of staying in Mexico or arriving in the United States” due to the wave of violence and poverty in their countries, he added.
Around 54% of Hondurans, 51% of Guatemalans and 41% of Salvadorans lived below the poverty line in 2016, according to data from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Violence was also waged in Central America’s Northern Triangle, where El Salvador recorded 60 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, in Honduras there were 43 per 100,000 inhabitants and in Guatemala 26 per 100,000 inhabitants.
HOW ARE THEY ORGANIZED?
On 12 October last year about 200 people gathered at the bus station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to go to Mexico in a delegation.
The difference with this type of migration was that people no longer resorted to polleros, people traffickers, but instead organized themselves in the form of caravans for protection.
Although unconfirmed theories have indicated that behind these caravans were people traffickers, the Honduran opposition or even the US Government, this has been denied by experts in the field.
“Those of us who saw these men, women and children embarking on an epic path know that there was no black hand behind them,” journalist Alberto Pradilla, who followed the exodus, told EFE.
“What drives them to flee is that they are killed by hunger, they are killed by bullets and they have corrupt governments that do not protect them.”
WHAT DID PEÑA NIETO’S GOVERNMENT DO?
Mexican police tried to stop the first caravan by force but before the surge of migrant numbers, the government of then outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto promised to deal with asylum applications from people who entered regularly.
Those migrants were gathered in the Chiapas city of Tapachula, practically bordering with Guatemala.
Instead, those who entered irregularly across the Suchiate River managed to cross the country to Tijuana, bordering the US, traveling on foot and by bus, and staying at facilities authorized by local authorities such as the Government of Mexico City.
The route was repeated by up to four more caravans of Central Americans, with thousands of people left stranded at the US border before the access restrictions imposed by President Donald Trump.
WHAT CHANGED WITH LOPEZ?
Left-wing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who became Mexico’s president in December, promised a “more humane treatment” of migrants.
His government received a caravan with humanitarian visas that arrived on 18 January but that attitude changed as Trump increased the pressure.
The US president threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican products if the migration flow was not reduced.
Both governments signed an agreement on 7 June in which Mexico promised to deploy the newly created National Guard at the borders.
This marked a turning point in Mexico’s immigration policy, which while it has said it continues to respect human rights, has practically militarized its borders.
Around 12,000 federal agents have been sent to the border with Guatemala and almost 15,000 to the US, according to data from the Government of Mexico.
This has reduced the flow of migrants to the American territory by around 60%, according to the Mexican government.
More than 61,000 people have also been intercepted trying to cross the border, some of them in poor health.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The northern border of Mexico has been overwhelmed with people waiting to apply for asylum in the US.
Tapachula in the south has become a place of containment for thousands of migrants, including Cubans, Haitians, Cameroons and other Central Americans.
Around 3,000 people left the city this weekend to start a new caravan that was dissolved by security forces.
This came shortly after a ship was wrecked off the coast of the Mexican state of Chiapas, leaving two Cameroonians dead.
Gonzalez warned that “the first consequence of the deployment of the National Guard – the new security body created by Lopez Obrador – is that migrants opt for more insecure routes exposing themselves to assaults and murders” or to resort to Mexico’s network of freight trains, known as the Death Train.
“As long as the socio-economic conditions do not exist for people to stay in Central America, the migration crisis will continue,” he added.
He welcomed Lopez Obrador’s proposed development plan to create jobs in the region and prevent forced migration.
Dozens of civil organizations have criticized Mexico’s new policy and said it has sharpened human rights violations of migrants in the country.
One of the most serious cases documented occurred on August 1, when a Honduran was shot dead by police officers from Coahuila, in the north of the country.