Hundreds of thousands of migrants have braved the journey from Central America to the U.S. border. Washington wants to turn them back, before they even arrive.
- By Levi VonkLevi Vonk is an anthropologist and 2015 Fulbright Fellow in Mexico.
MEXICO CITY — As she marched toward the line of over 100 armored policemen, Mildred Mendoza put on a brave face and held her youngest son, Marcos, close. For nearly two weeks, she and 400 other Central American migrants had barricaded themselves inside a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. Beyond its walls, federal police and immigration agents held them under siege, threatening to deport them all if they continued their 800-mile journey to Mexico City to denounce the government’s heavy-handed immigration policy, a strategy known as the Southern Border Plan.
Now, their food and water were gone, and the walls seemed to be closing in. Confronting the police was the only option left.
Mendoza squinted into the sun to get a better look at the swarming mass of black riot gear. The policemen were advancing quickly now, their batons bristling. Mendoza had already braved hundreds of miles of gangs, hunger, and endless jungle — she wasn’t about to give up now. She braced for the impact with the policemen, but was thrown back by the force as the group was hit by the front line. Marcos was ripped from her hands.
“Everything was spinning,” said Mendoza. “Then we were crushed from all sides.”
In 2014, almost 70,000 unaccompanied minors were detained by U.S. Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border in an unprecedented wave of Central American migration. Approximately 70,000 more “family units” — many of them single mothers with children — were also detained, a 361 percent increase in such apprehensions over 2013. Most claimed to be fleeing escalating violence in the Northern Triangle, the region comprising Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
More than a year later, violence in the Northern Triangle has spiraled even further out of control, with the ousting of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina for corruption and a gang-ordered countrywide transportation shutdown in El Salvador. It is estimated that over 400,000 Central Americans fled their countries in 2015, as in previous years, heading northward. But despite this steady stream, midway through 2015 the number of undocumented minors and family units apprehended in the United States nearly halved to under 40,000 each, decreasing to near pre-crisis levels.
The tens of thousands of people who didn’t make it to the United States didn’t just disappear. Many of them simply never made it past the Southern Border Plan.
In July 2014, at the height of the migration crisis in the United States, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed an executive order enacting Plan Frontera Sur, or the Southern Border Plan, which instituted an extensive and abrupt immigration overhaul within Mexico. The shift was fully funded by the United States through the Merida Initiative, a 2008 agreement between the United States and Mexico to combat drug trafficking. By May 2015, the U.S. Congress had given the Peña Nieto administration $79 million more than the Obama administration had requested to, among other things, “modernize Mexico’s borders (north and south),” as a report from the Congressional Research Service put it. How that money would be spent was left to Mexico’s discretion.
The impact of the Southern Border Plan was felt immediately. Within less than a year, Mexican deportations of Central Americans skyrocketed by 79 percent, and 541 percent for children ten and under between 2013 and 2014. Meanwhile, U.S. apprehensions of Central Americans plummeted.
Washington has managed to outsource its immigration crisis to the Mexican government. In doing so, it has entrusted a state embroiled in scandal and allegedly complicit in human rights abuses to apprehend and deport Central American migrants, many of them young children, before they can reach the United States.
Mendoza and her three children — Dónovan, 16; Dayrin, 13; and Marcos, 10 — had little desire to ever leave their native Guatemala City. A decade earlier, her husband was murdered in the United States while working as a migrant farmworker, and she vowed to never set foot in the country. She supported her children by renting out several properties around Guatemala City, securing a livelihood that placed her family in the country’s middle class.
But things changed in February, when a local gang demanded an “Easter bonus” of 10,000 quetzals — the equivalent of $1,300 — per rental property, on top of the monthly percentage she already paid them. If she didn’t cough up the money, the gang warned, she would be killed and dismembered, her body parts hung up around the city. It was time to flee.
Mendoza surveyed her options. Before the Southern Border Plan went into effect, she could have ridden through Mexico atop the teetering boxcars of La Bestia, the famously dangerous but relatively speedy train passage that migrants have used to travel freely to the United States for decades. Once, Mexican immigration agents would rarely harass La Bestia’s migrant passengers. But today, officers stationed at the new Southern Border Plan checkpoints peppering the tracks detain all who ride by.
“Immigration is like another kind of gang,” said Brayan, an unaccompanied minor from Honduras who traveled with Mendoza’s family. “To pass the checkpoints you have to pay [immigration authorities] a bribe, and if you can’t, then they’ll pull you off the train and beat you. And unlike the gangs they can deport you afterwards.”
Like many migrants, Mendoza and her children concluded that their only option was to set out on foot across southern Mexico. To avoid Mexican immigration officials, migrants attempt to traverse hundreds of miles through thick jungle or desert, areas often controlled by gangs or cartels.
Mendoza’s family managed to cross the border into Mexico, but the long walks proved arduous for Dayrin, who suffers from a chronic respiratory sickness. Whenever she began to wheeze, Mendoza and her family were forced to stop. Soon, the family ditched their suitcases, which contained all their clothes, family photographs, even a special mattress for Dayrin that helped relieve her labored breathing.
After struggling for four days, Mendoza’s family had made it only to Tapachula, just 25 miles north of the border. For several days, they stayed in a cheap hotel on the seedy outskirts of town, hoping another option would present itself. “There was no way we could continue on our own,” she said. “It is impossible with such small children.”
But they got lucky. On their third night in Tapachula, another migrant staying at the hotel told Mendoza about the Viacrucis Migrante, an annual pilgrimage that promised to provide safe passage to Mexico City for undocumented migrants. Last year’s Viacrucis, made up of 400 migrants from across the Northern Triangle and even Cuba, sought to highlight the alleged human rights violations committed under the auspices of the Southern Border Plan. (When translated, Viacrucis Migrante means “Migrant Stations of the Cross.” It analogizes the migrant journey through Mexico to Jesus’s persecution and last days.). Carrying crosses and signs reading “Jesus was a migrant” and “The Southern Border Plan: No More Blood,” they aimed to march over 300 miles from the Guatemalan border town of Tecún Umán to Ixtepec, in Mexico, before continuing the journey to the Mexican capital on buses. Leading the march was a priest named Alejandro Solalinde, the founder and director of a widely admired migrant shelter, Hermanos en el Camino, located in Ixtepec.
With the Viacrucis, Mendoza and her children walked nearly 300 miles across southern Mexico, from Chiapas to Ixtepec. The stretch is considered one of the most dangerous for migrants, the area where Mexico’s beefed-up security forces apprehend the majority of migrants, children in particular. But under the protection of the Viacrucis, Mendoza and the other migrants could stick to the main roads, charging defiantly through immigration checkpoints. Lacking the resources to detain hundreds of people at once, immigration officials could only look on helplessly.
Along the way, the Viacrucis relied on the charity of sympathetic town residents for food and shelter. On Easter, Mendoza and her children arrived safely at the Hermanos en el Camino shelter in Ixtepec.
Mendoza’s children soon befriended Julia (not her real name), a 12-year-old girl traveling with her uncles, both undocumented minors as well, whom her mother had paid to smuggle her into the United States. Julia confided in Mendoza that her uncles had already spent all the money and were raping her, and planned to sell her into sex slavery once they arrived in Mexico City.
Theoretically, Julia should fall under the protection of Mexico’s 2011 migration law, which says that any child eligible for repatriation must be given due process to determine whether the environment she is returned to could be detrimental to her safety. But under the Southern Border Plan, the Migration Law’s assurances of due process are routinely ignored by the National Institute of Migration (INM), Mexico’s central migration authority. According to an internal report authored by the United Nations this fall, the INM now immediately deports over 85 percent of the unaccompanied minors it detains.
Mendoza worried about reporting the uncles to the shelter. “What if they find out it was me? They could go after my children,” she said. Eventually her conscience won out, and she warned shelter staff. Julia’s uncles were apprehended.
That same day, a pollero, or migrant smuggler, approached Mendoza at the shelter in Ixtepec with an offer to take her family across the border. El Negro, as he was known by the other Viacrucis members, seemed to treat the march as a business opportunity. He bragged that he had crossed Mexico dozens of times and knew where to expect immigration patrols and whom to pay off.
The designers of the Southern Border Plan vowed that it would combat human trafficking. Partly because trafficking is so opaque, it is unclear how many migrants are trafficked through Mexico each year. Some migrants are smuggled involuntarily (through sex trafficking, for instance), but plenty of migrants seek out polleros to sneak them through the country. Polleros can be unreliable, abandoning migrants if they feel they are in danger or simply stealing migrants’ money and stranding them.
Despite these risks, business has boomed for polleros since the Southern Border Plan made crossing more difficult for the average migrant. Smugglers now routinely charge migrants $7,000 or more to cross through Mexico and into the United States, twice the cost in 2013. Part of those fees is used to bribe INM officials to let them pass.
El Negro offered Mendoza a bargain at $1,500 per person, but she declined. She suspected his feigned generosity was actually a ploy to rob her. But El Negro persisted; it seemed to have become personal. He followed Mendoza around the shelter during the day and even pulled his mattress beside hers at night. He started groping her and tried to kiss her in front of her children. He said he loved her and that he would take her across the border for free if he could be with her. “I am scared of him,” she said at the time. “I don’t want him around my children.”
Mendoza reported El Negro to the shelter’s directors, who kicked him out. But other migrants told her that he had set up camp in the town square and bragged that with his pollero know-how, it would be easy to trail the Viacrucis wherever it went.
That the Southern Border Plan has made life harder for normal migrants while allowing a stalker like El Negro to roam freely was not lost on the migrants. “Man, that guy has been harassing that nice lady and her kids,” said Axel, another Viacrucis member. “That dude can do whatever he wants and we’re just the prey.”
Even before the Viacrucis arrived in Ixtepec in early April, its members had planned to rent buses and drive the remaining 500 miles to stage a climactic demonstration in Mexico City and testify against the INM at the headquarters of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. Before their departure, Father Solalinde organized a procession through the town that would serve as a prayer for peace; reporters from national news outlets accompanied them. By the time the migrants returned to the shelter on the town’s dusty outskirts, it was decorated in papel picado, or decorative streamers, and packed with media.
For the INM, this highly visible display was the last straw. On April 5, over 100 officers, clad in body armor and brandishing batons, surrounded the shelter, trapping almost 400 migrants inside. They announced that they would detain the migrants if they continued on to Mexico City.
The situation would quickly grow dire. The shelter normally supported only about 100 migrants a day. With more than 400 people holed up inside, its food supplies disappeared, its makeshift plumbing system broke down, and even its Internet connection jammed. Many in the Viacrucis suspected this was the police’s intent. “They were starving us out,” Mendoza said.
Agents also barricaded the four buses that the Viacrucis had rented to drive to Mexico City, and they threatened to arrest the drivers for human trafficking if they transported the marchers to the capital — a great irony, with El Negro lurking free in the town square. Solalinde said he had “never seen the city so under siege.”
After nearly two weeks of cabin fever, the Viacrucis marchers decided that their only choice was to confront the authorities. Journalists and officials from the Human Rights Commission agreed to accompany them to document any abuses they might suffer at the hands of the police.
On April 15, as the sun beat down on the asphalt, they marched toward the buses, the men walking in lock step with arms linked to shield the women and children behind them. Marcos’s young voice cut through the dusty air, calling the Viacrucis to move forward. The police surrounded the Viacrucis, slamming riot shields into the men’s feet, trying to break the outer ring.
Suddenly, an INM agent ripped Marcos away from Mendoza. He fell to the ground, and the man kicked him in the stomach before she was able to pull him back into her arms. “I felt like I was drowning,” said Marcos. “All I could see was red, and then I couldn’t remember anything.”
After hours of struggle, several people had broken hands or feet, but they pushed themselves onto the buses and sped off to Mexico City. “Even Father Solalinde fought the police with us,” Mendoza said. “After it was over, he came up to Marcos and asked if he was OK. My son is very brave; he never cried. Mexico is no place for him.”
Marcos became the face of the migrants’ plight, his image plastered across the national newspapers that covered the march — a tiny David facing Goliath, bearing only a cross. The Viacrucis’s newfound celebrity, together with the Human Rights Commission’s testimony about police and INM brutality, pressured the government into awarding each migrant involved in the march an amparo, a special 20-day visa that allowed them to cross the country freely. Visas in hand, the Viacrucis held one last celebratory march to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the heart of Mexico City, triumphantly entering the basilica to the cheers of worshippers and a sea of media flashbulbs.
With the visa’s 20-day grace period ticking, Mendoza and her family caught the next bus to Tijuana, where, with the last of their money, they found a shabby apartment to rent. They asked family members in the United States to send more to hire a coyote to smuggle them into San Diego. But it would cost $5,000 just to take them across the 10-mile stretch; pooling that much money would take months.
Mendoza looked for work in Tijuana, but was turned away. “They offer nothing to migrants,” she said. Immigration authorities patrolled the poorer parts of the city, scooping up stranded migrants like Mendoza as they hustled for a few scant pesos to buy food.
Then, El Negro appeared outside her house, pacing the streets freely as other migrants avoided drawing attention to themselves, fearful of the INM. She didn’t know how he found her, and didn’t want to know. She kept her children locked inside and the windows shuttered, even when Dayrin’s respiratory sickness resurfaced with a vengeance.
With El Negro outside, Mendoza couldn’t leave to look for work and was still months from being able to pay a coyote. Soon, her family’s visas expired. If INM agents found them, they would be deported. She decided she had to make a move. They snuck out of the apartment in the dead of night, reaching the local migrant shelter. The next morning they met a group of migrants about to cross into San Diego through the border region’s arid hills. It was do or die.
Tijuana is one of the best-patrolled sections of the U.S.-Mexico border, equipped with infrared cameras, motion sensors, and a 24-hour armed Border Patrol. The group only made it several hours before being apprehended.
After spending a night in the detention area, the Border Patrol told Mendoza that she and her children would be released to a family member, with one caveat: She would have to wear an ankle bracelet tracking her whereabouts to ensure that she would attend her deportation hearing. Their release was likely due to a precedent set during 2014’s border crisis, when tens of thousands of children were put in the custody of their relatives in the United States to await their deportation hearings. Well over 7,000 Central American children have been ordered deported since the crisis, with the vast majority of children still awaiting their court dates. Fewer than two-thirds of these children receive a lawyer.
This past summer, just a year after its founding, Mexico’s Office for the Attention of Migrants on the Southern Border was disbanded after failing to heed repeated calls for transparency from the media and left-leaning sections of the government. The office never published any of its findings. Nor did it disclose information about its new tactics to carry out the Southern Border Plan or account for how it spent its 100 million pesos in funding. Humberto Mayans, the former director of the office, has returned to his old Senate seat. But the office’s closure will likely prove a Pyrrhic victory for critics of the Southern Border Plan.
In an August speech, Mayans said that the Southern Border Plan will continue for the next 18 years and will be integrated into pre-existing government bodies without any centralized supervision. Mayans also insisted that the policy’s goals were infrastructure-based — that new security measures around La Bestia, for instance, were part of greater efforts to modernize Mexico’s rail system — and that any talk of migrant deportations was a distraction. “It’s not true we’re doing these things to deter migrants from boarding [La Bestia]. It’s just a necessity of the south-southeastern region to have a modern physical infrastructure,” he said.
Of the six Mexican government officials I spoke to, not one could name a single person currently supervising the strategy. “Today the Southern Border Plan is focused on infrastructure, not this migrant nonsense,” Director of Public Relations Karla Olmos told me, before abruptly ending the interview.
Such a response doesn’t surprise Javier Urbano, coordinator of migratory affairs at Universidad Iberoamericana and one of Mexico’s leading experts on migration. A lack of accountability, he said, is actually one of the main purposes of the strategy. “If no one is doing it, then no one can be blamed.”
Mexico slow-moving human crisis, in many respects, brings it tragically closer to the rest of the world. “The things happening here in Mexico are happening around the world,” Urbano said. “Syrian migrants being barred from Europe, the dead babies washing up on the shores. These things happen in Mexico as well; they are just not as visible. That is the goal of the Southern Border Plan. To make these problems go away.”
But the problems aren’t going away. Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30, 2015, the number of children detained in the United States doubled compared with the same period in 2014, despite the 200,000 Central Americans the INM has caught since the start of the Southern Border Plan. The United States could well be poised for another border surge.
Today, Mendoza lives with family members in the Midwest but is too scared of possible deportation to offer more details about her location. Her children attend school. But because Mendoza is not allowed to work, she and her children must rely on their extended family for financial support. She stays at home, cooking and cleaning, and is looking for an attorney to help her family seek asylum before their upcoming deportation hearing. El Negro doesn’t worry her anymore. But coming up with $18,000 for an immigration lawyer does.
She sometimes watches the news to learn English and is gripped by images of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees clashing with European police. “That used to be us,” she said. “But we aren’t on American television. We are invisible. And now that we’re in the United States, we must stay invisible, or else be deported.”
Photo Credit: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP