“Securing” Mexico’s Border with Central America
Central American migrants on the train known as "The Beast."
By: Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez, Chiapas Support Committee
As the current wave of immigrant women and children from Central America brings more public attention to the issue of migration, we take a look at what’s happening to Mexico’s southern border with Central America.
In 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army drew the world’s attention to Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, with an uprising of indigenous peoples. It also drew tens of thousands of members of the Mexican Army, Navy and federal police to the state. Although the Zapatistas put down their weapons and opted to live autonomously from the official governments (local, state and federal), meaning that the Zapatistas govern themselves in non-violent resistance, a counterinsurgency war continues to this day and the conflict zone remains heavily militarized.
Despite all that militarization, drugs and other illicit goods are smuggled into Mexico from Central America through Chiapas. Central Americans and others also cross into Chiapas on their way through Mexico to the United States to seek employment and a better life, free of the poverty and violence in their countries. These migrants have become the focus of political wars over immigration between a divided and dysfunctional Congress and the White House. Let’s take a look at what the governments of both the US and Mexico are doing about Mexico’s southern border.
A “porous” border in need of “security”
In December 2010 El País, a mainstream Madrid newspaper, published an article about the Chiapas border with Guatemala after receiving a document from Wikileaks revealing great concern by US diplomats (from the US Embassy in Mexico City) with respect to drug trafficking across a border they termed “porous.”  They also reported the lack of security forces to deter not only drug trafficking, but also human trafficking and arms smuggling.  Four months after this diplomatic “discovery” of the border between Chiapas and Guatemala, Mexico announced two new Army bases in Chiapas.
Apparently the new Army bases did not constitute enough militarization to satisfy the Obama administration. Following the July 23-24, 2013 visit to Mexico of then Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, La Jornada, Mexico’s progressive daily newspaper, reported that the United States would “act” on Mexico’s southern border. No specifics were given. It seems that La Jornada relied upon a Mexican government website for information that agreements were reached concerning its southern border. All reference to the southern border was removed from the website a few days later, apparently because the Obama administration wanted to keep the agreements secret, at least for a while.
The Los Angeles Times soon reported some of the specifics. According to the Times, the US will, at least in part, finance "high-tech biometric kiosks" that record fingerprints, photos and other identifying information of those applying for temporary visitor and work permits; in other words, those attempting to cross with permission. The same article reported that the Mexican government also plans to set up "internal control stations" and strengthen security near popular migration routes. Another article reported that the Obama administration was considering support (of the economic variety) for a three-tier security ring to protect Mexico’s southern border.
While the public rationale for further militarization of the border region talks about protecting the human rights of Central American migrants and deterring drug trafficking, at least part of the motivation for greater security is that the number of Central American migrants who enter the United States without permission has increased, most of them escaping from extreme poverty and an inability to provide food for their families; others escaping recruitment and violence by criminal gangs. The logic of the United States government appears to be that it’s cheaper and easier to stop Central Americans at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize than at the US border with Mexico.
Central American migrants are easy prey for corrupt immigration officials, powerful street gangs and drug traffickers who extort money from migrants and/or their families on their travels through Mexico. According to the Times article, 10,000 Central American migrants have disappeared each year in Mexico since 2008. Yet, it is often the immigration authorities that tip off criminal gangs as to the migrants’ whereabouts. Once immigration authorities tip off the criminal gangs, migrants fall victim to rape, torture, extortion and even death. So the question is whether pouring money and equipment into a corrupt system would benefit the migrants or deter drug trafficking.
The emphasis of the Times article is on migrant crossings in the southwest corner of Chiapas, where Central Americans cross the Suchiate River and then make their way north to Arriaga, Chiapas, to hop on the infamous freight train known as The Beast, (La Bestia) or the Train of Death, bound for Mexico City and points north. The difficulties encountered on this journey by the migrants, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, come alive in Sin Nombre, an excellent film produced by Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal.
As can be seen from the above map, Mexico’s southern border extends from the Pacific Coast of Chiapas to the Caribbean, where the Mexican state of Quintana Roo shares a border with Belize. The Mexican states of Tabasco and Campeche also share some of the border with Central America.
The “integral security project”
Current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has said through his Interior Minister, Miguel Osorio Chong, that Mexico will not build a wall, but rather an integral security project. Details of that integral policy and the three-tier security ring were announced in March 2014 and are now being implemented. First, the new plan contains both land and sea containment belts. There will be three vigilance belts that make use of radar, police and military actions, as well as intelligence (for locating and disarticulating criminal gangs). The vigilance belts are intended to be a barrier to illegal activity. Personnel from the Army and/or Navy; state and municipal police; ministerial, customs, migratory and agricultural agents will participate at the “points of containment.” According to Osorio Chong, these agents from the three levels of government will be mixed together at the points of containment so that they can watch each other and denounce corruption from inside.
The first containment ring will be implemented at key points of Chiapas. The second tier will be in Tabasco and the third on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Chiapas NGOs belonging to the Network for Peace state that: “… on May 14, Phase II of the Southern Border Operation was initiated in five municipalities of the state of Chiapas, located in the conflict zone, and in which members of the Secretary of National Defense, the Mexican Navy, the PGR (Attorney General), PF (Federal Police), INM (Immigration officials) and state and municipal police participate.” The statement continues: “We reject the policies and strategies of militarization and criminalization of social protest in the southern border states of Mexico, and especially in conflict zones, which make the indigenous communities vulnerable, principally the women and small children.”
The governments call it “security,” but in reality it’s additional militarization of an already highly militarized state.