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The other US border: Mexico’s militarisation of migration

AMLO's myopic migration policies fixate on securitising a humanitarian issue



  • The harsh militarisation of Mexico’s southern border is affecting migrants from Central America, disincentivising migration and thus leaving some stranded in precarious conditions in the Northern Triangle.
  • Militarising the southern border makes it more dangerous for migrants to cross, meaning some attempt to cross at more dangerous points where criminal groups have more influence.
  • AMLO’s humanitarian ‘open doors’ rhetoric is directly contradicted by his violent policies.
  • If Mexico is to return to being a destination country, rather than simply a country of passage for migrants, it must legitimise – rather than securitise – the reasons why so many Central Americans choose to leave their homes.

When Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ran for office, his rhetoric towards migration was permeated by an optimistic and welcoming tone that promised Mexico would offer ‘open doors’ to migrants from the Northern Triangle. Nowadays, the radical opposite is seemingly true. 

The launch of the ‘Humanitarian Rescue Operative’ ironically featured a military-style parade, spearheaded by the National Guard and the National Migration Institute (INM). On paper, the launch was meant to mark the start of a strategy to keep migration safe and orderly. Instead, it emitted a symbolic message of impenetrable borders. Dangerously, these policies are heightening the risks of migration and are perpetrating a vicious cycle where the desperation of asylum seekers and migrants is completely ignored. 

Hollow humanitarian promises 

The phrasing of Mexico’s migration policy borders on Orwellian. The director of the INM, Francisco Garduño Yáñez, has claimed that recent border operations – featuring troops armed with riot gear – are being implemented to ‘protect Central American children’ from smugglers or from criminal networks that use them as pawns for safe border passage. Yáñez insists that ‘Mexico is working to maintain regular, safe, and orderly migration flows with total respect to human dignity’. 

Between January and August of 2021, the Refugee Agency of Mexico (COMAR) received a record of 77,559 asylum requests, with 55,000 of those requests originating from the border town of Tapachula, in Chiapas. Nevertheless, Mexico’s definition of ‘protection’ seems to be fixated on pushing migrants and asylum seekers to pursue irregular migration routes, complicate their access to humanitarian protection, and expose them to crime and human trafficking. 

‘Week after week we see the refusal of entry to asylum seekers who arrive at official crossing points,’ comments Yuriria Salvador from the Fray Matías Human Rights Centre in Chiapas. ‘Their first point of contact is a security agent who has no training in human rights treatment’, she tells me. This rejection forces the majority to cross into Mexico through la balsa (the pond, or the raft) – crossing through the Río Suchiate that borders Guatemala on makeshift boats, immediately giving them an illegal status in Mexico. ‘The authorities themselves create incentives for the migrant population to cross illegally; there is no clear route’. 

‘The authorities themselves create incentives for the migrant population to cross illegally; there is no clear route’. 

Irregularity, however, represents only the first hurdle in trying to cross into Mexico. If asylum seekers and migrants manage to access the COMAR office located in Tapachula 25 kilometres away from the Guatemala-Mexico border, they can officialise their status in Mexico. This – as might be expected – is easier said than done. The heightened demand for asylum stemming from gang conflicts, natural disasters, and gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle translates into hour-long queues outside COMAR offices, which reportedly have exposed migrants to raids and detentions by the National Guard and the INM.

‘When we talk about the militarisation of the southern border and crackdowns, it’s not just on the border, it’s very much in the southern region where migrants would be seeking to travel north’, highlights Stephanie Brewer, Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Although in theory these migration detention centres are designed for purely administrative reasons, they instead follow a carceral logic and fail to fulfill minimum international standards. The migration centre in Huehuetan, according to Salvador, detained 25 people in a 4m x 4m space with no sanitary measures to account for the COVID-19 pandemic – ‘they are punishment centres, the right to asylum and to migrate is being punished’. At the very least, detainees are held in the centres for 45 working days, with 80% of the migrant population being deported as a final outcome.

Even more concerningly, 90% of unaccompanied minors are deported without rigorous procedures. These numbers and conditions continue to push migrants and asylum seekers to migrate irregularly because there simply are no routes to safely do so. 

With no political will come no resources

If migration in Mexico were to genuinely be regular, safe, and orderly, the expectation would be that words would be followed by actions – more resources, training in human rights, and a clampdown on smugglers. However, Brewer points out that ‘the Mexican government hasn’t clearly shown the will to step up to the current reality and really strengthen and facilitate access to its asylum system; make sure that it’s fully, properly resourced’. 

To start with, COMAR remains understaffed, underfunded, and doesn’t have the ideal capacity to deal with the tens of thousands of asylum requests it is currently receiving. In the national budget proposed for 2021, aid to refugees was decreased by 14.3%, the network of INM detention centres was strengthened, and 85.8% of the budget given to migration policy projects ended up in the coffers of the INM. With only eight COMAR offices throughout the whole country, the presence of migration agents trained in human rights is scant at best in the southern border. The lack of budget inevitably means that COMAR is depending on funding from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), truncating institutional capacity and constantly keeping COMAR on a lifeline. 

With only eight COMAR offices throughout the whole country, the presence of migration agents trained in human rights is scant at best in the southern border.

The effective institutional collapse of COMAR also entails there is no means to absorb – in a humanitarian way, at least – the high numbers of migrants that arrive in Tapachula, Chiapas, seeking to regularise their status in Mexico. ‘There is no inter-institutional coordination to adapt to the change, which should have been anticipated’, comments Salvador. ‘Cities like Tapachula do not have the infrastructural preparation to receive so many people’.

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Since the government refuses to step up, civil society is tasked with filling the void, mainly by setting up shelters with limited capacities of 200 to 300 people that fail to form a dent on the large refugee population arriving in Tapachula. The Jesús El Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante shelter, for instance, reportedly was housing 500 migrants, including 200 children, with a maximum capacity of 350 people. Due to the high number of migrants housed and the lack of budget, the centre has, on occasions, faced lack of food

Scant resources and infrastructural pressures are no antidotes to racism and xenophobia in border cities. If the response of the government to a large inflow of people of migrants is to deploy the National Guard and the army, a narrative of ‘the enemy’ is inevitably cultivated. ‘If you are a local, you see the situation, you are not sure how to react, so you look to the state who is reacting either with militarised measures or in a non-caring way, which is not going to be a positive influence in your attitude towards migrants and asylum seekers,’ emphasises Brewer. 

The militarisation of migration

The use of the army and private security is not an unprecedented phenomenon in Mexico. Previous administrations, usually at the behest of the United States, have resorted to the wrongful logic that military deployments will dissuade migration.

What’s worrying now is that the National Guard is nowhere close to a ‘civilian’ security force. When it was conceived at the beginning of AMLO’s administration, members of the Federal Police were meant to comprise the majority of the new institution. However, only around 18,240 transferred, meaning merely a quarter are civilian police and the rest are from the army or the navy.

The brutal nature of the National Guard has rung alarm bells. The National Court of Human Rights (CNDH) and the Inter-American Commission for Human rights criticised the National Guard’s response to the January 2020 migrants caravan due to its excessive use of force against migrants. Further, between July and November of 2019, the CNDH received 32 complaints of human rights violations committed by members of the National Guard, including accusations of migrant abuse, torture, and arbitrary detention. And on 31 August 2021, three United Nations agencies demanded that the Mexican government respect international standards for the use of public force, following the violent detention of 500 migrants in Mapastepec, Chiapas. 

‘Instead of taking proactive measures to implement adequate control mechanisms on the National Guard, the Mexican government is currently failing and refusing to comply with a standing order by the Inter-American Court of Human rights,’ Stephanie Brewer reveals. There has been pressure by the Court for the creation of an observatory to monitor and improve the accountability mechanisms on the use of force, yet no political will from the Mexican government has transpired.

The message being emitted from all of this directly contradicts the rhetoric permeating Mexico’s migration policy– there is no intention to protect the right to migrate, guarantee safe access to asylum, or ensure the integrity of the human rights of immigration populations from the Northern Triangle. 

Moving forward

Kamala Harris’s visits to Guatemala and Mexico had one main point to emphasise – the United States is fixated on tackling the root causes of migration. This rhetoric, however, completely obviates the urgency of migration and asylum seekers currently fleeing their countries, and operates on the assumption that aggressive military operations in the south will stop caravans from knocking on Mexico’s doors. If migration policies are to be genuinely humanitarian, the first step is for the United States to face the reality that migrants will not stop coming and to stop using Latin American countries as de facto interdiction states. 

‘Part of the problem is our mindset… we still think of migrants from Latin America not as refugees, but just as [people seeking economic opportunities]’ reveals Adam Isacson, Director of Defense Oversight at WOLA. These assumptions push the U.S to demand an increase in apprehensions at the border to demonstrate the impact of Mexico’s cooperation on migration and prevent deeper structural changes from occurring in the way asylum is considered and processed at both borders. 

This recognition, however, should equally be adopted by Mexico. Measures like discarding complicated bureaucracy that hinders the registration of migrants into the Mexican healthcare system, establishing structured migration routes that create safe flows of passage, and revitalising the budget of key organisations like COMAR would be a list of starting points.

These suggestions, however, represent only the surface of the problem. ‘The institutional discourse is racist and exclusionary and the approach to migration is totally militarised. That does not allow Mexico to be a destination country’, emphasises Salvador, ‘the good will of a political actor is not enough to achieve such a powerful transformation, it will be a structural change that will come about on a long-term basis’. 

With policy unreliably dictated by the volatile political will of different administrations, civil society will continue to play an important role in pressuring governments and advocating for humanitarian migration policies. Whilst the discourse on migration, looking back through the decades, seemingly remains unchanged, Mexico’s status as a passage country – rather than a destination country – has. Gravitating back to becoming a destination for migrants will depend on how it addresses the root causes of migration. More importantly, it will depend on legitimising, rather than securitising the reasons why so many Central Americans choose to leave their homes.

Main image: Clemente Castañeda/Facebook