Nelson leaned a flattened smart TV box against a tree, adjusting it to provide shade for his wife, who was lying down on the sidewalk to rest. It was pushing 100 degrees, hot even for Tapachula, a city in southern Mexico 11 miles from the closest official border crossing with Guatemala. The couple had been living in the streets since arriving in late January, but they were homeless before leaving Honduras too.
Nelson and his wife, Maura, are from Puerto Cortés, a Caribbean port city in northwestern Honduras. Along with other migrants and asylum-seekers interviewed for this story, they requested that only their first names be used to avoid risks to their security or immigration status. Nelson and Maura owned their modest home in Honduras, but it was near the edge of a large lagoon. When hurricanes Eta and Iota swept through Central America in November, the swollen Chamelecón River fed the lagoon faster than it could empty into the sea, flooding their neighborhood.
“The flooding took everything away,” Nelson told The Intercept. They were able to stay temporarily in a makeshift shelter in a kindergarten but eventually ended up living on the side of a road under a plastic tarp. Between the hurricane devastation and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there was no work available to alleviate their situation and very little humanitarian aid. “We lived in the encampment in the street until we came here,” said Nelson.
The couple made it to Mexico 12 days after a significant and much publicized deployment of immigration officials and military and National Guard troops to the southern border, but none were in sight. The Suchiate River separating Guatemala and Mexico was low enough that Nelson and Maura could wade across, and it was not until later in Tapachula that they witnessed Mexico’s militarized immigration enforcement.
“The response of the Biden administration is very similar to the response of the Trump administration.”
Militarization and crackdowns on migrants and asylum-seekers extend more than a thousand miles south of the U.S. border. Periodic shows of force at Mexico’s southern border tend to occur when there’s heightened U.S. pressure and attention on Central American migration, particularly in the context of highly visible “migrant caravan” groups. But more often than not, operations are less geographically concentrated and tend to fly under the radar. It’s not just migrants and asylum-seekers transiting the country who are the targets of militarized immigration operations, but also people seeking asylum in southern Mexico. The specifics are often in flux, but the bigger picture remains the same: The militarization of immigration enforcement far south of the U.S. border has been increasing and is U.S.-driven.
“With the new administration in the U.S., many people had expectations for a potential change in focus. We have been more wary from the beginning,” Yuriria Salvador, coordinator for structural change at the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, told The Intercept in the courtyard of the organization’s office in Tapachula. “The response of the Biden administration is very similar to the response of the Trump administration.”
A Show of Force
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters on April 12 that the Biden administration had secured commitments from the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to increase border security. “I think the objective is to make it more difficult to make the journey and make crossing the border more — more difficult,” Psaki said at the briefing.
The Guatemalan government was quick to issue a statement countering the notion that there was any agreement and clarified that the deployment of 1,500 police and military personnel mentioned by Psaki was a temporary response to a caravan. The Honduran government likewise insisted that there was no deal. Following the confusion and contradictions, Ricardo Zúñiga, U.S. special envoy for Central America’s Northern Triangle, revisited the issue and stated that there were ongoing bilateral discussions but not any new agreements.
Mexico’s response was more ambiguous. “Mexico made the decision to maintain 10,000 troops at its southern border, resulting in twice as many daily migrant interdictions,” Psaki said on April 12. The Mexican government clarified that its efforts involved 12,000 people, though not just troops and not just to the southern border. The government did mention an agreement concerning efforts to address the migration of minors but did not provide any details.
Mexico’s National Institute of Immigration, or INM, declined to provide The Intercept with estimates of how many personnel had been deployed to the southern border states of Chiapas and Tabasco, instead highlighting that the inter-institutional actions were intended “to identify and, when applicable, provide care for migrant minors.” National and state-level agencies for the protection of children and teenagers are part of the coordinated Mexican response. But so are the army, the navy, and the National Guard.
“There’s confusion about the agreement. There could at least be clear communication,” said Salvador. “However, regardless of whether it exists on paper or not, there have been meetings and coordination.”
“There’s confusion about the agreement. There could at least be clear communication.”
Mexico’s border restrictions are clearer than whatever commitment it might have made to the U.S. regarding deployment. In March, overland entry at the southern border was restricted to essential travel only. The measure was extended for another month in late April. Restrictions on nonessential travel at Mexico’s northern border only apply to states with high Covid-19 risk, and only one of the six border states is currently high risk. At the southern border, though, restrictions remain in place regardless of Covid-19 risk levels.
Most migrants and asylum-seekers crossing from Guatemala into Mexico are not doing so at official border crossings and were therefore unaffected by the land border restrictions. But shortly after announcing the restrictions, the Mexican government also announced the mass inter-institutional deployments to the southern border. Hundreds of immigration agents, National Guard troops, and other forces assembled in cities in Chiapas and Tabasco.
Fernando watched the troops assemble in Tapachula 10 days after he arrived from western Honduras. “They put on like a show,” he told The Intercept. “I saw it and I just thought, ‘Why are they doing this?’”
Threats from gang members were the main reason Fernando fled Honduras, but like many migrants and asylum-seekers, there was not just one factor driving his decision. Fernando also lost his jobs at the outset of the pandemic, when lockdowns brought an end to his work as a bicycle taxi driver and in a coffee processing plant. Then flooding from hurricanes Eta and Iota damaged his family’s home, appliances, and other belongings. He was fleeing violence but also needed to be able to work to support his baby daughter.
Since arriving in Tapachula just over a month ago, Fernando has been living in the street, sleeping on flattened pizza boxes and other pieces of cardboard that he finds around town. He and several other Central Americans pooled some money to buy a kilogram of tortillas, thick cream, and a three-liter bottle of soda to feed themselves and others who had nothing to eat.
They had just finished their collective meal when four cousins who said they were fleeing gang violence in the Honduran capital stopped by to ask about routes to continue north. Like Fernando, they had no problem crossing the Suchiate River into Mexico and easily skirted a militarized immigration checkpoint along the way, but routes north from Tapachula through the state of Chiapas are often riddled with checkpoints and enforcement operations. For the past several years, Mexico has deported or otherwise returned more Hondurans than the United States, and roughly as many Guatemalans.
In the first four months of this year, 31,842 people — roughly half of them from Honduras — requested asylum in Mexico.
Fernando explained that he chose the less risky albeit much longer option of applying for protection and a visa in Tapachula, processes that will likely take three to six months. Asylum applications in Mexico have increased drastically over the past eight years, with the exception of last year, when the pandemic limited mobility. In the first four months of this year, 31,842 people — roughly half of them from Honduras — requested asylum in Mexico, and officials expect that applications could reach 90,000 in 2021, breaking the 2019 record. More than two-thirds applied in Tapachula. Some want to remain in Mexico, while others hope to obtain temporary protection and immigration status that will enable them to travel legally through Mexico to the U.S. border.
Immigration agents, the National Guard, and other security forces do not just carry out identification checks and enforcement operations at the border. They also do so within Tapachula, frequently in the city’s central plaza in the evening and sometimes in neighborhoods with high concentrations of migrant residents. Samuel, a Haitian asylum-seeker who requested that his name be changed, has been subject to documentation checks a few times during his several months waiting for a resolution to his request for protection. “Sometimes they treat us like criminals,” he told The Intercept.
“We are still facing the mentality of ‘the enemy,’” said Salvador, of the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center. “It creates an atmosphere of much more racism and xenophobia in the city.” Migrants and asylum-seekers are the main targets of anti-migrant discourse and enforcement operations, she said, but sometimes Mexican advocates observing operations or defending migrant rights have also been detained.
Migrant advocates in Tapachula told The Intercept they were deeply concerned about a local report of joint operations by immigration officials and the National Guard right outside the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, or COMAR, late one night at the end of March. So many people request protection that if they aren’t in line well before dawn, they are unlikely to get in on any given day. As a result, most people planning on requesting asylum spend the night outside the office, and nighttime enforcement operations there would inherently target asylum-seekers in line to begin the process.
Mexico’s immigration agency stated that it had no knowledge of any immigration enforcement operations outside the COMAR office. “INM personnel in the municipality of Tapachula in Chiapas have no record of operations carried out in the vicinity of the [COMAR] office nor does it have any record of any complaints to that effect,” INM told The Intercept.
Asylum-seekers tell a different story. Five Central Americans who have been living in the streets in the vicinity of the COMAR office in Tapachula all described the same late-night operations over the past month and a half by the National Guard and INM. According to the asylum-seekers, INM and National Guard personnel have been carrying out regular documentation checks and detentions right outside the COMAR office for weeks, usually between 11 p.m. and midnight.
Feliciana listened to the descriptions of the late-night detentions with concern. She had not made it to the COMAR office on a Friday in time to get in and would have to wait until Monday to request asylum. A single mother, she left Guatemala with her children after assailants shot at her house, presumably in retribution for violence carried out by one of her relatives. Feliciana and her kids fled, leaving nearly everything behind, she said. She requested that her real name not be used for security reasons.
“People are leaving because they badly need to.”
“I was so scared the whole way here,” she told The Intercept. “I am still scared.”
Like many Central Americans fleeing violence, Feliciana worries that she might be easy to find right across the border in Tapachula if she sticks around for months in the hopes of obtaining legal status. But she also worries about the risk of getting caught and sent back if she decides to head north. Feliciana also finds it deplorable that Guatemala is following in Mexico’s footsteps and ramping up militarized crackdowns on migrants and asylum-seekers in transit.
“I lived in Honduras, and I know how it is,” she said. “People are leaving because they badly need to.”