Biden’s Border Agenda Collides With the Realities of Mexico’s Violence

In regions wracked by the drug war, the U.S. and Mexico remain hooked on militarization.

Migrants in Nogales Mexico march to the border wall to draw attention to myriad injustices faced while waiting for a chance to plead for asylum in the USA. Friday, April 30, 2021
Esmerelda, a migrant and organizer, is seen at the U.S.-Mexico border wall after leading a demonstration to draw attention to myriad injustices faced while waiting for a chance to plead for asylum, on April 30, 2021, in Nogales, Mexico. Photo: Ash Ponders

The families gathered in a plaza on the northern edge of Nogales, Sonora, two blocks south of the border wall. Most were mothers, many with small children, though young men circulated through the crowd as well. Esmerelda waved from under the shade of a tree. We had met the month before at a local migrant shelter, where she relayed story of her family’s two-year odyssey fleeing violence in the state of Guerrero. We chatted for a moment, but the mother of four was clearly busy.

In her hand, Esmerelda carried a printout of the day’s agenda, which included a march through the city streets. Esmerelda would lead the April 30 action, as she had since the “Save Asylum” protests first became a regular event in Nogales late last year.

The last time the demonstrators met was on January 19, the eve of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. After four years of President Donald Trump and the systematic dismantling of asylum at the border, people like Esmerelda had reason to believe that change was coming. One hundred days into the new administration, however, conditions on the ground were largely the same — and in some ways, they were getting worse. Now, instead of targeting the policies of Trump, the protesters were calling on Biden to immediately change course on the border.

This week, Kamala Harris will meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in her first foreign trip as vice president. Harris will be touching down at a critical time. On Sunday, Mexico held its largest national elections in history. Though political violence has long haunted Mexico, the runup to this year’s contest was particularly bad, with 89 politicians assassinated in a matter of months.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador delivers a press conference about the results of Sunday's midterm elections at the National Palace in Mexico City on June 7, 2021. - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Monday his ruling coalition was on course to retain its control of the lower house, despite a setback in legislative elections he called "free and fair." (Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AE / AFP) (Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AE/AFP via Getty Images)

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador delivers a press conference about the results of Mexico’s midterm elections at the National Palace in Mexico City on June 7, 2021.

Photo: Alfredo Estrella/AE/AFP via Getty Images

The killings add to a broader pattern of violence that followed Mexico’s 2006 deployment of troops into the streets in a self-described war on drug trafficking. In the decade-and-a-half since then, more than 412,500 people have been killed and more than 82,000 others have disappeared, often at the hands of Mexican security forces. Areas in the north of the country have transformed into hunting grounds for criminal groups and security elements that prey on recent deportees and migrants. The United States, as a government and a nation, is entangled in these conditions in innumerable ways: legally and illegally serving as a cash and weapons source for all parties involved; providing key intelligence that helped fracture drug trafficking organizations into smaller, endlessly warring entities with ever-widening criminal portfolios that include migrant kidnapping and extortion; and giving training and a veneer of legitimacy to Mexican security forces with well-documented histories of human rights abuses at the local, state, and federal level.

The current presidents of both Mexico and the U.S. came to office promising a safer world for migrants traversing this perilous landscape. So far, neither have delivered, and there is little evidence suggesting a plan to address the complex problem of violence and human rights abuses carried out by security forces on Mexican soil.

“We’re seeing a very troubling tendency from the Biden administration to repeat the same flawed logic of the Trump administration,” Stephanie Brewer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization focused on Latin America, recently told me. While López Obrador insisted that he would not do the “dirty work” of the Trump administration by cracking down on migrants traveling north through Mexico, that’s exactly what happened, with the Mexican National Guard and the military serving as shock troops in U.S.-supported interdiction operations. Government documents obtained by BuzzFeed News last week indicate that Harris plans to pressure her Mexican counterparts to further ramp up their migrant interdiction operations.

When discussing the border, top Biden administration officials have focused heavily on addressing the “root causes” of migration through Mexico, particularly among Central Americans. “Of course that’s the right focus, but that is a long-term focus,” Brewer said. “In the shorter term, the priority of the United States has very much been having Mexico block people’s path through the country, block the number of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and also accept back people being expelled from the U.S. border.”

One of the dangers of this approach, Brewer argued, is that a myopic interest in reducing the number of people who come to the border is leaving no room for other critical and necessary conversations about the abysmal state of security in Mexico and the relationship of the governments on both sides of the border to that reality.

“We’re seeing a very troubling tendency from the Biden administration to repeat the same flawed logic of the Trump administration.”

In an analysis published last month, Brewer detailed the staggering human toll that militarization in Mexico has taken and traced a growing “militarism” in Mexico, with the Mexican military, as an institution, taking on new roles in Mexican society. As a candidate, López Obrador vowed to turn the tide on the militarization of Mexico, declaring a formal end to the drug war after taking office in December 2018. As president, he created the National Guard as a force that would, in theory, replace the troops deployed into the streets a decade-and-a-half ago. Though ostensibly a civil law enforcement agency, the guard is in fact made up almost entirely of military personnel and has a well-documented propensity for human rights abuses.

“We’ve seen very little emphasis from the Biden administration on any other issue, at least publicly,” Brewer said of the White House focus on migration interdiction. “It would seem that between prioritizing Mexico’s role of a migration enforcer and not wanting to cause further discomfort or offense by touching upon uncomfortable issues with the López Obrador administration, in between that mix, we’re not seeing a clear proposal or clear progress on kind of rebuilding and improving the shared vision of security.”

HERMOSILLO, MEXICO - OCTOBER 04: Navy officers patrol the streets during an official visit of the President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at Hector Espino Stadium on October 4, 2020 in Hermosillo, Mexico. (Photo by Luis Gutierrez/Norte Photo/Getty Images)

Navy officers patrol the streets during an official visit at Hector Espino Stadium on Oct. 4, 2020, in Hermosillo, Mexico.

Photo: Luis Gutierrez/Norte Photo/Getty Images

Not One More Day

In her meeting with López Obrador this week, Harris is expected to call on the Mexican president to increase cooperation on Title 42, a controversial public health order that has choked off asylum access at U.S. ports and allowed for more than 730,000 summary “expulsions” of men, women, and children over the border in the past year.

As The Intercept reported in March, the bottleneck caused by the Title 42 rule has fueled a rise in violence and extortion of migrants in Nogales, both at the hands of organized crime and, in particular, by Mexican security forces at the federal level. Borderwide, human rights organizations have tallied hundreds of cases of kidnapping, rape, assault, and other abuses targeting individuals expelled under the order since Biden took office.

An immediate end to the policy was the principal demand of the protesters gathered in Nogales in April. With a microphone in hand, Esmerelda stood at the head of the march as they took their first steps into the city streets.

“It’s very dangerous here. It’s too dangerous.”

“Not one more day!” the marchers chanted in Spanish as they headed north on the main thoroughfare. The passive reactions of bystanders on the street offered little insight into the local view of the asylum-seekers, and there were no visible indications of the violence that has gripped the state of Sonora in recent months — but scratch a little deeper, and signs of fear were there.

Isabel and Saria, from Honduras and Guatemala, respectively, both came to the border with their children earlier this year, and both agreed that Nogales was not safe for asylum-seekers like themselves. “It’s very dangerous here. It’s too dangerous,” Saria told me before the march kicked off, adding that the presence of organized crime, referred to locally as la mafia, was pervasive.

April marked the deadliest month in Sonora in more than two decades. Just one day before the asylum-seekers marched, Mexican soldiers opened fire on suspected cartel members in Nogales in broad daylight. Two weeks before that, narco gunmen shot up a government helicopter with a .50 caliber sniper rifle near the municipality of Santa Ana. The following day saw reports of some 60 cartel fighters ambushing the Mexican military near the community of Cerro Cañedo; eight people were killed, including a Mexican soldier. A few weeks later, on World Press Freedom Day, the bullet-riddled body of Benjamín Morales Hernández, a kidnapped journalist from the border town of Sonoyta, was found on a notoriously dangerous stretch of highway that leads to Arizona. The engine of the reporter’s vehicle was still running when police arrived. Morales’ murder underscored how Sonora has transformed into a “war zone” for journalists and the public, argued Balbina Flores Martínez, a representative with Reporters Without Borders in Mexico. In the past year alone, three Sonoran journalists have been killed on the job. Two more are currently missing, helping to cement Mexico’s place as the most dangerous country on the planet for working reporters.

The factors contributing to insecurity in Sonora are in many ways emblematic of the terror and violence that have gripped large chunks of Mexico, featuring a swirling mix of criminal power struggles and highly unaccountable, and highly militarized, Mexican security forces. Since late last year, the sons of world-famous Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera have been at war, both on social media and in real life, with forces reportedly loyal to Rafael Caro Quintero, also one of the most well-known Mexican drug bosses of all time, over access to the lucrative smuggling routes into Arizona. At the same time, Sonora has seen an infusion of federal security forces over the past two years, including the nation’s elite marines and its National Guard, in a pilot program aimed at replacing local enforcement that began in 2019. In the two years since, Emilio Hoyos, a security expert with the Sonora Observatory for Security, told me, the five municipalities where the security program was launched have been home to 70 percent of the state’s homicides.

“We don’t leave the house.”

It was against this backdrop of insecurity that the protesters in Nogales arrived at a stand of palo verde trees near the base of the border wall. Jesús, a skinny 21-year-old from the restive Mexican state of Michoacán, told the crowd that Biden’s first months in office amounted to “100 days of fear.” When I caught up with him later, the young man described in simple terms the mechanism that he and his partner have developed for surviving in Nogales: “We don’t leave the house.”

As the crowd thinned out, Esmerelda and I were left to catch up. She and her family came to the border fleeing death threats against her husband, a local police officer in Guerrero, in November 2019. They did what U.S. officials publicly advised them to do, seeking asylum at the port rather than paying a smuggler to take them into the desert. Instead of sitting down with an asylum officer to explain their ordeal, as is their right under domestic and international law, Esmerelda and her family were given a number and told to wait in Mexico. Weeks turned to months, and one year bled into the next; Esmerelda’s husband was repeatedly beaten and robbed by la mafia in the streets of Nogales. He was threatened not to say a word.

In the weeks since we last spoke, Esmerelda had made contact with an attorney in Arizona. This was an indisputably positive development — in an immigration system in which access to counsel is not guaranteed, asylum-seekers with lawyers fare far better than those without — and yet Esmerelda’s capacity for optimism was crowded out by fear. The previous week, her husband had received a call on his cellphone. He heard a child’s voice on the line, pleading for help and claiming to be his son. He believed the call was authentic and panicked. It was only later, when he reached his family, that he learned that his son was safe. The family had been extorted before, Esmerelda told me, and after a year-and-a-half in Nogales, it felt as though the danger was closing in. Just days before the march, on the very street where we now stood, Esmerelda had watched a mafioso beat a man in full public view while his associate filmed on a cellphone.

“Here in Nogales, on this border, there’s no security for us. The only thing I want is to protect my children.”

“Here in Nogales, on this border, there’s no security for us,” she said. “The only thing I want is to protect my children.”

Early last month, Esmerelda’s resilience finally paid off: She received word from her lawyer that her asylum application had been approved. She had permission to enter the U.S. and begin her case. Still, Esmerelda worried. While her application had been granted, those of her husband and oldest son were still up in the air.

“They’re the most threatened here in Nogales and run the most risk of being killed,” Esmerelda wrote in a text message. She described the psychological trauma her children would suffer if their father were taken from them. “They’re probably going to separate us,” she said. “I’m scared.”

Days went by without word. Then, on May 12, Esmerelda sent another message. One year, six months, and five days after she first arrived to the border, Esmerelda had taken her first steps onto U.S. soil. Her entire family was with her. “We came to the land of liberty,” she wrote, adding a prayer-hands emoji to her message.

Esmerelda and her family were among the lucky ones. The next day, miles to the south in the Sonoran city of Ciudad Obregón, Albel Murrieta, a candidate for mayor of the municipality of Cajeme, was shot dead at point-blank range in broad daylight while handing out campaign flyers. Shortly before his murder, Murrieta had released a video assuring his supporters of his commitment to cleaning up Cajeme, telling them, “I am not afraid.”

Join The Conversation