Mexico has quickly become a major site of transmigration from Central America to the United States, as people move in search of employment opportunities or escape from social violence. This rise in migrant flows from Mexico’s southern border overlaps with problems of control of contraband, organised crime, and the trafficking of drugs and arms. However, the government’s militarised approach to the phenomenon means that the use of force and human rights violations go unresolved and military approaches to preserving public order go unchecked. As long as migration remains a security issue, instead of a developmental and human rights matter, it will not be tackled appropriately. Instead, the government must start to view the matter through a citizen, not national, security lens.

Celaya - Mexico On the freight train that drive along the south states of Mexico towards north regions, every years thousands of central -american  illegal migrants, travel on the wagon roofs. risking so their life for reach the United States border. Source: The Borderland Chronicles

Mexico has rapidly developed into a major country of origin, destination, return and transit for migrants. The situation of undocumented transmigrants, most of them Central Americans headed for the United States in search of dignified job opportunities or fleeing social violence back home, has lately attracted particular attention. With limited resources and no permit to enter Mexico, they are required to cross the country clandestinely and vulnerable to abuse by criminal groups and corrupt state agents. The National Commission of Human Rights and civil society groups have for years beendocumenting the violence, exploitation and humiliations facing transmigrants, including robberies, sexual violence, torture, homicides, and especially kidnappings and extortion.

Human rights on shaky grounds

Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico, 2011 A family from Honduras rest  in a  church in the outskirts of the city of Coatzacoalcos as they wait for the next train to pass by. Source: The Borderland Chronicles

One of the milestones for human rights in Mexico was set with the 2011 constitutional reform that granted constitutional status to all human rights enshrined in the international treaties to which Mexico is party. For migrants, however, the panorama has not brightened much. The massacre of 72 migrants that had occurred in San Fernando, in the northern state of Tamaulipas, in August 2010, provided the impetus for the adoption of a new Migration Law. Published in May 2011, it entered only tardily into force with the publication of its Regulations in September 2012.

Initially, the legislation was hailed as an advance for migrant rights. Unlike the previously applicable General Population Law, it establishes that irregular entry into Mexico is not a crime. But its structural flaw is that while it demands the authorities respect the rights of all migrants, irrespective of their legal status, it also deems migration an issue of national security. The latter, according to the National Security Law, is to be understood as the actions designed to maintain the integrity, stability, and permanence of the Mexican state. In other words, the Migration Law maintains a criminalising approach towards undocumented migrants and effectively paves the way for racial and ethnic profiling in migration checks; corruption; and migrant detention as an instrument for the preservation of public order.

Mexico’s migration policy, designed by the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB), has direct bearing on migration management, carried out by the National Migration Institute (INM). The latter has adhered to the perspective of national security since its 2005 designation as a national security agency. In practice this has meant that INM agents receive training in human rights as well as in national security and subjects related to interrogation and the use of force; abuse and humiliate undocumented migrants during control operations; and administer migrant detention centres that are prison-like installations with very limited access for civil society groups and journalists interested in documenting the human rights situation in these facilities.

If anything, this stance has hardened with the current Commissioner, former police and intelligence official Ardelio Vargas, who was appointed in January 2013 and has vouched to implement the migration policy from a national security lens. For the authorities it is necessary to apply this perspective, because migration flows have diversified over time and now comprise not only persons seeking better job opportunities, but also individuals who smuggle migrants or collaborate with criminal gangs. Managing migration from a national security standpoint, therefore, allows Mexico to shield both its borders and honest migrants against unsavoury elements.

Edging closer to national security?

The 2012 presidential victory of Enrique Peña Nieto marked the return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that had ruled Mexico between 1929 and 2000 and left an indelible mark on state-society relations. Alarmingly, the current administration appears determined to defend the nexus between migration and national security. For the authorities this approach is warranted, because migration flows are unfolding in the context of organised crime, which found in undocumented migration a new criminal niche once the Felipe Calderón administration (2006-2012) had declared its war on drug trafficking. The fight against organised crime, however, has blended with migration control such that the social phenomenon of migration is now considered and tackled as a security threat, not as a human rights issue.

The rhetorical intent to do so, at least, is expressed in the sectorial plans, planning instruments that contain the objectives and strategies that seek to strengthen government actions and respond to the needs and policies outlined in the National Development Plan, itself the blueprint that governs  the programme and budget formulation of the entire Federal Public Administration. The sectorial plans that are of particular interest for this discussion are those of the SEGOB and the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA).

The SEGOB document adopts a multidimensional approach to national security that is meant to identify external and internal dynamics that might come to constitute risks and threats to the integrity and stability of the Mexican state. These dynamics are of a social, environmental, economic, political, technological, and demographic nature and include examples such as organised-crime-related violence, terrorism, migration, the trafficking of arms, persons and drugs, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

For the SEGOB, the need to respond effectively to migration to and from Mexico requires the government to foster inter-institutional cooperation through a comprehensive migration policy (set out in the forthcoming Special Migration Programme 2014-2018), one that is able to take into account the multiple dimensions of migration, to leverage its development potential, and to minimise its costs. As the phrasing suggests, the country is prepared to welcome skilled migrants, but will deter undocumented ones. The plan acknowledges that Mexico faces the difficult task of balancing national sovereignty with migrant rights, yet it has little more to say on the subject than reiterating the need to transform the INM. The latter, it is worth pointing out, has been an oft-stated yet never accomplished ambition.

The second text affirms that the SEDENA has an essential role to play in preserving internal security and strengthening democratic institutions. In view of the unprecedented insecurity associated with organised crime, which also found a criminal niche in migrant kidnappings, the Armed Forces responded to the civilian authorities’ call for assistance by maintaining nationwide deployments, particularly the country’s most sensitive areas.

Of particular relevance is the plan’s commitment to boosting border security, given the vulnerability that arises especially at the southern border with multidimensional problems such as the control of contraband and migrant flows, organised crime, and the trafficking of drugs and arms. These dynamics, the SEDENA believes, require it to maintain a permanent of some 30,000 troops and to cooperate with the Armed Forces of Belize and Guatemala as well as with the Federal Police and the Attorney General’s Office in the country’s crucial zones. The SEDENA document, more than its SEGOB equivalent, suggests that far from making greater strides towards respecting migrant rights, Mexico will perpetuate the circle of exclusion, violence, and corruption. Rather than moving towards a human rights perspective, Mexico chooses to embrace wealthier, skilled migrants while closing its doors to poorer, untrained ones.

The United States, Mexico, and Central America are partnering to promote border security, but these efforts not only fail to impede migration flows, but also expose migrants to greater danger and –given the ineffective fight against corruption–to continued abuse by state agents who know they can prey on migrants with impunity. At the same time, the creation of a militarised security corridor stretching from the Central American isthmus up to the United States can also be deployed to suppress social dissent against the expansion of infrastructure projects that primarily serve the interests of transnational enterprises or against mining projects that have a devastating impact on the environment and local communities’ access to water.

Towards a citizen security framework

In order for its migration policy and management to be more effective and humane, Mexico will need to undertake a host of changes, starting with the professionalisation, transparency, and accountability of the INM. However, irrespective of the extent to which this may be achieved, the treatment of migrants is unlikely to change as long as migration is linked to national security and Mexico acts as a filter for undocumented migration to the United States. Instead, the latter will need to be understood as a development and human rights issue. Above all, it will need to be approached from the perspective not of national security, but of citizen security.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, citizen security is the “social situation in which all persons are free to enjoy their fundamental rights and public institutions have sufficient capacity…to guarantee the exercise of those rights and respond effectively when they are violated.” This definition leaves no doubt that the central objective must be to protect the person, rather than the state. The application of a citizen security approach to migration would require the Mexican state not only to avoid military participation in internal security and migration control, but also to take seriously the professionalisation of the INM (including adequate recruitment and training, the creation of a human rights culture, decent remuneration, and an effective sanctions system) and to establish oversight mechanisms that will foster transparency and accountability.

As long as the Mexican government remains unprepared to pursue a different migration policy, citizens will need to play a greater role in pressuring it to do so. Civil society groups have a relevant role to play in sensitising the population and creating the political will to prioritise the human rights and development aspects of migration over security.

Sonja Wolf is a researcher at the Institute for Security and Democracy (INSYDE), Mexico City. She has acted as project coordinator and principal investigator of INSYDE’s Assessment Study of Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), the first comprehensive study to examine the INM’s institutional and migration management and the ways in which it facilitates corruption and migrant abuse.

Featured imageMigrants traveling on the roof of a freight train near Ixtepec, Oaxaca.SourceCIP Americas


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