“When an exodus of Central American children occurred this summer, the U.S. media focused on the arrival of more than 60,000 children in Nogales, Arizona, and McAllen, Texas, where the Department of Homeland Security detained thousands of kids in warehouses and Air Force bases. Border hawks were quick to pontificate about the porosity of the U.S.-Mexico divide, perhaps fetishizing a new Berlin Wall, armed with guards with shoot-to-kill orders. Never mind that parts of the U.S. southern international boundary already have massive walls where its guards have shot and killed across the line. What most coverage has ignored, though, is that only one part of the border battle with the refugee children is happening at the U.S. border. Thousands of miles to the south, the Mexican government is taking action to prevent migrants from moving north, essentially performing the tasks of the U.S. Border Patrol.
The U.S. border enforcement apparatus has thus been extended south, in what Border Patrol chief Mike Fisher calls a “layered approach.” As he says, according to the 2012–2016 Border Patrol strategy, “the U.S.-Mexico border is our last line of defense.” Now undocumented Central American border crossers confront such a layer in southern Mexico, 1,000 miles before touching U.S. soil.
Since July, there has been a surge of Mexican immigration agents, federal police and military — with a gauntlet of roadside checkpoints and sophisticated surveillance equipment at their disposal — in an enforcement belt that goes hundreds of miles into Mexico’s interior. “Subordination,” said Miguel Angel Paz of the Mexican immigration rights organization Voces Mesoamericanas, “is part of the relationship Mexico has with the United States.” The U.S. border enforcement regime has gone beyond policing the U.S.-Mexico divide to patrolling south to Central America, targeting the men, women and children seeking refuge in the north.
Arriaga in the Mexican state of Chiapas, which is on the border with Guatemala, is one such enforcement hot spot. When I visited the region in August, person after person there told me that the Central Americans were no longer here. From the train yard, they pointed down the metal rails of the infamous train dubbed la Bestia (the Beast), which runs through scraggly weeds into the coastal shrubbery. The Beast starts in Arriaga and proceeds north through Oaxaca and Veracruz, chugging its way toward Mexico City. Thousands of Central Americans have disappeared on the train along the route and in the surrounding rugged area — a “cemetery for the nameless,” according to Mexican priest Alejandro Solalinde. Apparently, if I walked for three miles, there would be border crossers hiding in the monte (the woodland), the locals told us.
Everyone in the broiling town of Arriaga, from migrants in a shelter to hotel owners, told me that the enforcement operations that began on Aug. 7 came directly from U.S. pressure. Though Arriaga is 150 miles north of the border, it is a target. The Mexican government’s immigration enforcement agents, often accompanied by soldiers or federal police, are stopping undocumented people from boarding the train. They are blocking off streets and raiding hotels. They are driving alongside the train every time it leaves and boarding it with blinding lights. They are scouring this small town of 25,000 for undocumented people in a way similar to massive raids we’ve seen stateside.
Only two months before I arrived, there was an intense Central American presence in the train yard, in hotels, at food stands and in the small, pretty central plaza. One hotelkeeper told me that one time 70 Guatemalans knelt and prayed in unison on the hotel’s patio before embarking on the Beast. This was normal before. This was before people such as U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul insisted, as he addressed the border crisis, that the United States needed to keep working with Mexico and Guatemala to tighten its border control.
On July 7, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the country’s Plan Frontera Sur, or Southern Border Plan. His Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong explained it a week later in a radio interview, saying, “Who doesn’t have the necessary documents to enter into our territory and enter the United States, we can’t allow them to be in our territory.”
Mexico has deported 60,000 people this year, more than half of them during the recent crackdown.
21st century border
The collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico has been going on for quite some time. What started with a U.S.-backed deportation campaign known as Plan Sur in 2000 has been transformed into what officials in 2010 dubbed the 21st century border. This is the official name of the third pillar of the Merida Initiative, a U.S. military aid package to Mexico. In 2014 alone, the United States designated $112 million to help modernize and make more efficient Mexico’s border policing and militarization.
Included, with additional funding from the Department of Defense, were X-ray vans, contraband detection kits, biometric kiosks and accompanying databases to store facial and retinal information and fingerprints. Included are funds for Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, the Mexican Marines and federal police for facility construction, patrol boats, night vision and communication equipment and maritime sensors. There are helicopters, which the Washington Office on Latin America says have been spotted in places near Mexico’s southern border. And there are the K-9 units, the drug and contraband-sniffing dogs.
All this material comes with training for customs, the marines, the federal police and the National Institute of Migration. And all this material increases the capacity for cross-border intelligence sharing.
Today the 2012 claim by U.S. Department of Homeland Security official and former border czar Alan Bersin that “the Guatemalan border with Chiapas, Mexico, is now our southern border” rings louder and clearer than ever.
At a military checkpoint, one of six between Guatemala and Arriaga, I watched a soldier question a man three seats in front of me on a bus. The soldier held a plastic laminated identification card that he flicked with his index finger. At each stop, immigration agents, police officers or military troops scrutinized every passenger. If something raised their suspicions, the questions began, and bags were searched. The agents removed a person without the requisite documents from the bus.
For the unauthorized, the journey has become one of evading an ever-expanding border enforcement apparatus. Even before getting to Arriaga, border crossers get out of transportation vans to walk around the checkpoints. They walked through gorgeous brilliant green mountains, sometimes crested with low clouds, accompanied by an intense, well-heeded fear of being targeted by robbers or police.
A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that Mexico’s enforcement operations have been very effective, especially in Arriaga. He underscored that there are no longer people leaving on the train.
And yet even with the U.S. Border Patrol’s newest hire on the prowl, I found a small group of men and boys three miles down the rails, hidden in the scrub. One big Guatemalan man, a butcher from Chimaltenango, sat on the rail itself. It was his fourth attempt in a month. The operations were intense, he said; he had been deported three times. But then he pulled out a picture of his son. He’s in Miami, the man said.
The photo, taken in 2006, was when his son was 10 years old. It was the last time the man saw him. The man had a long way to go. He hadn’t even gotten on the Beast yet. And there were more checkpoints up ahead, they said. There were more migra (immigration authorities) and police and possibly gangs and robbers. In many ways, the U.S.-Mexico border had come to him. “I’m going to Miami,” the man said, as if nothing, absolutely nothing could stop him.”