Record numbers of women and children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America were deported by Mexican authorities last year, as part of US-driven operations to stem the flow of migrants reaching the American border.
More than 24,000 women were deported from Mexico in 2014 – double the number sent home in 2013. The upsurge in child detentions was even sharper – climbing 230% to just over 23,000, Mexican interior ministry figures reveal.
Many were captured during security operations targeting train and bus routes commonly used by Central American migrants as part of a new strategy called new Southern Border Plan (Plan Frontera Sur). The plan was launched last summer after Barack Obama declared the unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied children and families seeking refuge at the US border an “urgent humanitarian situation”.
It helped prevent a staggering 9,661 Honduran and 7,973 Guatemalan children from reaching the US – more than double compared with 2013. Almost 11,000 unaccompanied children, including 1,853 aged 11 or younger, were also apprehended by Mexican authorities.
Mexican officials say the new crackdown is designed to retake control of the historically porous southern frontier and protect migrants from transnational crime groups. But the measures have been widely attributed to pressure from the Americans, who do not want a repeat of last year’s crisis which clogged up the immigration courts and saw tens of thousands women and children crammed into detention centres at the border.
Adam Isacson, a security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, told the Guardian: “Migration is not a political issue in Mexico. They would not have grabbed on to it without increasingly loud complaints and prodding from the US to do something about it. Frontera Sur is only about catching migrants, and sending them back before they make it to the US.”
It is unclear how much Mexico is spending on the operations, but the US State Department has agreed to provide $86m to help build new checkpoints, road blocks, naval bases and modernise inspection technologies along the country’s southern border, which has 11 formal and 370 informal crossings(pdf).
Professor Rodolfo Casillas, a migration scholar at the Latin American Social Science Institute (Flacso), said: “Migrants boost local economies as they pass through Mexico, they are not a destabilising factor. Migration also benefits their own country’s economies by alleviating pressure on public services and through remittances.
“The so called crisis was an American crisis, and political pressure to stop the flow came from them.”
There are always ebbs and flows in overland migration to the US, driven by financial crises, civil wars and natural disasters.
But, the current exodus from Central America looks set to continue as there are no coherent short-term plans to tackle the toxic mix of gang and cartel violence, corruption, high unemployment and low wages, which are driving people out.
The US State Department’s proposed budget for next year includes $1bn to bolster governance and the economies of Central America, but this is unlikely to discourage migration immediately.
The Southern Border Plan allows immigration officials from across Mexico to be drafted into migrant hot spots specifically to curb the northbound flow.
In the last quarter of 2014, some safe houses situated along the train route reported a 50% drop in migrants.
Human rights activists have denounced violations against migrants and local communities by the militarised enforcement teams, which include reports of kidnapping, human trafficking and widespread extortion. There are also anecdotal reports of a rise in injuries as migrants attempt to avoid officials by jumping off a moving freight train known as The Beast, which migrants often use to travel towards the US.
And new more dangerous and expensive routes through Mexico are already starting emerge as migrants and smugglers adapt.
Migrants are reportedly walking hours to avoid the train where new checkpoints and immigration stations have been set-up. Smugglers are said to be charging hundreds of extra dollars to transport people part of the way by sea, in order to bypass the southern border state of Chiapas.
The Mexican government has denied any pressure from the US government, saying it is trying to regain control of its border, and protect migrants from organised crime groups. It points to numerous arrests of alleged gang members, kidnappers and smugglers during recent operations.
A State Department official told The Guardian: “Mexico is a trusted partner on this issue and has made great efforts to stem the flow of unaccompanied minors across our shared border and at its southern border. We continue to rely on Mexico for its cooperation and support even as the numbers of unaccompanied minors apprehended at our border drops.”
Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Centre, said: “Mexico knows the southern border is the biggest weakest spot of the country where it is most vulnerable to organised crime, undocumented migration and non-traditional threats like infectious diseases. The Peña Nieto government is trying to get a handle on it and reassert sovereignty. The US has offered help with great gusto.”
Despite Mexico’s commitment to pursue deportations, the US is preparing for another surge during the summer months with bigger detention centres and extra electronic tagging capacity.
The latest US border patrol figures show a significant drop in unaccompanied children and families during October to December compared to the same three months in 2013, but they are still on track for the second-highest year on record.
Isacson said: “We’re expecting 2015 to be another big year of children and families arriving in the United States regardless of Mexico’s southern border plan.”
And that is because desperate people do desperate things.
Cindy Gonzales, 15, and her six-month-old daughter were among 4,100 Salvadoran children deported by Mexican authorities last year – almost three times more than in 2013. El Salvador was the most dangerous country in the world last year, with a murder rate of 68.6 per 100,000 people – just higher than neighbouring Honduras.
“We’ve been caught twice in a month, it’s too hot in Mexico right now, but we’ll definitely try again in the New Year,” Gonzales told the Guardian at the migrant return centre in San Salvador last September.
She added: “I want to see my mum who left El Salvador when I was two, and my boyfriend who made it across a few months ago. I know we could be killed or kidnapped, but I want to make a better life for my daughter, so she doesn’t have to live in fear.”