Published December 27, 2016
Mexico is promising to stem the flow of Central American migrants to the United States by tightening control at its notoriously porous Guatemalan border.
But messages from the country's top two leaders in little more than a week have provided few details on how. And the scene on the ground is business as usual.
Dozens of Central Americans who paid $1.50 a head could be seen this week crossing the broad Suchiate River on improvised rafts of inner tubes and wooden boards, in full view of Mexican police on the shore and immigration agents posted on a bridge overhead.
"I don't see anything has changed," Guatemalan Luisa Fuentes, 56, said as she rode a raft to Mexico.
"La Bestia," a decrepit freight train that carries migrants north from the border state of Chiapas, still carried many riders on its roof.
President Enrique Peña Nieto's government says it is catching and deporting far more Central Americans, but it remains unclear if enforcement has increased or just that the number of detentions is simply rising along with the larger numbers of Central Americans moving through Mexico.
In the U.S., the migration has overwhelmed the Border Patrol, shelters and immigration courts. Top officials, including the vice president, have traveled to Central America with a stern message for those contemplating the trip, and President Barack Obama is seeking $3.7 billion from Congress to respond to the crisis. About 44,000 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been apprehended at the U.S. border from October through the end of June.
The United States has been sensitive about appearing to be pressuring Mexico. But at a June 20 meeting in Guatemala, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden warned Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong that with the economic growth in Mexico, Central Americans might decide to stay in Mexico, according to a senior administration official familiar with the session.
"We found very willing partners in the Peña Nieto administration," said the U.S. official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to describe the private session. "It's not something where we need carrots and sticks; it's been more like we need your help and they said, 'All right, let me tell you what we can and cannot do.'"
Peña Nieto this month announced a plan that includes more border inspection stations to help fight trafficking of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Osorio Chong said last week that Mexico would put an end to illegal migrants catching rides on La Bestia.
The government had been expected to provide details about the effort Tuesday. Instead, officials just announced the appointment of a little-known politician to head its immigration-enforcement plan. They promised again to improve border-crossing facilities but gave no details on what is actually planned.
"We have to get more cooperation ... to make the southern border an area of stability, and rule of law," said Humberto Mayans, Mexico's newly appointed head of southern border improvement plans.
Mexico's southern frontier is less than half the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, but its thick jungles make it highly difficult to police, particularly for a nation already struggling to tamp down organized crime violence and corruption.
Mexican politicians generally see little upside in cracking down on migrants who simply pass through on the way to slipping into the U.S., just as so many Mexicans have done. They stay only a few days and don't affect schools or services.
What's more, migrant smuggling is a highly lucrative business that generates payoffs for local law enforcement to look the other way and lots of revenue for legal businesses.
In a purge in 2010 and 2011, Mexico's National Immigration Institute fired more than 400 agents for allegedly taking bribes, extorting migrants or failing vetting tests. Central American migrants routinely say they have been picked up by local police in northern Mexico, who turn them over to criminal gangs that hold them for ransom. In 2008, an entire town in central Mexico rioted to defend Central American migrants from police who wanted to kidnap them.
Informal crossing has been tolerated for so long that it has become a mainstay of the southern border economy. Guatemalans resell Mexican goods on the other side, and innumerable bars and dance halls operate on the Mexican side staffed by Central American women.
"The tolerance exists because both governments know that people depend on it," said Guatemalan truck driver Moises Moran. "All of us who live here have done something illegal at some time ... I have."
But detentions have increased. In late June, the National Immigration Institute said the number of minors detained through the first half of the year was 10,505, more than in all of 2013. Monthly deportations rose dramatically in May, about three times the number in January.
For many, the best chance of getting north is the train. But even if officials do make the train harder to board, it's far from the only path through Mexico. Migrants with money to pay smugglers also travel by car or bus.
On Monday night, Honduran migrant Darwin Ernesto Ramirez, 28, said he had already heard the rumors that this could be La Bestia's last run. Just before he swung aboard the train, he said: "I don't think they can stop this. A lot of us will just wait for it down the tracks."
"Mexico will cede to U.S. pressure and will implement a semi-closed border in response," predicts Victor Clark, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights.
But rather than stopping the flow, Clark says, it will just make smugglers richer.
"The prices they charge will go up," he said.