You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Reality Behind ‘Migrant Caravans’

Trump may berate the Mexican police for not doing more, but in fact Mexico has been heavily militarized against immigration for years—with U.S. funding.

Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Seven thousand Central American migrants are traveling toward the United States. President Trump wants Mexico to stop them. “I must, in the strongest of terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught.” Trump tweeted on October 18, when the “caravan” of mainly Honduran, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan migrants arrived at the Suchiate River on Mexico’s southern border. “Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” he tweeted on Monday.

Trump has often suggested Mexico should help the U.S. halt Central American migration. In early September, the Trump administration announced that it would give $20 million for bus and airplane fare to deport 17,000 undocumented Central Americans from Mexico. (Mexico refused the funds.) Last week, Trump revived a request that Mexico agree to a law similar to the European Union’s policy that migrants apply for asylum in the first “safe” country they arrive in: Central Americans bound for the United States would have to seek asylum in Mexico instead, although violence there is at an all-time high.  

In reality, Mexico has been serving as the United States’ militarized buffer zone for some time—in no small part due to concerted efforts by U.S. administrations. Since 2014, the United States has spent nearly $200 million expanding a deportation regime in Mexico that has expelled over 600,000 migrants, mostly to the Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—but also to South America, Africa, and Central Asia. The arrangement has allowed both the Trump and Obama administrations to outsource their dirtiest work onto Mexico, deploying U.S. immigration officials and U.S. equipment throughout the country to help carry it out. 

Mexico’s transformation into a full-fledged deportation state began in the summer of 2014. A large number of unaccompanied Central American children—over 68,000 in twelve months—arrived on the U.S.-Mexico border—and the Obama administration moved swiftly with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto to approve a $100 million plan, known as the Programa Frontera Sur, that would protect “the safety and rights” of Central American migrants and secure Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. “Both governments deny that the U.S. leaned on Mexico to crack down,” said Adam Isaacson, a Mexico security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), but “in our view, it’s completely what happened.”

The reality of Programa Frontera Sur differed strikingly from its stated mission of protecting migrants. Programa Frontera Sur paid for advanced border control machinery—drones and security cameras, fences and floodlights, alarm systems and motion detectors—and the expansion of a controversial national immigration service known as Grupos Beta. The organization is tasked with providing water, first aid, and directions to migrants. But Grupos Beta workers—who stand out against the wilderness in neon orange t-shirts—have been known to extort cash from migrants and report them to immigration officials who detain and deport them. Cargo trains, known as “the Beast,” that Central American migrants rode atop on their journey north were sped up so that migrants could no longer jump onboard, forcing them to forge routes through the forests of Chiapas and Oaxaca—where they are frequently attacked and robbed. Valeria Luiselli, a celebrated Mexican writer, described Programa Frontera Sur as an “augmented-reality video game,” where “the player who hunts down the most migrants wins.”

With Programa Frontera Sur, the United States extended its reach deep into Mexico’s interior. U.S. Border Patrol agents were dispatched to train immigration agents throughout Mexico’s 58 detention centers. In April, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security expanded an $88 million program for biometric equipment at Mexico’s southern border checkpoints that shares the fingerprints, iris scans, and descriptions of scars and tattoos with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Another $75 million from the United States went towards building communications towers along the remote Guatemala border. “The entire country of Mexico is now a border,” one Mexican analyst declared.

By one measure, Programa Frontera Sur achieved its intended outcome. Since 2014, Mexico has deported more Central Americans each year than the United States—nearly 180,000 in 2015. (For comparison, the top-deporting country in the EU, Greece, deported only around 105,000 migrants in 2015, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis.) Now the United States seems to be building on the model. Throughout 2018, reports surfaced of Mexican immigration agents in the northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana and Nogales receiving orders from U.S. Border Patrol to detain and deport Central American migrants, despite their legal right to apply for asylum in the United States. “It’s a collaborative program that we’re doing with the Americans,” a Mexican immigration official told a Texas immigration lawyer in July.

But the militarization hasn’t changed the underlying dynamics driving immigration: El Salvador and Honduras rank as the second and fourth most violent countries in the world, respectively, and Guatemala trails not far behind. As a result, immigration from the so-called Northern Triangle countries has risen even as the number of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. has declined. Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at WOLA, estimates that 400,000 Central Americans pass through Mexico in any given year. Parents continue to send their children north because the dangers of staying outweigh those of leaving.

Mexico, too, wants Central American immigrants out. A 2014 study found that many Mexicans discriminate against Central Americans, who live in Mexico’s most dangerous neighborhoods and work low-wage jobs that Mexicans avoid. Migrant shelter workers told WOLA in one survey that they have extracted pellets out of migrants’ legs after Mexican immigration agents shot at them with pellet guns. The same report cited migrant testimonies that immigration agents also use electric shock devices, despite laws prohibiting the use of all weapons. The Mexican media often frames Central Americans as gangsters, even though only eight of the 21,000 migrants scanned last year with biometric equipment were identified as gang members.

These factors create a harrowing ordeal for those fleeing violence in their home countries. Women are particularly vulnerable. An estimated eight in 10 migrant women and girls are raped while traveling through Mexico. Many reportedly bring birth control as a precaution.

Mexico has repeatedly and adamantly refused to pay a cent for Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. But in many ways, Mexico has long been paying for a wall—on its southern border, instead. Since 2014, a vast and sophisticated deportation apparatus has emerged in Mexico that has traumatized and harmed hundreds of thousands of people. Although U.S. assistance only accounts for about 2 percent of Mexico’s $10 billion annual defense budget, much of the new infrastructure would not exist if it weren’t for the United States persistently nudging Mexico to crack down. There are parallels here with how rich Western European countries like Germany and France have relied on poorer countries in southeastern Europe and North Africa to halt the flow of migrants coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Mali, and Guinea.

On October 3, President Trump called Mexico’s president-elect, the charismatic leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to discuss among other things how to halt Central American migration. López Obrador said he planned to plant two and a half million acres of timber and fruit trees in southern Mexico and build a high-speed “Maya” tourist train linking the temples of Palenque to the pyramids of the Yucatan: Creating jobs for Central American migrants will keep them from the United States, López Obrador believes. “Great phone call,” Trump tweeted approvingly afterwards.

López Obrador, who will succeed the deeply unpopular Peña Nieto on December 1, could present a threat to Trump’s deportation agenda. A pacifist and anti-imperialist nationalist, López Obrador has repeatedly expressed disdain for Programa Frontera Sur—and promised to focus on “addressing the root causes of Central American migration.”

“We are not going to chase migrants. We are not going to criminalize them,” Alejandro Encinas, the incoming undersecretary of immigration, recently told The Washington Post. López Obrador’s incoming cabinet has said that it would not cooperate with U.S. requests for the policy that would require Central Americans to seek asylum in Mexico rather than the United States.

Pressing for jobs, not pellet guns, departs radically from prior approaches. López Obrador’s immigration agenda remains vague, and many doubt that he will entirely dismantle Programa Frontera Sur or open the southern border to Central American migrants. Come December, both countries will find out how serious the new Mexican president is.