In 2014, when over 60,000 unaccompanied Central American minors were detained by Border Patrol along the frontier towns of the US, President Obama called the unfolding drama an “urgent humanitarian situation.” Images of mothers and children with their faces blurred out were a mainstay in global media as Central Americans were leaving the region in droves, fleeing poverty and violence.
Prompted by the crisis, the US fast tracked longstanding plans to veritably push the US-Mexico border 2,000 miles south to the Mexico-Guatemala border. As part of the security pact between the neighbors, known as the Merida Initiative, the United States has made Mexico’s southern border the first line of defense against unauthorized migration. The already heavily militarized US-Mexico border has thus turned into the last stand against the mass migratory movement coming from Central America.
This plan, known in Mexico as “Plan Frontera Sur” (Southern Border Plan), was enacted by embattled President Peña Nieto under the auspices of humanitarianism and migrant protection in July of 2014. Prodded and pressured by Washington, Mexico has militarized the National Immigration Institute (INM) whose erstwhile prerogative was to give migrants protection turning it instead into what migrants call “hunters.”
The Frontera Sur plan creates layers of security rings that spread northward along the migrant routes found across the southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco. In placing mixed INM, military and law enforcement checkpoints along major highways and towns once famous for being boarding points for the migrant train known as La Bestia, the plan is supposed to protect migrants from criminal groups and deter migration through immediate deportation.
In practice, however, the plan has succeeded only in altering migrant routes and emboldening criminal groups that control human trafficking. The marginalization of this at risk group has been completed as the presence of INM trucks have created a climate of fear that force migrants into the margins of society. Place in which the protection that the Frontera Sur plan is supposed to provide disappears.
This climate of insecurity along the southern migrant route has lead to an endless stream of harrowing stories of kidnappings, massacres and sexual violence that are whispered in the faith based shelters that dot the migrant route of southern Mexico. “This is our hell. We must live through it to reach our dream,” says Kevin from Choloma, HN, who himself fled due to violence that had made life in his barrio unbearable. Kevin, like many other migrants, was surprised to see the dangers presented by the criminal groups that control the newer routes, “I’ve seen our own Central American brothers hurt us. Here in Mexico! I’ve seen them make deals with la migra. One of us was tortured and robbed by a border soldier. All of them are in it together against us.”
The migrants who can afford transportation are picked up directly at the border and taken through backroads that lead straight to the US border. A shopkeeper in the bordertown of Las Palmas comments that they are able to break out of the Frontera Sur security perimeter because “the smugglers call ahead and pay the police and INM per head to look the other way as they move people from border to border.”
A trip by bus costs as much as $7000 USD to reach the border, there is an additional fee of $500 USD to be crossed and a charge of $100 USD per night at the safehouses that hold migrants. Migrants who volunteer too much information regarding their finances are often kidnapped and extorted. This is also the case if they are unable to pay their fee.
The migrants who can’t afford to travel by bus, or have lost their money, or have become separated from their group travel through Mexico on foot or by train. The infamous Bestia was supposed to be placed offline by the Frontera Sur plan, but in practice migrants are still risking their lives to board it. Now, however, much like the northbound illicit bus network, it is a gang who controls the train route also bribing local law enforcement and the INM to look the other way.
These modalities of trafficking are recent developments that come as a consequence of Frontera Sur. It has given a new lucrative revenue stream to the aforementioned criminal groups, and with it the ability to act with total impunity. Human rights groups warn that in marginalizing migrants and forcing them into the shadows, the impossible to calculate number of disappearances will climb even higher. With criminals swarming to capitalize on the climate of fear and local authorities all to eager to doll out abuse with impunity, the southern border states are reaching crisis levels.
Mexico is replicating its own border experience with the US on its Central American neighbors levying violence to a mass movement of people who are fleeing conflict in the first place. The consensus on the ground is that regardless of an increase in deportations, 107,000 last year alone, the waves of Central Americans seeking refuge will continue unabated. Fear and adversity have not proven to be the ideal deterrent effect among migrants. As one migrant who had been deported a handful of times before put it, “I’m going to keep trying until I make it there by God’s grace or die in the attempt.”
The following photo series captures the anguish and optimism of migrants as they make their way through Tabasco and Veracruz, as well as exhibiting the futility and deadly consequences Plan Frontera Sur presents for Central American migrants.
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