According to priest César Cañaveral, who heads migrant outreach for the Catholic Church’s local diocese, “Today the Mexican government is hunting migrants without sympathy, even though the exact same thing is happening to Mexicans at the U.S. border. The border security measures here in Chiapas are even harsher than on the U.S.-Mexico border.”
On the Suchiate River dividing Mexico and Guatemala, it sure looks easy to cross north without papers.
A young, mustachioed man is pulling a makeshift raft across the quiet river via two ropes connecting the countries. The crossing costs 4 quetzales, 10 pesos or 50 U.S. cents. The raft captain says that nearby migration officials rarely intervene.
But the impression that Mexico is lax on migrants disappears as you head just a little north.
“They put up lots of checkpoints,” says Gustavo Rivera, a bus driver shuttling between Mexico’s southeastern border and the nearest city, Tapachula. “Immigration [agents], federal police, soldiers, local police. I don’t get many migrants on the bus anymore because of the checkpoints.”
President Trump singled out a group of families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador heading to the United States as evidence that “Mexico is doing very little, if not nothing,” to stop immigration. But Mexico has actually assembled an aggressive enforcement strategy, with U.S. backing.
The strategy tightened up in 2014, shortly after American officials declared a crisis over the arrival of large numbers of Central American children at the U.S. border. The U.S. began funding Mexico’s immigration crackdown with the Southern Border Plan.
Rather than amassing troops on its border with Guatemala, Mexico stations migration agents, local and federal police, soldiers and marines to create a kind of containment zone in Chiapas state. With roving checkpoints and raids, Mexican migration agents have formed a formidable deportation force. Since the Southern Border Plan launched, Mexico has deported more than half a million Central Americans, including almost 82,000 last year, according to data from Mexico’s Interior Department. Since 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans annually than U.S. authorities have, in some years more than twice as many.
It’s such an effective force that even some government officials try to give migrants workarounds.
“We often tell migrants to travel at night,” says Ana Carolina Rodas, who runs the state government’s local migration assistance office in Ciudad Hidalgo, the small town that abuts the Guatemala border. “There are fewer migration officials or checkpoints at night, so it’s less likely they’ll be detained and deported.”
In recent years, nearly half of migrants detained in Mexico haven’t made it past southernmost Chiapas state.