Report: Crackdown puts smugglers back in control of migrant flow to US border

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Violence rife in dangerous 'jungle corridor' where Mexican cartels collect right-of-way tax and MS-13 gang preys on Central Americans

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Crimes like rape and robbery against migrants continue unabated in Mexico’s southern border despite the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops, according to a study released this week.

The violence perpetrated by Mexican and Salvadoran gangs is worse along clandestine travel routes near the Mexico-Guatemala border — which have resprung in order for the migrants to avoid detention on their way to the United States.

“They (the migrants) have to take more out-of-the-way routes and some of those routes will put them in the path of bandits and others who would prey on them,” said Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight program at the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA), a D.C.-based think tank.

A Mexican immigration officer (left, in white) checks travelers’ documents at a dock in the Mexico-Guatemala border. (photo courtesy WOLA)

Isacson is the co-author of “The Wall Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border,” which examines changes in migration flows since the Trump administration in June pressured the Mexican government into cracking down on migrants coming from Central America.

Fewer migrants have been making the journey north since the crackdown, but migration flows in the past two months have stabilized and may spike in the coming months, Isacson said.

“I don’t think we’re going to see another big wave in 2020 like we did in 2019. However, November’s numbers are about the same as the October numbers. It looks like the decreases are leveling off, which leads me to believe that smugglers are adjusting. They’re not going out of business,” he said. “They’re coming in numbers we saw in mid-2018, though we may see some increases in migration going through Mexico this spring, when temperatures start warming up again.”

Isacson said the title of the report refers not to a physical wall — Mexico hasn’t fenced off its border with Guatemala — but to the way, people in the region now refer to the Mexican crackdown. “The real wall is now in Mexico, and Central America”, he said.

This is one of the roads, off the main highway, that human smugglers use to get Central American migrants past Mexican National Guard checkpoints in Chiapas state. (photo courtesy WOLA)

MS-13 gang now operating in Mexico

The Mara Salvatrucha gangs (known in the United States as the MS-13) have been described by U.S. authorities as some of the most brutal street-level criminals and are occasionally brought up by President Trump when he talks about criminal immigrants.

The Maras are now a threat along southern Mexico’s human-smuggling routes.

“They don’t control a lot of territory but they are able to prey on Central Americans taking the migrant route,” Isacson said. “They are in some neighborhoods of Tapachula (Chiapas) and Tenosique (Tabasco). But it’s not like in Central America, where they control the police or they own neighborhoods.”

The new migrant smuggling routes that have sprung in Southern Mexico since the June military crackdown. (Graphic courtesy WOLA)

The Maras are especially present along the “jungle corridor” on the border between the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco. “There you have to actually give them cash to get on the train that goes to Tenosique and Palenque, and Mexican police don’t really confront them,” Isacson said. “There are other places where they are involved in extortion and kidnapping of migrants. They prey on their own countrymen, their own paisanos on the southern part of the migrant path.”

‘Enganchadores,’ the cartel agents inside migrant shelters

U.S. authorities insist that organized criminals — particularly the powerful Mexican drug cartels — are responsible for nearly all of the unauthorized migration heading toward the United States.

The cartels’ hand has a long reach, but most of the human smugglers are small-time operators, Isacson said.

“Smugglers are responsible for a large majority of the (migrant) wave, absolutely,” he said. “They’re the ones who have the contacts and the ability to get to the bus routes going all the way across Mexico.

“But smugglers are only tied to the cartels in that they have to pay a right-of-way fee to get people across the border. Most of what we know about (the actual smugglers) is that they tend to be mom-and-pop operations that have a segment and then they hand off to other mom-and-pop operations down the line to Mexico.”

The smugglers — also known as “guides” and “coyotes” — can be a small group of enterprising young men in a Guatemalan Indian village or even the pastor of a local church who can facilitate travel for a family. “It is mostly small-time operators that are linked to other small-time operators who pay corrupt Mexican officials and cartels in order to use their routes.”

If a Central American family pays $5,000 or $6,000 to a local smuggler, that person will probably pocket 10 to 20 percent of the fee. The rest gets paid to other smugglers, police and the cartels, he said.

WOLA’s investigation found that drug traffickers exert “great influence” on the route from Guatemala to Palenque. It also found that Mexican shelter operators in Tapachula have detected “enganchadores” (hook-up men) who pose as migrants so they can persuade families to hire a smuggler instead of following an orderly protocol to present an asylum claim.

The Central Americans who pay up are taken to hotels in taxis where they are handed off to the smugglers. “Even now, after the crackdown, coyotes and their human cargo tend to avoid apprehension and detention because of corruption,” the report states.

The humanitarian crisis is now in the South

The cartels’ pitch for migrant families to leave Mexican shelters and use their children as a passport to asylum in the United States may still be finding echo due to overcrowded and underequipped conditions at those facilities.

WOLA’s report states that human rights organizations that monitor the shelters in November were still reporting migrants being held there in “inhumane conditions.”

“Migrants held in the fairgrounds and in detention centers denounced mistreatment by Mexican security forces and migration officials, poor sanitary conditions and lack of adequate healthcare, food and water,” the report states.

The report notes that U.S. and Mexican authorities combined apprehended over a million migrants and asylum seekers in the fiscal year 2019, most of whom were fleeing violence and persecution or trying to escape crippling poverty. “Rather than seeking sound policy measures to address this mixed flow of people, the Trump administration has cut aid to Central America, all but ended access to asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, and bullied Mexico and Central America into accepting programs that outsource the United States’ international protection obligations,” the report states.

Migrants from Central America, Africa and other places walk on the streets of Tapachula, Chiapas. (photo courtesy WOLA)

Isacson surmises that the main lesson learned by investigators is that smugglers are adjusting to counter U.S. and Mexican security measures and migrant families are still willing to flee crime-riddled and perennially poor neighborhoods and towns in Central America.

That’s why the report urges the U.S. government to provide aid to Mexico to properly take care of the migrants and to invest in making Central America a place people don’t need to flee.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. For the cost of building a wall (in the United States), we can help Central America implement reforms to make it a place that people don’t need to flee,” he said. “We can make the journey through Mexico less terrifying, we can help people access asylum in Mexico if they want to do that. We can get some people to just approach a port of entry (in the United States) if they want to ask for asylum if they absolutely have to leave, and then get processed quickly.

“We don’t need these kinds of crackdowns and mass detentions and all these human rights abuses that go along with it.”

The investigators urge the Mexican government to address the humanitarian crisis in its shelters by increasing spending and training its agents to screen migrants for any protection or safety concerns they might have.

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