Mexico: La Frontera Olvidada

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In October 2007, LAWGEF Mexico & Border Policy Associate Jennifer Johnson traveled to Mexico’s southern border region to visit with human rights groups, migrant center workers, governmental officials and academics to gain a clearer understanding of the challenges confronting migrants in Mexico’s southern border region and the human rights implications of U.S. and Mexican immigration and border enforcement policies.  Jennifer’s observations from this research can be found in the recently issued LAWGEF report The Forgotten Border: Migration & Human Rights at Mexico’s Southern Border.

The U.S.-Mexico border has long been a contentious focal point of the U.S. immigration debate and U.S.-Mexico diplomatic relations, yet Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize rarely makes news in the United States. The situation is similar in Mexico, where politicians and academics often refer to the southern border as “la frontera olvidada”—the forgotten border.

It is only recently that this “forgotten border” has come under increased scrutiny largely because migration from south to north has increased significantly over the past twenty to thirty years. Reasons for migrating have also changed. The migrant stream over Mexico’s southern border, once  primarily composed of political refugees fleeing armed conflict in Central America, is now crossed by thousands of undocumented migrants fleeing poverty, underemployment, crime, and the devastation caused by natural disasters. 

Responding to international pressure, recent Mexican administrations have expanded resources dedicated to the detection and deportation of migrants. Inside the beltway, members of Congress have called for Mexico to step up enforcement efforts and ensure that fewer Central American migrants arrive at the U.S. border. When the U.S. Senate has considered immigration and enforcement reform in recent years, proposed legislation has repeatedly included provisions addressing migration at Mexico’s southern border. The Bush administration has also taken an interest in the issue.  In October 2007, the President unveiled the Merida Initiative, the administration’s plan for providing approximately $1 billion in counternarcotics, human interdiction and border security aid to Mexico.  

As the Congress considers this massive new aid package, it is important for activists and policymakers alike to develop a deeper understanding of the context in which abuses against migrants take place in Mexico to help ensure that U.S. aid and policies do not harm human rights. 

Leaving home countries in search of a better life for their families, migrants have a long and dangerous journey ahead of them.  Most will take a raft, walk, or swim across the rivers and hills that form the border between Mexico and Guatemala and Belize. Migrants have long used train routes that originated near the Guatemala/Mexico border and some have died or lost limbs when they have fallen or been pushed off fast-moving trains. In addition to being dangerous, trains have also proven to be an unreliable mode of transportation for migrants. After Hurricane Stan destroyed miles of bridges and train track in Chiapas in 2005, two of the rail routes that ran closest to Mexico’s southern border ceased operations. During this time, thousands of migrants unexpectedly found themselves stranded near the Mexican cities of Tenosique, Tabasco and Tapachula in Chiapas.

In addition to train-related injuries, organizations that work with migrants in the southern Mexico border region cite extortion, robbery, assault, sexual assault and rape, and irregular detention as abuses commonly reported by migrants. In addition, migrants report being abused by corrupt governmental authorities who often demand payment in exchange for safe passage. Yet, such abuse has not kept people from making the treacherous trip northward. 

The typical transmigrant crossing Mexico is young, Central American and travelling undercover. They are often afraid to seek assistance, carrying cash and lacking social networks, making them especially vulnerable to predators. There are also an increasing number of women and unaccompanied minors hazarding the journey.  These migrants are in a highly vulnerable position traveling down isolated stretches of train track or in remote areas, vulnerable to attacks by gangs or thugs, or in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.
Despite their frequency, only a few of the crimes and abuses committed by governmental authorities are ever investigated. Although Mexican Presidents Fox and Calderón have publicly called for a more just and fair treatment of Central American migrants, virtually nothing has been done to improve access to justice. Indeed, these empty promises seem to be merely political posturing intended to provide Mexico with the moral authority necessary to denounce the abuses suffered by Mexicans in the United States.   

Many human rights groups in Mexico have called for changes in policy that would match the administration’s rhetoric with the reforms necessary to protect migrants. A change in Mexico’s current migration policy, specifically the repeal of penalties associated with undocumented entry, is chief among these. Human rights groups argue that by penalizing undocumented migration, migrants are made more vulnerable to corrupt law enforcement officials. It is important to remember however, that although important, this reform is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Its effect will be limited without strong steps to combat corruption and hold abusive authorities accountable for their actions. The weakness of the rule of law, a lack of political will, and the inadequacy of federal, state, and local government resources all compromise human rights.  An integrated solution needs to be found to protect human rights and promote true security for both migrants and the broader population of Mexico.

A truly integrated solution would also begin with overhauling the United States’ broken immigration system. This starts by addressing the economic forces that drive Central American as well as Mexican migration, including the impact of free trade agreements. However, even in the absence of progress toward a long term solution, measures can be taken help to protect the human rights of migrants. Holding those who abuse migrants accountable, ensuring that migrants can feel safe in denouncing their abusers, ensuring access to legal counsel for detained migrants, and improving detention center facilities are concrete steps that can be taken to drastically improve the situation. If implemented, reform on the southern border could provide the Mexican government with an opportunity to develop and implement the model policies that it would like to see for Mexicans abroad and in particular for those who are living undocumented in the United States.