Originally posted at www.latimes.com:
Anarchy along Mexico’s southern border crossings
Unmonitored goods and migrants cross the Suchiate River all day long in southern Mexico, where criminals and corrupt officials lie in wait.
CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico — The Mexican government is pledging to bring order to its wild southern border. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the job couldn’t be more difficult.
The proof lies in this dusty border town of 14,000 people. Here, unmonitored goods and travelers float across the wide Suchiate River — the boundary between Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas — on a flotilla of inner-tube rafts. They cross all day long, in plain sight of Mexican authorities stationed a few yards upriver at an official border crossing.
Some of the Central Americans are visiting just for the day. Others are hoping to find work on Mexican coffee plantations or banana farms. But many will continue north toward the United States.
There is no guarantee they will ever get there. Lying in wait are Mexican criminals, and even Mexican officials, who aim to kidnap northbound travelers, extort money from them and sometimes even rape and kill them. About 10,000 such migrants have disappeared in Mexico every year since 2008, according to Mexican government estimates.
Luis Martinez, a 33-year-old migrant from Honduras, had crossed the Suchiate without incident early one morning in June. He knew he was risking his life by moving on. But he said that the crippled Honduran economy left him little choice. He needed to work. He needed to earn.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “We’ve heard about it all: the cartels, the kidnappings, the robberies, everything.”
Along with drug violence and the slaying of journalists, the ugly fate of the Central American migrant has become one of the darkest stains on Mexico’s reputation.
In recent weeks, however, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has pledged to bring new order to the border region. Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the new plans will “ensure that [migrants] don’t suffer.”
Security at border crossings will be strengthened, officials say, and sophisticated “internal control” stations will be set up a few miles inside the country along commonly-used migration routes, to better monitor the movement of goods and people.
The government is also expanding a program to record the fingerprints, photos and other identifying features of migrants, the newspaper Milenio reported. High-tech biometric kiosks, partially paid for by the U.S. government, will record the data of those applying for temporary visitor and work permits.
Meanwhile, the Mexican navy, which is charged with protecting the border, has deepened its partnership with the Guatemalan military, staging coordinated operations in an effort to run off the drug cartels that have taken advantage of the border’s numerous unpoliced crossing points, Vice Adm. Francisco Ramon Tiburcio Camacho said.
The outlines of the plan raise many questions. The biometric kiosks, for example, may help authorities keep track of migrants who have been caught by authorities, or who willingly apply for legal entry. (Among other things, the data can help identify their bodies if they are found in unmarked graves). But how will they help keep tabs on the many migrants who are evading Mexican authorities?
More generally, it is unclear whether the new plans will really allow Mexico to get a handle on a border that is more than 700 miles long, and which experts say is essentially untamable. Border fences and walls, they say, would be almost impossible to build through the deep jungle and stark mountainous terrain traversed by the line separating Mexico from Guatemala and Belize.
The Mexicans reject the idea of building walls anyway, having long maintained that the U.S. southern border strategy, with its imposing barriers and armed agents, amounts to conduct unbecoming a neighbor. In a speech June 3 near the border, Osorio Chong promised that no walls would be built under the new plan. It would be focused on human rights, he said, and more in keeping with “what Mexico demands north of its border.”
Immigrants detained while attemping to cross southern U.S border:
Source: U.S. Border Patrol. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken
The U.S. has as much interest as does Mexico in ensuring that the flow is stanched, particularly as Congress, in its consideration of immigration reform proposals, debates whether undocumented migrants can be effectively dissuaded from showing up on the U.S. doorstep.
Central American migrants are a growing source of concern for the U.S. Although the number of Mexicans detained for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has been steadily declining, the number of non-Mexicans apprehended jumped from about 47,000 in fiscal 2011 to 94,500 in fiscal 2012, according to government statistics. Most were Central Americans, fleeing the region’s stagnant economies, gang violence and street crime. (Despite their declining numbers, Mexicans, still represent the majority of people apprehended at the US border.)
The Mexican government estimates that 300,000 of those who cross the nation’s southern border each year without authorization are headed to the United States.
Recently, 27-year-old Jose Roberto Argueta Lazo of El Salvador was waiting in front of the migrant shelter in the city of Tapachula, about 20 miles north of Ciudad Hidalgo. He and his 20-year-old wife, who had crossed into Mexico on the inner-tube rafts, were plotting their trip to the U.S. They had paid a man $200 to ensure their safe passage to at least this point.
It was not much of a promise. Mexican officials already run checkpoints on major roads leading away from the frontier, rather than stopping migrants at the border. Argueta said that it was on one of these roads, between the river crossing and Tapachula, that he was threatened by a Mexican policeman who demanded $150 in cash for the right to move on.
Argueta said he would probably hire a coyote to guide him and his wife to the U.S. border. But Martinez, the Honduran migrant, said he couldn’t afford that luxury, and was instead planning to head north to the city of Arriaga to hop on “the beast,” a freight train on which immigrants are regularly preyed upon by criminal gangs.
Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, said that if his government truly wanted to address the plight of the migrants, it would look beyond the border and focus on weeding out the culture that allows so many Mexican officials on the route north to extract bribes.
Irmgard Pundt, the coordinator at the Tapachula shelter, looks beyond the border too, arguing that the government should find a way to prevent migrants from riding “the beast.”
There also is room for improvement at the official border crossings. When a Times reporter crossed from Guatemala to Mexico at Ciudad Hidalgo recently, officials did not check his identification, although they did appear to be checking the IDs of a line of Guatemalans waiting to cross on bicycles.
At another official border crossing, in the community of Talisman, Mexican officials were more dutiful in checking a U.S. traveler’s documents. Directly under the bridge over the Suchiate, however, groups of Guatemalans on rafts floated to the Mexican side, then scrambled up the riverbank through the weeds.
And throughout the day, strong-backed porters walked and waded across the shallow river, moving big sacks of fruits, vegetables and other goods, avoiding customs restrictions and cross-border taxes.
Some experts worry that if the government cracks down at well-known crossings, migrants will choose to cross the border in more remote, and perhaps more dangerous, areas.
Half an north of Ciudad Hidalgo, near a town called Tuxtla Chico, a group of young men on horseback splashed across a pristine stretch of the Suchiate and onto a bank on the Mexican side that was part of a small private ranch. The ranch owner oversaw them as they loaded up bags of corn and fertilizer to carry back to Guatemala.
A pair of young porters named Cristian and Jose Luis said that this crossing was mostly used for goods, not people.
But if authorities put the heat on the rafts down at Ciudad Hidalgo, Cristian said, he expects migrants to come splashing across here too.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
Photo: A boatman hauls an inner-tube raft and two men on the Suchiate River near Talisman, Mexico. The riverbank with the buildings is the Guatemalan side; the official border crossing is on a bridge just a few yards away. (Richard Fausset / LA Times.)