On December 9, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, a serious road accident brought before our eyes a harsh reality that neither the Government nor part of society wanted to recognize: the crude drama of migrants in their transit through Mexico. When the box of a trailer that crammed more than 160 people was smashed, piled up worse than cattle, 55 of them died and more than 100 are still hospitalized treating their wounds. The image of the condensed overcrowding in that box reveals the inhumane treatment that traffickers impose on migrants and refugees, who must also pay more than $ 10,000 to be transferred to the southern border of the United States or more money if the “service” includes irregular crossing to a destination in that country.
Trailers and similar vehicles – or buses and planes in privileged cases – transit through the roads of Mexico every day transporting migrants, alone or with families, including children who are subjected to a severe traumatic experience, the kind that mark destiny. For most, the goal is to reach the United States and try to seek refuge as they flee from life-threatening situations in their countries of origin. The main nationalities in transit come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Cuba, and even Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia, in addition to other countries outside the continent.
To the above list, Mexico must be added first, since we now contribute 40% of the quota of nationalities detained by the United States immigration authority. Since mid-2020, Mexican migration has progressively picked up and today we are the main migratory and refugee flow, far surpassing any other nationality in transit through the region.
For this reason, the speech of the Government of Mexico is paradoxical and incomprehensible when it refers to migration and refuge, as if it were the problem of other countries and not ours. We have entire regions drowned by violence and crime, with cruel population displacements that end up fleeing and seeking protection in the United States, as happens every day in the states of Guerrero, Michoacán and Zacatecas, the most threatened. In addition to displaced persons and refugees, most of the Mexican flow to the north is due to economic reasons, related to the crisis and the pandemic that have made the United States once again an alternative for many families. Under these conditions, there is no doubt that we are a relevant part of the ¨market¨ for human traffickers.
During the month of July of this year, the United States immigration authority detained 213,000 foreigners on its border with Mexico, who tried to cross irregularly or request refuge; in October the number dropped to 164,000 events. It is difficult to convert this data to number of people, because in reality the crossing can be attempted several times and immediately be returned to Mexico as many times. It should be noted that our country continues to be an open door to this irregular (and illegal) practice, started by the Donald Trump government and continued by Joe Biden, in both cases with the acceptance of López Obrador. In the end, either on the way or on the way back, the dynamic involves thousands and thousands of people who each month arrive at this border crossing Mexican territory in conditions similar to those shown by the tragedy in Chiapas.
The above panorama illustrates the enormous operational capacity of human traffickers, their scale and the complicities necessary for their evident and successful operation. Making a simple calculation we will realize the dimensions: if in a month they mobilize 40,000 – an amount that seems minimal – the money generated by the traffic would reach the figure of 400 million dollars … turning into 5,000 million in a year. Clearly, these are huge amounts of money that involve the continuous exploitation of migrant individuals and families. It is evident that behind these flows there is a criminal structure of gigantic dimensions.
The recent highway tragedy in Chiapas is a painful experience that crudely projects the daily traffic of people in Mexico. Practically in sight, continuously denounced and almost nothing judicially fought. Unfortunately, it is part of the broad cloak of impunity that crimes have in our country, from the simplest to the most serious. Sometimes, as has been claimed, it is riskier to report a crime than to commit it.
On the other hand, the migration policy of the United States and that of Mexico – aligned with the former – bear part of the responsibility for the high human costs that migrants pay, indirectly at least. The United States’ strategy, the one imposed by Trump, set tough objectives that it consistently met: from the construction of the border wall – which Mexico promised to pay – to agreements and pressure for the Mexican government to militarize immigration control. The recently created National Guard of Mexico – the Army, actually – was incorporated into these tasks and, furthermore, the National Migration Institute progressively assigned military personnel to their directive positions.
As is the case in other parts of the world, the more restrictive migration policies are and the more difficult the obstacles, migration moves through spaces and conditions of greater risk and increasing costs of all kinds, economic and in human lives. The IOM has a record of 930 migrant deaths in 2021 – not including the Chiapas tragedy – that occurred between Central America and the southern United States, as well as the Caribbean. The vast majority of deaths reflected on a map that corresponds to Mexico or is adjacent to our country. In comparison, in 2014 the deaths registered were 493.
The grave tragedy in Chiapas and the death of migrants in the region itself should be a powerful argument to modify what we do in terms of immigration and refuge. In 2010, the cruel massacre of 72 migrants in the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, was the basis for new Mexican laws on migration and refuge that emphasized the protection of human rights and that we little implemented. The present moment is an echo of that crime.
Today it is necessary much more than complying with our legal principles, to which we are obliged. We have two emergencies, it is not the only thing, but the priority: the first is to modify the regional procedures on refuge, to start them from Central America or in southern Mexico – through international agreement – and thus avoid the way of the cross that we impose on the people who they need protection. The second is to dismantle human trafficking organizations and their powerful networks of complicity, which seem to haunt inconceivable spaces.
Both priorities require a regional agreement, with effective capacities, involving governments from Canada to Central America. If it is true that these governments want solutions, protect rights and promote development, it must be openly recognized that the current strategy does not lead in that direction. The diagnosis requires a renewal to displace the old paradigms that privilege immigration containment and the lack of protection of people. From an economic perspective, in case there is a need for an additional argument, it is much less expensive to make a turn on the horizon than to continue this abyss that we dig every day.
Tonatiuh Guillén López is a professor at UNAM and former commissioner of the National Institute of Migration
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