"Mexico is a critical partner," President Obama reminded reporters during a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on July 22, "and is critically important to our own well-being." The two presidents praised not only their countries' immense cross-border trade but also bilateral collaboration on energy, the environment and counter-narcotics. Left unmentioned in their opening remarks was another crucial way Mexico is helping its northern neighbor: as a buffer between the U.S. and Central America's Northern Triangle, where gang violence, chronic corruption and endemic poverty drives hundreds of thousands from their homes each year.
Two years after the flow of unaccompanied Central American children across the Rio Grande generated U.S. headlines, the humanitarian crisis continues. Today it plays out mostly in Mexico, whose government has become the region's "deporter-in-chief," last year sending back 166,000 Central American migrants, including about 30,000 children, more than twice as many as the 75,000 deported from the United States. By detaining and deporting migrants, Mexico has in effect become the "wall" certain politicians are calling for — which of course does nothing to solve the underlying problems.
Over the past decade, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have seen homicides spiral out of control, approaching levels of bloodshed last seen during the armed conflicts of the 1980s. Gangs dominate major cities and many smaller towns, forcing even the poor to pay extortion. Most chilling for families is the forced recruitment of young boys and girls. Saying no to the gangs, say refugees interviewed along the border, would mean a death sentence.
The dangers do not end for those who manage to cross into Mexico. Undocumented migrants make perfect victims. Fearful of authorities, they are highly unlikely to report even violent crimes, such as robbery or rape. Groups specializing in extortion and kidnapping also know that many migrants have relatives in the United States who can be tapped for ransom money.
Irregular migration, swollen by forced displacement, ends up fueling organized crime and corruption. No longer can a migrant pay guides – known as coyotes or polleros (chicken herders) – just enough to be smuggled across the US border. Now they must rely on networks that charge thousands of dollars to assure safe passage across territories controlled by various criminal bosses, while paying officials to look the other way.
Regional leaders are finally recognizing that the massive outflow of people from Central America is much more than migration as usual. The United States has agreed to expand efforts to admit refugees directly from the region so they avoid a long, dangerous journey north. Under an initiative announced July 26, a program previously limited to the under-age children of Central Americans lawfully in the U.S. will now include siblings who are over 21, as well as caregivers. Those most vulnerable could be relocated in Costa Rica while awaiting approval for entry into the United States.
This initiative, however, is unlikely to discourage the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who enter Mexico each year — in part because the country is no longer just a transit country, but also a destination in its own right. Petitions for refugee recognition have more than doubled, straining Mexico's capacity to process them fairly and efficiently. Although its refugee commission is offering asylum to a larger proportion of applicants, the numbers deemed eligible still represent only a fraction of those needing protection.
In the long run, Central American governments must address the economic and institutional failings that turn young people into gangsters and end the impunity of both criminal leaders and corrupt officials.
In the immediate run, the United States should help its "critical partner" stop the cycle of deportation and re-migration by providing Mexico with the resources it needs to shelter asylum applicants, adjudicate their claims efficiently and fairly, and then resettle them where they can lead productive lives.
Mary Speck is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Mexico.
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