One year ago, Mexico’s often chaotic southern border appeared relatively orderly: Mexican authorities processed thousands of U.S.-bound migrants for humanitarian visas, allowing them to travel north legally.
The free-transit regimen was a drastic change of policy pushed by a new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had denounced his predecessors for having done what he called the dirty work of Washington in deterring migrants’ northbound passage.
But this week, López Obrador’s government greeted migrants in a more hostile fashion. Mexican National Guard troops in full riot gear blocked their way and fired tear gas canisters to disperse those seeking to breach the nation’s border with Guatemala. Hundreds of people were put on planes and buses back to Honduras, where most of the migrants in the latest caravan began their journey.
For López Obrador, Mexico’s first avowedly leftist president in a generation and a political campaigner who pledged to welcome migrants, the last year brought a substantial shift in his view of how to handle the Central American influx.
Detractors have accused López Obrador of bending to the Trump administration’s tactics — including threats of tariffs on goods imported from Mexico — in creating a virtual wall in Mexico’s southern boundary with Guatemala.
During 2019, the Mexican government’s initial welcome mat for migrants quickly shifted into an enforcement-first policy of detention, deportation and sending National Guard forces to block migrants’ passage from southern Mexico. Succumbing to U.S. pressure to stop the migrant flow has become a signature policy of the leftist president who regularly vows to respect the human rights of migrants.
The images this week of Mexican troops outfitted in helmets and brandishing riot shields against migrants prompted a wave of revulsion among many people in Mexico, a country with a long history of emigration — both legal and illegal — to the United States. For decades, a vociferous defense of Mexican migrants in the United States has been a pillar of Mexican foreign policy.
“The National Guard today reignited the aggression [against] Central Americans,” congressman Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, a political ally of the president, wrote Thursday on Twitter, denouncing the policy. “It appears to be a systematic attitude or a state policy against the most elemental human rights. Whoever ordered it should respond to the Congress.”
López Obrador, in his morning news conference on Friday, was unapologetic, dismissing the criticism as a plot by conservative political enemies, and labeling the latest caravan a scheme fomented by unnamed leaders in Honduras seeking to cause problems.
“The most important [point] is that human rights are respected, and to be sure that there are no injuries,” the president told reporters.
Authorities said there were no major injuries reported despite two rounds this week of U.S.-bound migrants — sometimes throwing stones — confronting Mexican national guardsmen in the south, in and near the southern Mexican border town of Ciudad Hidalgo. The migrants mostly declined Mexican offers of refugee status inside Mexico or offers to work in southern Mexico, the poorest region in a nation still racked by extreme poverty.
Officially, the Mexican government refers to detained migrants as having been rescued. The president said the government tries to protect migrants from criminals who have historically preyed on them, often kidnapping migrants and seeking ransom from relatives in the United States.
“We don’t want them to arrive in the north [where] they can be … victims of crime,” López Obrador told reporters earlier this week.
The lack of reported injuries this week and the official assertion that the migrants are being protected did not blunt the indignation among many critics.
Enrique Acevedo, a columnist with Mexico’s Milenio newspaper, on Thursday described the López Obrador administration as “a government of the ‘left’ that acts in complicity with Donald Trump in doing [its] dirty work.”
Mexican authorities, Acevedo wrote, quickly granted asylum last year to ex-Bolivian President Evo Morales. “A government trapped in the moral contradiction of offering VIP asylum to Evo Morales, with a private plane and security, while it abandons thousands of children and women with improvised camps in the south,” the columnist wrote of the current Mexican administration.
The Trump administration this week praised Mexican officials for their actions.
“The efforts by the Mexican National Guard and other officials have thus far been effective at maintaining the integrity of their border, despite outbreaks of violence and lawlessness by people who are attempting to illegally enter Mexico on their way to the United States,” Chad F. Wolf, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement.
Some analysts see the immigration crackdown as part of a kind of Mexico First strategy that has resonated with many Mexicans. Polls have shown continued high popular support for López Obrador — with approval ratings topping 60% — and a disenchantment among many Mexicans toward Central American migrants. Mexico’s president has generally shown little interest in foreign affairs — except for the crucial relationship with the United States.
Last year, the Mexican government replaced its immigration chief, who was widely regarded as a defender of migrants, with a new director, Francisco Garduño Yáñez, who has proclaimed a more hard-line take on the migrant crisis.
Last fall, the new immigration chief celebrated the deportation of more than 300 Indian migrants — part of a wave of U.S.-bound, transcontinental migrants from Asia, Africa and elsewhere who have arrived at Mexico’s southern border in recent years.
“It’s a warning for all the trans-continental migration — even from Mars — that we are going to send them [back] to India, Cameroon, to Africa,” Garduño Yáñez told reporters. “It’s not possible to maintain them here [considering] the political costs … the problem with the United States.”
Meanwhile, Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest and longtime migrant defender who is close to López Obrador, has stressed the importance of defending Mexico’s southern borders.
“Migrants are very important, but the priority is Mexico,” Father Solalinde told El Faro, the El Salvador-based online news outlet.
As a candidate for president, López Obrador said his government would take a humanitarian approach to migrants. He vowed to treat them with respect and to offer them work permits.
For a few months after he took office in December 2018, his actions matched his campaign rhetoric. In early 2019, his government granted humanitarian visas to more than 10,000 migrants, allowing them to transit freely to the U.S. border. But the government policy shifted toward enforcement as the Trump administration balked and eventually threatened to slap tariffs on Mexican imports — a threat taken seriously in a country where the economy is heavily dependent on exports to the U.S.
Mexican authorities moved swiftly to halt caravan participants and others seeking to enter Mexico with the intention of advancing to U.S. territory.
“They [Mexican authorities] have their playbook now for how they’re going to respond to caravans,” said Adam Isacson, who studies migration with the think tank Washington Office on Latin America.
That doesn’t mean migrants will stop trying to reach the United States, he said. It just means more of them will end up paying smugglers.
“This really works to the benefits of the smuggling networks,” he said.
On its southern border, Mexico is detaining record numbers of migrants. Human rights advocates complain of dismal conditions in overcrowded detention centers, where migrants are forced to sleep outside or in kitchens or hallways.
Among López Obrador’s major policy shifts in immigration was to bow to U.S. demands that Mexico house asylum-seekers from Central America and elsewhere who are awaiting hearings in U.S. immigration courts. The arrangement was a Trump administration request that López Obrador’s widely unpopular predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, had flatly rejected.
More than 50,000 non-Mexicans seeking asylum or other relief in the United States have been expelled to Mexico by U.S. authorities under the so-called Remain in Mexico program. Their presence has become a major burden for Mexico’s northern border towns. Many sent back to Mexico have been victims of kidnapping, extortion and other crimes, according to migrants and rights groups.
“It’s impossible to know how many people have been kidnapped or killed,” said Ariana Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s a nightmare.”
Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.