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Mexico slams shut its southern door


Published 8/13/2001


MEXICO CITY -- Authorities are clamping down on the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans crossing Mexico's southern border in what civil rights activists claim is part of the trade-off for any future deal for Mexican migrants in the United States. Plan Sur, in operation since July, means increasing vigilance along the porous 600-mile jungle-covered frontier with Guatemala and Belize, joint operations with the police and the military, and an anti-corruption drive to close the gaps.

The plan further aims to create a second barrier to illegal migrants across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec some 200 miles farther west. This is the narrowest part of Mexico, through which all northbound traffic passes.

New arrangements have been made to transport those deported to their countries of origin rather than simply dump them over the Guatemalan frontier, where most in the past have turned around to try again. Mexican authorities deported 150,000 Central Americans last year and another 100,000 during the first six months of 2001, with a notable increase in the number of Salvadorans prompted by major earthquakes in January.

The head of the Mexican migration service, Felipe de Jesus Preciado, said in an interview that he expected the numbers to rise dramatically with the implementation of Plan Sur, particularly when the purge of corrupt elements begins to take root. "The corruption cleanup will not take less than six months, but we will start seeing the results almost immediately," Mr. Preciado said

But the migration chief repeatedly denied any link between Plan Sur and the Mexican diplomatic offensive to normalize the status of Mexican migrants in the United States, agreeing only that it would be well received in Washington as the debate heats up. "Obviously, these Central Americans want to get to the United States, and it is beneficial for the United States if we stop them doing this," Mr. Preciado said in an interview. "But that is not why we are doing it."

The efforts of Mexican President Vicente Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda to push the migration agenda in the United States have been generally applauded at home as a welcome change from the more timid approach to the issue taken by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years before Mr. Fox was elected last year. Expectations for a deal are high, and the government is under particular pressure to deliver given the lack of progress on domestic economic issues in the context of a sharp slowdown on the coattails of the U.S. economy.

But acknowledging within Mexico that Plan Sur is designed to woo Washington on the migration issue could be embarrassing for the government, as the policy is clearly inconsistent with Mexican criticism of U.S. efforts to seal the northern border. Mr. Preciado said the motive for the southern crackdown was a desire to deal with the problems created by penniless migrants flowing north along routes also used by drug traffickers and gun runners.

"The flow of Central American migrants north is a national security problem for Mexico. It wouldn't be such a big problem if they were getting through to the U.S., but they get stuck and they hang around in the frontier cities making trouble, sleeping in the streets with no money," he said.

It is an argument that fails to satisfy migrants' rights groups, who have lambasted Plan Sur as hypocritical, inhumane and misguided. "The government's search for concessions for Mexican workers has gone hand in hand with a tightening of the southern frontier," said Blanca Villasenor of the Mexico-based group Sin Fronteras (Without Borders). "In the south, the Mexican authorities are now repeating the same discourse as the United States."

Miss Villasenor is particularly concerned about mixing immigration policy with national security issues. "It forgets the human face of migration and ignores that the causes of Central American migration through Mexico are exactly the same as those driving Mexicans to the U.S.," she said. Miss Villasenor said she believes the plan will fail to prevent poverty-stricken Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans from sneaking into Mexico, and that it will mirror what has happened in the north, increasing the death toll and dependence on the people-trafficking mafia. Smugglers in Guatemala already charge Central Americans up to $4,000 to guide them into Mexico and on up to the U.S. border. The Mexican authorities registered 472 deaths on both borders last year, with most bodies found in the north, although the southern death toll generally is agreed to be underestimated.

"Every day, we are seeing the Mexican police getting more rigid and pushing people to take more risky routes, and this goes hand in hand with increases in abuses," said Walter Arriaga from Casa Migrante, a church-run support group in the Guatemalan border city of Tecun Uman.

"We will bring down the death toll," Mr. Preciado said, referring primarily to the widespread assaults against vulnerable migrants in the south. "But if someone drowns in some river because there is no other route, what can we do?"

-- Martin Thompson (, August 18, 2001

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