The Mexico-Guatemalan border has been a troubled zone since the Americas gained their independence from Spain in 1821. Since the closing of the colonial era towards the end of the 19th century, repeated incidents have plagued the region encompassing southern Mexico and western Guatemala.
Illegal and legal migration into Mexico reached their apogee during Guatemala’s bitter guerrilla-death squad insurgency when tens of thousands of its citizens fled the latter country between 1963 and 1996. Paying the highest price for an unjust war were the campesinos who worked the land, engaged in subsistence farming, frequently not even being able to speak Spanish, but instead, only their own languages, such as Quiché or Kachikel. Many of these Mayan peoples, who tried hard to remain neutral during the domestic conflict, eventually were forced to flee their home villages or risk being tortured or killed by the Guatemalan military and associated rightwing death squads, or from being attacked by local guerrilla forces, depending upon who saw them as a foe.
Most of the Guatemalan migrants fleeing their country ended up in Chiapas, their first stop in Mexico. Chiapas, Mexico’s most southern state has witnessed the heaviest illegal migration surge being recorded there during the years 1981-1983. At first, the Mexican authorities had the grace and sense of responsibility, to protect the refugees, letting them squat in improvised settlements in order to escape the hated Guatemalan security forces along with their rightwing death squad affiliates. The affected indigenous population sought out Mexico as an interim safe-haven, a place where they could escape a predictably horrendous future. Yet Mexico eventually decided to close its gates as local communities began complaining that they could no longer absorb such a huge influx of refugees, especially in Mexico’s least developed state. Facing the possibility of dislocation, torture, disappearance or death in their home country, Guatemalans in recent decades were forced to illegally cross the border in order to survive. Trying to solve its own illegal immigration-issue, Mexico switched to trying to repatriate its now entrenched refugee population back to Guatemala. As a country that chronically has discounted the intrinsic value of its indigenous peoples, Guatemala refused to meet the demands of resettlement involving such a large percentage of its expatriate population, making that issue into a non-viable option.
Although illegal immigration was still very much in evidence during the 1980s, Mexico did not in earnest defend its border with Guatemala, because it feared that this might interfere with trade while impeding faltering efforts to facilitate family interactions involving immigrant cohorts in both countries. Eventually, between 1993 and 1999, Mexico and Guatemala, working together organized the voluntary return of 43,000 refugees to Guatemala. For the remaining 22,000 Guatemalans thought to be in the country, Mexico implemented a migratory stabilization program, aimed at helping them to eventually gain legal residence in Mexico. In 2003, the number of documented Guatemalans in Mexico had fallen to 2,601. According to a 2000 census, 55 percent of those Guatemalans living in Mexico were to be found in Chiapas. But the indifferent attitude towards the indigenous population along the border has led to an increase in violence and abuse by the Mexican security forces, whom are not always properly charged with rooting out evidence of corruption on the part of officials on both sides of the border.
Even after the Central American wars were brought to an end, large numbers of migrants still were trying to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border. The two neighboring countries only recently have begun to increase border security in a meaningful manner, and are still encountering several problems in achieving this. In order to better the situation, the countries must appreciate the viewpoint of its migrant population. The most prevalent categories of migrants trying to pierce the border between Mexico and the U.S. is mainly Guatemalan migrant farmers looking for seasonal work on large commercial farms, as well as Mexicans, Central and South Americans trying to make their way to the United States through Mexico.
Another category of migrant exists. Guatemalan farm workers perform seasonal labor in the southern states of Mexico, often in Chiapas, working on plantations and farms because wages in that country are appreciably higher than in Guatemala and there are far more opportunities to find work. In 2005, according to the Mexican National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración), 6,679 documented Guatemalans worked on Mexican farms, with 3.5 percent of them under 14 years of age, 89.4 percent between 15 and 48 and 7.1 percent older than 49. Of those, 87.8 percent were male, while 12.2 percent were female. These figures indicate that the majority of seasonal migrants are young men capable of the hard labor necessary in agriculture. One can also presume that they do not yet have a family or have just started a one; thus, they are likely to eventually return to Guatemala and not become permanent residents of Mexico.
Seasonal workers face dangers crossing the border and there is no shortage of discrimination which they are likely to find there once they begin searching for work. Guatemalan migrant workers are systematically oppressed by finqueros who exploit their illegal status in the country in order to acquire the use of cheap labor which tends to be hobbled when it comes to exercising its bargaining power or protesting against harsh treatment. Moreover, the elaborate process involved in filing a complaint, allows the finquero (the property owner) in most cases to mute the sense of outrage of even the legal labor force, let alone the illegal one. In his “Mexico’s Forgotten Southern Border,” Professor George Grayson, an expert on Mexico, explains that in order to file a complaint, workers must take time off from work, return a week later to hear the court’s answer and then must “personally deliver any tribunal-issued summons to the rancher, who may be surrounded by armed bodyguards.” From there, a finca owner can ignore three summonses before he is required to appear before the court. Taking into consideration the role of bribes, delays or continuances, a worker might be fired or already have completed his contract before the court even gets around to looking at his case.
Nationals from both countries predictably face the likelihood of raw violence if they try protecting their rights while migrating; at the same time, while seasonal laborers face discrimination and every form of violence at work, migrants traveling to the United States face discrimination during the entirety of their passage through Mexico. Most migrants now must contend, usually with increasing frequency, the violent gangs or maras along the Guatemala-Mexico as well as the U.S.-Mexico border. Maras universally label migrants as their targets, and, in the same manner, sometimes have made the fateful decision to be self-appointed vigilantes in the territory in which they normally operate, in hopes of making the area “migrant-free.” One of the most feared gangs in Central America and the United States, the Mara Salvatruchas, often call themselves “migrant hunters.” Any person crossing the Guatemalan/Mexican border could become their next victim. In the area of Tenosique, Chiapas a study showed that the three groups mainly responsible for the mistreatment of migrants were criminals (47.5 percent), local Public Security police (15.2 percent) and migration agents (15.2 percent). Often the Guatemalan National Civil Police are seen as being “even more corrupt than the Mexican authorities,” according to George Grayson.
Rising crime rates have forced the Mexican government to increase the level of its patrolling along the border. Once the number of illegal immigrants entering the United States spiked, Washington began to put pressure on Mexican authorities to monitor their southern border more aggressively, which it tends to see as “la frontera olvidada” or the “forgotten border.” In 2006, roughly 108,000 documented foreigners passed through Mexico to enter the U.S. from Guatemala. Beginning at that time, Mexico increased the number of officials patrolling the entrance routes from Chiapas to the U.S.-border. The Mexican Federal Preventive Police, along with other anti-migratory agents, repeatedly are known to stop any traffic en-route to the U.S. to verify the authenticity of the documents being used to make the trip.
Washington wants to be assured that most deportations take place on Mexican soil rather than from the U.S., as it costs this country $1,700 on average to send a Central American home, while Mexican deportation expenses can total as little as $22. The U.S. must deal with airline costs while Mexican authorities need only to return deported migrants on buses back to the Guatemalan border at a fraction of the cost. Accordingly, Mexico now has more than 50 migrant detention centers throughout the country, most of them frequently over-crowded and ill-maintained. In mid-2001, on average, one detention center held 409 illegal immigrants (representing 39 different nationalities), when they had been built to hold only 250 inmates. The number of deportations from Mexico has steadily increased, to the point where in 2004 and 2005 yearly deportations averaged 200,000. Mexico deports most of the undocumented to Guatemala, whether or not originated from that country. In 2006, of the 179,345 illegals deported from Mexico, 47.4 percent of these were actually from Guatemala, 33.2 percent from Honduras, 14.1 percent from El Salvador, 2.6 percent from Nicaragua and 2.7 percent from other places of origin.
Something had to be done
In 2000, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) commissioner, Felipe de Jesús Preciado, unveiled a legislative plan to help 25,000 foreigners gain legal status in Mexico. Officials interpreted the plan not as amnesty, but as forgiveness and as an opportunity for illegal immigrants to become legal. In June 2001, then president Vicente Fox proposed the “Southern Plan” (Plan Sur) to help deal with migration in several thoughtful ways. The plan would promote cooperation between the INM, the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), the office of the Attorney General of Mexico (PGR) and other relevant organizations to help eliminate corruption and crime along the border. In addition, as part of Plan Sur, the INM organized an “Orderly and Secure Repatriation” program to send illegal immigrants back to their country of origin.
As most of these immigrants had lied about their citizenship, trying to conceal that they were Guatemalan or Salvadorans, the program failed its intended purpose. Instead, it sent immigrants back to countries close enough to the Guatemala-Mexico border so that they could again try their luck at again eventually attempting to entering the U.S. Plan Sur also included the Beta Groups, created in 1996, to help protect migrants crossing into the U.S. These government organizations proved of some use in alleviating abuses of illegal and legal immigrants along Mexico’s northern border. Hoping to replicate the success of these programs aimed at decreasing violence in the north, most observers agree that the later addition of the Beta Groups throughout Mexico’s southern border has been helpful to a point. Unfortunately, these Beta groups remain understaffed and threatened by anti-migrant gangs and common criminals.
Most Central Americans traverse Guatemala in order to cross into Mexico. Therefore, in June 2001, Mexico tried to reduce migration coming in from Central America by implementing a development plan called Plan Puebla Panamá (PPP). This initiative would create a 1,000 mile development corridor from Southern Mexico through all of Central America in hopes that the local population need to migrate north to find better working conditions would no longer be necessary and that wages would no longer be forced downward. The hope was that, consequently, Mexican and Guatemalan authorities would find themselves gradually being less involved daily with problems associated with migration, which could prove to be somewhat explosive at any moment. Yet, any new plan must take into consideration the inhabitants and environment that ultimately could be affected by such initiatives. In this regard, Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas has criticized PPP as a scheme thought up by “international capitalists and their lackey Fox to eradicate the indigenous culture, exploit the region’s resources and keep the local population in servitude.” This was because PPP involved cutting through hundreds of miles of rainforest and national parks in Chiapas and adjoining Central American countries.
The New Presidents
Recent years have seen progressive policies introduced in the border region by both Guatemala and Mexico. In 2006, the current president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, along with a number of governmental and private organizations such as the INM, launched a reform called “The Southern Frontier Rearranging Plan” (Plan de Reordenamiento de la Frontera Sur). This strategy would facilitate the documentation of foreigners and seasonal migrants crossing the border. It would also force employers to pay migrant workers the same wages they pay Mexicans, and forbid them from retaining such workers’ documentation, thus preventing the restriction of their mobility. Along with some U.S. aid, it would help to economically develop Mexico’s southern states, which in turn might reduce the menacing level of organized crime now gripping the region.
Guatemala’s president, Álvaro Colom Caballeros, and President Calderón of Mexico, met in February of this year to discuss a Border Development Plan (Programa de Desarollo Fronterizo) that would include actions to conserve and reforest lands along the Guatemala-Mexico border. Calderón expressed his interest in aiding Guatemalan authorities by implementing his plans to promote security along the Guatemala-Mexico border area, fight poverty and augment trade. Calderón also proposed a program to promote planning efforts along the Chiapas-Guatemala border.
Calderón and Colom have developed a much closer relationship than was the case with the prior presidents of their respective countries. They already have held several meetings during Colom’s first months as president. Earlier this year, Mexico and Guatemala made final their joint energy plans, with the an arrangement initiated by Mexico to sell 120 megawatts of electricity to Guatemala. On June 27th, Colom and Calderón discussed the implementation of Plan Puebla Panamá with leaders of other Central American countries in order to start up the PPP and watch it become a working plan. But after its initial birth in 2001, the PPP ultimately failed to evolve, as none of the involved countries were prepared to devote the necessary resources or thrust to the project. It may be noteworthy at the moment to see some energy being put into the project by the Mexican authorities through planning for the development of Chiapas, perhaps as a result of U.S. pressure.
Although the U.S.-Mexico and the Mexico-Guatemala borders are experiencing record highs of common street crime, gang violence and corruption, differences between their border regions often make solutions to each area drastically different. Grayson sums up a few of these by pointing out how the U.S. is more likely to prosecute those who meanly take advantage of migrants, and Mexican and U.S. groups sometimes spring up to better protect them. On the other hand, the Mexican government will rarely prosecute rich farm owners exploiting their foreign workers. The process for a worker to file a claim is almost calculatedly dangerous and excessively bureaucratic; therefore, often little is accomplished except interminable delays. Corruption is generally less prevalent on the Mexico-US border than on the Mexico-Guatemala border, because the US and Mexico tend to cooperate more with each other than any of the Central American countries. In the U.S. itself, Latinos are beginning to aggregate growing influence in policymaking due to their new status as the largest minority group in the U.S., with a concomitant increase of political influence. Meanwhile, Central American governments do not have a particularly good track record of caring for their workers. Stronger ties as well as antagonisms between the U.S. and Mexico’s ruling establishment have developed because of the pros and cons of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In contrast, Mexico and Central America have failed to construct concrete connections growing out of the now somewhat fading Plan Puebla Panamá. With so much of the national and international press focused on the country, Mexico now sees itself as having to work at alleviating security concerns along its northern border because news is getting out concerning the dreary realities to be found there. Mexico must also worry about its northern border since it relies on the U.S. for aid, commerce, tourism and remittances. At the same time, it can ill-afford to ignore its southern border and treat Guatemala and other Central American migrants with relative indifference, mainly because despite its improved relations with Colom, Mexico’s influence over his country remains modest.
Little attention has been given to the injustices being committed along Mexico’s Southern border because the victims there are mainly poor, bereft of influence and largely invisible migrants. When Washington finally began putting pressure on Mexico to halt illegal immigration where it begins, Mexico began to address its southern border with a heightened level of seriousness. As Chiapas is Mexico’s least developed state and Guatemala is one of the least developed countries in Central America, both areas have focused their solutions on economic development and increased preventative interdiction. However, development becomes a controversial subject when it translates into slicing through Chiapas’ rainforests and the home of the Mayan culture. Also, the dissident Zapatistas, which are a large political presence in Chiapas, will reject any plans which they believe mimics the pseudo-development schemes that chronically occur throughout the rest of Central America. This will be any plans highlighting conventional economic inputs and outputs, instead of social development of indigenous peoples living in the area, and planning for a more equitable redistribution of wealth, is likely to be rejected as not being germane.
Increasing the level of policing of immigration trafficking in the area can become controversial, as neither Mexican nor Guatemalan police have the best human rights track records for efficiency and professionalism. Indigenous inhabitants are highly skeptical of the personnel attached to the government who already deal with them. Being the habitual victims of corruption, abuse and violence by state officials, adding more of the same to the fears affecting the indigenous border population is just not an option. Fear is mounting that the border is now becoming overtly militarized and could become an area of confrontation between the Zapatista Guerrilla Army and the region’s national border.
Nevertheless, it is somewhat reassuring to observe that the presidents of Guatemala and Mexico have met often since the beginning of Colom’s term. This must indicate that both sides have decided to commit themselves to dealing with the problems that revolve around their common border such as commerce and tourism – and, more soberly, not brush them under the rug. A faster, more effective way of expediting legal visitors or seasonal workers into Mexico as well as into the U.S. should be facilitated. There should be far less bureaucracy involved when it affects people legally trying to cross the border. Mexican agents should stop the procedure of having the same company bus repeatedly being stopped, checked and randomly searched several times a night as it travels from Guatemala City to Tapachula. Rather, agents should focus more on scrutinizing suspicious types of carriers, including closer inspection of large trailer cars or trucks and freight trains.
The United States should not only be imploring Mexico to help stop illegal border crossings, but it should also provide effective assistance to the countries from which immigrants originate. People leave their strife-ridden country in search of safety and better economic opportunities, not on a capricious whim. The countries with the most immigrants come from parts of Central America that have been profoundly affected by U.S.-sponsored civil wars during the 1980s or from Washington area allies: These include Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The U.S. played a very large part in igniting and fueling conflict throughout the area, even though its modus operandi was mostly in behind-the-scenes training and arms supplies. Therefore, it is incumbent on Washington to invest new, more constructive resources in these countries if it hopes to curtail the number of Central Americans trying to reach its border. The United States must use its resources to help these people form economic incentives to strike roots at home, in their own nations.