La Hachadura, El Salvador—A brass band, a helicopter, seven drones, 20 police trucks—some of them newly emblazoned with Patrulla Fronteriza shields—and at least three members of the US State Department were present to inaugurate El Salvador’s new Border Patrol last week. Under a scorching late-morning sun on September 12, the Salvadoran minister of justice and public security, Rogelio Rivas, gave the order to a police official, who then shouted, Border Patrol, deploy! and the trucks started, slowly, leaving the parking lot of La Hachadura with the border crossing with Guatemala just to the west. The 100 new agents saluted their minister, and then kept standing around in the sun, some of them fanning themselves with their hats. Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, the director of the police, later called the deployment merely “symbolic.”
But deploying any security agencies in El Salvador is a fraught endeavor: after a 12-year civil war ended in 1992, during which the Army and police murdered tens of thousands of its own civilians—with heavy funding and training support from the United States—the country hasn’t been able to escape the specter of violence. In recent years, police units have been charged with a pattern of extrajudicial killings, and the insecurity in the country is still expelling tens of thousands of refugees every year.
According to Oscar Chacón, cofounder and executive director of Alianza Americas, “A Salvadoran Border Patrol, in essence, echoes the Trump administration’s containment strategy which, as we know, only has two results: human suffering and an increase in criminality and corruption that only favors those who can afford to pay.”
After mounting pressure from the Trump administration, as well as $150,000 issued from the State Department to re-outfit the new border patrol trucks, El Salvador seems to be kowtowing to Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. In total, the new agency will include 300 immigration agents and 100 agents from the Border Security Division of the National Police. The new forces will be a “strategic arm,” according to Rivas, to help ensure public security, and will be deployed to all of the country’s border crossings, as well as in the 154 “blind spots” between the ports of entry.
Rita Robles, researcher and migration expert with the Fray Matías de Córdoba Center for Human Rights in Mexico, explains that restrictive immigration policies only make “people search for more clandestine crossings further away from routes with at least minimal humanitarian assistance, as well as benefit trafficking groups.”
Given that the symbolic deployment took place at a site of departure more than entrance—last October, a caravan of about 1,500 people crossed the border into Guatemala—it’s hard to imagine that the new agency will be anything but a dissuasive factor for emigrating Salvadorans, or people from Nicaragua, or African nations heading north. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13.2, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own.”
The creation of the new agency comes after last month’s signed “letter of intent in furtherance of cooperation” between acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, Rivas, and Alexandra Hill Tinoco, El Salvador minister of foreign affairs, in which the two countries committed to “enhance cooperation to strengthen immigration enforcement” with the purpose of impeding irregular migration flows from and through Central America. The two countries plan to accomplish this by “augmenting border security and supporting criminal investigations targeting gangs, human smuggling, and trafficking networks and providing technical support to El Salvador’s efforts to establish repatriation capacity.” In other words, the United States got El Salvador to sign on both to stop people from leaving and to continue to accept deportees, which is no small matter: ICE deported more than 15,000 Salvadorans in 2018. Todd Miller, author of Empire of Borders, said that Washington’s pushing El Salvador to create a new Border Patrol shouldn’t be a surprise. “A key strategy shift to US border policing in the post 9/11 era has been to pressure, train, supply, and even finance the creation of border patrols in other countries,” Miller wrote via e-mail. “Expanding the US Border Patrol is more than about hiring new agents, it’s about hiring new countries.”
The new Border Patrol force may not even comply with El Salvador’s regulatory procedure to institute a new agency, as the charge was not explicitly stated in the new Migration Law signed earlier this year. El Salvador’s congress is calling both Minister Rivas and Alexandra Hill, the exterior minister, to come to the assembly and justify the move.
A State Department official explained on background that “[the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement’s (INL)] programs in El Salvador support the Government of El Salvador in addressing the high levels of insecurity that drive illegal migration to the United States.” They added that INL’s activities are “not operational” and work to “build capacity.” DHS did not respond to requests for comment.
The day before the deployment of the new Central American border guards, the US Supreme Court effectively threw up its own wall for asylum seekers, lifting an injunction on the Trump administration’s asylum ban. The new rule, first issued in July, bars anyone from asylum eligibility who shows up at the US border after having passed through Mexico, effectively treating Mexico as if it had signed a “safe third country” agreement. The exception is that if someone has asked for asylum—and been denied—in Mexico or another country, they still could receive protection from the United States.
The rule will apply to all Central Americans passing through Mexico asking for asylum, as well as the thousands of Africans and Asians who, in recent months, have been traveling through Central America and Mexico to reach the US border. The rule came during the most recent spate of the Trump administration’s attempts to block asylum seekers from making claims in the United States. It was initially blocked in a Ninth Circuit court, then partially reinstated, and then, just this Monday, completely blocked again, before the Supreme Court stepped on Wednesday and allowed the administration to implement the ban as lower courts continue to weigh in. It is widely expected to make it back to the Supreme Court for a full consideration.
When given the news of the Supreme Court’s move, 23-year-old Anthony Piñera, who fled El Salvador after being targeted by the gangs, told NPR that he wouldn’t even consider applying for asylum in another Central American country or Mexico. “All of Central America is the same. It’s the worst. Mexico, how many have been murdered? Same as Central America, and South America, too.”
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Sotomayor dissented, “It is especially concerning, moreover, that the rule the Government promulgated topples decades of settled asylum practices and affects some of the most vulnerable people in the Western Hemisphere.”
Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization in Tijuana, put the Supreme Court’s move bluntly: “This is a death sentence for most our clients.”
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcello Ebrard, responded, “The United States has a very hard-line immigration policy. The court’s decision is astonishing in the impact that it is going to have.” Ebrard emphasized that they expressed to the US government in writing that Mexico does not accept a “safe third country” designation. Rivas, the Salvadoran minister, explicitly stated that the creation of the Border Patrol is not a step towards a “safe third country” agreement. And yet, as BuzzFeed News has recently reported, the White House is pushing DHS to establish safe third country agreements with both Honduras and El Salvador by October 1. Guatemalan officials, including the outgoing president and the incoming president, as well as the Guatemalan congress, have clashed as to whether its own safe third country agreement with the US is legal.
Last March, Trump claimed in a tweet that “Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have taken our money for years, and do Nothing.” After repeated threats, the administration suspended or reallocated over $500 million in Central American aid. In July, Trump tweeted a direct warning to Guatemala after it had initially pulled out of talks around a safe-third-country agreement, threatening a “BAN, Tariffs, Remittance Fees, or all of the above.”
Salvadoran authorities, however, especially since the new president, Nayib Buekele, took office in June, are describing their country in a different light, claiming that drops in the murder rate, and other advances in security, are leading to decreased emigration toward the United States. “People are leaving less,” Rivas said. And while US Border Patrol apprehensions are down, these numbers vary frequently, and it’s too early to make conclusions about long-term changes. Nearly 20,000 Salvadoran adults have been apprehended by the US Border Patrol in 2019, along with almost 55,000 family units from El Salvador.
Besides improved security, the new Border Patrol agency is positioned to stop Salvadorans from leaving their country, or at least make the exit more difficult. According to INL’s website, the State Department agency is working with El Salvador’s National Police and migration authorities to “professionalize border security, including improved infrastructure for police and K-9 inspection units at the border with Guatemala.” INL had a total budget of only $1.2 million dollars in 2018, and requested less than a million for 2019, and it works in over 70 countries in Africa, Asia, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and South and Central America. INL also supports a multinational border intelligence group that includes Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, and Mexican agencies, which “allows CBP and U.S. law enforcement access to participating countries’ criminal databases and histories of suspected gang members and criminals entering into or already in the United States.”
The reliability of these databases has recently come into question as ProPublica and other outlets reported that US officials are mistakenly accusing migrants of belonging to a gang, keeping them detained or deporting them based on those false accusations. After the press conference, Arriaza Chicas, the director of the National Police, himself admitted that he had migrated to the United States and lived for four years in California.
Sandra, 39 years old, who runs a clothing stand on the side of a busy street in Cara Sucia, a small city close to the Guatemalan border, hadn’t heard about El Salvador’s new Border Patrol until that morning when a caravan of government trucks whizzed by with lights flashing. Sandra, who didn’t want to share her last name for her safety, said she was excited about security reinforcements—especially after having fielded repeated death threats from members of the Mara Salvatrucha in past years. They threatened to burn her shop if she didn’t pay them their extortion fees. At the same time, she didn’t think the new agency would be able to stop emigration. “There are too many places to cross,” she said. “They’re never going to be able to stop people who need to leave.”