Amid all the urgent and much-deserved coverage of the family separation policy, the migrant detention centers, and predatory Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, it has been easy to miss the fact that Mexican security forces aren’t treating migrants much better. Partly armed and trained by the United States, Mexico’s police and immigration authorities are carrying out a campaign of fear and violence against migrants—with impunity.
Just last week, Mexican police shot and killed a Honduran migrant in front of his 8-year-old daughter in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. The details are still unclear, but the man was shot near a migrant shelter where he was staying with his daughter. And in June a 19-year-old woman was shot and killed after the truck she was in ran through a Mexican police checkpoint.
Both shootings came on the heels of the Trump administration’s pressuring Mexico to crack down on northward US-bound migration. Given the track record of Mexican security forces—the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa in 2014, the execution-style killing of 22 other people the same year, the recent arrest of migrant rights activists, the thousands of migrants who have gone missing during their transit through Mexico in recent years—it’s hard not to expect anything but more violence. And it’s not just rogue cops or the unfortunate and inevitable outcome of policing migration. It’s worse than that. The border has long been a site of violence, but its cruelty extends well beyond the borderlands. Border violence reaches south into Mexico and other countries, and it seeps into the interior of the United States; we witnessed the logic of bordering play out in the mass shooting in El Paso last weekend.
The Mexican state has created a security apparatus that regularly violates the human rights of its citizens and migrants passing through the country. The United States—long involved with pushing violent security crackdowns—has played an outsize role in shaping Mexico’s response to migrants for at least the past decade. As Todd Miller explains in his recent book Empire of Borders, the Department of Homeland Security has been exporting its model of border militarization all over the world, helping to train guards, surveil border crossers, and fortify divisions between states. DHS officials have collaborated with the governments of the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, India, Poland, Turkey, Vietnam, Guatemala, Israel, Jordan, and of course, Mexico.
Border creep is not new, but it seems to be accelerating. A recent example of pushing the border south comes from 2014, when the Obama administration pressed the Mexican government and then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, who had inherited and doubled down on a murderous anti–drug trafficking strategy, to police immigration. The results were brutality, exploitation, and death. Mexican immigration authorities and police—sometimes working in direct collaboration with cartels—hounded, robbed, and killed migrants. In 2015, I wrote about a Honduran migrant, Beylin Sarmiento, who was killed by Mexican federal police who used migrants riding on the top of freight trains for target practice. Despite video evidence of the shooting, his killers were never charged.
Mexican enforcement efforts also include detaining migrants in grossly inhumane conditions, such as the notorious detention center Siglo XXI in the southern state of Chiapas—which has been overstuffing cells with migrants behind its high walls for years. Last year Mexican authorities tricked thousands of migrants into being locked into an open-air and unsanitary extension of Siglo XXI, where toilets are “overflowing with filth,” according to one recent description. Conditions got so bad that nearly 100 migrants, led by a group of Cuban asylum seekers, broke out of the detention center in May. That followed a similar and much larger mass escape earlier in the year.
In trying to offload some of its obligations to protect refugees and asylum seekers—or even just respect their basic human rights—the Trump administration has increasingly been pushing the need for regional cooperation to deal with migration. After threatening what would have been devastating export tariffs on Mexico this summer, the Trump administration strong-armed it into a promise of another crackdown. As Miller phrased it, “After a long process that goes back decades, it seems like Mexico has finally completely succumbed and been deputized as the U.S. Border Patrol’s newest agent.”
The United States similarly forced Guatemala’s outgoing President Jimmy Morales, under threat of tariffs and travel bans, into signing a Safe Third Country agreement, foisting upon it refugee protection demands that the country is wildly unequipped to meet.
Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, took office last December promising a different security strategy: “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not guns). There was hope that the leftist Obrador, who during his campaign promised that “racist attitudes or poor treatment of immigrants will not be tolerated,” could turn around the state’s brutal immigration crackdown.
But half a year into his presidency, AMLO’s administration has slashed the budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance by 20 percent and seems to be following the same playbook his predecessors used: new uniforms, new crackdown. AMLO’s first move was to create an entity, the National Guard, and then transfer members of the federal police, as well as the army and naval police, into the new federal outfit, which combines military and police tactics with the intent of improving domestic security. In 2014, Peña Nieto similarly formed a gendarmerie, with recruits trained and controlled by veteran security and military leaders. The strategy has never gone well. Falko Ernst, an analyst for the research organization Crisis Group, sees the efforts as little more than introducing “another violent actor in an already violent context.”
This month a heartrending photo emerged of a member of the Mexican National Guard stopping a weeping woman and her young son from approaching the US-Mexico border. There have been reports of National Guard members trying to gain entrance to a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta. An administrator there told me that people there have heard multiple other accounts of guard members stopping and questioning migrants, actions outside their purview. Immigration attorney Christina Brown recently described three members of a family, including a 12-year-old, who were kidnapped in northern Mexico in July by men wearing federal police uniforms and driving a federal police vehicle—presumably federal police officers. The family was taken to a safe house where they witnessed people getting plastic bags wrapped around their heads and being tortured.
All of which makes the Trump administration’s so-called Remain in Mexico program so dangerous. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), as the policy is officially known, allows the government to take people who are seeking asylum in the United States and push them back into Mexico as their cases proceed through US courts. Migrants waiting under the MPP have been robbed, kidnapped, raped, and left to sleep on the streets. Beyond the MPP, the administration has deployed metering at ports of entry, purposefully slowing the number of asylum seekers who can apply for protection each day, effectively pushing the vast majority of seekers back into Mexico to wait anywhere from a few days to a few months. The man and his daughter who tragically drowned in the Rio Grande this June had just been metered and turned away from a port of entry.
Jeremy Slack, the author of the recent book Deported to Death, connects the racist anti-immigrant rhetoric spewing out of the White House (among other places) to the recent shooting in El Paso. Trump’s rhetoric also, Slack told me, lays the groundwork for the “draconian state-sanctioned violence” of the MPP and metering. “The logic has become that violence against migrants is both politically popular and morally correct, starting in the United States but quickly spreading to Mexico,” he said.
These are the policies—whether delaying or denying protection or outsourcing immigration enforcement to corrupt foreign security forces—that are designed to put migrants in harm’s way.