Plan Mexico and Central American Migration

Crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border region is perhaps the most dangerous leg of undocumented Central Americans' long journey to the United States. This border region also demonstrates in microcosm everything that's wrong with U.S. policy toward Mexico and Central America, where free trade, the drug war, US-backed militarization, and repressive immigration policies converge—making a bad situation worse for Central American migrants.

January 12, 2009

The porous 600-mile border between Guatemala and Mexico offers Central American immigrants a ready passage to "el norte"—the United States. It includes 63 uncontrolled transit points, 44 of which can be passed in a vehicle.

The same conditions attracting Central American immigrants also make the Guatemala-Mexico border region home to a thriving drug trade. Guatemala’s Prensa Libre, recently reported that Guatemala's three departments (or states) bordering Mexico—San Marcos, Huehuetenango, and the Petén—have come under the direct control of violent drug cartels.

For $1.33 ferries made of inner tubes offer passage across the Suchiate River in Tecún Umán (San Marcos department), which doubles as the Mexico-Guatemala border. (By Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens)

In San Marcos, a single drug lord, Juan Ortiz Chamalé, owns virtually all of the properties on the frontier. Huehuetenango is the site of an increasingly violent conflict between Mexican and Guatemalan drug lords. The latest incident there involved a wholesale massacre of 17 to 40 people (estimates vary) at a horserace organized by narcos. While in the Petén, drug mafias, supported by the police, have forced small and large landowners to sell their lands.

Violence, promoted by the drug trade, delinquency, and death squads has become a part of daily life in these Guatemalan departments. Bodies riddled with bullet holes regularly appear by the sides of roads, along riverbeds, and in open fields. Well-documented evidence demonstrates that police and military forces are directly engaged in this violence through their links to drug cartels, the maras (gangs), and death squads.

Undocumented Central American immigrants, fleeing the struggling economies of their respective countries, are often victimized by this violence. And their plight is about to get worse. The recently implemented U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will surely devastate what is left of rural livelihoods. And, what's more, the conditions that make the Guatemala-Mexico border an immigrant corridor and a Mecca for drug trafficking also make it a central target of Plan Mexico, the U.S.-financed anti-drug militarization program, pushed through the U.S. Congress by President George Bush in June 2008.

Undocumented Central American immigrants, already subjected to subhuman conditions in their search for viable livelihoods, now face the oppressive confluence of these powerful transnational forces—the drug trade, militarization, and free trade.

Plan Mexico

The U.S.-backed Plan Mexico, known as the “Mérida Initiative” in policy circles, provides $1.6 billion of U.S. taxpayer money to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The stated intention of the program involves "security aid to design and carry out counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and border security measures.”

U.S. Congressional leaders complained about the secrecy of negotiations for Plan Mexico and the absence of human rights guarantees, but they did nothing more than demand the paltry sum of $1 million in additional funding to support human rights groups in Mexico.

Researcher Laura Carlsen has noted that Plan Mexico is the "securitized" extension of trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and CAFTA. Indeed, Plan Mexico is the successor project to the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a post-9/11 initiative negotiated by the NAFTA countries. The State Department's Thomas Shannon made the link between free trade and security explicit: "We have worked through the Security and Prosperity Partnership to improve our commercial and trading relationship, we have also worked to improve our security cooperation. To a certain extent, we’re armoring NAFTA.”

Evidently, neoconservative policy framers have purposefully coupled free trade and security. Free trade agreements promote the free circulation of goods, while prohibiting the same circulation by workers. Since neoliberal trade deals eliminate agricultural subsidies and open poor countries to a flood of cheap imported goods, economically displaced workers will naturally seek new sources of income—even if that means crossing borders.

Militarizing borders and identifying undocumented workers who cross them as criminals ("illegal") are the logical—though sordid—next steps in anticipating and "guarding against" the effects of free trade. The militarization of borders has done nothing to stop immigration, which provides an essential labor force to the United States. But the criminalization of undocumented mobile immigrant workers has deprived them of basic rights of citizenship, thereby making them vulnerable to increasing levels of violence and human rights violations.

The U.S.-driven designation of "internal enemies"—in this case immigrants—as a rationale for building an already mushrooming security apparatus and militarizing societies is, of course, nothing new, especially in Latin America. What is new is that this militarization has become nearly void of any social content. Even during the Cold War, U.S. "national security" doctrines were generally accompanied by social programs, such as the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, which in small measure alleviated poverty and explicitly recognized economic conditions as a root of "the problem."

The end of the Cold War eliminated an even token emphasis on poverty and with it, all but the most minimal efforts to offer social assistance. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) found that the Bush administration granted $874 million in military and police assistance to Latin America in 2004 an amount almost equal to the $946 million provided in economic and social programs. WOLA reported that with the exception of Colombia, military and police aid has historically been less than half of the total provided for economic and social aid. Moreover, military and police aid used to be directed by the U.S. State Department, assuring a degree of congressional oversight. Now, this aid is increasingly managed by the Department of Defense, thereby eliminating this oversight and effectively making militarization the predominant rationale of U.S. foreign policy.

Living on the Border

The situation of Central American immigrants on Mexico’s southern border illustrates the central problems and contradictions of Washington's emphasis on free trade and militarization. And the situation is certain to get worse as thousands of immigrants are deported by the United States to their countries of origin in Central America.

Mural depicting the distinct modes of passage used by immigrants traveling to "el Norte" in Casa del Migrante in Tecún Umán, Guatemala. (By Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens)

Immigrants are fully aware of the risks they take, but economic conditions leave them few alternatives. With a look of desperation following a three-day journey from his home, one Honduran immigrant in the Mexican border town of Tapachula explained, “We don’t do this by choice. We don’t want to leave our families. But imagine a man looking at his children and seeing them hungry." Back home, he faces wages averaging $6 per day in Honduras and a scarcity of opportunities.

When asked about the dangers they anticipate on their journey north, Central American immigrants offer a catalog of terrors: beatings, sexual assaults, robberies, kidnappings, and murders. Ademar Barilli, a Catholic priest and director of the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala’s border town of Tecún Umán, observed, “Immigrants almost expect that their rights will be violated in every sense because they are from another country and are undocumented.”

Heyman Vasquez, a Catholic priest who directs a shelter for migrants in the town of Arriaga in Chiapas, Mexico, maintains detailed records of the violations suffered by migrants passing through his shelter. In a five-month period in 2008, a third of the men and 40% of the women he serves reported assault or some other form of abuse in their 160-mile journey from the Mexico-Guatemala region to Arriaga.

Police are often the perpetrators of these violations. In Guatemala, Father Barilli and others described cases of police forcing Salvadoran and Honduran immigrants to disembark from buses, where they take their documents and demand money. Once they make it into Mexico, immigrants are subject to abuse by Los Zetas, a notorious drug-trafficking network composed of former law enforcement and military agents linked with the Gulf Cartel.

Los Zetas are known to work with Mexican police in the kidnapping of immigrants to demand money from their family members in the United States. Immigrants also report robberies, beatings, and rapes at the hands of Los Zetas. Recently, in Puebla, Mexico, 32 undocumented Central Americans were kidnapped and tortured by the Zetas with the support of municipal police. In this case, after the migrants escaped, local community members captured a number of the responsible police agents and held them until Federal authorities arrived.

A U.S. State Department report on human rights in Mexico from 2007 concluded, "Many police were involved in kidnapping, extortion, or providing protection for, or acting directly on behalf of organized crime and drug traffickers. Impunity was pervasive to an extent that victims often refused to file complaints.”

That impunity means abused migrants have few places to turn is painfully obvious to one Salvadoran immigrant in the Mexican border town of Tapachula. He had just been deported from the United States, where his wife, a legal resident, and two U.S.-born children live in Los Angeles. “The police are involved. You can’t file complaints,” he said. Besides, the wheels of Mexican justice turn notoriously slow—if at all.

Despite the dire scenario, it is not uncommon for many Central American immigrants to receive a helping hand along the way in their journey to El Norte, whether its food, water, money, or shelter. As one undocumented Honduran explained in Tapachula, “Almost everyone has someone in their family who has migrated. Most understand the need.”

"Security" and Violence

Security initiatives in Central America are notoriously violent and further militarize societies still recovering from decades of brutal civil wars. And, historically, when the Pentagon gets involved, repressive tactics increase.

The Bush administration's principle security concerns in Central America of drug trafficking and “transnational gangs” have led to a series of “security cooperation” agreements. The first regional conference on “joint security” was chaired by El Salvador’s president, Tony Saca, who first introduced the "Mano Dura" (Iron Fist) initiative—a package of authoritarian militarized policing methods aimed at youth gangs adopted throughout the region. In attendance was then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, responsible for advocating torture of prisoners in Guantánamo.

The conference took place in El Salvador in February 2007 and resulted in the creation of a transnational anti-gang unit (TAG), which El Salvador’s justice and security minister, René Figueroa described as “an organized offensive at a regional level,” with the US State Department and the FBI coordinating with national police forces. Gonzales, promised Washington would finance a new program to train regional police forces and this promise has been fulfilled partially with the establishment of a highly controversial police-training academy in El Salvador, which is closed to public scrutiny and includes little support for human rights.

Hundreds of Central American migrants ride atop freight trains leaving Arriaga, Mexico en route to the United States. Among other dangers, hundreds have lost limbs as a result of falling onto the tracks below. (By Carlos Bartolo Solis, Hogar de la Misericordia,

In many ways, Plan Mexico, is a mano dura campaign writ large. For 2008, Plan Mexico will provide $400 million to Mexico and $65 million to Central America. More than half of the total funds will go directly to providing police and military weapons and training, even though the police and military in these countries have been implicated in crime and human rights violations.

As Plan Mexico arms and trains military and police forces implicated in violent crime, it also provides millions of dollars for an immigration institute responsible for tightening Mexico’s southern borders through monitoring, bio-data collection, a Guatemalan guest-worker program, and border control.

Undocumented immigrants will be caught in the web of this violence, particularly since Plan Mexico also continues the trend toward the criminalization of migrants. As Laura Carlsen, observes, "By including 'border security' and explicitly targeting 'flows of illicit goods and persons,' the initiative equates migrant workers with illegal contraband and terrorist threats."

The dehumanization of undocumented immigrants in the United States, and elsewhere, and the growing infringement of their basic rights should serve as a dire warning to all "citizens." The undocumented are the canaries in the coalmine: the violation of their rights signals a growing repressive climate that jeopardizes everyone's liberties.

Fire on the Border

Free trade agreements create the conditions that force people to migrate to the United States as an underpaid, politically disenfranchised, and therefore unprotected labor force. Now the economic crisis in the United States has increased pressure to expel undocumented workers, violating a host of human rights standards in the process. Deportations also increase labor pressure in immigrants’ countries of origin, where the global economic crisis stands to further decrease the already limited opportunities for work in “legitimate” industries.

From a purely humanitarian perspective, the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Central America need to address this crisis by developing policies that improve the conditions of poverty that cause immigration. Throwing guns at the problem will only make things worse.

Sure, drug lords are firmly entrenched in the Guatemala-Mexico border region. But Plan Mexico will no more eliminate their presence, than the Mano Dura campaigns eliminated the gangs. Or, for that matter, any more than the militarization of borders has eliminated immigration. Instead, Plan Mexico, like its predecessors, will increase the level of violence in the region by providing more weapons to corrupt police and military forces.

As more and more resources shift toward militarization, policing and surveillance, fewer resources are available for programs that ease pressure to emigrate—namely, education, jobs, medical care, food subsidies, housing, and legal recourse. Meanwhile, governments are increasingly ceding responsibility for protection of even narrowly defined human rights to under-funded non-governmental organizations.

Repressive immigration policies, narcotrafficking, and free trade all combined to form a combustible situation along the Mexico-Guatemala border. Plan Mexico is the spark, and once the flames start, no one will be able to put out the fire. And it's the undocumented migrants who will continue to get burned.

Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens is a NACLA Research Associate currently based in Central America. Christine Kovic contributed reporting for this article.

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