Mexico spends so much time fuming over its border relations with the US that its own southern frontier—where tens of thousands of Central Americans cross each year in hopes of making it to the US—is quite often an afterthought.
The country has traditionally been just a transit point on the immigration route, and has long been under pressure by the US to step up its security. Shortly after taking office in December, President Felipe Calderón responded to the call by setting up a new border police force with 645 officers.
But his administration is under equal pressure by critics who say Mexico demands of the US what it doesn’t give to its own migrants: fair treatment.
Near the top of the list of demands for many immigrant rights activists is the decriminalization of the nation’s immigration laws, which, in some cases, call for two years in prison for being undocumented.
Mexico’s southern frontier is hardly an obstacle at all—at least when comparing it with the censors, radar, and border patrol agents that man the US-Mexico border. Here in the border town of Ciudad Hidalgo, drugs, weapons, and people pass illegally over the Suchiate River at any time of the day.
Jorge Mario Garcia, from Guatemala, recently crossed the river in broad daylight. His friends each paid $1 to ride on inner tubes run as a mini ferry service. He opted to swim the stretch himself. “It’s a thousand times easier to cross into Mexico than the US,” says Mr. Garcia, who was caught and deported from McCallen, Texas just a few months earlier.
The number of Central Americans caught attempting to get into Mexico rose to 240,200 in 2005 from 138,000 in 2002, according to the National Migration Institute. That number dipped to 182,700 last year, but is expected to rise sharply to 205,000 this year.
But crossing the border is often the easiest part. Surviving along the frontier, paying off bribes, avoiding gangs, and dodging thieves who pray on migrants with cash in their pockets, make up the stories of migrants in shelters in this region of Chiapas.
While President Calderón’s first step was to create a new police task force in Chiapas, where most migrants are caught, most of the administration’s initiatives have centered on better treatment for migrants. Mexico’s legislature is debating changes to the immigration law, including changing the penalty for entering the country illegally to a civil violation instead of a crime punishable with jail time.
On a recent day, Francisco Aceves, the coordinator for Grupos Beta, a government agency that helps migrants, loads up his orange pickup truck with cans of tuna and water for 100 and drives off toward the border. He scours washed out train tracks that still guide the migrants’ journeys.
He says that corruption is what makes his job hardest. His group hands out pamphlets to migrants, educating them on how to avoid being extorted for money. “But we are working against a very big monster,” he says.
Raúl Benítez, a security expert at the Center for North American Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, agrees. He says that corruption plagues efforts to both ease immigration and improve human rights. Often, he says, migrants pay small bribes to five or six different officials as they cross into Mexico, showing the multiple layers of the problem.” It is extortion of the migrants,” Mr. Benítez says.