Travelling without documents to the United States from Latin America can turn into an odyssey, in which migrants have to elude common criminals and drug traffickers along the way, not to mention the laws on migration. But now another obstacle is emerging: a wall between Guatemala and Mexico.
According to the head of customs for Mexico’s tax administration, Raúl Díaz, in order to stop boats carrying contraband, the southern Mexican state of Chiapas is building a wall along the border river Suchiate, similar to the one the United States is building along its southern border with Mexico.
“It could also prevent the free passage of illegal immigrants,” admitted the Mexican official.
Smugglers use the Suchiate River to move products across an international border without paying duty taxes, but at the same time, thousands of Central and South Americans cross the river in their attempts to reach the United States in search of opportunity–and without the required documents.
Some 500,000 migrants cross Mexican territory without permission each year, according to Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH).
The intention to build a border wall has triggered a wave of opposition from civil society and government organisations, with charges that it is a “senseless” measure that will not succeed in preventing undocumented migrants from crossing the border on their way north.
“We are watching the Mexican government’s initiative with concern because the migrants are in a situation of highest vulnerability, as demonstrated by the massacre in Tamaulipas, where five Guatemalans died,” Erick Maldonado, executive secretary of Guatemala’s National Council on Migrants, told IPS.
The cruelty to which undocumented migrants are often subjected was laid bare Aug. 23, when 72 people coming from Guatemala, as well as El Salvador, Honduras, Ecuador and Brazil, were brutally murdered in San Fernando, a town in the eastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. They were presumably killed by the Los Zetas drug cartel, which is also involved in kidnapping and exploiting migrants.
In addition, a total of 9,758 kidnappings of migrants were reported in Mexico from September 2008 to February 2009, according to the CNDH.
Putting up a wall on the Guatemala-Mexico border “is going to make the migrants’ situation worse, because to meet their needs they are always going to find blind points where there are no migration or security controls, which implies greater risks,” said Maldonado.
The vulnerability of the Latin Americans, and especially Central Americans, who emigrate “without papers” to the United States has remained at the forefront in recent months, not only because of intense violence like the Tamaulipas massacre, but also because of government measures taken to fight illegal migration.
Law SB1070, enacted Apr. 23 by the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona, authorises police to inquire into the immigration status of any person based on “reasonable suspicion.” Critics say the legislation leads to racial profiling and violations of civil liberties.
The long line of obstacles that migrants face on their way to the United States gets longer with the construction of the wall on the Mexico-Guatemala border.
However, the authorities in Guatemala have yet to receive any information from the Mexican government about the wall.
Nevertheless, Maldonado expressed his concern this week to Mexico’s migration representative in Guatemala, Alejandro Martínez.
Opposition to the project has even reached the highest circles: “Walls we can jump over; they are not a solution to the problem,” was the terse comment from the vice-president of Guatemala, Rafael Espada.
The Chiapas state’s intention to build a wall in some ways echoes the United States’ controversial construction of the 1,126-kilometre wall along its southern border river–known as Río Grande in the U.S.; Río Bravo in Mexico–to prevent entry of undocumented immigrants.
“The dramatic increase in the cost of ‘polleros’ (human traffickers) and the corruption of the authorities is the result of the walls the United States plans to build and has built along the border. We can transpose the Guatemala case to this situation and the results will be the same,” Catholic priest Francisco Pellizari, of the Casa del Migrante (Migrant House), told IPS.
According to the priest, walls are a “historic error” in many countries around the world, and have failed to resolve the problems associated with migration.
“They are supposedly intended to halt migration, but that hasn’t happened. Instead they have triggered an economic haemorrhage and a shift in the migratory flow to inhospitable routes that lead to thousands of deaths,” he said.
Erick Zúñiga, mayor of the western Guatemalan municipality of Ayutla, better known as Tecún Umán, bordering Mexico, said the state of Chiapas has already begun construction of the barrier, which he said “looks like a wall to prevent the Suchiate River from flooding.”
In any case, said the mayor, “no wall will prevent migration. It won’t stop people from crossing because they are going in search of job opportunities and a future for their families.”