Mexico blocks caravan, 2 African migrants drown as immigration crackdown intensifies
Republic reporter Daniel Gonzalez discusses what migrants at the shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, are dealing with while waiting for a transit visa to move toward the U.S. border. Arizona Republic
It's been one year since a massive caravan of Central American migrants surged across a bridge into southern Mexico last October, overwhelming local authorities before traveling through Mexico and reaching the U.S.-Mexico border a few weeks later.
But the situation in southern Mexico has changed drastically after President Donald Trump successfully pressured Mexico to block migrants, many of them asylum-seekers, from reaching the United States' southern border.
On Saturday, a new caravan made up of several thousand migrants from Central America, as well as Africa, Cuba and Haiti, started on foot from Tapachula headed for the U.S. border.
After walking about 19 miles, the caravan was blocked by several hundred Mexican national guard troops, Reuters reported.
The troops wearing helmets and tactical vests and carrying riot shields and long metal rods broke up the caravan Saturday afternoon, according to video posted on Facebook by human rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
Most of the migrants were detained but some escaped, said Rosibel Lopez Gomez, who supervises the Jesus Good Shepard migrant shelter in Tapachula.
The migrants in the caravan had become frustrated by the long wait for travel documents to be processed, Lopez Gomez said.
"They have been waiting for three or four months," Lopez Gomez said.
The caravan was preceded by protests from African and Haitian migrants outside an immigration detention center in Tapachula, according to media reports.
The breakup of the caravan came a day after Mexican immigration authorities announced that the body of a dead migrant from the Central African nation of Cameroon had washed up on shore near Puerto Arista on Mexico's Pacific coast after the boat he was in capsized. Puerto Arista is about 140 miles north of Tapachula.
Six men and one woman, all from Cameroon, were rescued after the boat capsized, Mexican immigration authorities reported.
The news outlet Proceso later reported that a second Cameroonian migrant had died and two migrants remained missing.
The migrants from Cameroon likely were trying to circumvent increased immigration enforcement in Tapachula by the Mexican government under pressure from the U.S., said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America.
Cameroon is grappling with a violent conflict between an English-speaking minority and the French-speaking government.
Expert: Drownings reflect desperation
The drownings off the coast of Mexico, the first involving African migrants, show how desperate some migrants have become trying to reach the U.S., Meyer said.
In Tapachula, thousands of migrants have been stranded for months, waiting to see if the Mexican government will approve asylum applications or permits allowing them to travel northward, Meyer said.
"There is a huge back load of cases so lots of people are just waiting and waiting for applications for asylum or some other type of visa," Meyer said.
The situation there has become increasingly tense as frustration mounts, she said.
"They are exhausted and tired in the poorest state of Mexico and people are running out of ways to support themselves," she said.
Migrants are told to apply for asylum from Mexico. What it’s like in Tapachula USA TODAY
Under the increased enforcement, migrants caught traveling without documents face a greater chance of being detained and deported, Meyer said.
The Mexican government has stopped issuing transit visas to African asylum-seekers wanting to travel through Mexico to the U.S., she said.
It is difficult for Mexico to deport them because the nations they are from don't have embassies in Mexico. As a result, many of the migrants remain stranded in Tapachula, a city of about 30,000 people near Mexico's southern border with Guatemala.
The government has started deporting more Cuban migrants rather than allowing them to travel through the country, Meyer said.
During a visit to the region in August, Meyer said she observed Mexican national guard troops camped on the banks of the Suchiate River to discourage migrants from illegally crossing into Mexico from Guatemala on rafts.
She observed immigration authorities supported by national guard troops conducting immigration inspections at checkpoints on the major highways leading north from Tapachula.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador earlier this year deployed thousands of national guard troops at Mexico's southern and northern borders after the Trump administration threatened to impose hefty tariffs on Mexican imports to the U.S.
The Lopez Obrador administration also has allowed the U.S. to send tens of thousands of Central American asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for their immigration hearings in border communities under the Migrant Protection Protocols policy, which has been condemned by human rights advocates.
Because of the crackdowns at Mexico's northern border, many Central American migrants are choosing instead to apply for asylum in Mexico, Meyer said. Asylum applications in Mexico hit 54,777 through September of this year, which is nearly 77% more than all of last year.
The Mexican government has also ramped up arrests and deportations of migrants.
Through August, Mexican immigration authorities apprehended 144,591 migrants, according to data released by the Mexican government. That is a 75% increase compared with the 82,283 migrants apprehended during the same period in 2018, the data shows.
Through August, the Mexican government deported 94,970 people. That is a 32% increase in deportations compared with the same period in 2018. Almost all, 98%, of the deportations were to countries in Central America, the data shows.
AMLO currying favor with Trump?
Lopez Obrador has shown a surprising willingness to crack down on migrants passing through Mexico on their way to the U.S. in order to please Trump, said Richard Miles, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Lopez Obrador is a leftist who campaigned to protect the human rights of migrants passing through Mexico. But he wants to avoid a battle over immigration with Trump in order to protect Mexico's trade relationship with the U.S., Miles said.
In 2018, the United States, Mexico and Canada signed a new trade agreement to replace NAFTA, fulfilling one of Trump's campaign promises, but the United States Mexico Canada Agreement still hasn't been ratified by Congress.
"The surprising thing about Lopez Obrador is the extent to which he really wants to not anger the Trump administration," Miles said. "I think he made the early calculus that if a tougher Mexican policy on immigrants would keep the Trump administration happy and in exchange that would lead to a ratification of the USMCA or a lifting of tariffs then that was an acceptable trade-off."
Support local journalism.Subscribe to azcentral.com today.