One of the first things that President Lopez Obrador did upon entering office was to form a National Guard. One of the first things he did with the National Guard was send them to the Mexico/Guatemala border. This was done, at least in part, in response to President Trump’s insistence that Mexico do more to stop migrants headed to the United States.
What you see.
The most well-known border crossing is at Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. There, the Suchiate River separates Guatemala from Mexico (picture above). There is a bridge with an official crossing point where passports are stamped, but the real action happens on the river. If you’ve seen pictures of migrants crossing into Mexico on rafts they were likely taken here. It is quite a sight. Within easy view of the bridge dozens of rafts carry goods and people across the river all day long. We saw a lot of goods transiting back and forth.
It is a rather expansive area with different loading areas for different goods – toilet paper and household items in one area, beer and sodas in another, cement farther down. Apparently the nearest Sam’s Club does a brisk business with those involved in informal commerce. One spot was reportedly where more illicit items crossed.
We were told that commerce crossing by raft is still allowed under usos y costumbres (use and customs), which is an interesting application of a legal concept designed for the governance of indigenous communities. It seems a handy way to explain the fact that the informal crossing of commerce is how these communities have functioned forever and they are not about to let the federal government change that.
What you don’t see.
Normally, there would have been a good flow of migrants crossing by raft. We did not see them. The river’s shore was filled with National Guard and other troops, each small group of them within eyesight of the next. They wore regular military uniforms. You know which ones are National Guard because they wear armbands with the letters NG. They are there to stop the crossing of migrants. The goods flowed.
Undocumented migrants, who have used this crossing point in the past, are not there now. The presence of the National Guard has stopped that. If migrants cross here, they are detained, handed over to migration officials and put in a detention center.
So did the migrants stop coming? If you look at the numbers of detentions and deportations from the US and Mexico, numbers are down. However, the numbers tend to drop this time of year because it is unbearably hot. Time will tell if the reduced flow will last.
The best-case scenario for undocumented migrants is that they pay a coyote to take them safely across the border and then accompany them through Mexico to the US. That’s how undocumented migrants with money make the trip. Those without money cross in remote areas that are riddled with criminals who prey on the migrants. Undocumented migrants seldom report crime.
The presence of the National Guard in Ciudad Hidalgo is forcing migrants to cross in more remote areas where they will likely be the victims of crime, or forced to engage with criminal networks. For historical reference, this is the same thing that happened at the US/Mexico border. As the US enhanced border security, migrants started crossing in more remote areas. This shift coincided with the consolidation of organized crime on Mexico’s northern border (something that really should be studied more) as well as a rise in migrant deaths in remote areas of Arizona and Texas.
Once inland, poor migrants don’t travel on main roads where there are checkpoints to ferret them out, but on roads like this one.
At other border crossings we saw some National Guard, but not nearly the show of force that was present in Ciudad Hidalgo.
I can’t help but comment on the border crossing at Nuevo Orizaba. It is not an official point of entry. Nonetheless, it has a lovely, new border facility on the Mexican side that sits empty and is closed off by a fence. Apparently the backstory is that the Guatemalan government never finished paving the road to the checkpoint so it was never opened. There is, however, a dirt road connecting the two countries that circumvents the unused migration building. That road is where crossings happen. And, it isn’t rafts filled with toilet paper, but semi-trucks filled with who knows what.
The deployment of the National Guard at the Mexico/Guatemala border, much like the US National Guard deployments to our border, is likely temporary. It is to make a political statement and have a short-term impact.
One other thing struck me. For years, the US has been interested in Mexico’s southern border supposedly for security reasons. The use of the National Guard at Mexico’s southern border is not about stopping drugs, guns or criminal organizations. It is unapologetically about stopping poor people from heading north.