SALTO DE AGUA, Mexico—Having trod a clandestine path through the rugged hills from the border with Guatemala, migrants arrive weary and worn out at the Santa Marta shelter in this scruffy railway stop. The route here was rife with risks of robbery, kidnap and rape, but it’s taken by more and more migrants as immigration officials and members of Mexico’s Guardia Nacional—a newly formed militarized police force—step up enforcement in southern Mexico.
Sister Diana Muñoz Alba, a human rights lawyer who is one of the four Franciscan nuns running the shelter in Salto de Agua, describes the situation facing migrants in southern Mexico succinctly. “Militarization,” she calls it. And she uses even less flattering language to describe what militarization has done to Mexico as a whole.
“Mexico has turned into ‘the Wall’ and the one paying for it is Mexico,” Muñoz said, referring to Donald Trump’s totemic pledge. In this way, she said, “He kept his campaign promise and this is now nothing more than a strategy for his re-election.”
That Mexico would become the border wall is an irony not lost on migrant defenders and some in the Mexican media—especially since Mexico vociferously defends its own citizens living in the United States, whether they entered legally or not. But the move to make Mexico even tougher for mostly Central American migrants to transit has coincided with rising anti-migrant sentiments and follows public opinion that turned negative toward the much-publicized caravans previously crossing the country.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly called “AMLO”), sent his national guard to the northern and southern borders last month as part of a deal to avoid Donald Trump slapping tariffs on Mexican imports. The Mexican public might have felt insulted and extorted by Trump, but polls show Mexicans supporting AMLO’s move to stop migrants, even though the guardia was created originally late last year to calm a countryside plagued by the ongoing drug war.
“[AMLO’s] not doing Trump’s dirty work. He’s doing Mexico’s dirty work,” said Federico Estévez, professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “[Migrants] fundamentally do not enjoy support in Mexico.”
Mexico deported nearly 22,000 migrants in June 2019, putting the country on pace to beat its figures for 2018—and capturing Trump’s attention. “Mexico is doing a lot right now... And the numbers are way down,” Trump said July 1.
He lauded AMLO and noted, “The Mexican people were very upset with all these… hundreds of thousands of people walking through Mexico. The people of Mexico are just as happy as I am with what they are doing.”
For his part, AMLO responded, “I’m grateful that even President Trump is making it known Mexico is keeping its commitment and there are no threats of tariffs.”
AMLO previously promised not to do the “dirty work” of any foreign government on the immigration issue.
His government introduced humanitarian visas shortly after taking office Dec. 1, allowing migrants to move freely in Mexico and work for a year—although the scheme was stopped due to crushing demand and a realization many Central Americans used the documents to simply dart through the country. AMLO’s also promised to pump billions into Central American development, starting with funds for a reforestation program in El Salvador.
His rhetoric has remained pro-migrant. And he’s even voiced hopes the Trump administration would come around to his way of thinking. “The American people are a very humane people, a Christian people,” he said during the June tariff negotiations. “And what is Christianity? In essence it’s love for the other. The American people are going to attend to this situation.”
But while AMLO pretends to play the good cop, his functionaries play the bad cop. Guardia Nacional members have raided hotels in Chiapas state without warrants in search of migrants. Mexico continues receiving asylum seekers to wait in dangerous border cities as their cases are heard in U.S. courts. Migrant shelters have come under scrutiny—including threats of money laundering investigations—even though Mexico’s 2011 migration law decriminalized support for people who lacked the proper papers.
“I know the ways of NGOs, but let them tell us what to do, tell us if they would allow 50 people to come and stay in their homes,” immigration commissioner Francisco Garduño groused to Notimex.
The coarsening of anti-migrant attitudes in Mexico has some pundits wondering aloud if Trump-style politics are spreading southward.
“If the wall was on the border against us, outrage. But if the wall is against Central Americans, cooperation. Does this not look like the seeds of trumpismo a la Mexicana?” wrote Carlos Bravo Regidor and Alexandra Délano Alonso in Letras Libres, a Mexican magazine.
AMLO supporters show few signs they differing with their president over the migration issue. Father Alejandro Solalinde, an unabashed AMLO supporter and perhaps the country’s best-known migrant defender, has remained mum.
“It’s not fair that people from other countries are supported,” said Miguel Ángel Morales, an artisan attending an AMLO rally in Playa del Carmen. “If they’re coming with bad intentions, it’s better that they’re stopped, that they don’t go to the United States or go anywhere except back to theie country.”
A June poll in the newspaper El Universal showed 61.5 percent of Mexicans supporting the crackdown—up from 48.9 percent in October 2018, when many Mexicans of modest means provided caravan travelers with food, water and clothing.
Gerardo Maldonado, a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics who’s studied Mexican attitudes on migration since 2006, also found attitudes towards migrants in the country worsened as the caravans reached Tijuana on the U.S. border in December and a raft of unflattering stories surfaced.
He describes Mexican attitudes on migration as “volatile” and often responding to the news cycle. Attitudes toward migrants turned positive in 2010 after a massacre of 72 migrants by the crime cartel Los Zetas at a ranch in Tamaulipas state, but slipped over the past decade and deteriorated with the caravans.
“Support for restrictive policies predates Trump’s threats,” Maldonado said. But he adds people are also currently supporting the policies of a popular president—AMLO has an approval rating north of 60 percent—and that tends to sway public opinion.
“If the president says, ‘What we’re going to do is make a change and have much more restrictive policies so we can establish order [in the migration through Mexico] people will support it,” he said. “That also implies the government is going to tell them, ‘We’re not going to confront the United States.’”