A derailment of The Beast in 2013 A derailment of The Beast in 2013. At least six people were killed. Luis Manuel Lopez/Reuters

US is outsourcing border enforcement

Southern Border Program stops migrants before they reach US border

In describing the complex relationship between Mexico and the United States, Jeffrey Davidow, American ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002, spoke of “the bear and the porcupine.”


The U.S. is an arrogant bear, brawny and insensitive to Mexico’s concerns. Mexico is a resentful porcupine, paranoid about American plots to undermine its sovereignty.

Davidow candidly noted that the bear could crush the porcupine, but every time it has tried to the porcupine’s sharp spines have hurt the bear’s big paws.

This analogy remains pertinent. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump strategically chose Mexico and Latin America as his straw men, characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, threatening to build a border wall and capping off his win by confirming plans to deport up to 3 million undocumented Latino migrants.

In this contemporary parallel of Davidow’s comparison, the evil porcupine keeps injuring the trusting and innocent bear. But in truth, for the last few years, the porcupine has been doing the bear a big favor by guarding its expansive lair.

All the attention on Mexico’s northern border and U.S. immigration policy has overshadowed ongoing violence and deportations related to migrants who have crossed Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala and Belize.

These have seen a sharp rise since 2014, when the Mexican government announced the implementation of the Southern Border Program. The policy’s key declared objectives were to bring order to migration into Mexico’s southern region while protecting the human rights of migrants who enter and travel through the country.


But implementation has gone off course. In 2013, Mexico deported 80,709 immigrants. In 2014, that figure increased 35% to 107, 814.

Mexico decriminalized undocumented entry into its territory in 2008. Yet it has also increased patrols throughout areas where migrants travel and conducted controversial raids, which human rights organizations have described as hunting parties, to detain migrants in remote places.

Enforcement has changed migration routes but hasn’t deterred migrants. Instead, the Southern Border Program has dispersed them, making them more vulnerable to extortionists, rapists and thieves.

Children, sent away by desperate parents trying to get them away from gang violence, are among the most affected groups. In 2014, 18,169 migrant children were deported from Mexico. This represents a 117% increase from the 8,350 returned to Central America in 2013.

Children not immediately deported are locked up in detention centers. From January 2015 to July 2016, 39,751 unaccompanied minors were “secured” by Mexican authorities.

The U.S. has enthusiastically greeted Mexico’s new immigration policies. In January 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama celebrated “strong efforts by Mexico, including at its southern border” that had helped reduce Central American migration into the U.S. “to much more manageable levels.”

From an instrumental standpoint, Obama’s praise makes sense. In 2014, some 69,000 unaccompanied children were stopped at the U.S. border. The resulting humanitarian crisis was an embarrassing public relations mess.

Thus, Mexico’s detention and expulsion of immigrants who travel through it en route to the U.S. is beneficial. Once immigrants cross the U.S. border, it’s American money and effort that’s spent on returning them.

In short, the U.S. has outsourced border control. Trump’s rants against sending American jobs to Mexico aside, the president-elect may be pleasantly surprised to learn that Obama persuaded Mexico to take over the task of stopping migrants.

In practice, this means that the Mexican-American border has shifted 3,000 kilometers south. It now passes through the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz, where Mexico is narrowest and the traffic of immigrants is easier to control (here’s an interactive map).

According to the American Border Patrol, between October 2014 and February 2015 apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children decreased 42% over the previous year. On the flip side, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported a substantive increase in migrant complaints against the authorities in the year after the Southern Border Program was implemented.

Today, most of Mexico has become an extension of the U.S. border region. As intellectual Sergio Aguayo has argued, on immigration matters, Mexico is “a servant of the U.S.”

Or in Davidow’s framing, the porcupine deploys its spines to protect the bear.

This is the paradoxical reality behind Trump’s hyperbolic vision of America’s border area.

A week after the American election, the Mexican government announced an 11-point plan to assist Mexicans in the U.S., who migrated both legally and illegally, with accurate information on possible changes to immigration policy.

“These are uncertain times,” said Secretary of Foreign Relations Claudia Ruiz Massieu in a Twitter video, speaking directly to immigrants. “The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto and all Mexicans are with you. We are going to be closer than ever.”

Mexico’s measures include a 24-hour hotline that will allow people to report harassment and immigration raids, and the expansion of deportation-defense work at the Mexican Embassy and 50 consulates.

The mildness of these measures starkly contrasts with the brutality of Trump’s projected policies. As Univision reporter Jorge Ramos has pointed out, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, paralyzed by fear, has seemingly decided to kneel before Trump.

The financial, diplomatic and commercial consequences of the coming era cannot be addressed through tweets or hotlines.

For 20 years, a group of women from La Patrona, Veracruz, has been feeding thousands of Central American migrants. Each day, “Las Patronas,” the (lady) Bosses, stand a few meters away from the train – known as “La Bestia” (The Beast) – that transports Central American immigrants through Mexican territory.

When they hear the train’s whistle, they toss drinks, tortillas and beans to the hungry migrants.

These women offer a powerful human rebuke to Mexico’s policies toward vulnerable travelers who, after all, have grown up and lived in the same rough and violent conditions that compel Mexicans to journey northward. Their basic act of decency is an ethical revolution; people do not surrender as easily as governments do.

With El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala structuring a common strategy to face the challenges of a Trump presidency, Mexico has the opportunity to ally with its neighbors and render Trump’s wall useless by improving quality of life in the region.

The first step is to acknowledge the importance of social and economic rights, such as education or health services, in deepening democracy and fighting inequality. Other provisions in the Central American strategy include improving security while respecting human rights and strengthening Mexico’s relations with Latin American countries.

If Mexico’s government is not up to the challenge (as its harshness with migrants and mildness toward Trump suggest), then Mexican citizens can nonetheless follow Las Patronas’ example. Many Mexican academic institutions, including the Colegio de la Frontera Norte and civil society groups, such as the Tabasco-based migrant refuge La 72, are responding to the Central America border crisis with calls for rights-based immigration policies.

Together, Mexicans can exercise the dignity of saying “no” – both to Trump, the bully to the north, and to Peña Nieto, their very own American pawn.

Such efforts support George Orwell’s assertion that “if men would behave decently the world would be decent.”

Las Patronas tell a tale more radical than that of the porcupine and the bear, which is that even when governments are indecent, nobody can prevent the people from embracing decency.

The ConversationLuis Gómez Romero is a senior lecturer in human rights, constitutional law and legal theory at the  University of Wollongong in Australia. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  • Rightazz

    Mexico serves its own interest deporting citizens from south of the Mexican boarder. Mexicans in southern Mexico are voicing their concerns of illegal immigrants taking jobs ,working for less , becoming a drain on social benefits. As a matter of fact Mexicans have less tolerance for illegal immigration than the American K.K.K . Hopefully Mexico can end its timeless double standards and let the citizens of their southern neighbors stay in Mexico after all they want nothing more than the millions of Mexicans that have entered into the U.S. over the many years a better life for their family . Perhaps these new immigrants to Mexico will be willing to work for less helping Mexico labor costs be the lowest in the world. I am sure people like Carlos Slim would be in favor .

    • Eric

      Mexico guards it Southern border for one reason only, to reduce the number of US $ flowing to Central American after crossing into the USA. Look it up, Mexico takes in about $2 Billion a month in remittances. That’s why they are so hard nosed about who gets in from the Southern Border. Sorry Rightazz, the people of Central America don’t go to Mexico looking for jobs flipping tacos. They head up to the USA on that train spoken of in the article. And then, compete with Mexican migrants for jobs in the USA. Which means fewer US $ come to Mexico’s economy.

  • Güerito

    “Teofila Montejo De La Cruz, a 72-year-old woman in Tenosique Tabasco, has become known as a guardian angel for the Central American immigrants, giving them work in her restaurant and letting them sleep on the floor of her snack shop. But even she doesn’t believe large numbers of Central Americans should be able to stay permanently in Mexico.

    “’At some point, they have to go back to their own land,’” she said.


  • The U.S. needs a wall across all of its southern border. It already has quite a bit of wall. And Mexico needs a wall across its own southern border. All nations need walls. Just as you keep your front door closed, nations need to keep their doors closed. A doorbell will let you go to see who’s at the door, wanting to get in, as necessary. Let them in or not. Your choice. They don’t get to climb in the window.

  • kallen

    This is more outdated leftist propaganda steeped in economic and social conditions that were relevant during the mid to later half of the last century. It’s so tedious to read Mr Gomez. Aren’t there any forward-thinking intellectual realists in Mexico? In effect its just a typical leftist rant based on a silly colloquialism by a former US ambassador (probably also clueless). It misses the mark entirely. The fact of the matter is this: The earth cannot sustain 7.5 billion people (soon to be 11 billion) with the commensurate resource degradation, climate change, population and socio-economic pressures. Consider the mass migrations happening everywhere on the planet: Africa, Europe, Asia. This is really just the start of the flood. Sadly, there are not enough voices communicating the real problem – as Mr Gomez has demonstrated, all we get is more of the same old finger pointing we’ve come to expect from mainstream voices.

  • AM

    This holiday season I will be giving a lot of my money to the Central American immigrants that are traveling across Mexico because I know exactly where they are going 🙂 I don’t usually give cash to transients or the homeless, but in this case I will be donating a lot of my money. Everybody I know in Mexico is doing this. I say, let the US handle it that way they can put their big beautiful wall to good use lmao. Perhaps these Central American immigrants will have it easy once they get to the US because after all, as one commentator on here noted, “Mexicans have less tolerance for illegal immigration than the KKK.” – Maybe the lights are on, but clearly, there’s nobody home.

    Can’t wait for Christmas in Mexico, Gto here I come! :)))))))

  • Rightazz

    So you admit that Mexico sends it citizens to the United States to become illegal immigrants in the U.S. and is willing to imprison, rape and kill the citizens of countries south of Mexico’s boarder for its own gain to ensure remittances from Mexican citizens from the U.S. to Mexico continue.
    You may want to check the number of illegal immigrants in the southern states of Mexico you can google news articles written by Mexican journalists as to the problem you will find the extreme prejudice Mexicans have against illegal and legal immigrants in Mexico and as I said Mexicans live by double standards.

  • Rugeirn Drienborough

    To read this article, you would think that no Mexicans ever cross the US border illegally. Or has “shifting the border 3,000 kilometers to the south” neatly solved that little side issue?

    On another point, isn’t it obvious that las padronas are complicit in the very system they think they are protesting? The supplies they furnish make it easier and cheaper to run the trains.