Special to Pulse News Mexico

By now, you have probably heard the arguments on both the contentious debates over what is driving the phenomenon of migrant caravans from Central America to Mexico and the United States. And you still not be clear on what it is that’s causing these migrants to undertake such an arduous journey, often on foot across hostile terrain and at great risk. You might even have questions about why it is so many of them are continuing to the United States, despite the increasingly hostile footing of the current U.S. administration and its policies.

To fully understand the current phenomenon, a little history is in order. In many people’s minds, the dynamic of undocumented immigration is about freeloaders looking for a handout, and while there certainly are so-called “bad apples” in every nation’s wave of immigrants (legal or otherwise), far and away, they are the exception rather than the rule, no matter the country in question. In the case of the United States, Mexico and their Central American neighbors, changes in regional international trade and politics have a lot to do with the current state of affairs.

For much of the 20th century, the United States relied on cheap labor from Mexican immigrants to do work seen as undesirable or especially arduous – in part because of the value of the dollar versus what Mexicans could make at home, but also because noncitizens (whether in the country legally or not) had far fewer options to protect themselves from exploitation by unscrupulous employers. As the 20th century drew to a close, however, some important factors began to change that would transform regional migration. On the one hand, globalization made it easier to “outsource” manufacturing, allowing many operations to be moved to Mexico itself or other countries beyond the scope of where Mexicans and Central Americans could migrate to without great expense. Agricultural, construction and unskilled service work that couldn’t be moved began to dominate the sectors where migrant workers of both legal and illegal status could still find jobs.

Meanwhile, as Mexico abandoned import-substitution industrialization and became more closely integrated into the global economy, standards of living in Mexico rose, and with that came more jobs and local opportunities in the industrialized north and central parts of the country. In fact, by the turn of the century, net migration fell to (and remains at) roughly zero, meaning that about as many Mexicans now leave the United States to return to Mexico as others arrive there in search of work or a new life. Much of this prosperity in Mexico’s north was driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Free trade deals began to dominate global trade, with similar such deals in Central America (Central American and Dominican Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA-DR) taking hold in the early years of the 21st century. The basic idea behind these accords was to remove as many barriers to trade as possible in order to increase development and, in theory, prosperity for participating states and their citizenry.

I’ll return to those free trade deals shortly, but before getting to the recent past, it is important to note that other changes transformed regional migration from Central America to Mexico and the United States. One of the primary drivers was the fallout of the fight against communism in Latin America, which saw the United States make alliances with undemocratic governments in Central and South America in exchange for their alliance in the fight against the spread of leftism, as well as U.S. interventions in the region to protect Washington’s economic interests, as occurred in the case of Guatemala in the 1950s.

Another driver was a shift in illicit drug and arms flows, sparked by a change in policy by the U.S. government after an epidemic of crack cocaine in the United States birthed the so-called war on drugs. The massive amounts of money generated by this trade sparked intense competition and infighting between the organized crime groups based in Columbia and other South American states, accelerating into an arms race that saw regional underlings based in Mexico hired to aid smuggling past an increasingly militarized U.S. border. As the stakes continued to grow and South American cartels grew more reliant on their Mexican underlings for distribution and muscle, these Mexican gangs grew in both strength and organizational capacity, until they eventually supplanted their overlords entirely in the mid-1990s.

As the war on drugs combined with political unrest sparked by U.S. interventions in Central America that send thousands north in search of safety, U.S.-led economic policies and agreements had a profound effect on the rural, undeveloped parts of that region and southern Mexico. NAFTA, CAFTA-DR and similar agreements sparked development and prosperity in already-developed areas, hoped-for prosperity in rural areas did not materialize. This was due to the fact that although goods and capital were enjoying unprecedented mobility across borders, labor, in the form of migrant workers, was not. For those living in largely rural countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua – and in the southern third of Mexico – the only available jobs were in the agriculture sector. These people increasingly found themselves unable to compete with cheap, mechanized, U.S.-based agricultural jobs. For many, that meant move or starve.

At the same time, the struggle for hegemony in the black markets surrounding the drug trade combined with regional political instability to make Mexico and Central America among the most violent regions in the world by the early 2000s, leading to a twofold approach by the United States and it allies. The first of these approaches was the Plan Puebla-Panama, designed to encourage development in those rural parts of Mexico and Central America; the other was the Mérida Initiative, designed to combat the illicit drug, arms and human trafficking networks that had arisen in the region since the 1990s, exporting the U.S.-designed “prevention-through-deterrence” policy to border control south to Mexico’s southern frontier. Prevention-through-deterrence methods consist of creating physical barriers and surveillance of likely routes for migrants, refugees and smugglers alike, forcing all to use exceptionally hostile terrain to avoid detection, risking life and limb.

Instead of making borders more secure, the opposite happened; In Mexico, this shift in policy, undertaken early in the administration of former President Felipe Calderón, saw a massive explosion in cartel violence, including U.S.-trained elite army units “flipping” to become enforcers for some of the cartels after realizing the profits to be made, eventually rising to dominate the Mexican black market trade after displacing their former bosses and becoming the Zetas, as many of the Mexican cartels had done before them. During this period, economic migrants increasingly were displaced by refugees fleeing the instability across the region resulting from the confluence of these factors. Locally, Salvadoran immigrants deported from the United States led yet another wave of violent crime as they organized themselves into gangs known as Maras (also, MS-13 or Mara Salvatrucha, among other names and unaffiliated groups), a decentralized collection of criminal organizations renowned for their brutality and hired by Mexican cartels as enforcers.

The rise of Maras in already-destabilized Central American states, where they would aggressively recruit local youth regardless of their interest under threat of death and extort from local businesses, combined with s precarious economy, caused a shift in regional migration, replacing most undocumented migrants from Mexico with Central American counterparts looking for not only better-paying work, but, often, survival itself, as interest at home from Maras meant fleeing immediately or risking paying with one’s life. The failure of Mexico to institute the Plan Puebla-Panama after massive civil society mobilization against it due to little perceived value to local populations (it was viewed as a give-away of resources to transnational corporations) left little hope in the near future for local jobs, and the political instability driven by free-trade agreements and the drug war created ever-growing numbers of desperate migrants, followed by organized crime using them as unwilling mules to move contraband – or to extort or sell into prostitution – culminating in the undocumented minor crisis of 2014.

The U.S. response was to double down on prevention-through-deterrence methods, coupled with aggressive deportation by the Barack Obama administration and a media campaign advising locals to remain in their home countries. It failed almost entirely, missing the crux of the matter, as people fleeing for their lives had little to gain from such counsel, and even the fraught journey north seemed more safe than remaining at home, where authorities were often complicit through bribery for turning a blind eye, or even participating in regional organized crime. Mexico, using clandestine funding, training and technology from the United States, began the Southern Frontier Program, aggressively expanding prevention-through-deterrence techniques to the southern border region.

This included increased raids on La Bestia, the train migrants would illegally ride as a form of transport, where, despite the presence of Maras and other members of organized crime, migrants could at least have some degree of security in numbers. The resulting shift in enforcement techniques forced migrants to use whatever money they could to pay polleros (smugglers specializing in moving undocumented migrants across the U.S. frontier) to avoid other encounters with criminal groups and authorities – sometimes one and the same – from the United States to Central America. Others, taking cues from events designed by regional networks of migrant shelters across the region to raise awareness through caravans of migrants walking in unison, began to use the strategy to safely make their way north after losing access to La Bestia.

Meanwhile, the Plan Puebla-Panama, assumed to be defunct by most, had quietly been renamed, and restarted, as the Mesoamerican Project, which envisioned cheap manufacturing in Mexico’s south, manned by a small army of migrant labor in the country on temporary work visas. In concept, this seemed a good idea; in practice, however, the root causes of migration – namely profound economic and political instability threatening people’s very lives – had and has not been sufficiently addressed, with many locals requiring significant loans (often, several thousand dollars) just to make the trip, frequently leaving behind family unable to fully support themselves in the weak local economy. So, when Mexico began offering not only generous work visas to such migrants and refugees, for the majority, even the now-doubled near-border minimum wage (about $8 per day) is not nearly enough money to pay back those loans, never mind send cash back to support vulnerable family.

So, when you see migrants turning down generous offers of support in Mexico, it’s more often than not for good reason. And while there certainly is a criminal element among them, the vast majority are simply fleeing the same organizations and acts at home, walking thousands of kilometers across jungles, deserts and mountains through a gauntlet of criminals and authorities, which they see as a more attractive alternative than staying home.

The solution? Well, it won’t be easy, and it will require a turn toward evidence-based approaches in place of “security” measures that have, to date, only escalated the conflicts while increasing the profit line for organized crime. The blame lies mostly to the north, but also from earnest attempts at making the world better. After nearly four decades, however, intentions need to be balanced against evidence-based approaches able to bring stability and prosperity- Ideology-based interventions have only made things worse.

We can have a better world, but we have to work together, starting with good information, the best first step to take.

Justin Quinn is a recently-minted PhD from the University of Florida, who did his dissertation research on the negotiation of public interest of rail infrastructure, where he witnessed firsthand the impact of Programa Frontera Sur on migration in the southeast of Mexico between 2015 and 2017. He continues to work with shelters and advocacy groups, as well as public and private stakeholders invested in the intersection of economic development and the role of migrant labor.


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