The vertical border that suffocates immigrants

The Southern Border Program was set into motion over a year ago. The result has been the reinforcement of the borders and the increment on immigrants’ deportations.

By: Eileen Truax

The vertical border that suffocates immigrants

The Southern Border Program was set into motion over a year ago. The result has been the reinforcement of the borders and the increment on immigrants’ deportations.

By: Eileen Truax, Ángeles Mariscal, Moysés Zuñiga Santiago

Text by: Eileen Truax, Angeles Mariscal and Moyses Zuñiga Santiago

The Southern Border Program was set into motion over a year ago. The result has been the reinforcement of the borders and the increment on immigrants’ deportations. During that time the Mexican government has not been able to provide a document that defines the intention and source of such program. En el Camino looked into the region´s political background and was able to unveil U.S.´s plan to extend its border to a river down south, the Suchiate river.

It´s June, 2014. A committee from U.S., all of them involved in border and national and international security, traveled along the Mexico-Guatemala border. They came from their country claiming to “face the security issues affecting both of our communities”.

The committee was formed by the, back then, U.S.´s ambassador in Mexico Anthony Wayne, U.S.´s Department of Defense´s South Section chief John Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

It seemed a regular political visit. However, those civil servants’ trip represented one more step on a road they had been on for 8 years: the creation of a new border for the U.S., a border which is not based on geography but on their nation´s internal interests.

The “21st Century Border”, as Americans call it, started being planned in 2007 with the Merida Initiative and its most recent effects on the region have been the Southern Border Plan, set into motion by Enrique Peña Nieto, and the Prosperity Plan, started by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Mexico´s president has not been able to explain the origin or foundation for this plan. En el Camino, submitted several requests to the government in order to learn about the document supporting such plan, which has turned into a bottleneck that clogs more and more the immigrants´ transit through Mexican territory. The before mentioned document does not exist. The only self-evident truth is the blocking of the borders.

That way, U.S.´s border is no longer a horizontal line running along the Bravo River. In the last 8 years it has become, little by little, in a “vertical” line that attempts to stop immigration at another river, over 3,000 Kms to the south: the Suchiate River, which divides Mexico from Central America.

According to Daniel Fuentes, researcher at Mexico and Central America Superior Studies Center from the Science and Art Chiapas University, Southern Border Plan is “a vertical border that extends from the south to the north. It filters immigration to its minimum”.

U.S.´s national security “problem”.

Without a clear origin

The U.S. civil servants´ visit took place a couple of months before the Southern Board Plan was implemented.

Officially, there was an announcement for the collaboration among countries, although it seemed more like U.S. was charging Mexico for 3.5 USD delivered through Merida Initiative to increase the security at the southern border.

A month later, the Mexican government announced the Southern boarder Plan, without any voting or written project.

The program was announced on July 7th, 2014 with the attendance of Mexico´s and Guatemala´s presidents who promised to “Protect the immigrants entering Mexico and build entrances to promote security and prosperity in the region”.

En el Camino submitted information requests to every government branch involved in the Plan. We asked for the diagnostic which led to the creation of such a plan, information about the plan´s workload and its future. Mexico´s Secretary of the Interior, responsible to the plan´s application, answered each one of our requests saying “There is not a document among the files at the Coordinacion Para la Atencion Integral de la Migracion en la Frontera Sur that contains information to answer your request”.

Mexico´s Secretaries of Defense, Health, Social Development, Finance, Foreign Relations as well as Mexico´s Office of the Federal Attorney General suggested to submit our requests to Mexico´s Ministry of the Interior.

Only the Secretary of the Navy (SEMAR) partially answered our petition, indicating that “The Republic´s government had decided to implement a comprehensive security program at the southern border that solves the security issues and promotes the south-southeast region development”.

Answering our question about the first time the project was officially presented at an institutional meeting, it was on June 2nd, 2013, during a Peña Nieto´s office meeting in Tapachula. Another meeting held on March 31st, 2014 was also mentioned, presided by “Mexico´s Specialized Office for global awareness” in which it was agreed to assemble a team to work at the southern border, coordinating actions with the chancellery to elaborate the Comprehensive Plan for Southern Border Development”.

An additional piece of background provided by the Navy was a meeting held during November 2013, where, in agreement with Guatemala, the updating of 8 crossing roads between both nations was planned.

Regarding the Program´s announcement, the Navy mentioned that the objective was modernizing the international crossing roads and the internal control lines over the main roads in the border states of Chiapas and Tabasco, “its purpose will be stopping human, weapons and drug trafficking, as well as providing aid to immigrants and eradicating corruption”.

Welcome to Mexico

Chiapas and Guatemala, the new southern border

Security collaboration between Mexico and United States is not new. U.S´s support allowed Vicente Fox, back in 2001, to implement the Southern Plan, which bulletproofed the immigrants’ journey with military checkpoints; then, Felipe Calderon signed the Merida´s Initiative, which provided the funds to increase the security in the southern part of Mexico and finally, Enrique Peña Nieto, signed the Southern Border Program. At the same time, back in 2001, Guatemala followed suit and implemented its version of the same strategy, called “Venceremos 2001”. The result: a 30% decrease in the crossings, according to the official version, which cornered immigrants to travel through more dangerous routes. It was then when Felipe de Jesus Preciado, Immigration National Institute Commissioner claimed: “I know all our efforts will be of great help to the U.S.”.

The budget planned for the program in 2007 to provide military assistance to Mexico has been increased: in 2011 U.S.´s Defense Department started a program that provided the Mexico-Guatemala-Belize region with $50 million USD, in 2014 it reached $112 million.

That amount, which includes additional funds from the Defense Department, was used to purchase equipment such as: trucks equipped with X-rays, counterfeit detection, biometric kiosks and data bases with face, retina and finger prints recognition information. The money also went to the INM, Navy and Federal Police for them to set up checkpoints, water patrol operations, night vision equipment and sea sensors.

Todd Miller, a journalist who has kept track of the Border Patrol operations for 15 years, refers to a report from Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA) published in June 2014, which confirms the existence of the security equipment received from the U.S. and details the occasional presence of UH-1H Huey and SAC-333 helicopters near Mexico´s southern border towns such as Tapachula, Chiapas; Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche and Chetumal, Quintana Roo. In addition to this, Miller says that there is evidence about K-9 units, drug detection dogs, patrolling the zone.

Miller says that, this infrastructure comes along with training for customs, immigration, navy and police agents and, the possibility of sharing intelligence at the border.

“In Mexico we are witnessing a strategy to expand U.S.´s border patrol regime to places far away from U.S.´s borderline” assures Miller, author of the book “Border Patrol Nation”, which addresses aspects of the Border Patrol program during 2015-2016.

“The project clearly states that it will conduct a “layer approach” on its border vigilance, which no longer considers the Mexico-U.S. border neither the first nor the last “line of defense””, Miller adds over the phone from the Philippines, where he is conducting an investigation about American agencies involvement in the implementation of regional security programs.

In 2012, Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Policy, Alan Bersin, said one of his now infamous quotes which turned to be a design: “The Chiapas-Guatemala is our new southern border”.

An example of this border expansion is the situation taking place in the state of Chiapas.

A decade ago, during Juan Sabines´s office, the State Border Police was created, with the objective of patrolling the zone and preventing crime near the border, which covers 17 counties in this state.

Nevertheless, the new governor Manuel Velasco, who took office in 2012, decided to create a new elite police force, the Policia Fuerza Ciudadana, which has played a fundamental role in the border control, according to WOLA itself. Over half of the over 400 new agents from this new elite force are deployed near the borderline and, according to the trend of militarizing public security in Mexico, those agents have also received training from U.S.´s Army and Navy.

Daniel Villafuente explains that, if Mexico succeeds showing the U.S. that “It is doing its job” by increasing the number of immigrant arrests “Mexico will be sitting pretty diplomatic, commercial and assistance wise”.

Tapachula, Chiapas. 20 de abril de 2015. La policia fronteriza y policia municipal realizan operativos en caminos en donde son asaltados por pandillas los migrantes entransito por mexico. Foto: Moyses Zuniga Santiago.
Border Police in Tapachula, Chiapas.

Central America, chasing the money bait

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are doing their part too. While Mexico started its Southern Border Plan in 2014, those three Central American nations presented their attempt to align to it with the Prosperity Plan, derived from the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) in 2008.

The Prosperity Plan –which has been presented to U.S.´s congressmen and to the Cumbre de las Americas in Panama- reflects a development plan based on international private initiative investment as a method to control the potentially immigrant population.

The mandataries from the three countries have also recognized that, besides poverty, violence encourages immigration and discourages economic development, leaving their countries in a vicious circle in which immigration seems to be the only way out.

The resources to kick-start the Plan Prosperidad should come from U.S. and the Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID). U.S.´s government offered a total of $5,000 million USD, a million annually –which represents 20% of the project´s total cost.

The apparent solution proposed by the Plan Prosperidad to limit immigrants – that represents 9% of those countries total population- has not been exempted of scrutiny which suggests the chosen path might not be the right one.

As an example, back in May 2015, a study conducted by Project Counseling Service showed that, even if U.S. provided 20% of the plan´s cost, the three nations wouldn’t have the financial capacity to cover the remaining 80%.

Furthermore, it reveals that the development model presented “will reinforce the natural resources exploitation, agro-industry´s expansion and the development of new touristic megaprojects, which are some the reasons the population is cornered to emigrate after being deprived from their lands”.

Project Counseling Service points out that the opinion of immigrant men and women, their relatives and public or academic societies have not been considered in any part of the Plan Prosperidad.

Infografía: David Hernández

Researcher David Villafuente Solis agrees with the counseling firm about a plan´s inability to stop immigration, since immigrants send over $14,000 million USD back to their countries and straight into their relatives´ pockets. Meaning, the investment for the Plan Prosperidad is minimum compared with the money immigrants send back to their countries.

After considering this fact, Villafuente Solis sees immigration as an unstoppable phenomena.

“It is unrealistic to think immigration can be stopped, even after reinforcing the borders´ control, militarizing Honduras´ police, ruling with iron fist in El Salvador and militarizing Guatemala´s or Mexico´s aggressive policies”, sums up the economist.

Using immigrant children as an excuse

In July 2014 the ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, Counselor to the Secretary of State, approached the Senate to present his concern about the situation taking place at his country´s southern border. He expressed his concern about the immigrant children crisis and asked the Senate for $ 300 million USD to address the situation. Shannon argued this infant immigrant crisis could be solved by stopping and repatriating them to their countries and increasing Mexico´s and Guatemala´s capacity to intercept them before they cross to Mexico and start their way to the U.S.

Back then, almost 60,000 immigrant children from Central America crossed U.S.´s border in a 6 month period, from late 2013 to mid-2014.

During his appearance before the Senate, Shannon celebrated the announcement of Mexico´s Southern Border Plan as well as Guatemala´s presence at this event and label it as a step forward to improve the control at the southern border. Because of that, he asked the senators for an additional $86 million USD to what had already been delivered for the Plan Merida, to support this Plan and fight drug trafficking.



The United States should be held accountable

A few months after the Southern Border Program started, a delegation of pro-immigrant representatives from U.S. traveled to Chiapas and Guatemala to visit some shelters, talk to the immigrants on the road and evaluate their situation. To their return, they decided to present a complaint before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, demanding the program, and its consequences, to be revised.

“It is evident pressure and politics are moving U.S.´s border to the south”, according to Angela Sanbrano, president of the Central American Resources Center board, located in Los Angeles, and member of the group behind this complaint along with the support of Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.

Sanbrano mentioned that, as part of this process, U.S.´s government has been requested through the Freedom of Information Act, a breakdown of the amounts provided and the usage of each one of them.

“We are going to ask U.S. to stop its support to the Merida Initiative, the Southern Border Plan and any other alike. The millions of dollars Mexico and Central America are receiving to “create the proper security conditions” for the immigrants not to cross, are an open invitation for corruption and transgressions against human rights without guaranteeing the safe passage of those migrating”.

Reproduction is authorized as long as the author, the text and the following are clearly quoted “This article is part of the project En el Camino, produced by red de Periodistas de a Pie with the support of Open Society Foundations. To find out more about this project visit:”


Eileen Truax

Nació en la ciudad de México. Inició en el periodismo político en ese país y en 2004 se mudó a Los Ángeles, en donde fue reportera de inmigración del diario La Opinión. Sus textos se han publicado en los libros "72 Migrantes" y "Tú y yo coincidimos en la noche terrible", y es colaboradora de El Universal, Proceso y Gatopardo, entre otras publicaciones. En 2013 publicó "Dreamers, la lucha de una generación por su sueño Americano", en editorial Océano. Actualmente trabaja en un libro sobre exilio y asilo en Estados Unidos.

Ángeles Mariscal

Ángeles Mariscal

Soy periodista independiente, fundadora del portal Chiapas Paralelo [] y colaboradora de CNN México y El Financiero. Presido el Colegio de Comunicadores y Periodistas de Chiapas (Ccopech). Tener en nuestro lugar de origen las condiciones para forjarnos una vida digna es un derecho, y migrar cuando esto no sucede, también lo es. Desde esta perspectiva cubro el tema migratorio.

Moysés Zuñiga Santiago

Moysés Zuñiga Santiago

Fotoperiodista chiapaneco interesado en la lucha de las comunidades indígenas y en el proceso migratorio en la frontera sur del País. Colaboro en La Jornada, AP, Reuters y AFP. Mi trabajo fue expuesto en la Universidad de Nueva York en los años 2010 y 2013. Me encontré con jóvenes como yo cruzando una frontera en busca de una oportunidad, llevando a cuestas historias de vida que me invitaron a caminar con ellos. Por eso hago este trabajo, quiero visibilizar una situación de extrema violencia que podría no ser y podría no cobrar vidas.