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How Mexico Has Been Using Checkpoints And Deportations To Address Migration


The so-called caravan of Central Americans hoping to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has drawn the ire of President Trump. And President Trump has criticized Mexico for not doing enough to stop people headed for the U.S. border. But Mexico has already been making it tougher for migrants coming up from the south using checkpoints, using deportations. James Fredrick went to Mexico's southern border to see the kinds of obstacles that Central Americans face as they try to head north.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: I'm on the bridge above the river that divides Mexico and Guatemala. And here on top of the bridge, it's a pretty normal migration checkpoint - people walking through turnstiles, cars being checked. But below, it's something totally different. Under the bridge, it looks pretty easy to cross into Mexico without papers. Two ropes are strung across the river. A few young men use them to pull rafts back and forth. They laugh when I ask about migration enforcement here.


FREDRICK: "Sometimes migration agents come down here," they say, "but usually they don't bother us. When they take the ropes down, we just string them back up the next day." But migration enforcement quickly changes as you head north, says Gustavo Rivera, a bus driver who works the route from the border to the nearest city, Tapachula.

GUSTAVO RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "They're putting up lots of checkpoints. Soldiers, federal police, local police, migration - you see them all." The U.S. helped fund the Mexican migration crackdown, which began in 2014, after a wave of Central American children arrived at the U.S. border. Authorities here won't say exactly how many troops are dedicated to this work, but the results are clear.

Since 2014, more than half a million Central Americans have been deported from Mexico, most picked up here in the south. According to government figures on each side, Mexico deported more Central Americans in 2017 than Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, deported from the U.S.

About 30 minutes north of the border in Tapachula, I go to the Belen migrant shelter, the largest in town. Dozens of Central Americans sit out front seeking shade from the beating sun, waiting for the shelter to open. When I ask how things are going for migrants around here, they're eager to share.


FREDRICK: Since most of them are asylum-seekers fleeing violence and threats, I'm only using their first name.

RICKY: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Ricky fled here from El Salvador. He says everyone, particularly women and children, hang out here at the shelter all day for fear that if they go out, they'll be picked up and deported even though as asylum-seekers, they're here in Mexico legally. I went to talk to Father Cesar Canaveral, who runs the Catholic Church's migrant outreach in the diocese. He describes the situation bluntly.

CESAR CANAVERAL: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says, "today the Mexican government is hunting Central American migrants in the same way Mexicans complain about their treatment in the U.S." But he thinks it's even harsher down here. Mexican migration and police authorities did not respond to NPR's interview requests. But last month, as the migrant caravan from Central America moved north towards the U.S., the local governor here said in a social media video that reinforcing border security was key.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "More gendarmes" - a kind of hybrid military police force - "are being sent down to help," he said. Father Canaveral sees many parallels between U.S. and Mexican policy towards migrants even if they don't quite look the same.

CANAVERAL: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "We're putting up something worse than a wall," he says. "It's an invisible wall, but it exists." For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Tapachula, Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "ON THE WEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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