CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico — The Mexican government is pledging to bring order to its wild southern border. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the job couldn’t be more difficult.
The proof lies in this dusty border town of 14,000 people. Here, unmonitored goods and travelers float across the wide Suchiate River — the boundary between Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas — on a flotilla of inner-tube rafts. They cross all day long, in plain sight of Mexican authorities stationed a few yards upriver at an official border crossing.
Some of the Central Americans are visiting just for the day. Others are hoping to find work on Mexican coffee plantations or banana farms. But many will continue north toward the United States.
There is no guarantee they will ever get there. Lying in wait are Mexican criminals, and even Mexican officials, who aim to kidnap northbound travelers, extort money from them and sometimes even rape and kill them. About 10,000 such migrants have disappeared in Mexico every year since 2008, according to Mexican government estimates.
Luis Martinez, a 33-year-old migrant from Honduras, had crossed the Suchiate without incident early one morning in June. He knew he was risking his life by moving on. But he said that the crippled Honduran economy left him little choice. He needed to work. He needed to earn.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “We’ve heard about it all: the cartels, the kidnappings, the robberies, everything.”
Along with drug violence and the slaying of journalists, the ugly fate of the Central American migrant has become one of the darkest stains on Mexico’s reputation.
In recent weeks, however, the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto has pledged to bring new order to the border region. Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the new plans will “ensure that (migrants) don’t suffer.”
Security at border crossings will be strengthened, officials say, and sophisticated “internal control” stations will be set up a few miles inside the country along commonly-used migration routes, to better monitor the movement of goods and people.
The government is also expanding a program to record the fingerprints, photos and other identifying features of migrants, the newspaper Milenio reported. High-tech biometric kiosks, partially paid for by the U.S. government, will record the data of those applying for temporary visitor and work permits.
Meanwhile, the Mexican navy, which is charged with protecting the border, has deepened its partnership with the Guatemalan military, staging coordinated operations in an effort to run off the drug cartels that have taken advantage of the border’s numerous unpoliced crossing points, Vice Adm. Francisco Ramon Tiburcio Camacho said.
The outlines of the plan raise many questions. The biometric kiosks, for example, may help authorities keep track of migrants who have been caught by authorities, or who willingly apply for legal entry. (Among other things, the data can help identify their bodies if they are found in unmarked graves). But how will they help keep tabs on the many migrants who are evading Mexican authorities?
More generally, it is unclear whether the new plans will really allow Mexico to get a handle on a border that is more than 700 miles long, and which experts say is essentially untamable. Border fences and walls, they say, would be almost impossible to build through the deep jungle and stark mountainous terrain traversed by the line separating Mexico from Guatemala and Belize.
The Mexicans reject the idea of building walls anyway, having long maintained that the U.S. southern border strategy, with its imposing barriers and armed agents, amounts to conduct unbecoming a neighbor. In a speech June 3 near the border, Osorio Chong promised that no walls would be built under the new plan. It would be focused on human rights, he said, and more in keeping with “what Mexico demands north of its border.”