CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - A convoy of Mexican state and municipal police trucks roared along the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez to confront cartel gunmen, past National Guardsmen patrolling the banks of the Rio Grande River for migrants trying to cross into the United States.
“We should be with them, not here. We’re soldiers,” one of three guardsmen in a green camouflage uniform grumbled to himself within earshot of a Reuters reporter. He was frustrated that orders kept him from going to back up police in the shootout with gangsters.
The National Guard is a new security force that was created by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to bring down record homicide rates. But now it has been tasked with patrolling the border to placate President Donald Trump, who has demanded Mexico stem the flow of U.S.-bound Central Americans that pass through the country or risk tariffs on Mexican goods.
If the deployment of some 21,000 National Guard troops at Mexico’s northern and southern borders can reduce the flow of migrants, Lopez Obrador will have successfully kept Trump’s tariffs at bay and averted opening up another front in the global trade war.
But using almost a third of the National Guard’s total ranks for migration duties means fewer security forces to tackle one of Mexico’s most pressing issues, spiraling violence, which last year cost a record 33,000 lives. Those numbers continued surging in the first six months of Lopez Obrador’s term in office, which began in December.
In Juarez, where drug cartel murders are especially acute, many people wish the troops were helping fight crime instead.
The city across the border from El Paso, Texas has long been synonymous with cartel warfare, which pushed the murder rate to 244 per 100,000 residents by March 2011, according to data compiled by Juarez-based advocacy group Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia.
With help from civil society groups and businesses, the city made hard-won gains to restore security, and by late 2015 the murder rate had been cut to 21 per 100,000, the group says, citing numbers from the attorney general’s office it corroborates independently.
Now, crime is climbing back towards levels last seen in the darkest days of the drug war, with homicides growing fivefold in the last three years to 107 per 100,000.
“Murders, kidnappings, extortion have taken a back seat so the Mexican army can patrol the border,’ said Juan Hernan Ortiz, director of Citizens for Better Government, a watchdog organization in Juarez that keeps tabs on the local government.
The Mexican government did not respond to requests for comment on the criticism.
The National Guard in Juarez, mostly made up of active-duty soldiers equipped with ballistic helmets, body armor and assault rifles, is identifiable by small arm bands emblazoned with the letters GN, for the Spanish words for National Guard.
“We have the army dressed up as the National Guard making sure migrants don’t reach the United States while the city is headed towards a much larger crisis of violence,” said Ortiz.
The police convoy that raced by the National Guardsmen was heading to free a 53-year-old American man kidnapped by members of the Assassin Artists cartel. A car chase through the streets of Juarez led to a shootout near the Zaragoza border bridge, said the attorney general’s office of Chihuahua state. The American was freed, four kidnappers were arrested, another was killed and two policemen were wounded.
Visibly vexed at not being able to take part in the rescue, the three guardsmen remained at their post on the lookout for migrants as one cop car after another, sirens blaring, zipped past them toward the scene of the gunfight.
Along this stretch of frontier the Rio Grande River is parched dry. Reuters reporters saw a steady trickle of women, children and men walking along the U.S. side of the riverbed, out of the guardsmen’s jurisdiction and into the United States, where waiting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents took them into custody.
Facing accusations the troops had been heavy-handed in their efforts to deter migrants from crossing the northern border, Lopez Obrador said on June 25 the National Guard does not have orders to detain migrants.
The guardsmen themselves, who are posted in groups at specific points along the border or patrol the frontier in military vehicles mounted with heavy weapons, say they do not detain migrants but are there to advise them not to cross into the United States.
Still, Reuters witnessed at least three adults and four children being detained as they tried to cross into the United States after Obrador made his statement.
Among them was 23-year old Honduran Lixa Garcia, who was traveling with her two daughters aged 4 years and 10 months, when she was detained mere feet from crossing into El Paso and handed over to Mexican immigration authorities, who will decide if they are deported to Honduras.
And last week, Brigadier-General Vicente Antonio Hernandez, who heads the National Guard’s operations in Mexico’s southern states, said 20,000 migrants had been “rescued” since May 17, a euphemism for detained.
Some business and industry leaders in Juarez said that with nearly 80% of Mexican exports destined for the United States they support the deployment of National Guard troops to the northern border if that keeps Trump’s tariff threats on ice.
“What I care about is that the agreement is met so we’re not subject to tariffs. Regardless of whether the (National Guard) is effective or not, if it is part of the agreement, they have to be there,” said Pedro Chavira, head of manufacturing industry chamber INDEX in Juarez.
Mexico struck a deal on June 7 with the United States to avert the tariffs, setting the clock ticking on a 45-day period for the Mexican government to make palpable progress in reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the U.S. border illegally. Under that deal Mexico agreed to send National Guard troops to the border.
Trump seems happy, at least for now, praising Mexico for its efforts and saying tariffs are off the table.
But, in Juarez doubts remain that containing migration is the right priority for Mexico’s newest fighting force in a city sinking deeper into lawlessness.
“That’s a political play to appease the United States and it’s not a job the National Guard should be doing,” said Isabel Sanchez Quirarte, who heads the Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia advocacy group.
“They should be doing crime prevention work,” she said.
Reporting by Anthony Esposito in Ciudad Juarez; Additional reporting by Rebekah F Ward and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City;editing by Ross Colvin