It's business as usual at Mexico's southern border despite Trump deal

TAPACHULA, Mexico (Reuters) - On Saturday, at the busiest crossing point along Mexico’s porous southern border with Guatemala, evidence of Mexico’s promised crackdown on waves of new arrivals trying to reach the United States was nowhere to be seen.

Migrants cross the Suchiate river on a raft from Tecun Uman, in Guatemala, to Ciudad Hidalgo, as seen from Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Within sight of a bridge connecting Mexico to Guatemala, a fleet of about 16 rafts carried migrants hoping to escape poverty and gang-related violence in Central America.

A few police appeared briefly at dawn on the Mexican shore, people said, but they vanished as fast. Nothing else outwardly changed despite a deal struck in Washington on Friday in which Mexico vowed to stem the northern flow of migrants with a crackdown on illegal crossings across the Guatemala border.

The travelers, often exploited by cross-border guides called “coyotes” and security forces out to make a buck, said the business of illegal immigration was unaltered by the deal in Washington.

Over the past few months, Mexico has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of immigrants. In May, authorities detained nearly 23,000 migrants, triple the number in January and about twice the monthly average in the first five months of last year.

However, most of that activity has taken place further from the border between Chiapas state and Guatemala. On Friday, negotiators agreed to send up to 6,000 members of the National Guard security force into Chiapas after Trump’s calls for Mexico to secure the frontier.

Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that deployment would start on Monday. For now, the decades’ old business of ferrying people across the river to dodge usual passport controls has not been interrupted.

Another common practice that undermines Mexico’s efforts is corruption among low-paid police forces.

Seven Salvadorians and Hondurans who said they crossed the river by raft on Friday at dawn told Reuters that Chiapas state police officers had pulled them out of small public buses on their way to the Mexican border town of Tapachula where they were heading to seek papers.

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“They took 100 Mexican pesos ($5) from me, 200 from him, about 1,000 altogether between us - and that other family,” said Jaime Mejia, 44, a Salvadoran pastor, squatting on a Tapachula sidewalk, nodding down the block at clutches of bedraggled men, women and children perched among bags and bundles.

The toll paid to the police, he said, left the group without money to pay for lodging. Chiapas security officials and Mexico’s interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mejia said he fled the town of La Libertad, El Salvador, after members of the country’s dominant gang, MS-13, told him to surrender his church to them to stash their weapons and drugs.

Asked about the immigration talks between the Trump and Lopez Obrador governments that could decide their fate, Mejia and more than 20 other migrants who spoke with Reuters on Friday and Saturday shrugged, shook their heads and looked blankly.

Friday’s deal averted a U.S.-Mexico tariff war, with Mexico also agreeing to expand asylum programs. President Donald Trump had threatened to impose 5% import tariffs on all Mexican goods starting on Monday if Mexico did not commit to do more to tighten its borders.

Tapachula, a first stop for many migrants on their journey north, was overflowing with migrants, from Central America, Cuba and elsewhere.

After the shakedown by police, Mejia and his group headed to the city’s office of the Mexican refugee agency to apply for asylum in Mexico. Each one was given a number to reappear days later for an interview, Mejia said.

But they found that the migration shelters -only three in town - were overflowing. With no money left, they had to bed down in the street.

Olga Sanchez, head of the Jesus El Buen Pastor migrant shelter, said she had been caring for about 700 people since about November. Among those at the shelter were about 200 children.

“In the past, having 100 was a huge amount,” said Sanchez. “We’re saturated.”

Editing by Hugh Bronstein & Kim Coghill