With 1,951 miles in length, the border between Mexico and the United States is a line passing through diverse physical-geographical and socioeconomic regions. The only thing that defines most of that line is the contrast between north and south: the marked inequality in terms of development and social welfare, especially visible in urban areas.
It is also increasingly shocking the difference in the infrastructure for security, border control and surveillance. On the U.S. side, the government has built long stretches of wall that currently total 651 miles. In some metropolitan areas, this wall is composed of three fences: one of corrugated steel, another of high columns, and a third sheet topped by barbed wire. The infrastructure also includes 33 video surveillance systems, motion detectors and 9 drones. From 2003 to present, the Border Patrol has doubled the number of agents, which now totals 21,400, 85% of them deployed on the border with Mexico. Dozens of other agencies in Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice guard monitor the border region with Mexico.
On the Mexican side organized crime has succeeded in taking control in some parts and reigns over desolate territories where law enforcement agents rarely venture. Since the late nineties, the intensification of surveillance in traditional crossing areas has forced migrants to travel on much longer routes and through very dangerous territory, due to extreme geographic and climatic conditions and criminal violence. One of the most serious results of this strategy has been the increase in migrant deaths along the border. As demonstrated by several scholars and numerous reports from civil society organizations, this increase in deaths is clearly related to the growth of the surveillance infrastructure.
Although in the last five years migratory flows from Mexico to the United States have fallen dramatically and the number of apprehensions by the Border Patrol has fallen to the levels of the 1970s, there has been no reduction in the number of deaths of people crossing the border. Crossing has become more deadly than ever. In fiscal year 2012, the Border Patrol reported finding 463 bodies of migrants who tried to cross the border– 23% more than in 2011. The growth in the number of deaths is largely due to a particularly dangerous year in South Texas; in the area of the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol (formerly Mc. Allen) 150 deaths were reported in 2012, compared to 66 in 2011.
These deaths are due mostly to climatic conditions and the terrain where migrants have to travel and in second place, drowning in the Rio Grande. They do not take into account the bodies found on the Mexican side.
As human rights organizations have reported, Mexico has also become extremely dangerous territory for migrants. While most reports have focused on the hazardous conditions faced by Central Americans when transiting through Mexico, the risks to Mexican migrants and those deported in the northern border region of the country are also very high and have increased significantly since 2007.
In 2010, among the migrants interviewed by the Survey of Migration on the Northern Border (EMIF-North) that had been returned by U.S. authorities, 27.3% said they had faced a situation put their life in jeopardy while crossing the border. These figures are much higher in the case of migrants who crossed the southeastern region of the border in the states of Coahuila and Tamaulipas. In this region, 69.1% perceived that they had encountered situations that placed their lives in danger. Migrants identified the risk of drowning in the river as the biggest with extreme temperatures next.
The so-called war against the drug cartels, announced by the government of Felipe Calderon shortly after taking office in December 2006, gives a whole new perspective of migration. This war caused an immediate and rapid increase in insecurity, corruption of authorities and security forces, human rights violations and violence.
This can be seen in the rapid growth of the homicide rate, particularly in some northern regions of the country, affected by conflict between criminal organizations fighting for control of border territory. From 2007-2010, the number of homicides in Mexico rose from 8 per 100 000 to 22.9 per 100 000, according to official figures, and the average number of homicides in the northern border cities was 96 per 100 000 in the latter year. The most extreme case was Juarez, with 280 homicides per 100 000–the highest murder rate in the world.
Migrants have been particularly affected by rising crime. This is due, first, to the greater involvement of criminal organizations in human trafficking and second, to increased abuses by the authorities deployed throughout the country. Territorial control by some criminal organizations has made extortion of migrants trying to pass through these areas or trying to cross the border a common occurrence. For example, crossing the border between Tamaulipas and southern Texas involves the payment of “fees” of 300-500 dollars per migrant to the criminals who guard the banks of the Rio Grande.
Another serious crime that has increased is kidnapping. In its Report on the Kidnapping of Migrants, 2011, the National Commission for Human Rights counted in six months (April to September 2010) 214 cases of mass kidnappings with a total of 11,333 victims.
At the border, kidnapping has different characteristics depending on the region. For example in California, the testimonies of migrants and interviews with members of civil society organizations and the Grupo Beta (of the National Migration Institute) indicate a high incidence of kidnappings that involve keeping migrants locked in safe houses under the pretext of waiting for them to put together a fairly large group or for safer conditions to make the trip. Sometimes coyotes communicate with relatives to demand payment in advance under the threat of injuring, disappearing or killing the migrant. For women, these conditions of detention may also result in sexual abuse or rape by the coyote or other migrants.
In contrast, in Tamaulipas kidnapping has extremely violent characteristics and often ends in the murder of migrants, as was seen with the 47 mass graves containing 196 bodies of Mexican and foreign migrants found in that state in 2011 alone.
In border cities, Mexicans deported across the border also are particularly vulnerable to kidnapping and extortion by authorities, because most of them lack identity documents. In addition, their dress, gestures or tattoos are very visible signs of the years that have passed “the other side”.
It is worrying that despite rampant insecurity and violence in Tamaulipas, U.S. authorities have significantly increased deportations to that state. Whereas in 2006 only 4.8% of Mexicans were repatriated to the cities of Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, in 2011 these cities received 30.8% of repatriations of Mexican migrants.
The risks to migrants crossing the border are created by the political context, social interactions and power relations at the regional and binational levels. The governments have created these risks, along with other actors who, in some way, take part in the migration process, including criminal organizations, carriers and coyotes. The obsession of U.S. politicians to “increase security at the border” has resulted in an unprecedented rise in the dangers to people crossing the border without authorization.
In this sense, the notion of security at the heart of the legislative discussion of immigration reform in the United States is at odds with the safety of people.
Maria Dolores Paris Pombo is a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte and contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org.
Photo: Michal Weres
Translated by Laura Carlsen