Douglas Dávila left his home in northwest Venezuela in the dark of night. The oil worker secreted across the border to Colombia on May 9, for fear authorities would arrest him and label him a traitor for leaving his job. Devaluation and inflation meant his monthly salary had fallen to around $40 a month, he said, while his family’s basic expenses were over $600.

Together with his wife, their daughter and granddaughter, and seven other relatives, Dávila took a series of buses and boats before trekking for five days through Panama’s Darien Gap, a notorious 60-mile stretch of roadless jungle that he described as “haunted” by the bodies of migrants left behind without proper burial.

The family split in Costa Rica. Dávila and his wife held back with the children, as the others went ahead. On June 14, his family reached the city of Tapachula, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where they turned themselves in to authorities.

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After waiting just over a month in a migrant shelter in Tapachula, the family was granted humanitarian visas allowing them to continue their journey north without fear of being detained or deported.

The trip north was supposed to be simple. Because they had visas, the family was able to ride commercial buses all the way to the northern city of Monterrey. From there, they bought what should have been their last bus ticket, to the town of Nava, Coahuila, 26 miles south of the U.S. border. But on the final stretch, the bus they were traveling in was halted by state police.

They told the passengers, most of them Venezuelan, to disembark and put their cash and other valuables on the hood of a patrol car. After the bounty had been collected, the police waved the bus on.

A little farther ahead, they were again told to disembark, this time by the National Guard. “They said that to pass here as migrants, our papers were worthless,” said Dávila of the National Guard. After paying off the soldiers with the money they’d managed to keep, their bus was allowed to continue.

Finally, in Nava, the Dávilas pooled what cash remained and hired a private citizen to drive them to Piedras Negras, which shares a crossing with Eagle Pass, Texas.

The family was dropped off a few blocks from the border and proceeded to walk to within meters of the Rio Grande. The plan was to swim across and turn themselves over to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

But the plan fell apart, just as the swollen river marking the border with the United States came into view.

Dávila and his family were apprehended by a patrol unit composed of municipal police and national guardsmen. They were targeted on suspicion of being migrants. Even though all their papers were in order, the family spent the next 36 hours in a city jail.

Once released, Mexican migration officials drove the Dávilas south to the city of Torreón. From there, they traveled to the Casa del Migrante shelter in Saltillo, nearly 300 miles south of the border they had been so close to crossing.

Founded 20 years ago by an activist priest, the Casa del Migrante is a community center that’s been refashioned into a series of simple dormitories alongside a concrete soccer pitch. For migrants, the space behind its concrete walls is a welcome oasis in otherwise hostile terrain.

José Luis Manzo, who works at the shelter, routinely deals with cases similar to that of the Dávila family, in which people traveling with documents accrediting their legal status in Mexico are turned back by police and the National Guard. Their number has been increasing since Coahuila Governor Miguel Riquelme and Texas Governor Greg Abbott held an official meeting this past April.

The promise of a rights-based migration policy became more distant as Mexico bent over backwards to satisfy the Trump administration’s demands.

At that meeting, Riquelme pledged that Coahuila state police—in conjunction with the National Guard and Mexico’s National Migration Institute—would set up checkpoints to prevent northward migration in the state. In addition, municipal police in the border cities of Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña would be deployed to “ensure that no migrant crosses the border in those areas.”

Migrants from Venezuela and elsewhere are now being returned even further south, and have begun camping out in the Central del Norte bus station in México City.

For migrants heading to the U.S., the journey through Mexico has long been a treacherous one. It’s been more than 12 years since the bodies of 72 mostly Central American migrants were found in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Now, in addition to criminal and paramilitary groups, migrants are dealing with an expanded army and police roles in controlling their movement.

The migrant enforcement regime in Mexico today is defined by an unprecedented level of militarization, especially along the northern and southern borders.

This militarization, sold as necessary to combat organized crime and keep criminals out, has done little to keep Mexicans or migrants safe. What it has done, at least temporarily, is placated Washington, raised smugglers fees and shifted Mexico’s  migration containment machinery into overdrive

AMLO and the Army 

The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador on July 1, 2018, was supposed to herald a more humanitarian migrant policy within Mexico. AMLO, as he’s known, campaigned on commitments to help the poor, end corruption, stop the persecution of migrants and generally steer the country away from the security strategies of his predecessors.

As AMLO’s campaign gained steam in Mexico, the Trump administration brought the world’s attention to the southwest border. CBP separated thousands of migrant babies and children from their parents and guardians, while the president boasted that he would force Mexico to pay for a border wall between the two countries.

Then came the largest of the migrant caravans that began the previous year. In October of 2018, as many as 5,000 Central American migrants left Honduras toward Mexico and eventually the U.S. border. Media coverage in the U.S. and elsewhere was intense, leading to international attention and more pressure from Washington on Mexico’s incoming government to act.

López Obrador’s first moves signaled a commitment to the progressive values and vision of his campaign. In the hours after his inauguration on December 1, he signed a joint declaration with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, promising to address the structural causes of migration through economic growth and support for farmers, and to promote options for safe and orderly migration. Another early proposed piece of legislation created a National Guard, a civilian-led force meant to substitute the army on the streets. The measure was touted as a correction to the use of the military in domestic policing, which has driven security policy in Mexico since Felipe Calderón’s presidency began in 2006.

But talk of reducing the root causes of migration—from México and from further south—did not stop millions from fleeing their homelands. The U.S. CBP has detained at least two million migrants along its southern border over the last year, a new record.

These numbers are part of the justification for the other side of López Obrador’s migrant policy: increasing the domestic role of the security forces, including the military, for what the government calls containment.

As caravans continued to head north from southern Mexico during the first months of AMLO’s administration, U.S. pressure on the new government increased. In May of 2019, Trump threatened to impose import tariffs on Mexican goods if Mexico City didn’t do more to stop migration.

A month later, the U.S. signed a joint declaration with its southern neighbor committing Mexico to an “enforcement surge” in which the National Guard would be deployed to police migration. It also expanded the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program. The program meant asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador would be returned from the U.S. to Mexico while awaiting resolution of their claims.

Tonatiuh Guillén López, AMLO’s first pick to lead the National Migration Institute (INM), resigned from his post the week after the joint declaration was signed in Washington. An expert on migration who was seen as an activist within the bureaucracy, Guillén López’s departure sent shockwaves through the INM.

“It was a complete surprise,” said one former state-level INM delegate. “It was a step backwards, a drastic change.”

Venezuelan migrants walk across the Rio Bravo towards the United States border to surrender to the border patrol, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

A Fading Commitment

The promise of a rights-based migration policy became more distant as Mexico bent over backwards to satisfy the Trump administration’s demands. Instead of deflecting, delaying or creating temporary programs in line with international law, legislators moved to further militarize migration policy.

One of the first pieces of legislation put forward by AMLO’s government created a National Guard, a civilian-led force meant to substitute the army on the streets. The measure was touted as a correction to the use of the military in domestic policing, which has driven security policy in Mexico since Felipe Calderón’s presidency began in 2006.

From the outset, army generals ran the National Guard, and the majority of its recruits were active duty soldiers. The law that created the force also allowed National Guardsmen to inspect migration documents, in conjunction with the INM.      .

“I keep thinking about how we institutionalized our alignment with the U.S.,” said Guillén López in a speech in May. “We made it law. We made it into an apparatus, the National Guard. And we militarized the National Migration Institute.”

Today, the National Guard is a force of 118,000, over three quarters of whom are active duty soldiers and marines. Thousands have been deployed specifically to check documents, detain and repatriate migrants, and provide security for the INM.

The force’s own reporting shows National Guardsmen are not just asking for papers at the border, but check papers and detain migrants in states throughout the country. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has found members of the force have participated in torture and killings of Mexicans and foreign nationals in transit.

As part of the federal government’s migration plan, more than 6,500 soldiers have been deployed along Mexico’s southern border, and another 7,400 along the north border.

Opposition to militarization in México has emerged from many quarters since the intensification of the “war on drugs” began over 15 years ago.

Almost 350,000 migrants were deported from Mexico between September 2021 and June of this year, the majority of them were intercepted in southern Mexico. That’s over 200,000 more than the same period the year previous.

Though the army’s role in policing migration isn’t new, it has greatly expanded under López Obrador’s watch.

The Army did not publish statistics regarding migrant detention prior to 2018. According to reporting from the Secretary of Defense, during the 11 months ending July 31, 2019, soldiers “rescued” or detained more than 22,000 migrants. The most recent figures show soldiers detained over half-a-million migrants over the same period last year.

In addition to training with the U.S. army, in 2016, Mexican army officials began convening regularly with members of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Today, more than half of 32 state level INM delegates are active duty or retired members of the army, the air force or the marines. In September, the army formally took operational and administrative control of the National Guard.

This has led, predictably, to abuse and corruption. Already in 2020, civil society groups have registered more than 4,000 complaints by migrants against the National Guard, according to Manzo from the Casa del Migrante in Saltillo.

“We’ve heard of people who have been robbed by members of the National Guard, who have been physically or verbally violated by them, and some reports of sexual abuse,” he said.

Since the beginning of this shift, civil society groups have been raising alarm bells about the potential impacts of a militarized police force whose members are subject to military tribunals, and not civilian courts, in the case of abuses. They are also warning of the army’s expanded role in civilian affairs.

The Secretary of Defense now runs 31 customs offices in Mexico, and is building, upgrading and operating priority infrastructure including the Maya Train and three airports: two in the south, and another in Mexico City.

Checkpoints are set up along roads and border crossings, marines and soldiers are present in airports, and regular patrols are a constant in cities across the country.

“Calderón talked about a war on narcotrafficking,” said Perla del Ángel, a volunteer at the Attention Center for the Migrant Exodus (CAME) in the border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora. “What I see happening now is a war against migrants.”

Boots on the Ground

The deployment of the National Guard, together with the ongoing application of Trump-era anti-migrant policies like Title 42, have altered how migrants reach the United States.

On a system level, determining cause and effect can seem next to impossible. But anecdotal evidence shows smugglers fees have increased, and their networks strengthened, since the deployment of the National Guard.

“Before 2018 it was still pretty common to see people attempt the journey without a smuggler [at least] for a tiny part of the way,” said Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America. “Attempting the journey without a well-paid smuggler is really hard now, much harder than it used to be.”

It’s on the local level that the impacts of militarization and the resulting re-organization of crime networks are most visible.

Different border areas now tend to receive migrants of specific nationalities. Mexicans and Central Americans mostly cross in Arizona and parts of Tamaulipas. Migrants from South America, like the Dávila family, as well as from the Caribbean and elsewhere head towards crossings in mid-Texas and the deserts of southeast Arizona.

“Either organized crime is physically directing them there because that’s where their smuggler is, or they’ve gotten WhatsApp messages saying ‘don’t you dare go to Nuevo Laredo, don’t go to Nogales,’” said Isacson, who has carried out research along nearly every stretch of the border over the last decade. “That’s new.”

The CAME shelter, across from Douglas, Arizona, was founded in 2000 and has expanded multiple times to accommodate an increased demand led by more women and children migrants, mostly from southern Mexico and Central America. The shelter is decorated with murals representing the trials migrants face, standing in a residential area a few blocks away from the border crossing. Over the past year, though, things have gone quiet. When I visited in October, it was mostly empty, with just a handful of families recently returned from the US staying there.

Organizers and activist groups in México City and elsewhere are pushing for the demilitarization of the National Guard and an end to army patrols.

“Today there’s few people who want to come here,” said Adalberto Ramos, who has directed the shelter for more than 20 years. Criminal groups charge Central Americans arriving in Agua Prieta $1,500, according to Ramos, who explained how migrants are forced to contract with smugglers before leaving their country. Once they reach the border they are held in warehouses and crossed. A recent report from Guatemala found it now costs $15,500 to hire a smuggler for the entire trip, which includes multiple crossing attempts.

Ramos attributes this change in large part to the implementation of Title 42, which relies on the Covid-19 pandemic as a justification to remove people from the U.S. before they can make an asylum claim. In May, the Biden administration moved to repeal Title 42, under which asylum seekers from countries with diplomatic relations with the US are returned to Mexico without a hearing. But Republican-led lawsuits prevented the end of the program, and in October, the Biden administration expanded it to include Venezuelans. Over 2.3 million people have been expelled under Title 42 since it came into force in March, 2020.

“In previous years they never talked about warehouses, now they do, and they say the conditions are terrible,” said Ramos. “They are not allowed to come to the migrant shelter. The migrant population doesn’t have information, they are victims and they are being taken advantage of by the polleros, who control everything.”

A phone used by migrants to call their families sits in the “Casa del Migrante” migrant shelter in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Fighting the Siege

Opposition to militarization in México has emerged from many quarters since the intensification of the “war on drugs” began over 15 years ago. But López Obrador’s high approval rating—and his party’s willingness to ally with the opposition in congress and the senate to pass pro-army legislation—has allowed his militarization policy to march steadily forward since his election four years ago.

On the heels of giving the army control of the National Guard, congress and the senate passed an agreement allowing the army to patrol the streets in a policing role until 2028, a four year extension.

Organizers and activist groups in México City and elsewhere are pushing for the demilitarization of the National Guard and an end to army patrols. Political opportunism has driven others connected to parties that once supported the army’s role in public security to take a stand against it, now that they’ve lost their hold on power.

The actions of the National Guard and the Army have led some migrants and activists in Mexico’s south to push for “humanitarian corridors” that would allow people migrating, and especially the most vulnerable, to move safely between shelters.

Opposition has also come from inside. The resignation of López Guillén from the INM was an early warning of spreading dissent.

During their most recent meeting, the INM’s Citizens’ Council took a stand against the National Guard’s role in policing migration. The Council “will never be in agreement with the use of the National Guard for the revision of migration status,” according to meeting minutes.

A Place to Rest One’s Head

In June of 2019, CAME was one of two shelters, together with the Casa del Migrante in Saltillo, where the National Guard attempted to gain entry and check the migration status of the people staying there. Both organizations made a formal complaint against the National Guard and received a writ of protection from Mexico’s National Human Rights organization shortly after.

By the time I visited, calm had long since returned to the Casa del Migrante. Veteran activists and new volunteers cooked meals of beans and rice, coordinated cleaning shifts and led dozens of men, women and children in a moment of reflection.

As we walked through the shelter, Manzo easily greeted residents as he showed me supply rooms, simple dormitories, a laundry area and a nearly bare room with toys and DVDs for young adults. Two little boys took turns on a tricycle; a small group of teenagers shared cigarettes in a corner.

“We came to Saltillo to this shelter to have a roof over our heads, to have time to think and to rest. I hadn’t slept for about five days,” said Dávila, who sat straight up on a plastic chair. His five-year-old granddaughter giggled with delight as she bounced a plastic dinosaur off his arm.

When I interviewed Dávila, he was out of money and needed $400 to pay for four bus tickets to the border, where the family would try their luck again. The relatives had left Venezuela and made it to the U.S., but had yet to start working and couldn’t send money. We would speak again over the coming days, while he prepared to reach the border with his family.

On September 17, Dávila, his wife and two daughters crossed into Texas near El Paso, where they were immediately separated by CBP. From there, Dávila was flown to Brownsville, Texas, handcuffed and in chains, and released after nine days in a detention center where he said he lost 15 pounds and was only allowed one shower.

It’s now been over seven weeks since Dávila entered the US. He has since reunited with his wife and teenage daughter and begun working in Utah. But he has yet to be reunited with his five-year-old granddaughter.

“My baby is detained in a shelter, I don’t know when I’ll get her back,” he said, referring to his granddaughter. During the last week in October, he was told the girl had fallen ill while at the shelter, and he hadn’t been given any further information or the chance to speak to her. “They haven’t told us anything. I have no idea who can help us with this, and my heart is broken.”