Facing US pressure to reduce migration, Mexico cracks down on migrant activists and shelters

Close-up photos of Irineo Mujica, left, and Cristobal Sanchez at news conferences after their release in Tapachula, Mexico.

On June 11, as humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren sat trial in Tucson, Arizona, on charges of harboring undocumented immigrants, longtime migrant rights’ advocates Cristóbal Sánchez and Irineo Mujica found themselves in a Tapachula, Mexico, courtroom. 

The two men, who gained international attention when they accompanied caravans of Central American migrants to the United States’ southern border last fall, had been arrested a week before. Both were accused of receiving money to smuggle Honduran migrants across Mexico.

Their hearings lasted nearly 20 hours combined. In the end, the judge deemed the evidence against both of them insufficient: Neither was proven to be present at the places or times specified in the accusations against them. They were released from custody.

Their arrests came as Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard negotiated with US officials in Washington, DC, to avoid President Donald Trump’s threats to impose a 5% tariff on Mexican imports if the Mexican government failed to stop migrants from arriving at the southern US border. 

The tariffs were averted — for now. But as part of the deal, Mexico has 45 days to prove it is curbing migration to the US. The subsequent crackdown has been swift. Mexico has begun deploying troops to its borders as part of its recently formed National Guard, which was originally meant to address organized crime. The two governments are also expanding the United States’ Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico,” in which the US is sending Central American asylum-seekers back into Mexico to wait until their asylum claims have been resolved. 

The US and Mexico will reevaluate the agreement when the 45-day period ends in late June. The US hasn’t publicly specified how much of a decrease it wants, though Mexico’s new migration head has vowed to cut it by 60%.

Meanwhile, Mexican migrant rights advocates and shelters are concerned they’re being targeted as part of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s attempt to appease the US and protect Mexico’s trade interests. 

“We’re seeing Irineo and Cristóbal as the first two political prisoners of the López Obrador administration.”

Alex Mensing, organizer, Pueblo Sin Fronteras

“We’re seeing Irineo and Cristobal as the first two political prisoners of the López Obrador administration,” said Alex Mensing, an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a transnational human rights organization that has provided accompaniment to Central American migrant caravans. 

The organization, which Mujica directs, said in a press release that the Mexican government arrested Mujica and Sanchez to “present them as trophies for the US government.”

Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs, as well as its National Migration Institute, declined to comment for this story. 

Related: Mexico’s goodwill wanes as more migrants arrive

Trump’s tariff threat 

Trump’s tariff threat was his latest aggressive measure in trying to stem unauthorized migration through Mexico to the United States. 

After Trump’s initial tariff announcement, Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters that the US’ demands on Mexico included cracking down on transnational organizations that help migrants transit through Mexico to the US, ostensibly a reference to coyotes. 

Among the measures in the joint declaration, which the two governments released on June 7, was “taking decisive action to dismantle human smuggling and trafficking organizations as well as their illicit financial and transportation networks.” That’s where migrant advocates and shelters are getting caught up. 

Related: Crimes of compassion: US follows Europe’s lead in criminalizing those who help migrants

With the inauguration of center-left president Andrés Manuel López Obrador in December, migrant rights advocates in Mexico had hoped for a shift to a more humane immigration policy. On the campaign trail, he had promised to abstain from “doing the dirty work of the US.” 

But the recent agreement on migration controls to avoid tariffs suggests otherwise. 

“This is literally exactly the opposite of everything López Obrador said he was going to do,” Mensing says. “It’s extremely serious, and we need to pay attention to what the government is doing to migrants.”

A man stands at a podium, his arms raised as he speaks. Others are seated around him.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes part on a “unity” rally to defend the dignity of Mexico and talks about the trade negotiations with the US in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 8, 2019. His popularity is still high and most in Mexico approve of how he’s handled Trump’s tariff threats. Jorge Duenes/Reuters

Mexico has seen a leadership shuffle that seems to indicate López Obrador’s tougher stance on migration.

The week after the agreement, the commissioner of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillén López, quit. Guillén López had previously been the president of Mexico’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte, an academic institution dedicated to migration research. 

López Obrador replaced him with Francisco Garduño, the former commissioner of the institution overseeing Mexico’s federal prisons.

Some states appear to be following the federal government’s lead. Last week, the state of Tabasco announced its financial intelligence unit would investigate migrant shelters in the state for money laundering. A press release stated that “certain organizations … do not operate as they say and have been façades for money-laundering and corruption.”

The Tabasco-based shelter La 72 responded on Facebook that the measure “has the clear objective to criminalize and weaken the civil society structures that protect and welcome migrants.”

In a press conference earlier this month, Ebrard dodged accusations that Mexico was bending to US pressure. 

“The US is not the one who wanted this,” he said. “This wasn’t their main plan. This is a proposal we put on the table.”

Activists targeted on both sides of the border

Sánchez and Mujica’s arrests were the most prominent in a series of recent incidents where migration advocates being targeted by Mexican and US authorities.

In January, Mexican immigration officials detained Nora Phillips, co-founder of the cross-border legal services nonprofit Al Otro Lado, which provides aid to asylum-seekers in Tijuana through their Border Rights Project, while she was traveling with her daughter to Guadalajara. She was held in detention for nine hours, then deported to the US.

In March, NBC San Diego published leaked documents revealing the existence of a list of journalists and activists in the border region. The list was maintained by US Customs and Border Protection and the International Liaison Unit, which coordinates intelligence between the US and Mexico, among others. It included Phillips and other advocates from Al Otro Lado, in addition to every member of Pueblo Sin Fronteras who had been involved in the caravan. 

Related: An aid worker is on trial for helping migrants. But groups like his are still doing their work.

Activists in Mexico are gearing up for new levels of targeting — both for migrants and those who aid them. In Agua Prieta, Sonora, the Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus migrant shelter released a statement about a June 23 confrontation with members of the National Guard, which attempted to gain access to the shelter and interrogated a municipal police officer who was a security guard at the facility.

Hugo Castro, the director of the Baja California chapter of the aid organization Border Angels, foresees a return to an earlier era when migrants had less public visibility and fewer advocates. He also believes militarization of the border will only drive migrants to take more risks in their transit through Mexico.

“The caravans were a way to create pressure,” he says, referring to the increased visibility and protection migrants found when they traveled in large groups.

He worries that state targeting of the migrant rights community could deter would-be advocates, and labeling activists as smugglers could lead migrants to resort more often to actual underground networks. 

“There are going to be more deaths of migrants,” he says. “There’s going to be a move to clandestineness.”

Phillips, from Al Otro Lado, hasn’t been allowed to return to Mexico six months after her deportation. She sees current practices towards advocates as a form of intimidation of people just trying to do their jobs. 

“It’s a form of moral exhaustion,” she says. “It’s probably going to get worse. I can’t really imagine it getting worse, but it will.”

The World Listener Survey 2024

We’d love to hear your thoughts on The World. Please take our 5-min. survey.