Last updateFri, 21 Feb 2020 10am

Mexico’s southern border bristles with surprises

Riveting as goings-on at the U.S.-Mexico border may be, developments at this country’s southern border with Guatemala have recently been turning heads.

Surprises include the growth of militarization at the southern border, spawned by Mexico’s newly formed Guardia Nacional and the rise of detention centers. These, critics charge, are more like refugee camps, where people, including children, are locked up without passports and phones, and are subject to endless bureaucratic waits. And just as in the United States, detention centers near Mexico’s southern border have been rocked by deaths, including child fatalities.

Surprising and almost as sobering are reports and photos revealing that, among migrants from the northern-triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, are a large number of people from countries such as Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria and Angola, as well as India, Haiti and Cuba. Many say they are heading for the United States and some report fears about returning to their home countries.

Mexico, in response to strong-arming from the Trump administration, is accepting refugee requests from a sharply increasing number of displaced people, including some from Africa and other faraway countries – up from 18,000 in 2018 to a projected 48,000 in 2019 – even though few believe this country has sufficient resources to offer hospitality to refugees.

Extending open arms to those in need, however, may reflect a new self-perception among Mexicans, led by President Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO), who has been a consistent champion of the underdog.

In line with this was another surprising spectacle south of Mexico, a tree-planting program that AMLO initiated, with El Salvador as the recipient, which is aimed at applying the brakes to migration from that country. The program, styled like Roosevelt’s Depression-era, federal work program and involving $US30 million, including payments to tree planters valued at $US250 per month, was initiated in July, just before Trump’s 45-day trial period testing Mexico’s cooperation in stemming migration was due to expire. 

To dramatize the tree planting, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, the key negotiator in the June deal with the United States, got down in the dirt with El Salvador’s young president Nayib Bukele – who, like AMLO, promises a “new era” – and planted two trees. In fact, this tree program, which consists of useful trees that yield fruit or wood, echoes another generous one that AMLO initiated months ago in poverty-stricken southeastern Mexican states.

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