Tens of thousands of Haitian migrants are trapped in southern Mexico

Preparing for a 1,000-mile journey, hundreds of migrants gathered near the central plaza of this southern Mexican city and sang a song: “UNITED STATES! UNITED STATES!”

Then they started to walk.

Less than 24 hours later, Mexican National Guard troops and immigration officials descended on a municipal basketball court where many migrants – exhausted and drenched by a tropical storm – had stopped to sleep.

They were loaded onto buses and driven 40 kilometers back to Tapachula, one of the last places on Earth they wanted to be.

This suffocating town near the Guatemalan border has become a vast open-air detention camp, a dead end for as many as 50,000 migrants who scramble daily to pay for food and shelter as they brainstorm new strategies for escape and travel to the United States.

Tapachula has long been a stopover for Central Americans traveling north. What is different now is that a large number of migrants stranded here – perhaps up to half – are from Haiti..

Their presence here is so pervasive that the city can feel like a slice of the Caribbean. Haitians line up at banks, aid agencies and mobile phone stores. They hang out in the central square. Street markets, cafes and barber shops have sprung up to serve them. Haitian music resounds in the windows.

Haitians here are not fleeing following last month’s earthquake or the July assassination of the country’s president.

Rather, they are part of the 250,000 Haitians who left their homeland after the devastating earthquake of 2010 and settled in Chile or Brazil. These two countries suffered sharp economic declines during the pandemic, causing the current exodus.

The trip to Mexico is epic, but the goal is to reach the United States – where the Biden administration is already trying to figure out what to do about an encampment of thousands of migrants, mostly Haitians, outside. from Del Rio, Texas.

Many Haitian and Central American migrants who headed north from Tapachula, Mexico were suffering from exhaustion and dehydration.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

The bottleneck in Tapachula is the result of American pressure on Mexico to prevent migrants from reaching the United States.

When Donald Trump was president, he publicly threatened to destroy the Mexican economy with tariffs if the country did not move to stop the flow of migrants to the north. Mexico complied. President Biden made no public threats, but experts said his approach was similar.

“Even though the Biden administration does it more quietly, it is certainly putting as much pressure on Mexico as it was on Mexico under the last administration,” said Jessica Bolter, analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “They are still counting on Mexico to prevent people from getting to the US-Mexico border. “

What Mexico gets in return for its cooperation is not entirely clear. But the deal could bolster U.S. requests for help on various binational issues, including trade, crime and health, and limit White House criticism of Mexican policies.

“This puts Mexico in a much stronger position to get concessions from the United States,” said Cris Ramón, Washington immigration consultant. “To what extent does the United States treat Mexico with childish gloves on issues such as corruption and democratic retreat, in return for Mexico serving as a state of ban on migrants?”

By stopping northbound migrants, Ramón noted, Mexico is playing a role similar to what Turkey once played for the European Union, holding back migrants from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

A woman and children walk by the side of a road.

Migrant families march from southern Mexico to the United States

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

Over the past decade or so, Mexico has become an iconic transit country for migrants from all over the world, and Tapachula, which typically has a population of around 350,000, has become a multilingual choke point. Passing by are people from the Caribbean, South America, Asia and Africa.

While it was common for migrants to be delayed here while awaiting Mexican transit documents, they were generally successful in continuing their journey north.

These days, however, Tapachula has become a trap. Waves of Mexican National Guard forces in riot gear, supported by immigration officials, block the northbound roads.

Escape is nearly impossible for those who cannot afford the coyotes, or smugglers, who charge up to $ 10,000 per person to reach the US border.

Migrants stranded here are unlikely to find employment. Most do not have legal permission to work, and the state of Chiapas, which includes Tapachula, is one of the poorest regions in Mexico.

“There is no life for us in Tapachula,” said Jean Edelince, 36, from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who has been in Tapachula for four months with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. . “There is no job, no money, no way to survive.”

He spoke inside a dilapidated house filled with about sixty Haitians – men, women and children. Most sleep on mats. There is a functional bathroom, no air conditioning and little running water. Tenants pool what little money they have to pay rent of about $ 3,000 per month.

To reach Tapachula, Haitians spend months crossing international borders, navigating jungles, mountains and deserts, while avoiding thieves, corrupt cops and government officials seeking bribes.

People are resting in a green area.

Large numbers of Haitians have joined recent caravans across southern Mexico. Some migrants escaped into the forest as Mexican National Guard forces dispersed the group of travelers and arrested many.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

Edelince and his family started in Chile – where he lived for four years and worked in a plastics factory – and headed north through Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, before arriving in Mexico.

During a six-day march through the infamous Darien Gap – a dangerous stretch of rainforest that connects Colombia and Panama – Edelince said he saw the bodies of more than a dozen migrants who had failed to get out.

Among Haitians seeking medical assistance recently at a mobile clinic outside the refugee office in Tapachula was 25-year-old Youseline Toussaint, whose left arm was in a cast.

She said she had broken it in a car accident a few weeks earlier while traveling north through Guatemala. Her 7 month old daughter was killed.

Besides the economic conditions in South America, the American immigration policy is also a factor of exodus. Unlike Central Americans, Haitians apprehended by the US Border Patrol cannot be summarily returned to Mexico.

If they can sneak into the United States and seek asylum – especially if they are accompanied by young children – they have a good chance of securing temporary residence as their cases drag on in the United States court in the United States. immigration.

Every day, hundreds of Haitians line up in front of the headquarters of the Mexican refugee agency every day to claim refugee status. Most are not eligible.

Haitians “arrive like an avalanche with so many people and make the situation very complicated,” said Andrés Ramírez Silva, who heads the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, which processes asylum claims. “This situation has put us on the verge of collapse.”

Mexican authorities regularly deport Central Americans to their country of origin, or drop them off at the Guatemalan border, a practice denounced by human rights activists. Meanwhile, US authorities have transported Central Americans detained in the United States to Tapachula.

Haitians pose a greater challenge. Mexico does not currently deport Haitians, but it lacks the detention space to detain them – a growing crisis because Colombia and Panama are reporting increasing numbers of Haitians heading north.

“Haitians cannot be sent back to a completely devastated country,” Ramírez Silva, the head of Mexican refugees, said in an interview. “There should be some sort of migratory alternative, but it isn’t.”

People in uniform with helmets and shields march in groups.

Mexican National Guard forces deploy to stop a caravan of migrants bound for the United States. The forces searched the outskirts of Huixtla.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

In recent weeks, exasperated migrants have relaunched “caravans”, marching north together in large groups. Scenes of National Guard troops beating migrants intercepted in caravans drew widespread condemnation.

“A manhunt,” Catholic Bishop of Tapachula Jaime Calderón Calderón said in a statement read last week during mass in local churches.

As people fled into the jungle to avoid arrest, families were separated and children were lost in the confusion.

“It is a savage, cruel and lamentable operation,” said Father Heyman Vázquez Medina, a Catholic priest from the town of Huixtla, north of Tapachula. “We are all aware that this is the result of pressure from the United States … Mexico has always done the dirty work of the United States.”

In August, Mexico’s defense minister declared that the “main objective” of the army on the southern border of the country was “to stop all migration”. But the left-wing government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has denied the systematic abuses.

The president said migrants are being contained in the south not because it succumbs to US demands, but to keep them from being exposed to criminal gangs operating on Mexico’s northern border.

A member of the National Guard watches over the people lined up along a brick wall.

In Tapachula, Haitians seeking to travel to the United States line up outside the Mexican refugee agency to apply for asylum status. Few people qualify and the expectations drag on for months. A member of the National Guard tries to contain the long line.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

“The human rights of immigrants have not been violated,” López Obrador recently told reporters. “There will be no repression in our government.”

However, many pointed to the incongruity of Mexico touting recent aid deliveries to Haiti – and receiving applause for taking in refugees from Afghanistan – as it cracked down on migrants in the south.

“Our government sends Navy ships with aid to Haiti but also sends [immigration agents] and the National Guard to prevent, sometimes by beatings, Haitians and others from leaving Tapachula on their way north, ”tweeted Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer. “Washington’s pressure must be strong to impose this contradiction on Mexico. “

Special envoys María de Jesús Peters and Liliana Nieto del Río in Tapachula and Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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