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From the September 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 9).

Mexico's 'Southern Plan': The Facts

Crackdown Underway on Migration from Central America

Velia Jaramillo, Proceso (liberal newsmagazine), Mexico City, Mexico, June 26, 2001.

“Plan Sur” (Southern Plan), announced by the Mexican government [on June 19], may already be underway. Over a period of 15 days, starting on June 4, the southern border of Mexico was the stage for a large-scale police action that resulted in more than 6,000 deportations of illegal aliens to Guatemala from Mexico and 3,000 Central Americans located in Guatemala back to the borders of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and neighboring countries.

This is a part of a regional program backed by U.S. authorities in which the governments of Mexico, the Central American nations, and the countries of the Caribbean Basin are taking part. Its first phase ran from June 4 to June 20, as confirmed by the director of Guatemalan immigration, Luis Mendizábal.

According to this Guatemalan official, the reinforcement of anti-immigration actions on the border between Guatemala and Mexico is the initial stage of the Southern Plan in Mexico. Because of these measures, the flow of undocumented migrants illegally returning to Mexico from the Guatemalan border was reduced by 30 percent.

The prelude to the Mexican government’s Southern Plan, also known as “orderly and secure repatriation,” had its counterpart in Guatemala called “Venceremos 2001” (We Shall Overcome 2001). This operation mobilized more than 200 police agents over the past few weeks. They checked hotels, parks, bars, brothels, and public areas in search of illegal aliens living in border cities, mainly Tecún Umán, on the border across from Hidalgo in Chiapas state. More than 1,200 foreigners who reside there as a floating population, awaiting the chance to cross over into Mexico on their way to the United States, were detained and sent back to their countries.

In this program, the participation of the Mexican army was confined to cordoning off certain areas, according to information provided by Mendizábal. The director of the Centro de Apoyo al Migrante (Immigrant Support Center) of the Social Pastoral Initiative of Guatemala, Mauro Verzeletti, reported that according to statements by immigrants who managed to evade the checkpoints, the Mexican army is already taking part in identity checks.

Between June 4 and June 17, Mexico deported 6,000 illegal aliens, of whom 50 percent were Guatemalan, 28 percent Honduran, and 22 percent Salvadoran, according to Mendizábal. Simultaneous operations throughout the entire border with Mexico, conducted by the Guatemalan Department of Immigration with the support of the Civilian National Police, concluded in the same period with the detention and deportation of 3,666 people from Guatemala. More than 1,600 Hondurans, 1,500 Salvadorans, 100 Nicaraguans, and 400 from other countries, including Pakistan, India, Ecuador, Peru, and Iran, were transported from the border to hostels in Guatemala City and deported that same day to the border of the country from which they entered, according to the Guatemalan official.

Starting on June 4 as a part of this plan for massive deportations, more than 18 buses carrying deportees were moving out on a daily basis. Until Venceremos, the immigrants expelled by Mexico were transported to the border with Guatemala, and hundreds of them remained in that area. “Now, the government of the United States has supported the expenses connected with the transportation of these people from Guatemala back to their own countries,” the immigration official pointed out.

He reported that the inspections were extended to Honduras and El Salvador, where about 1,000 illegal aliens were detected. The countries involved in the anti-immigration program shared information on trafficking and illegal immigration rings, Mendizábal emphasized. He explained that Venceremos and its counterparts in the region concluded this past Wednesday, “but an evaluation will be done, and if it is positive, we will consider continuing this project for the whole year. I think that the results have been favorable, but we have to review the type of economic support we are going to get in order to continue it.”

He reported that in border areas like Tecún Umán, those deported [from Mexico] used to live as a marginalized population, sleeping in parks and on sidewalks, and in some cases, joining criminal groups or prostitution rings, thus creating insecurity and fear among local residents. Now that the deportees have been moved out, he assured us, crime has begun to decrease.

As to whether the plan is in effect, Guatemalan authorities offered differing versions. While the director for immigration maintained that this plan has already started, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Edgar Arana, assured us that Venceremos 2001 is a program distinct from the Southern Plan, concerning which, he asserted, the Guatemalan government has not received initial notification.

Arana reiterated that he had no official knowledge of the Southern Plan and did not expect any notification, since “this involves internal decisions of the Mexican government.” As for the report that military personnel might be involved in the immigration identity checks, “We do not see this as a threat,” he stated.

Alejandro González Navarro, the attaché for immigration at the Mexican Embassy in Guatemala City, told Proceso that the recently concluded program of deportations is not part of the Southern Plan, but rather a temporary operation. He defined it as a “pilot test” and specified that what marked the difference this year was the fact that precise information on the nationalities of those deported was handed over to the Guatemalan authorities, which facilitated the deportation from Guatemala of citizens of other countries in Central America and elsewhere in the world.

What is certain is that the anti-immigration operation was conducted discreetly and that the massive deportations from Mexico, as well as the dispatch of dozens of buses transporting the deportees out of Guatemala, went almost unnoticed.

Ricardo Gatica, the spokesman for Guatemala’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, explained that the details of the Southern Plan were made known on May 11 during the visit to Guatemala of a delegation of Mexican officials headed by the assistant secretary for population and immigration affairs, Javier Moctezuma, and the Guatemalan minister of the interior, Byron Barrientos. At this meeting, the officials announced that they would implement joint policies aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigration coming from Central America and heading for the United States. According to the data provided by Moctezuma, each year 100,000 Guatemalans try to cross the border between Mexico and the United States; fewer than 1 percent succeed. In the year 2000, he reported, 50 died in the attempt.

When asked by Proceso, González Navarro clarified that in 2000, Mexico had expelled from its southern border 152,967 illegal aliens. Most of them, more than 70,848, were Guatemalans, 40,892 were Hondurans, 33,960 came from El Salvador, 3,340 from Ecuador, and 1,836 from Nicaragua. The remaining aliens were citizens of other countries, mainly China and India. The immigration from Asian countries, which involves more organized immigrant trafficking rings, has appeared in the last 10 years, the Mexican official explained. He estimated that in general terms the number of deportations is increasing by 30 percent each year.

During his visit to Guatemala as Mexico’s president-elect on Sept. 11, 2000, Vicente Fox offered to set up mechanisms to stop abuses by Mexican authorities against Central American immigrants. But as the director of the Immigrant Support Center, Mauro Verzeletti, pointed out, militarizing the anti-immigration effort in Mexico may result in a major increase in violations of the human rights of immigrants.

“We see inconsistency between [Fox’s] words and actual practice; if they keep on involving the army in the immigrant identity checks, there will be no improvement,” Verzeletti said. He said that he had received testimony from some undocumented immigrants indicating that Mexican military personnel are already present in the anti-immigration operations along the southern border. He reported that according to information received by the House for Immigrants, abuses against undocumented Central American immigrants are on the increase. “With such strict measures in place, the immigrants seek out the most dangerous roads, placing their lives in jeopardy,” he said. “They cross over in more remote areas in the north, near Petén, where there are a lot of mountains and jungle, and many immigrants lose their lives along this route, because they cannot find water or means to survive.”

Verzeletti explained that the Immigrant Support Center in Guatemala City alone takes care of an average of 500 people a month who were deported or abandoned by the coyotes (immigrant traffickers) and do not have the resources to return to their country of origin. “The abuses they most often report are swindles, followed by rapes, assaults, robberies, and poor conditions in the detention centers, where they may be kept without food, water, or an appropriate place to sleep.”

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