TUXTLA GUTIÉRREZ, Mexico — Oscar and Jennifer Cruz knew that crossing the border would be the easy part.
The Salvadoran brother and sister made their way over the international
line between Guatemala and Mexico with the help of a smuggler who guided
them through the jungle. But soon afterward, Mexican immigration
officers arrested the clean-cut teenagers on a bus in Tuxtla Gutiérrez,
the capital of the southernmost Mexican state, Chiapas.
Like many other Central American youths who migrate on their own, Oscar,
16, and Jennifer, 13, were pushed by the danger of street gangs and
pulled by hopes of joining their parents, who left El Salvador when
their children were very young and settled in Las Vegas. The brother and
sister embarked on the trek to the United States despite the horror
stories about migrants getting robbed, raped, kidnapped or killed in
transit across Mexico.
"We wanted to be with my parents," Oscar, a devout Christian, said in an
interview at a detention center. "And there was also the threat from
the gangs. Once I started high school, they tried to recruit me. What
worried me most were the threats. The gangs fight for turf, do
extortion, threaten families and deal drugs. The police are scared of
them — kids my age."
Oscar and Jennifer crossed a lawless, long-neglected border between
Guatemala and Mexico, a 540-mile boundary snaking through mountains,
jungles and rivers. It is a hotbed of threats: smuggling of people,
drugs, arms and cash; abuse of migrants by criminals and security
forces; violence and corruption that menace institutions and create
fertile turf for mafias.
The border is also a window into the future. Profound shifts in
economics, demographics and crime are transforming immigration patterns
and causing upheaval in Central and North America. After decades in
which Mexicans dominated illegal immigration to the United States, the
overall number of immigrants has dropped and the profile has changed.
Although Mexicans remain the largest group, U.S.-bound migrants today
are increasingly likely to be young Central Americans fleeing violence
as well as poverty, or migrants from remote locales such as India and
Africa who pay top smuggling fees. They journey through a gantlet of
Mexico's southern frontier has become a national security concern for
U.S., Mexican and Central American leaders. Interviews with U.S. and
Mexican government officials, human rights advocates and migrants by a
ProPublica reporter visiting the border showed how these converging
trends are raising alarms.
"It is becoming imperative and urgent to immediately initiate and
develop in the next few years a serious and coordinated regional
strategic plan in the areas of security, control and development to
prevent this border from sliding out of control and generating an
experience with enormous gravity for the region," said Gustavo Mohar, a
veteran immigration and intelligence official who ended his tenure last
week as Mexico's interior sub-secretary for migration issues.
"The same way that it took the United States 30 years to reach a point
of physical control on its border, Mexico needs a medium-range
strategy," Mohar said. "But we will control it better with a strategic
vision that part of the problem is Central American poverty and the drug
The new Mexican administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto inherits
repercussions of the transformation at the better-known, aggressively
policed U.S.-Mexico border. Although the U.S. political debate often
gives a contrary impression, illegal crossing at Mexico's northern
border has plummeted.
Until 2007, the U.S. Border Patrol made an average of about 1 million
arrests a year at the line, the overwhelming majority of them Mexicans.
But there has been a marked decline since. Patrol statistics through
July indicate U.S. agents made about 355,000 apprehensions at the border
in the fiscal year that ended in September. An expected figure of about
260,000 arrests of Mexicans would be the lowest in more than a decade.
Nationality of immigrants crossing from Mexico to the United States.
Smuggling of people and drugs, especially marijuana, persists across the
U.S.-Mexican border. But the changes seem dramatic. In April, a landmark study by the Pew Hispanic Center
in Washington, D.C., determined that, after accounting for Mexican
immigrants who return to their homeland, the net in-flow of Mexicans to
the United States has dropped to zero. The reasons include tougher
defenses, stepped-up deportations, a long-term decline in Mexican birth
rates and the simultaneous slump in the U.S. economy and growth of the
Even if the U.S. economy improves, the demographic and economic
evolution of Mexico appears to have ended the era of massive Mexican
migration to the United States, according to experts and officials.
"Everybody agrees there's going to be some vacillation in the numbers,
but I don't know of any serious observer or analyst who thinks we are
going to revert to pre-2008 levels of Mexican immigration," said Doris
Meissner, a former U.S. immigration commissioner and now a senior fellow
at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "I don't see any
evidence of that happening, not in the structural changes in Mexico such
as birth rates, not in the enforcement at the border, and not in the
forecasts of what kind of economy is to come in the United States."
For years, non-Mexicans have accounted for only a small fraction of U.S.
border arrests. The proportion has changed, however, and Central
American migration has surged during the past year. Statistics indicate
that U.S. agents caught at least 90,000 non-Mexicans at the U.S-Mexico
border in the fiscal year, the great majority of them Central American.
The number almost doubles the previous year's tally and equals more than
a third of the arrests of Mexicans.
The non-Mexicans include a subset of migrants from Asia, Africa, South
America and the Caribbean. The relative numbers are small, but the
smugglers are especially powerful because they charge up to $65,000 per
client. Drug mafias have muscled in on the human smuggling trade. And
U.S. counterterrorism officials worry that corruption and disorder could
enable terrorists or foreign agents to use the region as a gateway to
the United States or a base for plots.
Still, most non-Mexican migrants today come from three small and poor
nations: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. U.S. Border Patrol
apprehensions of Hondurans rose from 12,197 in fiscal 2011 to 27,734
through August; Salvadorans from 10,471 to 20,041; and Guatemalans from
19,061 to 32,486.
Mexican authorities this year have detained 40,971 illegal immigrants,
most of them Central Americans, a rise of about 15,000 during the past
two years, according to the Mexican National Institute of Migration,
that country's immigration service. Detentions of unaccompanied Central
American minors also increased, Mexican officials said.
The motivations are not just economic. El Salvador and Honduras have the
highest homicide rates in the world; Guatemala is extremely violent.
Ingrained inequality, migration and strife devastate family structures
and state institutions. Crime generates a conflict-driven migration that
recalls the refugee exodus from the region's civil wars in the 1980s.
"They are expelled from their countries by fear," said Father Flor Maria
Rigoni, a cerebral, bearded Italian priest who directs the Casa del
Migrante shelter in Tapachula on the southwest corner of the
Mexico-Guatemala border. "They are seeking the possibility to survive.
The violence there drives them. The migrants don't talk about the
economic situation of the U.S. — they just bet on the future."
Central American street gangs have become formidable transnational
mafias active in the United States and allied with Mexico's powerful
drug cartels, which are expanding in Central America. Half the cocaine
headed for the United States is off-loaded at the coast of Honduras,
according to intelligence reports cited by U.S. officials.
For all those reasons, the southern border of Mexico is becoming a
priority for security officials in Washington as well as Mexico City.
"We must continue to work together to prevent illegal flows of drugs,
migrants, contraband, weapons and stolen goods across shared land
borders," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Central
American leaders at a conference in Panama in February. Her visit was
part of a push by the Obama administration to beef up security, train
border forces and improve regional cooperation.
The current immigration debate in Washington should be based on a
realization that both the United States and Mexico are dealing with a
new reality at their borders, officials and experts said.
"Changing demographics in Mexico make this situation a 'new normal' with
profound implications for our southwest border," said a senior U.S.
official who monitors Mexico and Central America and requested anonymity
because he is not authorized to speak publicly. "This means that any
demand for labor in the United States in the mid to long term would be
met by other than Mexicans, at the outset principally by Central
Americans. Proposals to reform our immigration laws should take that
Peña Nieto met with Napolitano and President Obama in Washington last
week. The Mexican president's advisers have announced plans to beef up
defenses at Mexico's southern boundary and create an entity whose
existence would reflect how much times have changed: a Mexican border