Migration as a Justification for Militarization and New Strategies of Territorial Control

National Guard during Migrant Caravan, June 2022. Photo©Voces Mesoamericanas

Armed Forces, the Mexican Government’s option for “security”

In recent decades we have witnessed how governments have increased the power of the country’s military bodies. This is mainly due to the option for “securitization”, particularly of borders, by the armed forces due to the implementation of migration policies that have emerged from various agreements signed between Mexico and the United States, which have resulted in an unprecedented militarization that points to what some analysts describe as the transfer of the southern border of the United States to the southern border of Mexico.

The most recent precedent occurred during the government of Vicente Fox, when the so-called “Operation Sentinel” was implemented, which responded to the request of the United States government, headed at that time by George Bush, to protect its borders after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. During its execution, more than 18,000 members of the Armed Forces and another 12,000 of the Federal Preventive Police were deployed on the northern and southern borders of Mexico, as well as in airports, oil wells, ports and communities with a significant American presence. This operation also meant a strategy of migratory control and the beginning of the militarization of migratory policy that has been developed and intensified in recent years.

Operation Sentinel was followed by the Southern Plan, which had as its objective the containment of migrants coming mainly from Central America and through which thousands of members of the National Institute of Migration (INM), the Federal Police and the Army were deployed to constitute two security belts in the Mexican southeast, namely in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast. Interestingly, it is the area where it is planned to implement the Interoceanic Corridor megaproject.

Later, during the government of Felipe Calderon and his war against organized crime, migration was considered a matter of national security, which meant that it would be treated in a similar way to drug trafficking and similar crimes. Derived from this was the “Merida Initiative” which involved a cooperation agreement between Mexico and the United States. In it, the United States government promised to “provide assistance to Mexico to break the power and impunity of criminal organizations, reinforce the border and air and maritime controls, improve the capacity of the justice systems in the region, and reduce gang activity and decrease local drug demand.” This assistance translated into an investment of some 1.5 billion dollars for the purchase of equipment, including planes and helicopters in support of the Mexican security forces.

In 2014, then President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the “Comprehensive Program for the Southern Border”, through which Mexico once again aligned itself with the interests of the United States immigration policy promoted by Barack Obama, which continued in the logic containment of migratory flows to the north. For the operation of this program, the Coordination for the Comprehensive Attention of Migration on the Southern Border was created and the first shielding of the border with Guatemala was given with the arrival of 5,000 members of the National Gendarmerie, highly specialized in security tactics and intelligence officers trained by the Secretary of the Navy, under the motto “Security for development and development for security.”

With Donald Trump in the presidency of the United States (2017), the xenophobic and racist speeches reached their peak and with them the pressures on Mexico to intensify the control of its borders also increased.

However, with the arrival of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to the presidency, it was expected that, despite the pressure, the way to address the migration issue would be different and point towards an approach of respect and guarantee of human rights. In fact, at the beginning of his mandate, within the appointments of officials, he appointed Tonatiuh Guillen as commissioner of the National Institute of Migration (INM), which meant a great advance as it was the first time that someone who was an academic expert in migration issues and not linked to public security held that position. Similar cases were those of Andres Ramirez, who remained as head of the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR) and Alejandro Encinas for the Undersecretary of Human Rights, Population and Migration of the Ministry of the Interior.

Nevertheless, in October 2018 the phenomenon of the “Migrant Caravans” emerged, through which contingents of thousands of people left Central America for the United States. Mexico’s reaction, although it was not open-door and at some points along the way used the security forces to prevent the advance, did establish an extraordinary position, being in the eye of the international press and due to the request that the Organization of the United Nations (UN) made to the countries involved to guarantee the human rights of migrants, opted to provide humanitarian assistance and facilitate the journey in some sections, as well as to deliver humanitarian and temporary work visas. Trump’s reaction to the situation was to threaten to cut off economic aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala if they did not prevent their citizens from entering the United States illegally, and impose an ultimatum on Mexico: within 45 days it had to modify its immigration policies or else there would be an imposition of tariffs on Mexican products entering the United States, which would mean a major trade war and endangered the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Due to this, in June 2019, after tough negotiations, Marcelo Ebrard announced the signing of the United States-Mexico Joint Declaration and the Supplementary Agreement with the United States of America. In this it was mentioned: “Mexico will significantly increase its effort to apply Mexican law in order to reduce irregular migration, including the deployment of the National Guard throughout the national territory, giving priority to the southern border.”

So in order to comply with the Plan for Migration and Development of the North and South Borders, members of the Armed Forces have been deployed throughout the territory, who as of January 2022 totaled 28,397, of which 13,663 correspond to the Army, 906 to the Navy and 13,828 to the National Guard.

In addition, the powers of the National Guard were regulated, granting it the authorization to carry out, in coordination with immigration agents, the inspection of documents and the referral of migrants. These activities have sometimes also been supported by elements of the Army and the Navy.

Within this context, as the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic Rule of Law (FJEDD) points out in its report “Under the Boot. Militarization of Migration Policy in Mexico”“military participation has increased the number of arbitrary detentions, violations of the right to request and receive asylum or recognition of refugee status, racial discrimination, violence against women, excessive use of force and omissions that have led to the loss of lives, most of which have gone unpunished.”

Lopez Obrador’s unusual relationship with the Armed Forces, to whom so far in his mandate he has handed over the management of seaports, the construction of civil airports and railways, the application of the national vaccination plan, and the control of the massive arrival of migrants to Mexican territory, as well as the assignment of key positions in the INM to former soldiers, are proof of how the Government of Mexico continues to opt for control through the Armed Forces, which it provides more and more with greater capabilities and power.

Chiapas, the effects of militarization in a border state

Despite the huge deployment of armed forces on the southern border for migratory control, the flows continue, and have even tended to increase. Whether by traditional routes or seeking new paths and ways, people continue to travel north in search of a better life. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 400,000 people transit through Mexico annually.

It is noteworthy that despite the large number of INM, GN and Army checkpoints located throughout the state, in recent months there have been several tragedies involving vehicles, mainly trailers, loaded with migrants. This, according to organizations that defend the rights of migrants, is one of the many effects of militarization, because “on many occasions, it is the public servants themselves who commit crimes and human rights violations (generally extortion, arbitrary arrests and authority abuse); or, they are linked to organized crime that dominates the region, especially agents of the National Migration Institute, municipal and state police, and federal forces (special police, Army, Navy, and National Guard), which increases the possibility of commission of crimes such as human trafficking or forced disappearance.” In the case of women, numerous abuses by agents of the security forces, both of a sexual nature and abuse of force, have also been documented.

In that sense, from 2014 to 2021, the IOM documented that 3,059 people have died in transit across the border between Mexico and the US, and 659 on migratory routes through Mexico. In addition, according to data from the SEGOB’s Immigration Policy, Registry and Identity Unit, from 2016 to 2020, 3,732 migrants reported having been victims of crimes in their transit through Mexico, predominantly robbery, extortion, smuggling of migrants and crimes against freedom such as kidnapping and illegal retention. This doesn’t include the disappearances that often go unreported. They point out that 44% of these crimes were committed in Chiapas.

Similarly, the number of arrests since December 1st, 2018, when the Lopez Obrador government began, until February 2022, amounts to approximately 846,477, breaking the record of previous governments. Of these arrests, the largest number has been recorded in Chiapas.

The number of arrests and crimes committed against migrants in Chiapas territory is not surprising, as it has been one of the states with the greatest deployment of security force members in order to seal the border. In addition to this, the strong presence of organized crime groups is becoming increasingly evident, which increases the vulnerability of people on the move.

Although the practices that have been implemented to contain migration harm migrants from other countries, it is true that they also put at risk and violate the rights of Mexicans by invading privacy and hindering free transit. An example of this can be clearly seen on the highways that cross the state, which are full of checkpoints that often randomly stop and check vehicles, which has caused travel times to increase by more than two hours. In addition, during these reviews, interrogations and requests for documents are carried out, motivated mainly by the physical appearance of the people.

A more violent expression of the human rights violations of nationals that has been observed have been the cases in which Mexicans who are migrating, mainly to the northern states to work in fields or as a result of forced displacement, have been deported together with groups of Central American migrants, evidence of bad processes in arrests and deportations by the corresponding authorities.

In addition, the establishment of military bases and barracks in indigenous territories has brought with it territorial dispossession and, as the inhabitants of these communities point out, they have been able to feel the negative effects of the military presence in their territory, such as prostitution, drug use, increased alcoholism and the community division that has been accentuated over time.

It should be noted that the dispossession of land has also caused the criminalization of defenders of the territory who oppose it, an example of this is the case of community defenders Cesar Hernandez and Jose Luis Gutierrez, Tseltal indigenous people prosecuted for the crime of mutiny since 2020 after demonstrating against the construction of a National Guard barracks in their territory. This harassment and criminalization have been a constant towards those who have historically been defenders of their land and territory against militarization and megaprojects.

Where do we go from here?

Based on the way in which the Mexican State has approached the management of the territory in recent years, in which, from the year 2000 to date, the Mexican military expanded its functions to other areas of government supposedly designed to have a civilian leadership, not military. Taking into account Lopez Obrador’s affinity with the military, it seems easy to see that this trend towards militarization will continue and could even become more pronounced.

As an example we have the National Guard (GN), which since its creation has grown by 102.50%, going from 56,191 troops in 2019 to 113,833 today; and the recently launched initiative to place the National Guard under the control of the Ministry of Defense.

As pointed out in the “Under the Boot” report, “these modifications to the profile of the Armed Forces confirm the recent historical trend in the country: none of the political forces that have alternated power in Mexico since the year 2000 is willing to affect, reduce, or suppress the privileges of the Armed Forces that maintain them as autonomous institutions, far removed in practice from the processes of transparency and accountability.” “All the evidence points to the support of military autonomy and persistent, organic and growing militarization”, it stresses.

This process of militarization of public security has been described by different international and national human rights protection bodies as an inadequate and insufficient strategy for the protection of human rights; with the consequence of increasing human rights violations, and against the paradigm of human or citizen security.

Due to this, several recommendations have been made from different organizations to the Government of Mexico and actions have been taken to urge that migration and security be addressed from another perspective, mainly from a perspective of guaranteeing the rights of all.

In this regard, several organizations such as the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, the Human Rights Observation and Monitoring Group in the Mexican Southeast and the Citizen Security and Migration Affairs Program of the Iberian-American University in Mexico City, presented an amicus curiae before the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) for the action of unconstitutionality 62/2019 regarding the Secondary Laws of the GN. They highlighted that the amicus specifically addresses the migration control and verification powers granted to this militarized security body “due to the risks and consequences of their involvement in migration tasks for the human rights of migrants and subjects of international protection.”

The amicus presents documented information on abuses and violations of the human rights of migrants committed by the National Guard, such as aggression, abuse of force, encapsulation and dispersion of migrants in transit, use of firearms that caused the extrajudicial execution of a migrant and cases of torture in immigration stations. “This information will allow the SCJN, at the time of resolving the action of unconstitutionality, to have inputs on the risks of granting powers in matters of control and migratory review to a security body with military characteristics and composition”, they added.

The organizations recalled that the unconstitutionality action 62/2019 was promoted since July 2019 by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), pointing out that various provisions of the aforementioned Law are contrary to human rights; however, after three years, the SCJN still hasn’t resolved it.

On another note, on June 10th, the presidents of Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, the United States, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Mexico signed the Los Angeles Declaration. Through this Declaration, the countries of the Americas recognize the urgent need to work collaboratively to protect the dignity, life and human rights of all migrants regardless of their migratory status, the IOM mentions in a statement.

Through the declaration, the signatory countries commit to “strengthen national, regional and hemispheric efforts to create the conditions for safe, orderly, humane and regular migration, and to consolidate the frameworks for protection and international cooperation.”

They also emphasize: “we are determined to protect the safety and dignity of all migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons, regardless of their immigration status, and to respect their human rights and fundamental freedoms. We intend to maintain direct cooperation to facilitate safe, orderly, humane and regular migration and, where appropriate, promote safe and dignified returns, in accordance with the laws of the countries, the principle of non-refoulement and our respective obligations under international law.”

This Declaration seems pertinent in the context, however, despite the will and commitments expressed in it, it will be necessary to hope that the implementation will not be done again, opting to “guarantee security through the armed forces” because, as Michael Chamberlin mentions, “there is no example in the world in which an army has been able to guarantee citizen security and peace.”

Original article at https://www.sipaz.org/focus-migration-as-a-justification-for-militarization-and-new-strategies-of-territorial-control/?lang=en
Photo: Voces Mesoamericanas

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