Mexico has its own version of Donald Trump’s border wall and it’s just as controversial

It’s getting harder to catch the train.
It’s getting harder to catch the train.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Luis Plata
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Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has called the border wall proposed by US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a threat to his country (link in Spanish). But his own plan to deal with immigrants illegally breaching Mexico’s southern border is based on the same basic principle: block them out.

Peña Nieto’s administration recently announced it is seizing a privately managed railroad system that’s a key part of a network of cargo lines that has funneled hundreds of thousands of Central Americans through Mexico and into the US. Dubbed “La Bestia,” or “the Beast” due to the brutality of the journey atop it, the train has served as a cheap mode of transport for poor northbound travelers with no other option than climbing on the roof of freight wagons and hoping not to fall—or worse, be thrown off by the armed gangs that control access to the train. It’s a white-knuckle journey that can last days or weeks of fending off thirst, overhead tree limbs, and robbers.

Under government control, La Bestia will be much harder to board. Mexico’s transportation department, which will take over the railroad concession, has suggested it will patrol the train lines with extra guards, cameras, motion detectors, geolocation devices, and even drones in a document (Spanish) published Aug. 23 in the country’s official journal.

“The current circumstances of insecurity… call for new security measures,” the document states.

Just like Trump’s wall, the security barrier along the tracks is unlikely to become a big deterrent for immigrants, experts say, because it fails to address the reasons they risk their lives by boarding the train to begin with. More surveillance will do nothing to solve the rampant violence and poverty in Central America, or quell people’s desire to reunite with family members who’ve already safely made it north.

“The best you can hope for is a minor decrease in overall traffic,” says Christopher Wilson, deputy director at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

That’s what the history of US border security shows, he adds. Over the past couple of decades, the US government has tried a variety of strategies to obstruct migrants. It’s bulked up the number of patrol officers and installed metal barriers along the border. More recently it has used high-tech military blimps with infrared cameras to detect border crossers hidden in the brush. While some of those methods have been successful at stopping people from crossing at the exact geographic location where they are deployed, they’ve pushed traffic to other less secured portions of the international line. Whack-a-mole, in other words.

That’s not to say that border protection is pointless, says Wilson, but it’s not enough. Tighter control over the border has helped reduce the number of Mexican immigrants crossing into the US illegally. But so did the recession that started in 2007, which dried up available work in the US—and better opportunities in Mexico have retained additional would-be migrants. The need for dollar-paying jobs has also diminished recently because younger Mexican families typically have fewer mouths to feed than those of previous generations. Mexico’s fertility rate has plummeted to a little more than two births per woman from above six in the early 1970s, according to the latest World Bank data.

Meanwhile, conditions in Central America have been getting worse, so more people from that region are fleeing to the US. In the past few years, immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have accounted for most of the “other than Mexican” category shown in the chart below.

The influx from Central America reached a high point in the summer of 2014, when tens of thousands of children, alone and with their families, showed up at the border and quickly overwhelmed US immigration authorities. Mexico’s response was the Frontera Sur (“southern border”) program. Its stated goal, per Peña Nieto (Spanish), is to “protect” immigrants entering Mexico and “order international crossings to increase development and security in the region.” Under it, the government said it would provide temporary permits for Central Americans to legally stay in Mexico and invest in dozens of projects on both sides of its southern border to boost the region’s economy.

But those investments haven’t materialized yet, according to an Aug. 5 analysis (pdf, pg. 3) by the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Meanwhile, Mexico started deporting record numbers of Central Americans. The effects quickly showed up in the US, where Border Patrol apprehensions (which can be used as a proxy for calculating total illegal crossing attempts) dropped.

Now those trends are reverting as immigrants and their smugglers adapt, according to experts.

For example, after the US and Mexico focused on thwarting immigrants entering through the Rio Grande Valley, in southern Texas—the endpoint of the easiest way to get from Central America to the border—those trying to get into the US are now taking different routes. The chart below shows the shift in apprehensions of children traveling on their own in some border sectors.

Similarly, since the Mexican government stepped up patrols along La Bestia’s path as part of Frontera Sur, migrants started jumping on and off instead of riding it all the way, or avoided it altogether.

That doesn’t mean they are now safer, though. The alternate paths, including packed within semi-trailers (Spanish,) can be just as dangerous as the “train of death,” as it is also known, immigrant advocates say. They can be longer, more difficult, and farther away from help (pdf,) according to a November report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights non-profit. Along the train lines, civil society groups, including religious organizations, have set a chain of shelters (Spanish) that offer food, clothes, medical attention and guidance for the rest of the trip. That’s not as easily available elsewhere.

Blocking access to La Bestia “makes [the immigrants] more invisible to the public eye,” says Maureen Meyer, a WOLA immigration expert.

Now, the Mexican government will focus in on the train. The drones, motion sensors, and other extra security measures would no doubt cut the number of stowaways further, but like previous steps to secure the train lines, they wouldn’t improve immigrants’ situation, says Ursula Roldán, director of the research institute for global and territorial dynamics at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala. “It’s all a risk for migrants,” she says.