Confusion over Mexico's National Guard deployment to south border

Days after deployment announced, no signs of forces at Mexico-Guatemala border; officials refuse to discuss deployment.

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    Migrants wait before dawn outside the offices of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, where hundreds a day are lining up to seek a legal document permitting them to stay in the country, in Tapachula, Mexico [Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]
    Migrants wait before dawn outside the offices of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance, where hundreds a day are lining up to seek a legal document permitting them to stay in the country, in Tapachula, Mexico [Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]
    Update 13/06/2019: Since the publication of this article, a Mexican official has told Al Jazeera that there's new information that was not previously available regarding the National Guard's deployment. The article has been updated to reflect the new information.

    Tapachula, MexicoThe Mexican government said the deployment of its National Guard members to the southern border region began this week, but there have been no visible signs of its presence on the ground. Government officials have also made contradictory claims about the status of the force in southern Mexico.

    The announced deployment has created confusion in Tapachula near the Mexico-Guatemala border, where migrants and asylum seekers say increased militarisation will not stop migration.

    Earlier this month, the government announced plans to send 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern states to stem the migration of Central Americans and others heading north overland. The news came amid immigration deal negotiations with the United States following threats by US President Donald Trump of escalating tariffs on Mexican goods.

    Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard has made several public statements announcing deployment of the National Guard this week, with support from the Army and Marines. Deployment began on Wednesday and would be quickly increasing every day, Ebrard said during a press conference on Wednesday, without elaborating on the specifics.

    An official from the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs told Al Jazeera on Thursday that the National Guard had not yet been deployed to southern Mexico. It would be part of an escalating rolling deployment that started with members of other security forces and decisions on which forces would be deployed and when, would depend on strategy and other factors, the official said.

    Forces on the ground include the federal police, marines, immigration, and local police forces.

    Shortly after this article was initially published, the same official contacted Al Jazeera to say that there was new information. The official told Al Jazeera that there was a confirmed significant National Guard presence in southern Mexico already, but declined to provide any specifics on numbers or locations, citing security issues.

    According to a Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection official earlier in the day, however, no deployment had occurred.

    "There is not yet any National Guard deployment," said the official, who requested not to be named for security reasons. The official added that the deployment would not begin until June 30, when the first round of National Guard recruits graduate.

    Some members of the first group of the National Guard have already been deployed to Minatitlan and Coatzacoalcos in the Veracruz department, the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection official said. No National Guard members have been deployed to any other state, the official added. 

    Shortly after this article was initially published, a top communications official from the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection contacted Al Jazeera to say the source was not authorised to speak to the press, and that both the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection and the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs now confirmed National Guard deployment in the south.

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    The creation of the National Guard, which was championed by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was approved by Congress in February. The force's official launch has long been set for June 30.

    More than half of National Guard recruits were drawn from military forces, but the controversial new force falls under the purview of the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection.

    'Will not stop migration'

    The announced deployment generated some confusion and uncertainty in Tapachula, a mid-sized city 40km north of the busy Tecun Uman border crossing with Guatemala. But Honduran asylum seeker Nerlin Perdomo is sure of one thing: the National Guard deployment will not stop the exodus.

    "It will not stop migration," Perdomo told Al Jazeera. "We do not leave because we want to but because we have to." 

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    Perdomo, 32, has been a coffee farmer his whole life. After his parents died, he inherited their two hectares of land in a mountainous rural area in the Santa Barbara department in western Honduras. But lately, life as a coffee farmer in the region has become untenable.

    "In these past few years, we have had no money left from it," said Perdomo.

    First, it was an outbreak of coffee rust, a fungus-caused disease that spreads quickly, devastating coffee plantations. He and other local farmers tried planting two other coffee varieties but the rust hit those too, said Perdomo. Then the price of coffee plummeted.

    No longer able to keep food on the table for his family, Perdomo left Honduras last month with his 10-year-old son. They have come across many others from the same region of Santa Barbara in Tapachula, he said.

    Tapachula [Sandra Cuff/Al Jazeera]
    Asylum seekers gather nightly outside the Mexican Refugee Assistance Commission office in Tapachula for a number to wait in line to present an asylum claim [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

    The Mexican government has increased the number of checkpoints from the border to Tapachula and further north over the past several days, following the US-Mexican immigration deal announced on Friday amid the ensuing international attention.

    But there has been a lower-intensity crackdown in the area by immigration, police and military forces for months, and the true uptick was roughly two weeks ago, according to many migrants and asylum seekers in Tapachula, including Daisy Lorena Alvarado.

    Alvarado has been in southern Mexico for several months. She left home in Puerto Cortes, a port city in northwestern Honduras with her 13-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, fleeing violence and unemployment.

    "We are hoping for a better life," she told Al Jazeera. "There is always hope."

    Alvarado is waiting for a resolution in her case from the Mexican Refugee Assistance Commission, COMAR. She found work for a while in Ciudad Hidalgo, down by the border, and has kept track of the shifting operations by security forces in recent months. 

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    Over the past two weeks or so, immigration agents and police officers often surround or sweep the park at night and take people into custody pending deportation, a group of Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants who requested anonymity told Al Jazeera in the plaza.

    "They do not care if you have papers," said one Honduran, referring to an immigrant document showing proof of initial application for a humanitarian visa. "They rip them up."

    Tapachula [Sandra Cuff/Al Jazeera]
    Migrants and asylum seekers often congregate in Tapachula's central plaza during the day [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera] 

    A spokesperson for the National Immigration Institute was not available for comment at the time of publication.

    Along with other migrants and asylum seekers, the Central American group still often congregates in the plaza during the day, but generally clear out by the evening, migrants said.

    Immigration authorities, police and military operations already make them feel unsafe and do not expect much to change if the National Guard shows up.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News