By MARIA VERZA and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN, Associated Press
CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (AP) — Mexico’s government on Monday highlighted the weekend “rescue” of nearly 800 migrants packed into semi-trailers, calling the operation a message that authorities are getting serious about combatting human smuggling.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said more than 150 of the 785 migrants found inside the double trailers of four semis Saturday in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz were children. On Saturday, Mexico’s immigration authority initially put the number at 791. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.
“We can’t allow human trafficking,” Ebrard said, contending that for many years it was tolerated by Mexican officials. “We might be experiencing one of the greatest human trafficking (situations) in the world.”
His comments came as Mexico continued to roll out the deployment of some 6,000 national guardsmen to the southern border.
Mexico is racing to lower the number of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S. border. The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to reduce the flow in order to avoid crippling tariffs on Mexican imports threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Military police, who will be among the initial agents of the newly created National Guard, began appearing along the Suchiate river in Ciudad Hidalgo across the border from Guatemala over the weekend.
By Monday it appeared they were already having some impact.
Tomas Leyva, a 65-year-old construction worker turned pastor from El Salvador, was preparing to board a raft back to Guatemala.
He had re-entered Mexico by raft Sunday just days after being deported. When he tried to apply for asylum in Mexico they said he was ineligible because he had entered illegally. On Monday, Leyva planned to return to Guatemala and then cross to Mexico via the bridge and immigration controls.
“Now the situation is more serious, more strict, because the soldiers who were there yesterday weren’t there before,” said Leyva, who fled San Salvador after a gang threatened his life. “What they’re doing is having an effect because they’re detaining a lot of people, but it’s not going to stop. There [in El Salvador] they say better killed by the gringos than by the gangsters.”
Ebrard, the foreign affairs secretary, said Saturday’s human smuggling incident in Veracruz was a rescue because the migrants could have suffocated inside the trailers.
Each of the migrants was paying $3,500 to be smuggled to the United States and some paid $5,000 to be entitled to a second attempt if caught, Ebrard said.
He estimated the entire value of the truck caravan’s human cargo at more than $3.5 million (69 million pesos) and said the smugglers were going to pay roughly $500,000 to $800,000 in “commissions” to ensure the migrants’ free passage.
Bribes are traditionally paid along the route to authorities, but also to organized crime groups that control territory, especially at Mexico’s northern border with the US and charge smugglers for each migrant they cross.
While caravans of thousands of Central American migrants walking up highways in southern Mexico drew the fury of U.S. President Donald Trump last year, the bulk of the region’s migration has always existed in the shadows. And those who live at Mexico’s southern border believe sending national guardsmen there to make it more difficult for migrants to cross will only be a boon to the human smugglers.
On Sunday, a guardsman working a highway checkpoint near the town of Comitán in southern Mexico said his orders under the new operation were to try to identify human smugglers, in addition to the usual mission of looking for drugs and weapons. The military presence there did not appear to be much greater than in previous weeks, but the soldiers were now wearing armbands indicating they were part of the National Guard.
“We can turn the smugglers over to authorities if, for example, we stop a vehicle and the driver is carrying people without papers,” said the soldier, who declined to give his name, because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Ebrard also said the government has a message for the owners of trucks caught carrying migrants: They will no longer escape criminal charges by arguing they didn’t know their trucks were being used to smuggle.
On Monday, López Obrador said he would meet with his El Salvador counterpart, Nayib Bukele, in the southern Mexico city of Tapachula on Thursday to discuss cooperation.
Ebrard said Mexico was meeting weekly with governments from Central America’s Northern Triangle —Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador— to exchange information about smuggling rings. But he said he also expected cooperation from the U.S. government.
“The United States has to assume its responsibility in this, too,” he said. “The key part is who do they pay there [in the U.S.]? And the question is these trailers get to the border and what happens?”
Associated Press writer María Verza reported this story in Ciudad Hidalgo and AP writer Christopher Sherman reported from Mexico City.