Mexico’s National Guard, a ‘Work in Progress,’ Deployed to Curb Migration
MEXICO CITY — Thousands of Mexican National Guard members and other security forces are being deployed to the nation’s southern border with Guatemala this weekend, as the Mexican government seeks to make good on a deal struck with President Trump to reduce illegal migration.
The mobilization, which government officials say is a cornerstone of the deal with Washington that staved off potentially crushing tariffs, is expected to be complete by Tuesday. But the operation has been halting at best.
The new force had not been scheduled to begin formal operations around the country until the end of this month. “A lot of effort has been made to accelerate the pace,” Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, acknowledged on Friday.
And critics are worried that rushing the new Guard force into service, and into a job that was never meant to be its focus, could come at a great cost — for migrants and for Mexico.
Redirecting the security forces away from other pressing policing efforts, including the battle against drug trafficking organizations, analysts say, could hurt the effort to combat crime and reverse soaring levels of violence. In addition, migrants’ advocates questioned whether the new recruits had received sufficient training to forestall human rights violations.
“Everybody should calm down and think about the short term, medium term and long term,” said Claudia Masferrer, a migration expert at the Colegio de Mexico, a university in Mexico City. “The Mexican government needs to say, ‘Wait, we need to figure out our things.’”
But the clock is ticking.
The agreement with the Trump administration, announced June 7, gave the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador 45 days to prove it could reduce the number of migrants crossing from Mexico into the United States.
The deal included Mexico’s promise to send as many as 6,000 National Guard personnel to the border with Guatemala, and another provision to expand a system under which migrants seeking asylum in the United States must remain in Mexico pending the outcome of their petitions.
Mexican officials declared the agreement a victory for Mexico — mainly because it forestalled the tariffs and gave them time to prove that their proposed measures could help reduce illegal migration flows. Their national security plans, they argued, had already envisioned the use of the Guard along the southern border, though not this soon.
And officials from both countries said the deal consisted largely of actions that Mexico had promised to take in prior discussions with the United States.
But critics in Mexico have accused the government of effectively sacrificing its sovereignty by seeming to kowtow to a foreign government, especially by agreeing to speed up the deployment of a national security force that may be unprepared for its new responsibilities.
The force was never supposed to be mobilized this quickly. The first National Guard recruits had been scheduled to graduate only later this month, officials said, and Mr. López Obrador told reporters last month that “formal, national operations” would officially begin on June 30.
It still remained unclear on Friday if newly activated Guard members had received any training in border protection or migration enforcement.
“The National Guard — let me put it gently — is a work in progress,” said Alejandro Hope, a leading security analyst in Mexico City.
Mexican officials have refused to say how many Guard members have already been mobilized and to where as part of the migration-control push in southern Mexico. And residents and reporters in Tapachula, a main city near the southern border, say they have seen no National Guard personnel in the area yet.
But Mr. Ebrard, in a news conference on Friday, said the deployment would involve not just the National Guard but also army and marine forces.
Questions submitted this week to the López Obrador administration seeking clarity about the evolution, size, training, deployment and new mandate of the National Guard went unanswered.
The Guard was the product of wrenching debates in Mexico’s Congress and civil society.
During his election campaign last year, Mr. López Obrador was critical of his two predecessors’ use of the military to fight drug traffickers and other violent criminal groups.
But shortly before he took office in December, Mr. López Obrador reversed himself and floated the idea of a military-led National Guard as part of a new strategy to combat violence, which was at record levels.
Mexico’s legislature eventually approved the creation of a Guard made up of members of the Federal Police and the policing units of the army and navy. But under pressure from human rights groups and others concerned about the use of the military in a policing role, lawmakers put the force under the authority of the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection.
Critics are now questioning the diversion of this force to support migration enforcement.
The National Guard was created “to deal with organized crime and security, not to interdict migrants, which are not a security threat for Mexico,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group.
The nation’s security forces “need all the manpower they can get” to address the spiraling violence and widespread insecurity, he said.
And advocates for migrants and human rights say it is inappropriate to deploy a paramilitary security force whose training is uncertain to confront migrants fleeing poverty and violence.
Salva Lacruz, a coordinator at the Fray Matías Human Rights Center in Tapachula, said many migrants are fleeing life-threatening conditions and are seeking protection in Mexico. With the deployment of the National Guard, Mr. Lacruz said, these asylum-seekers will now be greeted by “an impassable wall of military personnel.”
“This is personnel that’s not at all accustomed to treating people with a human-rights approach,” he continued. “It’s going to be barbaric.”
Luis Raúl González Pérez, president of the National Human Rights Commission, an autonomous government agency, said this week that he was concerned the National Guard forces might lack human rights training. Many of the migrants they will encounter will be families with children.
“There is no knowledge about human rights and restraint of force in these types of events,” Mr. González told the Mexican news media.
Mr. Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, said this week that officials were developing a “protocol of action” for the National Guard’s deployment. He expressed particular concern for children migrating alone into Mexican territory.
“It’s something that worries us a lot, that really big flow of unaccompanied minors,” he said. “It’s something critical.” The López Obrador administration plans to meet next week to discuss that particular issue with various United Nations agencies and the International Organization for Migration, Mr. Ebrard said.
Expecting a sharp increase in detentions, Mexican officials are also planning to expand the government’s system of detention centers in southern Mexico.
In recent months, the Mexican authorities, under sustained pressure from the Trump administration, have drastically increased the detention and deportation of undocumented migrants. As a result, the region’s detention centers are full.
Nevertheless, the number of migrants apprehended at the southwest border of the United States has continued to climb.
Some migration experts say the National Guard deployment could be effective in impeding some illegal cross-border migration and could regulate the traffic of migrants along Mexico’s main highways.
But that pressure could also drive migrants to take more remote, perilous routes — including trying to travel by sea — and ultimately benefit the most powerful organized-crime groups, which would be best equipped to manage and profit from the new migratory routes, analysts say.
“Everyone is talking about who won and who lost” in the bilateral negotiations last week, Mr. Hope said. “I’m not sure. But it’s pretty clear to me that migrants lost. Traveling through Mexico is a very dangerous proposition. Now it’s going to become more dangerous.”