Mexico-Guatemala: The Other Border


The immigration experience of Central Americans offers cautions about current approaches to immigration reform, just as a U.S. debate on immigration fails to produce meaningful changes in immigration policies.


The immigration experience of Central Americans offers cautions about current approaches to immigration reform, just as a U.S. debate on immigration fails to produce meaningful changes in immigration policies.

When the topic of immigration comes up in the U.S., the debate usually centers on the Mexico-U.S. border and the Mexican immigrants that make up a large portion of those who cross the border running along the states of California, Arizona, and Texas. Far fewer think about the significant number of immigrants who must cross multiple borders before they arrive in the U.S.

Pushed by the hope of finding new economic opportunities, thousands of Central Americans and others cross the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It is the natural gateway for the rest of Latin Americans. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, 2 million documented and undocumented cross Mexico’s southern border a year.[1] The majority of these undocumented immigrants are Guatemaltecos, followed by Hondurans, Salvadorians, and a fewer number of Nicaraguans. They are either in route to the U.S or seeking temporary work in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas.

Over the last years, difficult economic circumstances, lack of opportunities, along with natural disasters have increased undocumented migration. Since 2001, the number of undocumented Central Americans coming into Mexico has more than doubled.[2] This number is a low estimate considering it is hard to accurately document the actual number of undocumented immigrants who cross the border.

Central American immigration to Mexico, however, is no new phenomenon. During the civil wars of the 1980s, Mexico saw an increase of immigration from Central America as refugees fled genocide in their home countries. Natural disasters such as hurricanes Mitch and Stan have also put more pressure on already poor communities to migrate north. In the last two decades, however, a growing factor in Central American migration to Mexico has been the adoption of free-trade policies in the region.

Free-trade a Factor in Immigration

Free-trade policies, while trumpeted as the solution to Latin America’s underdevelopment and economic problems, have led to a loss of jobs, a decline in salaries, worsening working conditions and increased cost of living, all of which have exacerbated existing inequalities. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the free trade agreement signed between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, has been the most glaring example of the disastrous effects of these policies. Since its inception in 1994, Mexico’s small farmers have been forced into poverty as they lost land due to land privatization or went out of business due to their inability to compete with U.S. agricultural imports, especially corn. In turn, the general Mexican population has suffered a hard blow in the resulting rise in corn tortilla prices, one of Mexico’s principle food staples. Mexicans have also experienced increased unemployment, and a decline in quality and access to public services as a result of privatization. Another effect of reduced quality of life: immigration from Mexico to the U.S. increased by more than 61% in the first 8 years of the policy’s implementation.[3]

Central America is experiencing trends in the same directions with the initiation of its own free-trade agreement with the U.S., known as CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement). CAFTA took affect last year after Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic signed agreements with the U.S. Much like its predecessor, CAFTA threatens to displace a large number of agricultural workers, forcing many into larger cities to search for other employment. This is worrisome, as the agricultural industry provides an important source of revenue, and Central American countries do not seem to have a viable economic replacement for a loss of jobs in this sector. Some of the negative affects of CAFTA can already be seen in the first year of its inception. In El Salvador, the first to implement CAFTA, exports to the U.S. have already dropped by more than half from $187 million to $88 million.[4] In Guatemala there has been an inundation of North American chicken in the domestic market, that has increased its price, despite promises that the free-trade agreement would reduce food costs.[5] In Honduras, while exports to the U.S. have increased by 1%, U.S. exports to Honduras have risen by 13%.[6]

According to some analysts, CAFTA’s promise of foreign investments is also an empty one. Umberto Mazzei, Director of the Institute of International Economic Relations in Geneva stated in a recent article that “The purchase of national companies by foreigners in particular – represents a transfer of property and not a new investment,” pointing to the fact that much of the profits end up leaving the country rather than being used to invest further in the nation.[7]

The loss of jobs in the agricultural industries, along with increases in the cost of living with fewer employment opportunities are speculated to produce economic and social hardships that will result in migration both within and outside Central American nations. Most of this migration will be directed towards Mexico and the U.S.


Guatemalans Crossing into Mexico (Photo Credit: NY Times)

Women will be affected disproportionately as immigration patterns have changed over the years. According to the United Nations 2006 Migration and Development Report, women migrants represent one half of all migrants and are a larger group than men in developed countries. These women are being pulled by a demand to fill jobs in the domestic and service sector. Central American women have not escaped this trend, migrating north to work as housekeepers, nannies, hotel workers, caretakers of the elderly, as well as, a growing number of young Central American women entering the sex industry. Female immigrants also face the added risks of rape, physical abuse, and exploitation in their attempts to migrate across borders.

Business Boom in Traffic of Undocumented

Pushed by market forces to migrate north, immigrants are also becoming an increasingly profitable commodity themselves. Mexican immigration authorities have recognized that the traffic of undocumented immigrants is, after narcotrafficking, the second most profitable illicit business in the country and generates $10 billion dollars annually. The cost of a coyote, the name given to border smugglers, can easily reach thousands of dollars, an enormous price for those who are already trying to escape conditions of poverty.

Furthermore, paying a coyote does not secure an immigrant’s safe arrival on the other side of the border. Recently the New York Times reported a case in which a truck with 81 immigrants was abandoned in Monterrey, Mexico, leaving those inside trapped and sweltering. The Mexico-Guatemala border is no exception to these dangers, as undocumented immigrants from Central America face an increasingly militarized Mexican border.[8]

Mexico Looks to U.S. Militarization as Example

According to the conclusions of the 2001 International Colloquium on Security of Mexico’s Borders, “In Mexico, there is a tendency to push the U.S. border further south in terms of security and migration.”[9] That is, Mexico has adopted similar border policies to the U.S., which has meant an increased emphasis on combating narcotrafficking, terrorism, and securing borders.

Current president Felipe Calderón has focused much of his first year in office on cracking down on drug trafficking and organized crime. This has translated into an effort to militarize many parts of Mexico, and in particular the border it shares with Guatemala. Like the U.S., adjustments in Mexican immigration policies continue to stress military might over policy reforms as solutions to illegal immigration.

During a national forum on Mexico’s immigration policies in May 2005, Erubiel Tirado, the Coordinator for the Iberoamericana University’s National Security Program, referenced the relationship between Mexico’s immigration policies with those of the U.S., stating, “Our immigration policy in the region is expressed in a punitive form rather than one based on economic and social rationality…in which the anti-terrorist paranoia of the United States tightens its punitive controls at the federal and state levels of our country.”[10]

Militarization’s Threat to Human Rights

The boost in military units, bases, and patrols has had negative effects on Mexico’s civil population and on undocumented immigrants trying to enter Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. In light of the new focus on fighting the drug trade, organized crime, and terrorism, undocumented immigrants face the increased danger of being tagged as narcotraffickers, gang members, or terrorists. Indigenous peoples of the region stand to face the brunt of this military profiling as one of Mexico’s and Central America’s most marginalized and discriminated populations.

The numerous deaths of innocent Mexican citizens at the hands of military soldiers this year alone has led the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) to call for the military to be “taken off the streets and [to] focus on their exclusive constitutional function of defending national security, not the persecution of delinquency.”[11]

These human rights violations by the Mexican military, along with the broken promises of economic growth in Mexico and Central America, is a telling story and one that can shed light on the U.S. stalemate on immigration. The future effects of CAFTA and increased militarization will prove unfortunate evidence of how strategies have failed to reduce undocumented immigration and secure the U.S.’s national borders.

Perhaps then policy makers and politicians will realize that investing in socially and economically just policies in the U.S. and in Latin America will be more successful at creating border security than military might and unbalanced trade agreements.

Vanessa Burgos is an independent journalist and human rights worker who has spent the last year covering human rights and immigration issues in Latin America.


[1] Statistics from the Mexico’s Nacional Institute of Migration.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Statistic as reported by Global Exchange.
[4] Amounts taken from a report from the Stop CAFTA Coalition, “Monitoring Report: DR-CAFTA in One Year”, September 12, 2006.
[5] Umberto Mazzei, “Guatemala: Two Months of CAFTA”, November 2, 2006. Posted on
[6] Percentages taken from a report from the Stop CAFTA Coalition, “Monitoring Report: DR-CAFTA in One Year”, September 12, 2006.
[7] Umberto Mazzei, “Guatemala and Costa Rica: In and Out of CAFTA”, July 18, 2007. Posted on
[8] Betancourt, Antonio. "Mexico: 81 Migrants Found Trapped In Truck." New York Times (July 13, 2007).
[9]Conclusion of the forum “Seguridad y Migración Coloquio Internacional sobre la Seguridad en las Fronteras de Mexico”, posted on the website of Mexico’s Nacional Institute of Migration,
[10]  Statement by the Coordinator for the Iberoamericana University’s National Security Program, Eurubiel Tirado in “Frontera Sur y Seguridad Nacional: El Olvido Intermitente”, part of the forum “Hacia una Politica  Migratoria Integral en la Frontera Sur de Mexico”, Primero Foro (May 2005).
[11]  National Comission on Human Rights (CNDH) taken from a report put out by Servicio Internacional Para la Paz,