Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
CIUDAD JUÃREZ – On a sweltering afternoon, soldiers with Mexico’s National Guard huddled together near a spindly Palo Verde tree trying to find a little shade as they kept a watchful eye on the border.
“We’re here to stop them,” said one of the soldiers, referring to the migrants trying to reach the U.S. side of the border.
He and other heavily armed soldiers in uniforms with body armor were among 15,000 troops that Mexico’s president deployed to the U.S. border in the past couple of weeks. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sent another 6,500 troops to the country’s border with Guatemala at the beginning of the month.
The high-profile effort is designed to show his administration is trying to curb the steady flow of migrants headed for the United States. Most are Central American families or children on their own seeking asylum.
Ciudad Juárez, a sprawling city that borders both New Mexico and Texas, is among the busiest crossing points for migrant families and unaccompanied minors trying to reach the U.S.
The heavy military presence is having an immediate impact on the migration flow, according to both border residents and officials.
“It has dropped off a lot,” said Maria Dolores Cruz, a Juárez resident. She lives in a neighborhood bordering the area just across from New Mexico. “There used to be mobs of people, 800 at once crossing through here, but now with the National Guard we no longer see that,” Cruz said as she watched her children take a dip in the Rio Grande to escape the triple-digit heat. She and other residents enjoying the river Tuesday afternoon welcomed the additional security.
U.S. authorities also credit Mexico’s National Guard for playing a role in reducing the number of migrants taken into custody by Border Patrol.
“We are now anticipating a significant reduction in border crossing numbers in June, up to 25% when compared with the record level in May,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said on Friday during a news conference in Washington, D.C.
In May, the Border Patrol took a total of 84,542 families and 11,507 unaccompanied minors into custody, according to figures from Customs and Border Protection. That included 28,832 migrant families and 3,255 unaccompanied minors in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico.
“We look forward to increasing deployments of Mexico’s National Guard over the coming weeks and enhanced results from their continued efforts to stem the flow,” McAleenan said.
Mexico’s president agreed to send the newly created National Guard to secure both of the country’s borders after President Donald Trump threatened to slap tariffs on every product from Mexico exported to the U.S.
The ramp-up was so quick, there were not enough members of the new National Guard force ready to deploy. Most of the troops on the border are active duty soldiers who wear black arm bands with white GN letters, the initials for Guardia Nacional, National Guard in Spanish.
President López Obrador initially created the country’s first National Guard to help fight organized crime in Mexico.
The use of the military for immigration enforcement has raised concerns among human rights organizations.
“The National Guard should not have that role,” said the Rev. Javier Calvillo, director of Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter run by the Catholic Diocese in Ciudad Juárez. “You can see the human rights violations.”
He pointed to media reports in Mexico and photos and video posted on social media that show soldiers chasing down mothers carrying young children trying to reach the U.S. side of the border and dragging them back into Mexico.
“Trump got his wall, but it’s a human wall created by the National Guard both on the northern and southern border,” Calvillo said.
The troops the Journal encountered guarding the border said they were from Chihuahua, Zacatecas and Chiapas. They also had different strategies.
One group of soldiers said they detain migrants trying to cross the border into the U.S. and call Mexican immigration authorities to come take the people into custody.
Another group said it does not chase down migrant parents and kids, but instead ushers them away from a border area that is a popular crossing point for groups trying to reach U.S. soil to turn themselves in to Border Patrol and ask for asylum.
Some of those migrants now are trying to sneak past the National Guard to reach U.S. soil. Many then seek out the U.S. Border Patrol.
The Journal observed a group of 15 people, including parents with young children, who had crossed farther east and out of sight of the troops in Ciudad Juárez. They walked along the concrete embankment on the U.S. side near the border fence until they reached a large locked gate.
They waited under a blazing sun in a sliver of shade for U.S. Border Patrol agents to come pick them up.
“They should not be stopped,” said Angel Martinez, a teenager from Ciudad Juárez who watched the weary migrants on the U.S. side. “They want to go to the U.S. for a reason. We should just let them pass.”