Officials announced last week that the number of people arrested crossing the Mexico border into the United States has fallen to the lowest level in seventeen years.
According to US Customs and Border Protection, in March there were fewer than 17,000 arrests of undocumented migrants, the least since 2000.
Speaking to Congress, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly stated that the decline was “no accident” as he credited President Donald Trump. Mr Kelly, who is a retired Marine general, testified about the figures to the Senat Homeland Security Committee. He told the panel, “we’ve seen an absolutely amazing drop in the number of migrants coming out of Central America that are taking that terribly dangerous route from Central America to the United States.” He went on to say that “March marks the fifth straight month of decline and is estimated to be approximately 71% lower than the December 2016 total – 58,478,” noting however that “…while this recent decline in illegal migration is good news, we must ensure that the security of our southern border remains a priority to protect the nation from terrorists and other criminals.” Senator John McCain asked if Mr Kelly’s agency was receiving help from Mexican officials, with Mr Kelly stating that the US was receiving “a huge amount of co-operation from the Mexicans,” citing “very, very good relationships with the Mexicans, both on their southern border where they stopped 160,000 illegal immigrants from Central America last year.”
According to data released by US Customs and Border Protection, in February 23,589 immigrants were apprehended at the border.
Also last week, the US government began accepting bids from contractors to build a prototype for a border wall. President Trump has pledged to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the 3,200 km (2,000 mile) border with Mexico. Last week at th hearing, Mr Kelly told the Senate committee that “it is unlikely that we will build a physical wall from sea to shining sea,” adding that sensors, drones and other technology will fill in gaps where the wall will not be present and that “physical barriers do work if they’re put in the right places.”
US President Donald Trump has stated that he will soon begin “renegotiating” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts.
According to the newly sworn-in president, meetings have been scheduled with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. The White House website states that if Canada and Mexico refuse to accept a renegotiation of the agreement that provides a “fair deal” for American workers, then the US will move to withdraw from it.
Speaking at a ceremony to swear in senior White House staff, President Trump also stated that he would tak with Mexican President Pena Nieto about immigration and and border security in a meeting that the White House says will take place on 31 January. No date has been given for a meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Trudeau.
Meanwhile on 21 January, President Pena Nieto’s office disclosed that the Mexican leader had called Mr Trump to congratulate him. In a statement, the Mexican president “reiterated the strategic priority of bilateral ties…and expressed his interest in maintaining an open dialogue.” President Trump meanwhile has stated that “Mexico has been terrific. The president has been really very amazing.” In regards to the NAFTA renegotiations, President Trump stated, “I think we are going to have a very good result for Mexico, for the United States, for everybody.”
President Pena Nieto has faced criticism in Mexico for lacking a clear plan of action to deal with President Trump’s threats, which include building a massive border wall at Mexico’s expense and imposing a tax on Mexican imports. Protests were held on 20 January outside a Ford showroom in Mexico City after the car company cancelled a US $1.6 billion plant that it had planned on building in Mexico.
What is the NAFTA Agreement?
The North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect between the US, Canada and Mexico in 1994, when Bill Clinton was president. The agreement effectively created one of the world’s largest free trade zones by reducing or eliminating tariffs on most products. The pact was meant to benefit small businesses by lowering costs and reducing bureaucracy in a bid to facilitate buying and selling abroad. However whether it has ultimately helped or harmed Americans has been hotly debated. In 2015, the Congressional Research Service, which provides independent analysis, stated that “in reality, NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters,” adding that “the net overall effect of NAFTA on the US economy appears to have been relatively modest, primarily because trade with Canada and Mexico accounts for a small percentage of US GDP.”
The US presidential elections are already swinging the pendulum for Latin America in significant ways. The fear that the US will now revert to protectionism lead to a major sell off across different asset classes. The Mexican Peso tumbled to 20-years lows and has hardly recovered as of yet, pulling down the entire region. After an initial quick fall the Dollar bounced hard and is currently trading at multi-month highs. This has exacerbated the devaluation of Latin American currencies, which are traded against the Dollar.
Apart from the financial fallout, geopolitical consequences of Trump’s future policies have appeared as well. Now that Trump has confirmed he will not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership, potential members like Chili, Peru, Mexico and Colombia will likely beef up their bilateral economic relations in order to compensate for TPP. Peru already stated to foresee bilateral negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. Argentina, very open to free trade, will receive $4.1 billion in investments from Canada. This is about half the amount expected from US companies through 2019. A more protectionist approach by Trump could bring that amount down and leave the door open for Canadian companies to fill the gap. Withdrawal from NAFTA could exacerbate this and will constitute extra incentive for Latin American countries to strengthen bilateral relations with other geopolitical powers. Peru, which has strong historic ties with China, already trades more with China than with the US, a development that could potentially spill over to increased security and military cooperation. President Kuczynski’s pull to China is very clear: “We hope to tap into new markets in China, especially for agriculture. We are also interested in cooperation on science and technology. Furthermore, cultural exchanges and cooperation in archaeology and climate change are also very important for us.” It remains the question whether the US will look on from the sidelines if Russia and China increase their influence in Latin America.
Interregional relations are likely to strengthen as well, given Trump’s veiled threats to Central American countries on the topic of immigration. Whether the US will build a wall or will significantly increase deportations of immigrants, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have said to form a bloc with Mexico to deal with the US under Trump leadership. However, with regards to Mexico, it is likely that organized-crime competition will increase, as a result of traffic restrictions and stricter border controls. In this scenario, conflict over control over the remaining open crossings would lead to increased violence. Violence in border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana is already on the rise. The second security consequence for Mexico stems from the influx of deportees, who would have few employment opportunities in Mexico. They could provide a ready pool of labour for criminal organizations. Central American cooperation is said to increase collaboration on jobs, investments and migration.
It remains to be seen as to which direction the pendulum will eventually swing, however, for the moment significant financial, economic and security consequences are already visible in Latin America.
Just before midnight on February 10th riots broke out between two groups of inmates at Topo Chico prison, on the outskirts of Mexico’s industrial powerhouse Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo León. The violent clashes left 49 dead, and 12 injured. On February 11th family members of inmates protested outside the prison, denouncing the lack of official communication on the welfare of those inside the prison, and the authorities’ slow and uncoordinated response to the deadliest prison riots in recent years.
The clashes were reportedly started by inmates identified as rival factions of Los Zetas. Los Zetas has been engaged in a bloody turf war with the Gulf Cartel since 2010, as well as internecine conflicts within its own factions since the capture of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales (Z-40) in July 2013. The group, that was born out of ex-special forces who deserted the Mexican army and joined the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s, has contributed significantly to high levels of violent crime across the North-East of Mexico since 2010, when it split from the Gulf Cartel.
While the Governor of Nuevo Leon – Jaime Rodriguez “El Bronco” the maverick independent candidate who won the governorship in June 2015 – was quick to confirm that no inmates had escaped during the clashes, he is now facing challenging questions on the state’s failing prison and the authorities’ inability to maintain control against violent groups operating within state facilities.
A report by the National Human Rights Commission in 2014 found Topo Chico to be severely overcrowded, housing more than 4,600 inmates in an area with a maximum capacity of 3,635. Over-crowding and a severe lack of trained prison guards have seen conditions deteriorate in prisons across Nuevo León in recent years, with inmates imposing their own self-rule through violence. Such conditions have facilitated the rise of organised crime groups to continue their turf wars inside state prisons, with the authorities woefully ill-equipped to maintain control.
Mexico’s troubled penitentiary systems have come under the global spotlight in the last year following the sensational escape of the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, “El Chapo”, from a high-security prison by way of a complex set of underground tunnels in July 2015. These latest riots are another embarrassment to the government as the world media focuses on Mexico ahead of Pope Francis’ five-day visit to the country (Feb 12-17). The Pope has raised uncomfortable issues for many authorities in Mexico as he plans to address the need to fight against systemic violence and corruption that plagues large swathes of the country.
The Pope’s visit includes stops in some of the areas that have been most affected by organised crime related violence, including the once embattled border city of Ciudad Juárez. Authorities in Chihuahua state are hoping to outline the marked improvements in the city’s security environment since its damning label of “world’s most dangerous city” in 2010. The Pope will visit the Cesero 3 prison in Juárez – once a hotbed of inter-cartel violence – and now a supposed “symbol” of a reformed and improved prison. However, the deadly riots at Topo Chico in the neighbouring state, are likely to put a dampener on attempts to showcase improvements in the state prison services amid the ongoing fight against organised crime groups.
The drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been recaptured 6 months after his escape from a Mexican maximum security prison. On January 8, Mexican marines and federal police forces detained El Chapo during a raid in the city of Los Mochis, in the north-western state of Sinaloa. 6 gang members were arrested and another 5 were killed in the raid. A Mexican police spokesman said the US Drug Enforcement Administration and US Marshals helped in El Chapo’s arrest. El Chapo’s right-hand man was also captured in the raid. The Navy also reported that Orso Ivan Gastelum Cyz, a suspected gang leader, managed to escape. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said Guzman’s arrest was a “victory for the rule of law”.
According to Mexican authorities, an interview that actor Sean Penn conducted with Joaquin Guzman last year helped the government to catch El Chapo. Mexican marines and police officials became aware of the meetings between Sean Penn and Joaquin Guzman in October 2015 and monitored Penn’s movement, helping lead them to the area where Guzman was hiding. Guzman managed to escape, but the operation in the northern state of Durango was a major breakthrough in the hunt.
On July 11, Guzman escaped from Altiplano maximum-security prison through a tunnel. According to the national security commissioner, his escape route was more than 1.5 kilometres long and had ventilation and stairs. More than 12 prison guards and federal police officials were arrested on charges of helping Guzman escape.
Guzman’s July escape was his second; in 2001, El Chapo escaped from another prison in Jalisco state by hiding in a laundry basket after bribing prison officials. He had been serving a sentence of more than 20 years after being arrested in Guatemala in 1993.
Concerned that Joaquin Guzman could escape for a third time, Mexican authorities have increased the security measures at his prison. The floor of his cell has been reinforced and a guard has been placed on his door 24/7. The new adopted measures also include reducing the number of inmates, increasing the number of cameras and moving Guzman randomly to different cells of the prison.
On January 10 2016, the Mexican government formally started the extradition process to the United States of Joaquin Guzman. According to the Mexican attorney general’s office, Interpol served 2 extradition warrants in an attempt to have Guzman face US justice. El Chapo faces charges ranging from money laundering to drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder. He faces criminal proceedings in 7 US courts.