27 November 2017

In a recent report from the Strauss Center’s Mexico Security Initiative (MSI), authors Stephanie Leutert, Director of the Mexico Security Initiative, and Caitlyn Yates, MSI Graduate Research Assistant, examines migrants’ growing reliance on “invisible forms of transportation.”

Migrant Smuggling Along Mexico’s Highway System” is a detailed analysis of how smugglers are moving away from the popular image of Mexico’s “infamous train network ‘La Bestia’” in favor of new, less conspicuous transit methods such as buses, trailers, and private vehicles. Specifically the paper discusses migratory patterns in the years surrounding the implementation of Mexico’s 2014 migration policy, Plan Frontera Sur.

Plan Frontera Sur was a five-pronged initiative to improve security and regulate migration by tightening security in Southern Mexico, increasing the number of security checkpoints along Mexico’s highways, and sweeping enforcement operations for transit migration. It has not, however, addressed the causes of migration. Leutert and Yates note today’s migrants are leaving “in search of economic betterment, family reunification, and safety from Central America’s gangs and widespread violence against women.” 

As a result of Plan Frontera Sur, apprehension rates are rising and risks are changing, but migration enforcement continues to be “a cat and mouse game.” In the wake of Plan Frontera Sur, the percent of migrants reporting that they took trains on the journey North fell from 18 to 12 percent. While simultaneously, there was an increase in the number of irregular migrants reporting that they used vehicles at one point in their journey. For example, for private vehicles, this percentage rose from 16 percent pre-Plan Frontera Sur to 26 percent in 2016.

As migration methods shift, policy makers will continue to face evolving enforcement dilemmas. Currently the Mexican government's preferred method of curbing migration via vehicles is to increase the number of checkpoints along highways, but Leutert and Yates identify three immediate consequences to ramping up roadside security:

  • Increased corruption at highway checkpoints as smugglers bribe officials to pass through.
  • Increased use of lesser-known, more dangerous roads to avoid checkpoints.
  • Higher death toll as a result of migrant’s attempting to circumvent checkpoints on foot.

Yet given its geographic position between Central America and the United States, Mexico’s government has few policy levers to significantly change the numbers of Central Americans transiting through its territory. The country has several policy options at its disposal, including greater enforcement or attempts to regularize this illicit smuggling market. However, without coordination with the United States and Central America, Mexico’s migration landscape will continue to be ever shifting, with varied and constant risks.