(Top left: some of the places mentioned in this post. Top right: pricey new cars in Comalapa’s main square. Bottom: shopping mall in Comitán.)
Notes from the airport in Villahermosa
It’s March now, and my 12 days in Mexico, mainly the Mexico-Guatemala border zone, end today. By April, WOLA will publish a big report about what we saw and learned. This will include some of the photos, videos, and observations I’ve made here over the past week and a half—but presented in a more orderly, rigorous fashion than I have done here. In the meantime, though, here are some more random impressions.
We spent Thursday and Friday in the south-central and southeastern parts of Chiapas. Here, Mexico’s southernmost state borders the Guatemalan departments of Huehuetenango, Quiché, Alta Verapaz, and Petén. These were some of the zones hardest hit by that country’s 1960-1996 civil war.
This is an area of rugged mountains, with lowland jungles that are being converted, as quickly as possible, into cattle pastures and oil palm plantations. There are numerous indigenous communities where, as in the Guatemalan highlands, residents wear traditional dress, speak Mayan dialects, and practice subsistence agriculture. In the south-central zone, where the border is a straight east-west line, there are several communities founded since the 1990s, on what had been large ranches until the Zapatista rebellion forced their owners to abandon them. The Mexican government’s response to the rebellion included a lot of road construction, and it is relatively easy to get around.
We saw evidence of wealth whose origin was unclear, in areas where large amounts of U.S.-bound drugs are believed to be crossing the border. Though there is little out-of-state tourism and scant evidence of mechanized agriculture in the surrounding countryside, the border-zone town of Comitán has gleaming shopping malls, car dealerships, boutiques, gourmet restaurants, and a pristinely restored town square devoid of panhandlers and sidewalk vendors—far from what comes to mind when one imagines “Chiapas,” Mexico’s poorest state. In the hardscrabble border town of Comalapa, we saw several late-model SUVs and trucks, many without license plates, being driven by young men.
If these signs of economic health are legitimate, then they are welcome. But experience in Colombia and elsewhere makes our antennae go up when there is no evidence of a booming industry, natural resource, or agricultural product in the surrounding area. When striking up conversations with waiters, cab drivers, and fellow bus riders, we heard no good answer when we asked about the region’s pockets of prosperity. This looks like narco money.
Immigration and security facilities exist at all border crossings, but these can be avoided with ease. Instead, authorities devote more effort to scrutinizing road traffic several miles to the north, at checkpoints and at customs facilities. There are to be three of these latter facilities, located at important crossroads or bottlenecks, through which all traffic must pass and (at least in the case of our bus) have their bags taken out and inspected. The customs complex in Huixtla, along the Pacific coastal highway, has been built, and appeared to have Army and police detachments co-located on site. While running my bags through the x-ray machine, I asked a c ustoms official, “Is all this from Mérida?” (The “Mérida Initiative” is the name given to the framework through which about US$2 billion in U.S. aid has flowed since 2008.) He smiled and answered enthusiastically in the affirmative. Similar facilities are under construction in Palenque, in northeastern Chiapas, and in La Trinitaria, in south-central Chiapas.
Between the border and these checkpoints, there are few official controls. Citizens can easily come and go, whether to work or to buy and sell. Many Central American “migrants” in this zone—including those who show up in official government statistics of migrant detentions—in fact have no intention of coming to the United States. They seek to remain in Mexico’s border area, buying, selling, or seeking work. (Mexican citizens rarely deign to do seasonal work harvesting mangos and other crops, local migration experts told us in Tapachula.)
We saw a wide variety of checkpoints and revisions, but in almost no case did we see security agencies working together—with the exception of one roadblock jointly manned by the Federal Police and the National Migration Institute. Instead, there would be personnel from just one: here and along the Pacific coastal highway, we separately encountered Army, Navy, Migration Institute, Federal Police, Ministerial Federal Police, Attorney-General’s Office, Customs, State Police, and State Attorney-General’s Office. In the remote southeastern zone, all checkpoints are military. Distrust between agencies is a likely reason for the separation and dispersion between so many security bodies with overlapping responsibilities.
The checkpoints are far from foolproof. Most passenger vehicles are waved through or asked perfunctory questions. Several activists, experts, and citizens coincided in speculatinng that authorities seem more intent on detecting Central American migrants than criminal activity. Reports of corruption were rife. At none of the border checkpoints was there evidence of canine units, on which U.S. authorities rely to find large quantities of drugs.
In general, as we traveled the roads that closely follow the border, things appeared calm. Unlike Mexico’s northern border, levels of violence aren’t high here. But this doesn’t mean that everything happening here is legal. And especially in border towns that see few North Americans, some strangers asked us a few too many prying questions about the reasons for our visit.
I started writing this in the Villahermosa airport but am actually in the Mexico City airport now. This concludes my posting from the road. I’m going to northwestern Colombia during the second half of March, and look forward to doing it again then.