CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (AP) — Mexico's efforts to slow Central American migration across its territory showed some bite Monday as some people turned around to head south in the face of increased enforcement, while government officials said they would target human smuggling rings.
A government official also announced Monday that the 6,000 National Guard members who officials had repeatedly said would be sent to the southern border will actually be distributed across the northern border and other areas as well.
On the Suchiate river that forms part of Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, usually bustling cross-water commerce appeared to slow at this border town a day after just a half dozen marines showed up on the Mexican shore.
Tomas Leyva, a 65-year-old construction worker turned pastor from El Salvador, was preparing to board a raft back to Guatemala. Saying he fled his home under threat from a gang, he planned to return later to Mexico vis the border bridge and apply for asylum at an official immigration control station .
"Now the situation is more serious, more strict, because the soldiers who were there yesterday weren't there before," Leyva said. "What they're doing is having an effect because they're detaining a lot of people, but it's not going to stop. There (in El Salvador) they say better killed by the gringos than by the gangsters."
Wilmer Guerra, 28, was returning to Guatemala with his 4-year-old son, saying they had been stopped at a checkpoint in Tijuana on Mexico's northern border with the U.S.
Before, people said that "with children we'd be able to pass easily, (but) things got hot in the past week," Guerra said. He said he would try again when the situation calmed down.
Mexico's government on Monday also highlighted the weekend "rescue" of nearly 800 migrants packed into semi-trailers, calling the operation a message that authorities are getting serious about combatting human smuggling.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said more than 150 of the 785 migrants found inside the double trailers of four semis Saturday in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz were children.
"We can't allow human trafficking," Ebrard said, contending that for many years it was tolerated by Mexican officials. "We might be experiencing one of the greatest human trafficking (situations) in the world."
His comments came as Mexico continued to roll out the deployment on the southern border of members of the new National Guard militarized police force.
Until Monday, Mexican officials had spoken of a deployment of 6,000 to the southern border, but deputy foreign affairs secretary Maximiliano Reyes said during a news conference in Tapachula that some of those would go to the northern border and about 2,400 would be deployed to southeast Mexico. Of those, 426 arrived in Tapachula Saturday, he said.
The National Guard will work with immigration agents to disrupt migrant smugglers and protect migrants. Reyes declined to provide additional details of the deployment so as to not alert smugglers.
Mexico is pushing to lower the number of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S. border. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's administration promised to reduce the flow in order to head off tariffs on Mexican imports threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Ebrard said Saturday's human smuggling incident in Veracruz was a rescue because the migrants could have suffocated inside the trailers.
He said each of the migrants was paying $3,500 to be smuggled to the United States and some paid $5,000 to be entitled to a second attempt if caught, Ebrard said.
He estimated the entire value of the truck caravan's human cargo at more than $3.5 million (69 million pesos) and said the smugglers were going to pay roughly $500,000 to $800,000 in "commissions" to ensure the migrants' free passage.
Bribes are traditionally paid along the route to authorities, but also to organized crime groups that control territory, especially at Mexico's northern border with the U.S. and charge smugglers for each migrant they cross.
While caravans of thousands of Central American migrants walking up highways in southern Mexico drew the fury of Trump last year, the bulk of the region's migration has always existed in the shadows. And those who live at Mexico's southern border believe bringing in national guardsmen will only be a boon to human smugglers.
On Sunday, a guardsman working a highway checkpoint near the town of Comitan in southern Mexico said his orders under the new operation are to try to identify human smugglers, in addition to the usual mission of looking for drugs and weapons. The military presence there did not appear to be much greater than in previous weeks, but the soldiers were now wearing armbands indicating they were part of the National Guard.
"We can turn the smugglers over to authorities if, for example, we stop a vehicle and the driver is carrying people without papers," said the soldier, who declined to give his name, because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Along the Suchiate, merchants and politicians expressed concern that the immigration crackdown could hurt the cross-border commerce that communities on both sides depend on.
Shop owner Carlos Aguilar said Sunday's appearance of the marines was enough to make everyone nervous about the future.
"They just said that they weren't going to allow the crossing of merchandise, that they were going to close the crossing and everything would have to pass through customs," Aguilar said as he unloaded cases of beer that would float across the river on a raft.
Ciudad Hidalgo Mayor Sonia Eloina Hernández said she isn't against the guardsmen coming, but wants them to allow people to carry on with their work.
She said neighbors had told her: "We're going to become migrants if they take away the line of work we have here."
Associated Press writer Maria Verza reported this story in Ciudad Hidalgo and AP writer Christopher Sherman reported from Mexico City.
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