Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.



New at WOLA: “Why Is Migration Declining at the U.S.-Mexico Border in Early 2024?”

Here’s an analysis we published yesterday about this year’s unusual springtime decline in the number of migrants making it to the U.S.-Mexico border. As migration levels drop to some of the lowest of the Biden administration, this piece notes that:

  • Texas’s “Operation Lone Star” doesn’t explain it.
  • The main factor appears to be Mexico’s government bottling people up, even as large numbers continue arriving in the country’s south.
  • “Shutting down” asylum, as President Biden is considering trying to do by executive order, could bring numbers down in the short term but—as we saw with Title 42—won’t have a lasting effect.
  • Crackdowns will always fail. The way to a solution runs through overhauling the creaky U.S. asylum system.

Read the whole thing here.

Thursday Evening Book Event

If you’re in Washington, join me on Thursday evening at a very good bookstore, for a discussion of a very good book. I’ll be moderating a discussion with Ieva Jusionyte, whose book Exit Wounds was just released today, at the original Politics and Prose store up on Connecticut Avenue.

Exit Wounds: How America’s Guns Fuel Violence Across the Border is a series of vignettes and character sketches about gun trafficking, organized crime, and migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Jusionyte makes the point that Mexico is not inherently a violent place, that the United States’ approach to firearms plays a role too.

I’ve given the book a very close read and am completely over-prepared. Looking forward to Thursday.

I liked this part:

I began following American guns south in order to understand what they were doing to Mexican society. From the stories migrants and refugees told me I already knew I would find communities scarred by gun violence and people who were living in fear, some of whom were choosing to leave their homes in search of safety and better lives. I knew that this journey would eventually take me back to the border, right to where I had started, that the plight of migrants and refugees running away from threats would only lead to further militarization and fortification of the barrier separating “us” from “them.” After all, the desire to prevent migrants from crossing is a strong political potion that reliably wins elections in the United States. And yet I was surprised by how few people recognize that it’s a circle. Even the language we use to talk about violence south of the border, using such terms as “narcos” and “cartels,” only reinforces the idea that Mexico is a dangerous country and we need to build a barrier lest those people coming from over there—not only Mexico, but also Honduras and Guatemala, Haiti and Venezuela, and many other places—would bring violence here.

Somehow, we fail to connect the dots: that the violence people are fleeing, the violence we are afraid they would spread in the United States is, in large part, of our own making—that the tools come from the factories in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Tennessee, some smuggled across the borders, others legally exported to foreign military and police forces with records of abuse. Even more: these guns come from the same regions where addiction to opioids has created demand for drugs that continue to enrich smugglers in Mexico; that the money Americans spend on fentanyl, heroin, or meth will be used to buy guns to arm those who supply this contraband. Nor do we realize that the US government’s pursuit of most prominent Mexican traffickers and their extraditions to face trials on this side of the border—the list that includes several leaders of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas—have deprived communities that have suffered their brutality most directly from recourse to justice, further fraying the social fabric of the Mexican society.

A Big Drop in Venezuelan Migration This Year—But Only in the United States

Mexico just posted its February migration numbers… there must be a huge number of people from Venezuela bottled up in Mexico right now.

2024 numbers from PanamaHonduras (change the dates in search)Mexico (click on “Personas en situación migratoria irregular” then Table 3.1.1) – U.S. (CBP / my search of CBP numbers for 2024)

Mexico Encountered a Record 97,969 Migrants in November

The Mexican government just released new data showing that it recorded 97,969 “events of people in irregular migratory situation” during November 2023. That’s 5 percent more than October, and sets a new record for the most migrant encounters that Mexico has ever recorded in a month:

Mexico’s Apprehensions of All Migrants,
January 2001-November 2023

Jan-01	14061
Feb-01	17965
Mar-01	20613
Apr-01	15770
May-01	17368
Jun-01	13947
Jul-01	13283
Aug-01	12731
Sep-01	9740
Oct-01	5423
Nov-01	4727
Dec-01	4902
Jan-02	8968
Feb-02	10722
Mar-02	11443
Apr-02	13930
May-02	15040
Jun-02	12784
Jul-02	13415
Aug-02	11996
Sep-02	11781
Oct-02	10607
Nov-02	9686
Dec-02	7689
Jan-03	11556
Feb-03	14945
Mar-03	16998
Apr-03	11558
May-03	20391
Jun-03	19253
Jul-03	18046
Aug-03	18027
Sep-03	16409
Oct-03	16480
Nov-03	14302
Dec-03	9649
Jan-04	15242
Feb-04	19095
Mar-04	21434
Apr-04	20526
May-04	20726
Jun-04	18204
Jul-04	19715
Aug-04	17936
Sep-04	17999
Oct-04	18240
Nov-04	16559
Dec-04	10019
Jan-05	17673
Feb-05	22118
Mar-05	24267
Apr-05	24509
May-05	20592
Jun-05	19922
Jul-05	19657
Aug-05	20376
Sep-05	20630
Oct-05	16208
Nov-05	20545
Dec-05	13772
Jan-06	21867
Feb-06	24547
Mar-06	24892
Apr-06	19234
May-06	16870
Jun-06	12926
Jul-06	11487
Aug-06	12183
Sep-06	12480
Oct-06	10601
Nov-06	10109
Dec-06	5509
Jan-07	11215
Feb-07	11910
Mar-07	12473
Apr-07	11796
May-07	12004
Jun-07	11095
Jul-07	10846
Aug-07	12520
Sep-07	9047
Oct-07	7292
Nov-07	6431
Dec-07	3826
Jan-08	8970
Feb-08	10787
Mar-08	9305
Apr-08	11031
May-08	9747
Jun-08	8394
Jul-08	7585
Aug-08	6705
Sep-08	6521
Oct-08	6894
Nov-08	5506
Dec-08	3278
Jan-09	5943
Feb-09	6246
Mar-09	6884
Apr-09	6742
May-09	5701
Jun-09	6872
Jul-09	5718
Aug-09	5789
Sep-09	6039
Oct-09	5450
Nov-09	4388
Dec-09	3261
Jan-10	4759
Feb-10	5796
Mar-10	7336
Apr-10	6695
May-10	7075
Jun-10	6378
Jul-10	6760
Aug-10	6755
Sep-10	5098
Oct-10	4714
Nov-10	5077
Dec-10	3659
Jan-11	4430
Feb-11	5087
Mar-11	6695
Apr-11	6471
May-11	7852
Jun-11	5717
Jul-11	5215
Aug-11	5299
Sep-11	5586
Oct-11	5453
Nov-11	5267
Dec-11	3511
Jan-12	6343
Feb-12	7442
Mar-12	9291
Apr-12	8732
May-12	8874
Jun-12	8082
Jul-12	6860
Aug-12	6496
Sep-12	8746
Oct-12	7879
Nov-12	6364
Dec-12	3397
Jan-13	6699
Feb-13	7407
Mar-13	8290
Apr-13	7951
May-13	7718
Jun-13	7370
Jul-13	7471
Aug-13	7443
Sep-13	6657
Oct-13	7549
Nov-13	7300
Dec-13	4443
Jan-14	6295
Feb-14	8317
Mar-14	10502
Apr-14	8621
May-14	10132
Jun-14	12515
Jul-14	11005
Aug-14	11618
Sep-14	11111
Oct-14	13700
Nov-14	13671
Dec-14	9662
Jan-15	18299
Feb-15	14885
Mar-15	16569
Apr-15	17085
May-15	19402
Jun-15	17152
Jul-15	17195
Aug-15	17088
Sep-15	15450
Oct-15	18232
Nov-15	14755
Dec-15	12029
Jan-16	11218
Feb-16	11420
Mar-16	14253
Apr-16	16700
May-16	16454
Jun-16	14850
Jul-16	13604
Aug-16	16502
Sep-16	19811
Oct-16	20494
Nov-16	17579
Dec-16	13331
Jan-17	10553
Feb-17	7275
Mar-17	5905
Apr-17	5243
May-17	7071
Jun-17	7471
Jul-17	7863
Aug-17	9171
Sep-17	7757
Oct-17	9678
Nov-17	9227
Dec-17	6632
Jan-18	9248
Feb-18	11549
Mar-18	11779
Apr-18	11486
May-18	10350
Jun-18	9577
Jul-18	8965
Aug-18	13560
Sep-18	13903
Oct-18	18895
Nov-18	12663
Dec-18	6637
Jan-19	8521
Feb-19	10194
Mar-19	13508
Apr-19	21197
May-19	23241
Jun-19	31396
Jul-19	19822
Aug-19	16066
Sep-19	13517
Oct-19	12256
Nov-19	9727
Dec-19	7305
Jan-20	14119
Feb-20	8377
Mar-20	8421
Apr-20	2628
May-20	2251
Jun-20	2304
Jul-20	4737
Aug-20	7445
Sep-20	8831
Oct-20	12253
Nov-20	9557
Dec-20	6337
Jan-21	9564
Feb-21	12893
Mar-21	18548
Apr-21	22968
May-21	20091
Jun-21	19249
Jul-21	25830
Aug-21	43031
Sep-21	46370
Oct-21	41580
Nov-21	29264
Dec-21	18291
Jan-22	23382
Feb-22	24304
Mar-22	30753
Apr-22	31206
May-22	33290
Jun-22	30423
Jul-22	33902
Aug-22	42719
Sep-22	43792
Oct-22	52201
Nov-22	49485
Dec-22	48982
Jan-23	37360
Feb-23	38041
Mar-23	44628
Apr-23	24993
May-23	40024
Jun-23	58265
Jul-23	73515
Aug-23	82350
Sep-23	96542
Oct-23	93045
Nov-23	97969

Data table

Migrants came from 111 countries. Of nationalities with more than 1,000 migrant encounters, those that increased the most from October to November were Mauritania (119%), the Dominican Republic (92%), and Honduras (65%). Those that declined the most from October to November were Cuba (-52%), Senegal (-28%), and Guinea (-11%). Venezuela, the number-one nationality, declined 8 percent.

Mexico’s Migrant Apprehensions (Since 2022)

November 2023: Venezuela 27%, Honduras 15%, Haiti 10%, Guatemala 9%, Ecuador 8%, All Others <4%

Since January 2022: Venezuela 26%, Honduras 16%, Guatemala 13%, Ecuador 7%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5%, All Others <5%

Data table

Even as Mexico measured an increase in migration in November, two countries to the south, Panama and Honduras, reported double-digit percentage decreases.

Unusual: Even as Migration Drops Along the U.S.-Bound Route, It Jumps at the Border

According to leaked CBP data, U.S. authorities encountered 14,509 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border yesterday (December 18). That’s probably about 13,000 Border Patrol apprehensions between ports of entry (official border crossings) and about 1,500 people reporting to the ports of entry, nearly always with appointments made using the “CBP One” app.

That’s almost certainly the largest number of migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border in any day since at least 2000.

Aaron at the American Immigration Council says this increase, which seems to have begun in November, “is driven partly by rumors that the border will close soon and the CBP One app will be shut down.” That may explain it. A funding crisis at Mexico’s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) could also be a factor.

This is really unusual, though, because migration data further south along the U.S.-bound migration route would lead one to expect the numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border to be declining. Panama, Honduras, and Mexico have been reporting fewer people coming after record-breaking levels in late summer and early fall.

Here’s Panama: a 24 percent decline in migration through the Darién Gap from October to November, and a 50 percent decline in migration from September to November. So, fewer people departing the South American continent.

Monthly Migration Through Panama’s Darién Gap

November 2023: Venezuela 61%, China 11%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 9%, Ecuador 8%, Colombia 5%, all others <1%

Since January 2020: Venezuela 53%, Haiti (plus Brazil and Chile) 21%, Ecuador 9%, all others <3%

Data table

Here’s Honduras: down 41 percent from October to November. So, fewer people coming from South America and through the increasingly used aerial entry point in Nicaragua.

Honduras’s “Irregular” Migrant Encounters (Since August 2022)

November 2023: Venezuela 44%, Cuba 20%, Haiti 9%, Ecuador 6%, Guinea 5%, China 4%, All Others <4%

Since August 2022: Venezuela 41%, Cuba 18%, Haiti 14%, Ecuador 10%, Colombia 2.2%, All Others <2% 

	Venezuela	Cuba	Haiti	Ecuador	Colombia	China	Guinea	Senegal	Mauritania	Other Countries
22-Aug	10769	6899	836	1583	314	42	19	118	18	2278
22-Sep	11325	5144	863	1685	379	45	23	135	14	2220
22-Oct	14027	5290	1856	5793	723	99	30	185	18	3037
22-Nov	3756	9219	2858	5130	400	186	34	158	38	3857
22-Dec	1923	7225	2518	6557	231	405	22	87	63	4034
23-Jan	1866	2079	5365	4562	296	415	72	202	31	4054
23-Feb	4462	629	4092	5010	449	688	97	159	71	4449
23-Mar	9112	776	2991	2493	624	719	90	191	88	4576
23-Apr	10883	1301	2392	1692	682	985	87	472	87	4350
23-May	11809	2397	1629	2147	654	801	277	831	427	4398
23-Jun	12698	3254	1305	2817	488	1045	118	390	1801	2870
23-Jul	25050	6721	1558	6116	954	980	389	1398	2036	3769
23-Aug	35669	11343	4051	5789	1330	654	1005	1629	1036	3020
23-Sep	42550	19288	14898	4830	2174	570	1762	1066	48	3453
23-Oct	34547	17513	35529	3581	2021	1006	2304	1235	75	4198
23-Nov	26440	11671	5438	3725	2003	2200	3143	685	87	4395

Data table

And here’s Mexico: down 4 percent from September to October (Mexico, like the United States, has not reported November yet).

Mexico’s Migrant Apprehensions (Since 2022)

October 2023: Venezuela 30%, Haiti 11%, Honduras 10%, Cuba 8%, Ecuador 7.5%, Guatemala 7.1%, All Others <4%

Since January 2022: Venezuela 26%, Honduras 16%, Guatemala 13%, Ecuador 7%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5.2%, All Others <5%

	Venezuela	Honduras	Guatemala	Ecuador	Cuba	Nicaragua	Colombia	El Salvador	Haiti	Other Countries
22-Jan	2733	5841	6304	246	2214	2234	503	1565	368	1374
22-Feb	1120	5929	5191	202	3384	1843	2986	1721	254	1674
22-Mar	1209	6390	6075	276	6333	2701	3375	2338	205	1851
22-Apr	1960	6457	6920	513	6103	2854	1746	2579	304	1770
22-May	1640	7544	7222	780	3191	3474	3031	3307	246	2855
22-Jun	3919	6507	7010	668	2481	1561	2840	1990	110	3337
22-Jul	6431	7461	6578	719	2550	2182	2169	2936	145	2731
22-Aug	16885	5741	4927	1185	2159	2327	2479	2544	174	4298
22-Sep	15381	5309	4932	1528	3244	4062	2704	2471	223	3938
22-Oct	21781	5475	4632	3266	3247	5711	2179	2144	308	3458
22-Nov	12298	5895	5380	4459	3318	7329	2225	2379	505	5697
22-Dec	11721	4379	4344	8314	3251	4547	2041	1271	1605	7509
23-Jan	5329	3911	4015	6081	2919	2200	964	1234	2319	8388
23-Feb	6721	5202	4249	7003	384	408	1435	1234	2971	8434
23-Mar	9119	6053	6025	3126	237	205	3170	1793	3769	11131
23-Apr	6725	3759	3303	1018	156	164	1369	1118	1658	5723
23-May	17258	5034	3259	2187	472	225	1258	834	1496	8001
23-Jun	18480	11162	6952	4559	1021	883	1313	1474	1573	10848
23-Jul	24236	15450	7484	6115	1837	1762	1756	1854	1951	11070
23-Aug	21936	20139	12673	7328	1320	1939	2450	2533	1258	10774
23-Sep	30560	12059	9146	8199	5022	2829	3905	2603	4079	18140
23-Oct	28275	8954	6600	6937	7202	1887	3055	2656	10646	16696

Data table

Why are the numbers up so much at the U.S. border when they’re down everywhere else along the route? The answer probably has to do with:

  • A jump in migration from citizens of Mexico and Central American, and/or
  • Crossings of Venezuelans and others who had arrived in Mexico more than 1-2 months ago, and perhaps are now giving up on waiting for CBP One.

Also, If recent Decembers are a guide, the U.S. border numbers could be on the verge of dropping. The first halves of December 2021 and December 2022 saw very heavy migration, capping off growth that accelerated all fall (as did the fall of 2023). Numbers dropped during the second halves of those Decembers, as the holidays approached.

Border Patrol Apprehensions by Country at the U.S.-Mexico Border

October 2023: Mexico 26%, Venezuela 16%, Guatemala 12%, Honduras 10%, Colombia 7%, Ecuador 6%, El Salvador 3%, All Others <3% 

Since October 2020: Mexico 33%, Guatemala 12.2%, Honduras 11.6%, Venezuela 8%, Cuba 6%, Nicaragua 5.2%, All Others <5%

Data table

17,000 Deportations of Non-Mexicans Into Mexico Since Title 42 Ended

In a conversation with reporters whose transcript has not yet been posted online, Blas Nuñez-Neto, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, dropped an important and rarely publicized statistic.

Since the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy ended in May, Mexico has accepted the U.S. deportation into its territory of 17,000 citizens of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. These are people denied access to asylum under the Biden administration’s “transit ban” rule.

17,000 over nearly 5 months is far fewer than the rate of Title 42 expulsions during the pandemic, when Mexico agreed to accept nearly a million land-border expulsions of citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Today, Mexico just accepts citizens of the latter four countries. But 17,000 is still a lot of people, some with protection needs denied because, under the “transit ban” rule, they crossed the border improperly.

The last time we saw this number reported was July 27, when Nuñez-Neto mentioned 4,000 deportations of those countries’ citizens into Mexico. So there have been another 13,000 in the succeeding 10 weeks, or nearly 200 deportations into Mexico each day.

Why isn’t this statistic shared more often, for instance in CBP’s monthly data updates? My guess is that Mexico doesn’t like to see it publicized, and the U.S. government respects those sensibilities. (DHS would probably be happy to share news about its deportations into Mexico, out of a belief that it might discourage some migrants.)

Asylum Requests in Mexico by Nationality

Using data released today from the Mexican government’s Refugee Aid Commission (COMAR), here is the breakdown of asylum requests before Mexico’s system during what is certain to be a record-breaking year. Asylum requests in Mexico are on track to exceed 150,000 in 2023.

Chart: Asylum Requests in Mexico by Nationality

2023: Haiti 33%, Honduras 27%, Cuba 11%, El Salvador 4.5%, Venezuela 4.2%, Guatemala 4.1%, All others <4%
Since 2013: Honduras 32%, Haiti 22%, Cuba 10%, El Salvador 8.95%, Venezuela 8.93%, All others <5%

	Honduras	Haiti	Cuba	El Salvador	Venezuela	Guatemala	Nicaragua	Brazil**	Chile**	Other Countries
2013	530	14	98	309	1	47	20			277
2014	1035	25	96	626	56	108	28			163
2015	1560	16	37	1476	57	102	28	2		145
2016	4129	47	43	3494	361	437	70	2		213
2017	4274	436	796	3708	4038	676	62	4	1	624
2018	13679	76	214	6193	6331	1347	1271			524
2019	30082	5530	8679	9039	7621	3772	2233	554		2841
2020	15364	5909	5712	4011	3241	3002	803	368	806	1698
2021	36079	50944	8249	5945	6125	4118	2894	3795	6891	4740
2022	31005	17074	18076	7782	14886	5259	8975	2569		12596
2023	31055	37736	12777	5033	4784	4646		3531	3183	10215

Data table

Last month, Mexico received 11,984 asylum requests, the second-lowest monthly total all year. 33 percent came from citizens of Haiti, plus another 6 percent from Brazil and Chile who are almost entirely the children born in those countries to Haitian migrants there. Honduras followed with 27 percent of September’s total, then Cuba (11 percent).

Mexico’s Asylum Applications Are on a Record-Breaking Pace

The director of the Mexican government’s Refugee Aid Commission (COMAR) just shared on ex-Twitter that 112,960 people sought asylum in Mexico’s protection system during the first 9 months of 2023.

The tweet reads, “At the end of September, COMAR had registered 112,960 applicants for refugee status in Mexico. This figure exceeds by 26.39% the historical mark for the same period established in 2021. With this trend, the number of applicants will exceed 150,000 by the end of the year.”

Here’s how Mexico’s asylum applications during the first nine months of 2023 compare with the first nine months of the previous five years. It’s not even close.

The Dangerous Wait for a CBP One Appointment in Tamaulipas, Mexico

An investigation by four veteran Reuters reporters finds a link between the Biden administration’s use of an app that makes asylum seekers wait for weeks in Mexico, and an increase in attacks on migrants, especially rapes of migrant women, in Mexico’s organized crime-dominated northern border state of Tamaulipas.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration in May moved to a new system that required migrants to secure an appointment—via an app known as CBP One—to present themselves at a legal border crossing to enter the United States.

Nine experts, including lawyers, medical professionals, and aid workers, told Reuters the new system has had unintended consequences in the two cities, contributing to a spike in violence.

The high risk of kidnapping and sexual assault in Reynosa and Matamoros is one of the factors pushing migrants to cross illegally, four advocates said. Crossings border-wide surged in September.

Tamaulipas border cities like Matamoros and Reynosa have been notoriously dangerous for years. They’re home to the decades-old Gulf Cartel, the Northeast Cartel (an heir of the Zetas), and other splinter groups that compete violently.

Map showing Tamaulipas' location along the eastern segment of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tamaulipas, from WikiMedia Commons

These regional cartels have less-solid control of their territory than do larger national cartels like Sinaloa. This makes them more prone to use violence against newcomers and outsiders—including U.S. citizens, four of whom were kidnapped, two killed, in March when they came to Matamoros for a cosmetic surgery procedure. These criminal groups also make somewhat less money from the drug trade than the larger cartels; such “poorer” criminal groups are more likely to fund themselves by preying on vulnerable people, including migrants.

The Mexican state, especially the hyper-corrupt local government in Tamaulipas, is no protection. Officials often collude with organized crime.

So in recent months, when an asylum seeker uses CBP One, they can travel from elsewhere in Mexico to the border and show up at a U.S. port of entry at their appointed time. They do not need to hire a smuggler. That’s great.

What’s less great is that, when the port of entry is in south Texas (Laredo, McAllen-Hidalgo, and Brownsville, which make up 42 percent of CBP One appointments border-wide—605 out of 1,450 daily spots), the asylum seeker must travel through Tamaulipas territory under organized crime control. In order to be sure not to miss their appointment, they may even stay in this territory, near the port of entry, for days or weeks.

When they do that, the cartels—whose eyes and ears in the region are thorough enough to rival Cold-War East Germany—often find them and demand money. Reuters explains:

[C]riminal groups are still demanding these migrants pay to enter their territory, the experts said.

“Rape is part of the torture process to get the money,” said Bertha Bermúdez Tapia, a sociologist at New Mexico State University researching the impacts of Biden’s policy on migrants in Tamaulipas.

Promo Video for Today’s WOLA Mexico Podcast

As I noted earlier today, I recorded a great podcast yesterday with the director of WOLA’s Mexico program, Stephanie Brewer. It’s about a report they published last week about the growing power of Mexico’s armed forces, and how hard it is to hold them accountable for human rights abuse even as they confront, and arrest, thousands of people per year while carrying out policing missions.

Here’s WOLA’s podcast landing page. And here’s the podcast, embedded:

WOLA Podcast on Mexico: “Demilitarization is not going to happen from one day to the next. But there needs to be that commitment”

I recorded a great podcast yesterday with the director of WOLA’s Mexico program, Stephanie Brewer. It’s about a report they published last week about the growing power of Mexico’s armed forces, and how hard it is to hold them accountable for human rights abuse even as they confront, and arrest, thousands of people per year while carrying out policing missions.

Here’s the language from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

A new report from WOLA dives deeply into the growing power and roles of Mexico’s military, and what that means for human rights, democracy, and U.S.-Mexico relations.

WOLA’s Mexico Program published Militarized Transformation: Human Rights and Democratic Controls in a Context of Increasing Militarization in Mexico on September 6. The report voices alarm about the Mexican armed forces’ growing list of civilian tasks, and civilians’ diminishing ability to hold military personnel accountable for human rights abuse and other illegal behavior.

In some new findings, Militarized Transformation reveals official data showing that the military isn’t even reporting its arrests of civilians to civilian security authorities and oversight bodies. The report updates and group together various indicators regarding the justice system and respect for fundamental rights by the security forces, with a focus on the armed forces and the National Guard, as well as the differentiated impacts and situations faced by women. And it makes a series of short-term and long-term recommendations for needed reforms.

This podcast episode features the report’s principal author, Stephanie Brewer, WOLA’s director for Mexico. Brewer discusses the report’s main findings, conclusions, and recommendations, along with a general view of Mexico’s democracy, civil-military relations, and U.S. policy.

“We recognize militarization is is the reality we’re currently working in,” Brewer concludes. “But while that’s going on, what possible reason could there be for the country to want the armed forces not to be operating under effective civilian control or not to be transparent about things like their use of force? Or not to be fully giving information to Congress? That would have to be something that that is in everybody’s interest in the short term.”

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Militarized Transformation is the latest of several WOLA reports examining the military’s growing power in Mexico and its human rights and democracy implications. Among them:

Mexico Now Deploys More Soldiers than Police for Public Security

“The Mexican government is giving more and more power to institutions known precisely for their lack of transparency, and it is doing so without adequate civilian controls, in a process that will be difficult to reverse,” warns a report published today by my colleagues in WOLA’s Mexico Program.

Ernesto López Portillo of the Universidad Iberoamericana Citizen Security Program, writing at Elefante Blanco, echoed those concerns:

The total operational deployment of military personnel for public security in 2023 exceeds the total number of state and municipal police. The news is unprecedented in contemporary Mexico.

…The total operational deployment of military personnel for public security already amounts to 261,644, while state and municipal police forces total 251,760.

Asylum requests in Mexico continue on a record-breaking pace

Data table

The Mexican government’s refugee agency, COMAR, just posted data through August about the number of migrants from other countries who have applied for asylum in Mexico. Eight months into the year, COMAR is nearly at 100,000 applications, on pace to reach, or be just below, 150,000 by the end of the year. Mexico appears certain to break 2021’s record of 129,768 asylum applications.

Most applicants are from Haiti, Honduras, and Cuba. As Gretchen Kuhner of Mexico’s non-governmental Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI) pointed out in last week’s WOLA Podcast, a lot of migrants stranded in Mexico are being channeled into the asylum system by a lack of other options for having a legal status in the country.

Military extrajudicial executions in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

Mexico’s investigative magazine Zeta calls the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, “the capital of extrajudicial executions.” It lists a series of severe recent misuse of force incidents there, most involving the armed forces:

  • May 18, 2023: A video shows that, contrary to the Army’s version of events, soldiers shot and killed five men, following a confrontation and pursuit, after they had already been captured and disarmed.
  • February 26, 2023: Soldiers, shooting 80 times, killed five men following a pursuit.
  • August 31, 2022: Soldiers open fire on a vehicle and kill a four-year-old girl on board. A friend of Heidi Mariana’s mother was taking her to the hospital to treat a stomachache.
  • February 7, 2021: Soldiers in an Army truck blocked a private vehicle and opened fire, killing one aboard and wounding two.
  • July 3, 2020: Following a shootout, after soldiers overtook their assailants’ vehicles, they fired on the vehicles, killing all aboard—including kidnap victims whom the assailants were transporting.
  • March-May 2018: Mexican marines arbitrarily detained and disappeared 27 people in Nuevo Laredo. The bodies of 12 have been found, dumped.
  • September 5, 2009: An elite state police unit (Centro de Análisis, Inteligencia y Estudios de Tamaulipas) killed five men and three women. The police allegedly removed the victims from their homes, killed them, and posed the bodies in “northeast cartel” vests around a pickup truck with handmade armor to simulate combat.

Zeta published a table with 16 examples of extrajudicial executions going back to 1995. Seven took place in Nuevo Laredo.

Despite very heavy military involvement in public security, Nuevo Laredo continues to be one of the most dangerous and organized crime-dominated places in Mexico. (See my discussion of what we saw in Nuevo Laredo during a March 2022 WOLA border visit.) Things are so bad that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is not even granting appointments for asylum seekers using the “CBP One” smartphone app across the river in Laredo, Texas.

WOLA Podcast: “Fentanyl: ‘What sounds tough isn’t necessarily a serious policy'”

One of the benefits of hosting WOLA’s podcast is learning something new from the people I interview. I learned a lot in this one about the seemingly intractable problem of fentanyl trafficking. I spoke here with my colleagues John Walsh, who runs WOLA’s Drug Policy Program, and Stephanie Brewer, who runs our Mexico Program. Both were clear, informed, and on their game. Highly recommended.

Here’s the language from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

Record overdose deaths in the United States have fixed attention on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, synthesized mainly in Mexico, that is highly addictive and very small in volume. WOLA’s director for drug policy, John Walsh, and director for Mexico, Stephanie Brewer, argue that the challenge fentanyl poses demands a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. approach to illicit drugs.

Today, however, the sense of crisis has escalated so much that, even with an administration that is open to “harm-reduction” approaches to drug policy, policymakers and lawmakers are turning to the get tough recipes of the drug war’s past 50 years.

A push to use military force and demand crackdowns is harming relations with Mexico, where top leadership inaccurately denies that fentanyl is produced. A push to increase incarceration at home threatens to repeat some of the tragic mistakes of the recent past, in which strong-sounding policies did great damage to both Latin America (measured by crime and instability) and the United States (measured by overdose deaths and other harms).

All pure fentanyl consumed in the United States in an entire year can fit inside the beds of two pickup trucks. The drug is “un-interdictable.” Walsh and Brewer argue here that fentanyl’s rise makes evident the need for a harm reduction approach that saves lives and helps people recover from addiction, while working with Mexico to address the conditions that allow organized crime to thrive.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Less migration? Or stranded migrants?

This talking point about a “95% drop in border migrant encounters from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela” is problematic.

Why? Let’s examine encounters along the migration route, from north to south.

Here’s where the 95% comes from.

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered Between U.S. Ports of Entry

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Between Ports of Entry (Border Patrol)	47270	34596	54042	55910	57280	40470	50069	56209	78256	71656	75658	84192	11909	2052	3811

US Border Patrol’s apprehensions of these 4 countries’ migrants really did drop steeply from December—after Mexico agreed to accept Title 42 expulsions of these nationalities, and once a “humanitarian parole” option opened up for some of them.

But there’s no 95% drop anywhere else along the migration route, where people fleeing those countries have become stranded.

Since December, Mexico’s encounters with these 4 countries’ migrants are only down 42%.

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Mexico

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	7549	6601	10448	11221	8551	8071	11308	21545	22910	31047	23450	21124	12480	9859	12327

Since December, Honduras’s encounters with Cuban, Haitian, and Venezuelan migrants are up 10%.

(Nicaraguan citizens don’t need passports to be in Honduras, and thus don’t end up in Honduras’s count of “irregular” or “undocumented” migrants.)

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Honduras

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	1589	2253	7571	10703	10757	12726	10297	18504	17332	21173	15833	11666	9310	9183	12879

Since December, in Panama’s Darién Gap, migration from Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela is up 250% (though down 57% from a high in October, before Mexico started accepting expulsions of Venezuelan migrants).

Chart: Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela Migrants Encountered in Panama’s Darién Gap

	Jan-22	Feb-22	Mar-22	Apr-22	May-22	Jun-22	Jul-22	Aug-22	Sep-22	Oct-22	Nov-22	Dec-22	Jan-23	Feb-23	Mar-23
Total	2595	2534	2723	4113	11408	12800	18885	26142	41531	45781	6723	8340	14542	14946	29186

The upshot: migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela may be down sharply at the US-Mexico border, due to aggressive Title 42 expulsions.

But the expulsions have absolutely not deterred these nations’ citizens from migrating. They’re still fleeing—but they’re stranded.

Podcast: Cartels on the terrorist list? Military intervention in Mexico?

I just sat and recorded an episode of the solo podcast that I created when I started this website six years ago. Apparently, this is the first episode I’ve recorded since July 2017.

There’s no good reason for that: it doesn’t take very long to do. (Perhaps it should—this recording is very unpolished.) But this is a good way to get thoughts together without having to crank out something essay-length.

This episode is a response to recent calls to add Mexican organized crime groups to the U.S. terrorist list, and to start carrying out U.S. military operations against these groups on Mexican soil.

As I say in the recording, both are dumb ideas that won’t make much difference and could be counter-productive. Confronting organized crime with the tools of counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency won’t eradicate organized crime. It may ensnare a lot of American drug dealers and bankers as “material supporters of terrorism,” and it may cause criminal groups to fragment and change names. But the territories were organized crime currently operates will remain territories where organized crime still operates.

Neither proposal gets at the problem of impunity for state collusion with organized crime. Unlike “terrorist” groups or insurgencies, Latin America’s organized crime groups thrive because of their corrupt links to people inside government, and inside security forces. As long as these links persist, “get-tough” efforts like the terrorist list or military strikes will have only marginal impact.

You can download the podcast episode here. The podcast’s page is here and the whole feed is here.

Matamoros: not too dangerous to deport and expel, apparently

The city of Matamoros, where the 4 US citizens are kidnapped, is a dangerous place.

Matamoros is also the site of 184 US deportations of Mexican citizens every week.

And that doesn’t count Title 42 expulsions of Mexicans and non-Mexicans, I don’t have the exact number of expulsions to Matamoros but it’s probably at least 184 per week.

(Source for this table)

Migration data from Mexico

Here’s more than 16 years of Mexico’s monthly apprehensions of migrants.

January 2007-January 2023

	07-Jan						07-Jul						08-Jan						08-Jul						09-Jan						09-Jul						10-Jan						10-Jul						11-Jan						11-Jul						12-Jan						12-Jul						13-Jan						13-Jul						14-Jan						14-Jul						15-Jan						15-Jul						16-Jan						16-Jul						17-Jan						17-Jul						18-Jan						18-Jul						19-Jan						19-Jul						20-Jan						20-Jul						21-Jan						21-Jul						22-Jan						22-Jul						23-Jan
Apprehensions	11215	11910	12473	11796	12004	11095	10846	12520	9047	7292	6431	3826	8970	10787	9305	11031	9747	8394	7585	6705	6521	6894	5506	3278	5943	6246	6884	6742	5701	6872	5718	5789	6039	5450	4388	3261	4759	5796	7336	6695	7075	6378	6760	6755	5098	4714	5077	3659	4430	5087	6695	6471	7852	5717	5215	5299	5586	5453	5267	3511	6343	7442	9291	8732	8874	8082	6860	6496	8746	7879	6364	3397	6699	7407	8290	7951	7718	7370	7471	7443	6657	7549	7300	4443	6295	8317	10502	8621	10132	12515	11005	11618	11111	13700	13671	9662	18299	14885	16569	17085	19402	17152	17195	17088	15450	18232	14755	12029	11218	11420	14253	16700	16454	14850	13604	16502	19811	20494	17579	13331	10553	7275	5905	5243	7071	7471	7863	9171	7757	9678	9227	6632	9248	11549	11779	11486	10350	9577	8965	13560	13903	18895	12663	6637	8521	10194	13508	21197	23241	31396	19822	16066	13517	12256	9727	7305	14119	8377	8421	2628	2251	2304	4737	7445	8831	12253	9557	6337	9564	12893	18548	22968	20091	19249	25830	43031	46370	41580	29264	18291	23382	24304	30753	31206	33290	30423	33902	42719	43792	52201	49485	48982	36147

Data table is here.

Zooming in on Mexico’s apprehensions of migrants, by nationality, since January 2022:

Chart: Mexico’s Migrant Apprehensions (Since 2022)

January 2023: Ecuador 16%, Venezuela 15%, Guatemala 11.1%, Honduras 10.6%, All Others <8%
Since January 2022: Venezuela 21%, Honduras 16%, Guatemala 15%, Cuba 9.2%, Nicaragua 8.9%, All Others <7%

	22-Jan	22-Feb	22-Mar	22-Apr	22-May	22-Jun	22-Jul	22-Aug	22-Sep	22-Oct	22-Nov	22-Dec	23-Jan
Venezuela	2733	1120	1209	1960	1640	3919	6431	16885	15381	21781	12298	11721	5314
Honduras	5841	5929	6390	6457	7544	6507	7461	5741	5309	5475	5895	4379	3847
Guatemala	6304	5191	6075	6920	7222	7010	6578	4927	4932	4632	5380	4344	4017
Cuba	2214	3384	6333	6103	3191	2481	2550	2159	3244	3247	3318	3251	2815
Nicaragua	2234	1843	2701	2854	3474	1561	2182	2327	4062	5711	7329	4547	2151
Colombia	503	2986	3375	1746	3031	2840	2169	2479	2704	2179	2225	2041	912
El Salvador	1565	1721	2338	2579	3307	1990	2936	2544	2471	2144	2379	1271	1212
Ecuador	246	202	276	513	780	668	719	1185	1528	3266	4459	8314	5808
Other countries	1742	1928	2056	2074	3101	3447	2876	4472	4161	3766	6202	9114	10071

Vice: Congress Suddenly Wants to Know If US Taxpayers Were Helping El Chapo

From a very good piece at VICE by Keegan Hamilton, who closely followed the New York trial of former Mexico public security chief Genaro García Luna:

For watchdogs like Adam Isaacson [sic.], director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, it’s no surprise that the U.S. government turned a blind eye toward García Luna while he was in power.

“It seems pretty clear that the DEA and other parts of the United States government knew that Garcia Luna was not somebody that they could fully trust, and that, in fact, he may have been colluding with armed groups or with organized crime,” Isaacson told VICE News. “But they still found him useful because he was going after other organized crime groups at the same time.”

Isaacson pointed to examples beyond Mexico, such as Honduras and Brazil, where the U.S. has provided funding and training to state security forces linked to corruption and human rights abuses, and said it’s no longer shocking—it’s simply business as usual in the war on drugs.

“Their mission is not to make corruption go away,” Isaacson said. “Their mission is to break a drug organization and get as many tons of drugs seized as possible so it doesn’t make it to the United States. And if that means making common cause with bad guys to go after other bad guys, they’re going to do it without regard to the institutional or accountability damage that that might do in the countries that they’re working.”

Sunday morning in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

Army personnel are police in everything but name in today’s Mexico. Policing is just not a mission that they’re properly trained to carry out. An episode on Sunday morning (February 26), in the organized crime-dominated border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, seems especially serious.

From the Mexican online media outlet Elefante Blanco:

According to the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee, in the early morning hours of Sunday, February 26, a military convoy shot at a white Chevrolet pickup truck on Huasteca Street between Jiménez and Méndez.

The people inside the vehicle tried to protect themselves, but only one survived. Upon hearing the gunshots, the neighbors went out between 4:30 and 5:00 AM to see the scene as the sun came up. At 10 AM, the Sedena [Defense Department, or Army] intervened at the scene of the killing, moving the truck.

…What really inflamed the residents was when the soldiers attempted to tow the white Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, at that point the main evidence in the case, to take it away.

There the confrontation escalated. Residents blocked the way by standing in front of the tow truck, threw stones, and released the truck. One soldier fell and was beaten by several civilians, another was run over by a military vehicle.

Dozens of residents and reporters recorded what was happening on Huasteca Street. The soldiers took cover in the chaos and snatched cell phones, which provoked the population even more. The president of the Committee, Raymundo Ramos, was pushed, his cell phone fell and a pickup truck rammed him.

Seizing, and apparently smashing, a witness’s mobile phone. Credit: Luis Valtierra

Asylum requests in Mexico through January

Mexico’s refugee agency (COMAR) received nearly 13,000 requests for asylum in January, a pace that, if sustained for the entire year, would bring a record 154,000 asylum applications in Mexico’s system in 2023.

The number-one nationality of asylum applicants in January was Haiti, the nation that was also number one in 2021. Honduras was COMAR’s number-one asylum-seeking nationality in 2022 and prior years.

Here’s the table with this chart’s underlying data. Note that Afghanistan, for the first time, made the “top ten” in January with 430 asylum requests. Afghanistan was the number-nine nationality of migrants passing through Panama’s Darién Gap region in January (291 migrants reported by Panamanian authorities).

Asylum requests are increasing again in Mexico’s system

13,217 migrants applied for asylum in Mexico’s system in November 2022, the most in a month since November 2021, according to the Mexican government’s Refugee Aid Commission (COMAR). November’s asylum requests increased 15 percent over October, and 47 percent over September.

From October to November, COMAR received the largest increase in applications from citizens of Venezuela—27 percent—though the number of Venezuelan applicants was in second place behind that of citizens of Honduras. Venezuela’s applications almost certainly increased because, after the U.S. and Mexican governments began applying Title 42 and expelling Venezuelans into Mexico on October 12, Venezuelan citizens could no longer seek protection in the United States.

All nationalities measured increases in asylum applications from October to November:

  • Venezuela: +27%
  • Haiti: +17%
  • Dominican Republic: +14%
  • Colombia: +12%
  • Honduras: +12%
  • El Salvador: +12%
  • Others: +12%
  • Brazil: +12%
  • Guatemala: +12%
  • Cuba: +11%
  • Nicaragua: +5%

Despite what you hear from some U.S. politicians and media outlets, the Americas’ ongoing migration event is not just a US-Mexico border phenomenon. People are fleeing everywhere. Colombia and others are assimilating millions of Venezuelans. Costa Rica is doing the same with Nicaraguans. And here’s Mexico.

Mexico’s use of the military for migration missions

In the past month or two, Mexico again increased the number of soldiers, marines, and national guardsmen assigned to border and migration duties. The most recent count, as of November 21, was 31,777 individual military personnel.

The numbers come from “security reports” periodically presented at President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s morning press conferences, and uploaded to the Mexican Presidency’s website:

Coca in Mexico

During the López Obrador government (since December 2018), Mexican forces have eradicated 33.6 hectares of coca, according to the country’s presidency.

(Colombia, the most energetic eradicator, reported destroying 103,000 hectares in 2021 and nearly 60,000 in 2022 through October.)

Mexico, in October, set a new record for most migrants apprehended in a month

The Mexican Interior Department just updated its migration statistics for October 2022. It took them longer than usual, and the reason could be that October 2022 shattered Mexico’s record for migrants apprehended in a month.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) took 52,262 people into custody over those 31 days. INM’s average since 2013 is 14,895 migrant apprehensions per month.

42 percent of migrants apprehended in Mexico last month were citizens of Venezuela. Of 2022’s top eight countries, plus “all others,” the rates of increase from January to October were:

  • Ecuador 1478%
  • Venezuela 808%
  • Colombia 335%
  • Nicaragua 156%
  • Other countries 119%
  • Cuba 47%
  • El Salvador 37%
  • Honduras -6%
  • Guatemala -26%

Migration in Mexico appears to be record-breaking

The Mexican government’s record for most migrants apprehended in a month, set in September 2021, is 46,370. That’s 1,546 migrants per day.

According to a November 21 release from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), Mexican authorities apprehended 16,096 migrants between November 17 and 20. That’s 4,024 migrants per day, from 46 countries.

Mexico hasn’t reported October 2022 migration data yet, but in September, the INM apprehended 41,915 migrants: 1,397 per day.

Mexico’s migrant apprehensions through September.

As nearly all of this migration is U.S.-bound, it’s reasonable to expect a further increase in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border for the month of November.

Mexico’s suspicious aircraft detections point to Venezuela

This is from the Mexican Presidency’s latest security report (October 20, page 61). It looks like Zulia, Venezuela has been the main jumping-off point for aircraft suspected of smuggling drugs toward Mexico.

Venezuela meanwhile claims to have destroyed 37 suspect aircraft so far this year:

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