MONTERREY, Mexico — The mass migration of more than 15,000 Haitians up through Central America to the Texas border was the result of a well-organized effort by human smuggling organizations facilitated through social media, and by Mexican authorities who either looked the other way or were simply overwhelmed, according to multiple sources, including U.S. and Mexican government officials.
The Dallas Morning News interviewed more than a dozen highly placed officials on both sides of the border, former officials from both countries, longtime experts on U.S.-Mexico security, human rights advocates and Haitians who traveled from the southernmost state of Chiapas to Monterrey in northern Mexico.
Many of those interviewed questioned whether the arrival of thousands of migrants in Del Rio was really a surprise. Some said their arrival seemed more like a coordinated effort to ease the overwhelming number of migrants stuck at Mexico’s southern border.
Smugglers used more than 200 buses, trucks, taxis and even a ferry to move Haitians in Mexico up to the Texas border. The numbers skyrocketed on days that coincided with Mexico’s biggest national holiday — Independence Day.
“Such a complex operation on a grand scale that we all saw didn’t happen by chance,” said Tonatiuh Guillén, who served as the commissioner of the Instituto Nacional de Migración, or Mexico’s immigration chief, under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador until 2019. “You’re talking 200, 250, maybe more buses. You can’t do that without having an organized structure. I don’t know whether the authorities were indifferent, just didn’t care or just looked the other way.”
“It’s hard to see how this operation happened without authorities knowing about it, or being caught off guard,” he added. “That to me is obvious.”
In the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, veteran immigrant rights advocate Ruben Figueroa and others documented parts of the journey of the Haitians on video. The movement, Figueroa said, “appeared strange as days before migrants hadn’t been allowed to board buses, or even move beyond the city of Tapachula,” he said, referring to the city on the Mexican border with Guatemala, and “suddenly everyone is leaving, and in mass numbers. This just doesn’t happen without the complicity of government authorities.”
One top level Mexican official vehemently denied that the operation had the tacit approval of the Mexican government, calling the allegations “false and ridiculous.” He described the situation at its southern border with Guatemala as being at a “breaking point” because of the ongoing arrival of migrants. The official, with knowledge of internal intelligence, spoke on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to comment publicly.
The official would not discount “corruption among some authorities” and added that Mexico had warned its U.S. counterparts of the overwhelming numbers of migrants, a majority of them Haitians, amassing on its southern border.
Roberto Velasco, Mexico Foreign Ministry’s chief officer for North America, said the mass migration is a reminder of why “the U.S., Mexico and other countries in the region have to be unified in addressing the migration problem.”
“We need a sophisticated approach to a very complex problem,” Velasco said in an interview in Mexico City. “What’s not going to happen is Mexico magically solving the problem.”
The movement, likened to an efecto hormiga, began slowly, gradually, a slow trickle that exploded. On Sept. 2, 57 Haitians were counted under the international bridge linking Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. By Sept. 12, the numbers grew to 1,507, then rapidly climbed to more than 10,500 by the 16th of September, Mexican Independence Day.
More than 15,000 migrants were camped under the bridge, after wading across the Rio Grande, by Sept. 18. That day, Mexico began an operation to stop the flow of people headed to the area by sealing off the state of Coahuila with checkpoints manned by local, state and federal authorities, including the military.
Migration was a big topic Friday as Mexico hosted high-level security talks with U.S. officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Both governments agreed to revamp the Mérida Initiative, a $3 billion U.S. aid program that has been the cornerstone of security cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico. It was started with the administrations of George W. Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, the longtime arch nemesis of López Obrador.
The timing of the mass migration has raised questions about whether the U.S. was pressured during negotiations for the new security accord.
“I find the timing of the big migrant flow interesting. It was the perfect storm,” said Arturo Fontes, a former FBI agent who spent his career on the border and in Mexico and is the founder of Fontes International Solutions, a security consulting firm with high-level contacts throughout Mexico. “Mexico’s way of saying, ‘We too have leverage.’ Where was the shared intelligence between both countries?”
Fontes has been critical about what he calls a “breakdown in cooperation” with U.S. law enforcement agencies under the López Obrador administration.
One U.S. law enforcement official who was not authorized to speak publicly questioned “why it took Mexico so long to react” between the 15th of September and 18th when images of thousands of Haitians under the international bridge were beamed around the world.
While López Obrador has been critical of what he calls too much U.S. meddling in Mexico, Velasco has said both governments “talk all the time.”
The Mérida aid program was a joint response to Mexico’s security challenges and included the “Kingpin strategy” that called for taking down top, powerful cartel leaders. But frustrated Mexican officials, including Velasco and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, said those efforts have proven futile because top cartel leaders are quickly replaced, spawning dozens of smaller, more violent criminal organizations that are now terrorizing large swaths of Mexico. The agreement has failed to reduce violence and weapons smuggling into Mexico, or a record flow of drugs such as fentanyl from Mexico to the United States.
Roberta Jacobson, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, disagrees that the pact was solely about fighting organized crime. She wrote in the latest issue of The Dialogue, a publication about Latin America:
“The real goal of the Mérida Initiative was to be a process — a way of developing a culture of security cooperation between Mexico and the United States,” wrote Jacobson, ambassador to Mexico during the Obama and Trump administrations and more recently an adviser in the Biden administration.
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, expected the meetings on Friday would be dominated by the topic of migration, underscoring the sensitivity of the issue for the Biden administration. In recent years, including during the Obama and Trump administrations, migration has significantly changed the dynamics of the bilateral relationship, providing Mexico with much needed leverage over its mighty, fickle neighbor to the north.
For example, under threat of a tariff imposed by President Donald J. Trump in 2019, Mexico deployed about 15,000 soldiers and the national guard to stem the flow of migrants headed to the U.S.
“Every time there’s a surge at the border that creates political visibility on unauthorized immigration, the U.S. turns to the Mexican government to try and control it,” Selee said. “The more the U.S. has to rely on Mexico to contain migration, the more the agenda between the two countries gets reduced to that single issue.”
On Friday, López Obrador met with the U.S. delegation and again pressed the Biden administration for increased investment in Latin American countries in an effort to slow the migration.
More than 80,000 migrants are believed to be heading from South America to the United States via Mexico. The majority are Haitians fleeing the political, social and economic fallout of the pandemic and a growing backlash from countries such as Brazil and Chile that temporarily hosted them after many fled Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.
“The movement starts from the country of origin, in this case maybe Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and it’s supported by a number of actors that facilitate the journey, from informal to formal actors, from smugglers to corporations like bus companies to corrupt government authorities,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a security expert at George Mason University who has studied the movement of migrants from South America and the Caribbean to the U.S.-Mexico. “Sometimes coyotes arrange the whole trip, but often the migrant has to negotiate from country to country. Think of a massive corporation that is very decentralized.”
As thousands of migrants head for Tapachula on the border with Guatemala, Arturo Vizcarra, who oversees migrant operations in the border region for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, known as CHIRLA, said he’s not worried about the numbers. He fears the “toxic nationalism, the persecution based on race and nationality” that is building up in Mexico against migrants, particularly Haitians. He questioned whether tensions led to their sudden migration north.
“It was strange to see the racism that was building up in Tapachula, and it was very strange how buses all of a sudden were moving all these people,” he said, adding that many protests and scuffles with immigration officials that went viral on social media during failed attempts to form caravans had preceded the exodus. “Strange, because these people had been trying to move for months and suddenly it just happened.”
Haitians, he added, are “stuck in a no man’s land” between Mexico and the United States, a country that in recent years has been outsourcing its migrants back to Mexico and all its dangers.
“The scariest part is that people are not willing to confront racism for what it is,” Vizcarra said. “This leaves Haitians with no good options, like zero good options.”
When the thousands of Haitians crossed the border into Texas, thrusting the small border town of Del Rio into the global limelight, their presence forced the closure of an international bridge and led to concerns among officials on both sides of the border that there will be more mass crossings.
“I’ve never seen anything like that, but it’s going to happen again, here in Del Rio, the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso, Arizona or California,” warned Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez. “This was a well-orchestrated move and there are thousands more coming from South America as we speak.”
Among those who were headed for Ciudad Acuña were John Brevil, his wife and toddler. They traveled from Chile. Along the journey they met Esther Pierre Louie. She had arrived from Brazil. All left Tapachula sometime around Sept. 12 when word spread via a WhatsApp chat group that a new passage had opened up to escape Chiapas. They said they felt lucky, as though they had been especially selected among the thousands.
The toughest part of the journey was getting from Chiapas to Veracruz, a journey that Brevil said felt at times like “a clandestine” mission in which Haitians zigzagged around some immigration checkpoints in “informal buses” with drivers who seemed to be “escorted” by “unknown authorities.”
“I felt very excited and kept repeating the word, ‘Acuña,’” Louie said.
But the closer the group got to the border, the more hope dwindled. Suddenly “hundreds of Haitians” were everywhere, all headed for Ciudad Acuña, she said. “I felt I was lied to. I buried my face in my hands and started to cry.”
Brevil looked around the bus and saw that many of the men and women were suddenly crying, too.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘We’re not going to make it. There are too many Haitians under the bridge,’’’ he told her as she also began to weep because they wouldn’t be able to join her family in Florida. “The migration just got out of control.”
Instead of Ciudad Acuña, the group headed for Monterrey, where they decided to apply for asylum in Mexico.