Mexico is the wall: president under fire over migration clampdown

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faces growing criticism he is doing U.S. President Donald Trump’s bidding after erecting a “wall” of security forces who clashed with Central American migrants near the Guatemala border this week.

FILE PHOTO: Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a news conference in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 10, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Mexico, under the threat of punitive U.S. tariffs, has bowed to Trump’s demands to contain mass movements of migrants traveling through the country toward the U.S. border.

Such concessions previously stirred little criticism from the Mexican public, due to Lopez Obrador’s reputation as a leftist willing to support the poor, including migrants from other countries.

But scenes of Mexico’s National Guard security force marching behind riot shields straight into a large group of Central Americans and using tear gas has triggered growing dissent, including condemnation from the United Nations.

Lopez Obrador was questioned at his morning news conference for a second straight day about how the National Guard military police and the National Migration Institute (INM) treat migrants.

“It’s a wall of riot shields,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute in Washington. “I didn’t think I would live to see the day when Mexico would do this kind of thing.”

Trump has made immigration a key issue in his bid for re-election in November and is pushing for construction of a wall along the U.S-Mexico border.

Mexican offices of several U.N. agencies said in a joint statement they were worried by Thursday’s operation and its impact on children and “other vulnerable populations.”

“Mexico has the right to control the entry of foreigners as long as there is no excessive use of force,” the groups wrote, urging Mexico not to separate families. An operation by Mexican security forces during the week led some parents to temporarily lose track of their children.

Television images have shown the National Guard corralling entire families and loading them onto buses for detention and deportation.

Enrique Vidal, coordinator for human rights group Fray Matias de Cordova, who witnessed the confrontation, said National Guard members initiated the clash by marching on the migrants. He said some migrants were beaten, while pepper spray affected pregnant women, children and people with disabilities, and one minor passed out.

Lopez Obrador defended the National Guard and INM at his news conference. He said the caravan of Central American migrants was not spontaneous, hinting that Honduran activists were driving the movement for political ends.

As Mexico swept migrants into detention centers on Monday, Fray Matias confirmed three cases of children separated from their parents from a few hours to up to two days, Vidal said.

He said Fray Matias and other rights groups have been blocked from visiting detention centers to monitor conditions, or have been forced to conduct interviews with security forces present.

In an address last week, Lopez Obrador promised migrants jobs. But Vidal said that when they reached Mexico’s southern border, “What they found was a military operation of containment and detention,” adding migrants “feel like they have been deceived and betrayed.”

Since a standoff with Trump over soaring numbers of Central Americans seeking asylum at the U.S. border, Mexico has deployed thousands of National Guard to stem the flow.

Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border have fallen by about 70 percent over seven straight months.

However, the Mexican government’s response has pushed migrants to take more dangerous routes, said Christopher Gascon, head of the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Mexico mission.

FILE PHOTO: Migrants, mainly from Central America and marching in a caravan, react as members of the security forces approach them, near Frontera Hidalgo, Chiapas, Mexico January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

“They put themselves in even riskier situations,” he told Reuters.

As of Thursday, the INM said it had transferred at least 800 migrants, including unaccompanied minors, to immigration centers where they would be given food, medical attention and shelter.

According to Guatemala, at least 4,000 people entered from Honduras since last week, one of the biggest surges since three Central American governments signed agreements with the Trump administration obliging them to assume more responsibility for dealing with migrants.

Reporting by Julia Love and Lizbeth Diaz; additional reporting by Raul Cortes; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio

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