A Look At Mexico's New National Guard
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In exchange for avoiding President Trump's tariff threat, Mexico said it would crack down on migrants travelling north through the country by deploying its National Guard to the southern border. But there wasn't a single active National Guard troop when this plan was announced. The new security force only existed on paper. Just over a month later, the National Guard has been officially launched, and authorities say thousands of troops are helping to stop migrants. James Fredrick went to southern Mexico to see exactly what that looks like.
JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says the National Guard is the key to solving Mexico's security crisis. But down in Ciudad Hidalgo on Mexico's southern border, they're not fighting crime. There's a bustling informal port here just up the river from the official border crossing between Mexico and Guatemala. For years, people and goods have crossed back and forth without a word from authorities.
These rafts that ferry goods between Mexico and Guatemala are still crossing. There are people crossing on them. The difference from before is that now there are National Guard troops and migration agents stationed here who are asking everyone who lands on the Mexico side to show documentation showing they are legally here in Mexico.
As the thunderstorm moves closer, I watch an immigration agent stop an elderly Guatemalan couple - four National Guardsmen look on.
FREDRICK: The Guatemalans are confused and complain that they've been crossing like this for years without a visa to buy things in Mexico. But soon enough, the agent convinces them to get on a raft back to Guatemala. Immigration agents tell me only a handful of migrants trying to get north are found crossing at these popular spots now. Agents say they're watching for illegal crossings along roughly 15 miles - a tiny fraction of the border with Guatemala. The National Guard's presence here is big, though. I counted at least 60 National Guard members alongside far fewer immigration agents at this one river crossing.
High-level National Guard officials agreed to talk to me but asked I not record our conversation as they weren't authorized to speak on the record. They told me their orders are to assist immigration officials. This means literally standing next to or behind immigration agents here at the river or other checkpoints. They've been told not to touch migrants but rather they should block their path and call immigration agents. I asked about human smugglers, something the Mexican government told the U.S. it would be clamping down on. The sources told me, no, they are not pursuing human smugglers in this area. As part of their promise to the U.S., authorities say 6,500 troops are operating here in the south and another 15,000 are stationed along the U.S.-Mexico border. But it's not clear if the National Guard is actually a key element to cracking down on migrants or if their presence is just symbolic.
Victor Sanchez Valdes (ph) studies public security at the Autonomous University of Coahuila in northern Mexico and says either scenario is bad.
VICTOR MANUEL SANCHEZ VALDES: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says, "if the National Guard is being used to stop migrants, that's bad because that's not what the force was created to do. If they're just a symbolic presence, that's even worse."
Mexican officials overseeing these operations did not respond to NPR for comment. Sanchez says diverting the National Guard to migration undercuts their ability to fight violent crime.
SANCHEZ VALDES: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says, "putting them on immigration enforcement isn't trivial because the work they're leaving undone is very important."
In the first six months of 2019, there were 17,500 murders in Mexico - on pace for the country's most violent year ever. More than a dozen National Guard members in southern Mexico expressed frustration to me with their assignment. At one highway checkpoint, a National Guard member who was not authorized to speak on the record said he recently left his Marine duties behind.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says, "here in Chiapas state, we have several detachments along the coast. If we all come over to the National Guard for this work, who will go after the traffickers of drugs and people?"
For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.