Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took a rare foreign trip, traveling for the first time as president to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Cuba from May 5 to May 8. (He traveled twice previously to Washington, meeting Presidents Trump and Biden, and once to address the United Nations Security Council in New York.) He spoke often in Central America of migration from the Northern Triangle region – still the largest source of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, though U.S. Customs and Border Protection is increasing detaining migrants from further afield, including Nicaraguans, Cubans and Venezuelans. But AMLO seemed to be speaking to President Joe Biden and jawboning him to support a suite of social programs – promoted by AMLO as key domestic policies at home – which the Mexican president also considers the solution to outward migration.
“It’s inexplicable to me that approval has been delayed so long. It’s been four years, since President Donald Trump, and there’s still nothing,” AMLO said May 5 in Guatemala City, referring to his request for the United States to spend $4 billion on development in southern Mexico and Central America.
“It would be expected that the U.S. government and Congress would hand over the $4 billion that President Biden offered to invest in these programs,” AMLO said the next day in San Salvador. In an article on the announcement, the Associated Press noted, “U.S. officials have long indicated they would invest in their own development programs.”
AMLO has long promoted the idea of slowing Central American migration through economic development. More specifically, he’s proposed slowing it through a pair of pet programs involving tree-planting and job-training for young people. A native of swampy Tabasco state, the president has pushed a suite of infrastructure programs in southern Mexico – panned as white elephants by the opposition – which include a new refinery and railway lines around the Yucatán Peninsula and across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. He’s also pushing the tree-planting program known as Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life) – which he has exported to Central America as part of his ideas for slowing migration and wants the U.S. government to start funding.
In Guatemala, AMLO announced Mexico’s international development agency AMEXCID will spend $25 million on launching Sembrando Vida in the country. This follows similar spending on Sembrando Vida in El Salvador and Honduras. In El Salvador, AMLO promised to double spending on Sembrando Vida, claiming the program had already slowed migration – an untested claim.
Sembrando Vida is controversial – especially in Mexico, where critics contend it functions more as a patronage program in campesino communities than a path out of poverty or scheme to slow outward migration. It also serves as a catchall program for AMLO’s political or policy objectives: economic, environmental, social or migratory.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, AMLO said Sembrando Vida payments would ease the economic impact. (Mexico spent less than 1% of GDP on its pandemic response.) In the leadup to the COP 26 climate summit, AMLO again promoted Sembrando Vida as part of Mexico’s climate commitments. He even promoted the program to U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, who visited Chiapas state in October 2021 and spoke favourably of Sembrando Vida – even as environmentalists expressed alarm at the program incentivizing deforestation. “(It’s) a symbol of Mexico’s leadership at a time when it is essential to take action on climate change,” Kerry said in the city of Palenque. “President Biden has an ally in the defense of climate policy to confront climate change,” he added.
- Sembrando Vida: a catchall program
Sembrando Vida pays campesinos 4,500 pesos (roughly $220) monthly to plant fruit or timber trees and later maintain those trees to maturity. But the program appears poorly designed. An investigation by Bloomberg in 2021, citing satellite footage from the World Resource Institute, found 73,000 hectares (180,387 acres) had been deforested in 2019 by campesinos wanting to participate in Sembrando Vida. Asked by a Bloomberg reporter about the finding, AMLO responded, “I have other information” – a common retort for uncomfortable questions. AMLO has claimed Sembrando Vida will plant more than 1 billion trees.
Independent evaluations of Sembrando Vida in Central America are hard to come by. Some 20,000 people participate in the program, split between Salvadoran and Honduran governments. AMEXCID claims Sembrando Vida has diminished participants’ intentions to migrate. In El Salvador, the 55.5% of participants had considered migrating prior to the program, but only 0.6% would do so now. Honduran participants expressed similar sentiments.
Mexico has also funded another program in Central America – implemented domestically – known as Jovenes Construyendo el Futuro (Young People Building the Future,) which provides stipends to people between 18 and 29 years old to gain work experience. The success of the program in Mexico is disputed, with critics calling it a vote-buying scheme. In Central America, AMEXCID claims the program diminishes the desire to migrate – though workers involved with regional migration matters dispute those assertions.
“They pulled these statistics out of their sleeve. They’re invented. I have no idea where they got them from,” said the director of Catholic agency assisting migrants in Central America. “It’s impossible that the thousands of people who need to migrate from Central America stay put for the possibility of planting a tree.”
“No one has ever heard of them,” a U.S. citizen, who has worked on development and immigration issues for three decades in El Salvador, said of the programs.
- Getting to the root causes of migration
AMLO and the Biden administration has spoken of similar goals in Central America: getting to the root causes of migration. But doing so through AMLO’s preferred programs appears uncertain. In December 2021, USAID announced the framework for a joint program with AMEXCID known as Sembrando Oportunidades (Sowing Opportunities) in Central America. USAID said it would “complement” existing AMEXCID programs, but did not specify spending. Mexican journalist Dolia Estévez noted the USAID statement followed Mexico agreeing to again receive asylum-seekers in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program – which a federal judge had ordered reinstated.
The AMLO administration has a history of announcing plans to step up immigration enforcement or participation in U.S. programs such as MPP in response to U.S. donations of COVID-19 vaccines or other gestures of cooperation. Analysts describe it as an example of the AMLO administration leveraging the United States on migration matters – with AMLO using the migration to avoid pressure from the Biden administration on issues clean energy, human rights and respecting energy investments by U.S. firms.
“The only reason U.S. can support Mexican ideas is in exchange for diminishing migration crosses through Mexico,” said a Mexican analyst with a history working in the federal government on security and foreign relations. “(AMLO’s) agenda is eminently domestic and even when he’s at an international stage (which is not often), he continues to talk to his electoral base.”
AMLO PROMOTES WORK VISAS FOR SOUTHERN MEXICO – IF ANYONE IS INTERESTED
Another of AMLO’s announcement from Central America involved the issuing government identifications to Central Americans wishing to work in Mexico’s southern states. The announcement mirrors a past AMLO proposal from 2019, in which he promised visas to caravan travelers so they could stay and work in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco and Campeche. Migrants had been pouring into Mexico at the time, hoping to receive humanitarian visas – which AMLO had been offering and were being used to quickly transit the country and reach the northern Mexico’s industrial cities or the U.S. border. (The Mexican government eventually stopped issuing visas after then-President Donald Trump threatened to impose escalating tariffs on Mexican imports.) Migrants complained the southern Mexican visas were a bait and switch. They had no interest in southern Mexico due to the sad-sacked economy, which offered few opportunities. Guatemalans seemed especially disinterested in remaining in southern Mexico as the low value of the Mexican peso made Chiapas as destination for cross-border shopping rather than employment – though there is a history of indigenous Guatemalans working seasonally in Chiapas on the coffee harvest. (AMLO recently announced some 30,000 Guatemalan seasonal workers would be enrolled in the IMSS, which provides health and retirement for persons employed in Mexico’s formal economy.)
A report from the International Rescue Committee, however, casts some doubt on the viability of promoting work visas in southern Mexico. The IRC report – issued May 1, prior to AMLO’s May 5 to May 8 trip – described three barriers to work for asylum seekers in southern Mexico: xenophobia, exploitative work conditions and a “lack of awareness” of their rights. Payment for work in Tenosique, a weigh station in Tabasco near the Guatemala border, amounted to $2.40 to $7.30 daily for 12 hours of work “Even finding a job every day for a month they would still barely make enough to meet basic needs,” the report said.
The report was issued in the context of Mexico receiving record asylum applications – with many asylum-seekers stuck in the southern city of Tapachula, especially Haitians. Asylum requests doubled in 2021 from the previous high in 2019 – after dipping in 2020 due to the pandemic – reaching 131,448 claims, according to COMAR, the agency responsible. Mexico received more than 29,000 claims between January 2022 and March 2022, according to the IRC, with 61% of the claimants coming from Honduras, Haiti and Cuba.
AMLO THROWS LIFELINE TO REPRESSIVE CUBAN REGIME
AMLO finished his five-country tour with a visit to Cuba, where he called for a “rebirth” of the Cuban revolution and – no surprise – rebuked the U.S. embargo of the island, promising to raise the issue with Biden. He again raised the quixotic idea of a European Union for Latin America – something he first did at a September summit of Latin American leaders in Mexico City. He also demanded President Biden invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela to the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles next month – nations excluded for not meeting minimum democratic standards.
Radical parts of AMLO’s MORENA party lionize Cuba – and many on the moderate left express an appreciation for the Cuban revolution if not communism itself. The radicals represent AMLO’s most ardent loyalists, who stuck with him when others on the more moderate left abandoned him after the contentious 2006 election (which AMLO claims was rigged against him.) The pro-AMLO mouthpiece La Jornada – a thinly read leftist publication showered with generous government advertising since AMLO took office – staunchly publishes a radical pro-Cuba, pro-Venezuela platform.
But Mexico and Cuba have historically maintained close ties. Mexico was the only country not cut diplomatic relations with the island after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidents went to bat for the Castro regime and PRI governors (and some in the opposition later on) imported Cuban literacy programs to their states. Relations went south for a period after then-President Vicente Fox told Fidel Castro at a 2002 summit in Mexico City: You eat and you leave. Details of the call were promptly leaked to La Jornada.
PRI links with Cuba were considered so close that then Cuban leader Raúl Castro lauded its return to power under President Enrique Peña Nieto – even though Peña Nieto was pushing a suite of pro-business reforms. Peña Nieto subsequently forgave some $500 million in Cuban debts.
Observers note that López Obrador’s rhetoric on Cuba repeats an old pattern of Mexican leaders promoting themselves as leftist fellow travelers to Latin American audiences, while working (somewhat) closely with the United States on issues such as trade and security – or at least orienting Mexico’s commercial and geopolitical ties northward.
- AMLO to skip the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles?
AMLO has taken a special interest in Cuba, despite his general disinterest in foreign affairs. He invited Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel to Mexico City for the country’s independence celebrations. The invitation followed AMLO rebuking protesters on the island demonstrating for increased political rights and freedom of expression. An exodus from the island has followed the demonstrations with Cubans transiting through Nicaragua – which scrapped visa rules for Cubans – and heading north to the U.S. border. (Most Cubans are admitted, in spite of Title 42 as they cannot be returned.) Díaz-Canel returned the favor, awarding AMLO the country’s top honor.
Latin American analysts see a pattern of AMLO embracing the region’s bad actors – which professing fealty to Mexico’s traditional foreign policy of non-intervention. Miguel Vivanco, former Latin America head for Human Rights Watch, warned in a January exit interview with the Financial Times that AMLO “is trying to rehabilitate a foreign policy, at least towards Latin America, which in some way takes up the inheritance of Chavismo.” Unlike Hugo Chávez, AMLO practices austerity at home and won’t spend abroad to pay off potential allies like the late Venezuelan leader did with discounted oil sales. But AMLO provides succour for the region’s bad actors – to the point he insisted Mexico send a representative to the January inauguration of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega after a rigged election.
The Mexican president is now threatening to skip the Summit of the Americas – June 6 – June 10 in Los Angeles – unless all countries are invited, including Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. “If some are excluded, if not everyone is invited, a representative of the government of Mexico will go, but I won’t go,” he said May 10.
- Mexico to vaccinate children with unapproved Cuban vaccine
AMLO also appears to be throwing Cuba an economic lifeline: AMLO announced May 9 up returning to Mexico that his government would be buying Cuban vaccines for jabbing the country’s children – even though it’s not approved by the World Health Organization. (Mexico has not vaccinated its entire population under age 18, prompting parents to seek court injunctions for their children and some border states to take busloads of children to Texas.)
AMLO said 500 Cuban doctors would work in Mexico – part of a controversial Cuban scheme, in which doctors are sent to oft-marginalized areas and most of their salaries are paid to the regime in Havana. Xavier Tello, a Mexican physician and health policy analyst, questioned the health agreement with Cuba – having point out previous that Mexico does not lack physicians. Mexico also didn’t sign an agreement with Pfizer, which makes the only COVID vaccine approved for children. “The ‘heath agreement with Cuba’ doesn’t respond to anything but wanting to support the Cuban regime,” Tello tweeted May 9. “It doesn’t benefit Mexico in any way.”
HAITIANS ARRIVE IN NUEVO LAREDO AHEAD OF TITLE 42 BEING LIFTED
Hundreds of migrants – mostly Haitians – have arrived in the border city of Nuevo Laredo ahead of the planned lifting of Title 42, which limits asylum claims and allows for the immediate expulsion of individuals on public health grounds. As of May 5, media reports put the figure as high as 3,500 migrants in Nuevo Laredo, though the Tamaulipas state government put it at 529 “persons from Haiti” in an April 29 statement. Shelters in Nuevo Laredo – opposite Laredo, Texas – report lacking shelter space for the crush of migrants, prompting the local Catholic diocese to issue an urgent appeal for assistance and warn of a “humanitarian crisis.” Diocesan spokesman Father Eduardo Monsivais said many of the Haitians arrived in Nuevo Laredo from the city of Monterrey, 135 miles south, “where all the shelters are being saturated.”
- More arrivals expected?
Catholics providing humanitarian relief to migrants report similar patterns of arrivals in other Mexican border cities. The director of the diocesan migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, opposite Eagle Pass, Texas, reported “between 500 and 600” people arriving daily in the city. The migrants arrived because of a belief “a program started for opening the border for asylum,” the director, Dominican Brother Obed Cuellar, said May 6.
Title 42 was implemented in March 2020 as a health measure when the coronavirus pandemic started. The Biden administration has scheduled its removal for May 23 – though a federal judge in Louisiana issued a temporary suspension – and has acknowledged a large number of migrants are expected to arrive at the U.S. border. Advocates working with migrant communities in Central America expect the same.
“Word of any policy considered even slightly favorable will spread,” Jesuit Father José Luis González, coordinator of the Jesuit Migrant Network, Central America and North America, told Catholic News Service. “Economic conditions have worsened” due to the pandemic, he said, and “two years of putting a break on migration due to health measures is now going to provoke a large flow.”
Mexico’s National Immigration Institute announced May 8 that it had “rescued” (a euphemism for detained) 1,608 migrants from 38 countries in a single day – a record for 2022. The migrants mostly hailed from Guatemala and Honduras, but came from as far away as Bosnia, Ethiopia and Angola.
‘KINGPIN’ STRATEGY QUESTIONED
A study from the International Crisis Group identified 543 criminal groups which have disputed Mexico’s crime landscape between 2009 and 2020 – a fragmentation provoked by the targeting of drug cartel kingpins. Number of cartels operating in Mexico has more than doubled from 76 cartels to 205 cartels between 2010 and late 2020, according to the study. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has identified nine groups as major drug-trafficking organizations, but just five of these groups still operate as unified entities.
Los Zetas, the especially bloody ex-special forces, offer an example of the fragmentation – with a splinter group known as the Cartel del Noreste (the Northeast Cartel) dominating Nuevo Laredo and a group known as Old School Zetas operating in southern Tamaulipas state. The Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas former partners, have also splintered with different factions controlling various Tamaulipas cities (often along the Texas border.) Crisis Group counts 107 criminal organizations operating in Mexico, which could be described as splinter groups.
Of the groups identified, 212 of them align themselves with larger organization, “although these connections are often unstable,” Crisis Group said. Subgroups often “operate semi-independently from the larger hierarchy of a bigger groups” and “frequently fight among themselves, switch sides or become independent splinter groups.” The subgroup phenomenon is especially present in the Sinaloa Cartel – formerly headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – which is often referred to as the “Sinaloa Federation.”
- More fragmentation, more crime
Fragment is a cause of concern, according to the Crisis Group, because “data show a clear correlation between the number of groups present in a municipality and the average per capita murder rate, with violence being by far the lowest in regions with no known criminal presence.”
Much of the fragmentation is the product of a security approach known as the kingpin strategy, in which the top cartel kingpins are either killed or captured. Analysts describe a pattern in which infighting erupts in leaderless cartels as underlings squabble for power. Crimes such as kidnapping, extortion and auto theft skyrocket as cartels seek income streams to cover costs such as payroll and payoffs – but also must deal with disruptions in drug distribution (with high-level relationships between cartel bosses and public officials often severed.)
“The whole policy has been disastrous,” Falko Ernst, Crisis Group’s senior Mexico analyst, said in an interview. “The geographical spread (of the cartels) cannot be explained without fragmentation being driven by the kingpin strategy.”
- The end of pax mafiosa
Governments in past decades often struck tacit agreements with drug cartels – with politicians agreeing to allow drug cartels to do business in their states and municipalities, but insisting any violence and killings be kept out of populated areas. Such arrangements would be impossible to revive, according to analysts, as the cooperation of too many competing criminal players would be required.