JUÁREZ ― Valeria was working at her small tiendita in southern Michoacan state when a young man she knew from the neighborhood approached to buy a cigarette.
Seconds later, a truck full of armed men stopped in front of the shop. They grabbed the young man and left. Valeria ran to the man’s wife: Lo levantaron, she said. They took him. He was found dead later that day.
Valeria, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her identity, said police came to her door and warned her, “People say you saw.” The next day a family member received a message: Valeria “would be next.”
Before the week was over, Valeria’s family was packed and gone, headed for the border. Like thousands of Mexicans in recent months, the family fled a combustive mix of crime and poverty in hopes of making it to the U.S.
In the past four months, Mexicans have once again become the majority of unauthorized migrants caught at the border, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Border Patrol apprehensions of Mexican nationals have risen for two consecutive years, jumping 30% from a 40-year low, reversing a decade-long downward trend.
And while the U.S. has successfully pressured Mexico to crack down on Central American migrants, analysts say the Mexican government hasn’t created the economic and security conditions that might keep its own people from leaving. The country is struggling with its highest-ever level of homicides and a stagnant GDP, while a booming U.S. economy simultaneously creates a powerful draw north.
The weak economy and a deteriorating security situation in Mexico “absolutely do drive migration,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, D.C. “We should be concerned that the Mexican economy is not growing and, in certain states, is in recession. And violence is once again on the rise and hitting record levels.”
Border apprehensions of Mexicans outpace other nationalities
The upswing in Mexican migration comes eight years after the Pew Research Center came to a stunning conclusion: After three decades of mass migration north, more Mexicans were leaving the U.S. than coming. Before that, in the decade before the Great Recession, U.S. border agents detained almost a million Mexicans each year.
Analysts called the 2012 phenomenon “net zero migration” and attributed the steep decline to increased deportations from the U.S. combined with a long-term demographic trend toward smaller families in Mexico, an improving economy and the country’s efforts to fight organized crime.
But in recent years, Mexico’s economic and security gains have proved fragile. These days, entire extended families are once again picking up and leaving their hometowns, from Michoacan, as Valeria’s family did, as well as from Guerrero and Zacatecas states, all plagued by violence and anemic economic growth.
The number of Mexicans family units apprehended with another family member at the border in the first four months of fiscal 2020 ― 4,425 ― was on pace to be more than double the 6,004 Mexicans traveling as a family unit apprehended in all of fiscal 2019, according to CBP.
Overall, border agents apprehended 63,405 Mexican nationals in the four-month period, 87% of them single adults, compared with 47,000 Central Americans detained over the same period. In contrast, border agents detained 144,836 Central Americans and 44,832 Mexicans during the first four months of fiscal 2019. Border agents detained 607,000 Central Americans and 166,000 Mexicans in 2019.
Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in a recent news conference that “since we’ve all but addressed the crisis from the Northern Triangle countries,” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, smuggling networks are “looking to other vulnerable groups,” such as Mexicans, he added.
Should current trends continue, the number of Mexican apprehensions could reach the highest point since 2016, before Donald Trump won the presidency.
The U.S. government has recently taken preemptive efforts to deter Mexican migration. CBP launched a program in late October to fast-track Mexican asylum claims called the Humanitarian Asylum Review Process, or HARP. The program returns asylum seekers quickly if their claims are found to have no merit. Hundreds of Mexicans, including Valeria and six other members of her family, have been returned or deported to Mexico under the program.
The ACLU sued the government in December, alleging the program violates due process for migrants.On Thursday, Morgan told a House subcommittee that slightly more than 1,200 people have been enrolled in HARP.
Mexico confronts record number of murders, rampant violence
But as violence in Mexico intensifies, a growing murder rate means more people will likely head north, hoping to reach safety in the U.S.
Prior to 2006, homicides in Mexico hovered below 15,000 nationwide, peaking at 14,619 in 1999. But when then-President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, he deployed the military to fight the cartels, which sent decreasing homicide rates soaring once again. By the time he left office six years later, murders had climbed to 21,459 in 2012.
Government statistics show the number of homicides dipped again in 2014. But murders have climbed rapidly ever since, continuously breaking the previous year’s record for three years in a row.
Last year was a benchmark year for bloodshed in Mexico. The country reached its highest level of homicides in modern times: 34,582 dead in 2019, an increase from the previous record of 33,341 in 2018. Driving the violence are criminal organizations in the country, previously controlled by half a dozen kingpins, that have splintered and multiplied and are now fighting turf battles and wreaking havoc on communities across Mexico.
In the past, eruptions of violence “were shorter in duration. What we are seeing now is that the battles are raging on and there is no end in sight,” said Scott Stewart, a Mexico security analyst with Austin-based intelligence firm Stratfor.
After taking office in Mexico in 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador laid out long- and short-term plans to tackle the country’s problems with violence.
Long-term, he said he would tackle the “root causes” of the violence, including a lack of opportunities for young people. Short-term, he would create a new 70,000-strong National Guard focused on combating the rising violence nationwide.
But after Trump’s demands that Mexico curb Central American migration ― communicated publicly in a relentless Twitter campaign in early 2019 ― López Obrador commanded his generals to deploy more than 21,000 troops of the newly created force to Mexico’s southern and northern borders to stop the flow of foreign migrants.
That situation created a paradox, analysts say: U.S. pressure to stem migration through Mexico forced Mexico to shift resources from fighting the very violence driving its own people north.
‘They began sending notes’: Mexico extortion threats intensify
Ever Navarrete Gonzalez, 24, drove a taxi in Costa Chica, Guerrero, a major hotspot for violence in Mexico, in a state where the economy shrunk 1% in the third quarter year over year. Navarrete Gonzalez fled north with his wife, Monica Robledo Ramirez, 23, in January after several taxi drivers died for refusing to pay cartels an extortion fee.
Navarrete Gonzalez was next in line, they learned.
“When we left, we decided to go because three days earlier they had killed a (taxi driver),” Robledo Ramirez said. “They began sending notes. And in those notes, my husband’s name appeared.”
The couple took a flight north and ended up in Nogales, Mexico, just south of the Arizona border, where other relatives had successfully crossed before.
“We didn’t have as much money to pay for what they were asking,” Robledo Ramirez said. “Each time they would charge him more. They were charging him between 2,000 and 3,000 pesos ($107 to $161). That was most of what he earned.”
The minimum wage in Guerrero last year was a little over 2,000 pesos ($108) a month.
For three months, the couple waited to present their claims, staying at the migrant shelter with dozens of other Mexican asylum seekers.
“I explained to them that because you’re married, you don’t have children, or anything like this, you’re going to detention,” the Rev. Rodger Babnew, who runs the migrant shelter for the nonprofit Cruzando Fronteras in Nogales, recalled telling them. “And they said, ‘We want to try.’”
U.S. authorities detained Navarrete Gonzalez but deported Robledo Ramirez to Nogales, Sonora, determining that she didn’t qualify for asylum. They gave her a 10-year ban to enter the U.S. The future of her husband, locked up in detention 100 miles away, is uncertain.
Robledo Ramirez said she knows one thing only: “We left because we were afraid, so I don’t plan on going back.”
They’re far from the only ones finding themselves in similar situations along the border.
León Fernando Ruiz Beltrán, 18, is staying at the same shelter as Robledo Ramirez, along with his parents and two younger siblings.
They left Michoacan in December for Nogales when the extortion from cartel gunmen in his town forced his dad to shut his store. The family also faced serious threats from his younger brother’s school principal, who they accuse of bribing local authorities and not addressing an incident in which classmates cut off the tip of the boy’s finger.
“We came thinking that in a day or two we’d be able to get across. That’s what they had told us,” Ruiz Beltran said, shivering from the cold Nogales winter. “But when we got here, we learned it wasn’t like that.”
The priest who runs the Anglican shelter in Juarez where Valeria and her family are staying says that among the Mexicans arriving he sees a pattern repeating itself.
“There are three clear tendencies,” for why they migrate, said the Rev. Hector Trejo. “Among the Mexicans, violence is the top reason. The second is economic necessity. And the third is the lack of employment opportunities. Often it’s a combination of the three but one reason always prevails.”
Economic factors in Mexico and US push, pull people north
U.S. officials are keenly aware of the economic challenges in Mexico and their potential to push people north. Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, said criminal networks are cashing in on that economic vulnerability.
“They’re exploiting the challenges with the economy right now,” he said, “to really drive and convince and trick a lot of these individuals.”
They say, “‘Just trust us and we’ll get you to the United States and everything we’ll be fine,’” he added.
Mexico’s equivalent of the Census Bureau, INEGI, said last month that the Mexican economy shrunk by 0.1% in 2019 ― the first contraction in a decade. Most projections have the country’s economy growing at an anemic 1% to 2% this year.
By contrast, the U.S. economy has seen uninterrupted growth for nearly a decade, with unemployment now at a low 3.6%.
López Obrador’s administration has instituted socioeconomic programs designed to help Mexico’s poor, such as monthly cash transfers to low-income students, the elderly or people with disabilities. Analysts say that may be keeping some people from leaving, for now. The risk becomes whether the administration’s social programs, economic development plans and efforts to eradicate violence will deliver results.
Analysts agree that having family or acquaintances living in the U.S. can also play a role for migrants in determining whether to leave or not.
Navarrete and Robledo Ramirez were headed for South Carolina, before he was detained and she was deported.
U.S. asylum officers make their determinations independent of each other, yielding mixed results from a single claim. While Valeria and six other family members were deported despite the threats she faced directly, asylum officers released four of her family members, including two grandchildren, into the U.S. They headed for Ohio, where relatives took them in.
‘A lot of evading activity’: Migrants take increased risks to cross border
Other Mexican migrants are taking greater risks to illegally enter the U.S., turning to old smuggling tactics that place their lives in danger.
Inside a Border Patrol station in El Paso, agents fixated on a black-and-white video image from early one February morning: men, eight of them, running down through the Rio Grande’s concrete bed, knee-deep with water, up to the 18-foot border fence and over it, with a rope ladder.
Border Patrol labels every crossing with a number. This was “Event 231.” All eight men ― from Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil ― were apprehended. Hours later, a scrap of yellow rope was still hanging from the rust-colored steel fence.
“We’re starting to see a lot of evading activity,” said Border Patrol agent Ramiro Cordero, a spokesman for the agency’s El Paso sector. “We’re starting to see the criminal organizations working hand to hand on either side to avoid detection.”
Recent months have seen tragedies and near-tragedies at the border.
A 62-year-old Mexican man lost his life after a smuggler’s boat capsized off the California coast earlier this month. In January, CBP in Texas found 36 migrants dangerously trapped in a dump truck with a false bed, under gravel and dirt, banging to get out. Agents found two Mexican nationals stuffed in a car trunk in rural Arizona in November.
Stuck at the border, with no way home
U.S. border officials said they expect apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border to go up in the coming months as the weather gets warmer. But as the administration rolls out programs like HARP to other parts of the border, it’s unclear how many more Mexican migrants will attempt to make the journey north.
On a recent day, Valeria sat on a bench in the migrant shelter, wiping tears from her face, trying not to smudge thick cradles of eyeliner under her eyes.
In Michoacán, she said, she and her three grown children and their families lived on the same land, in homes that opened on a common patio ― without riches but with her grandchildren close. The danger she faced upended that life, she said.
“I’m never going to get over it,” she said of the threats and the family’s failed attempt to reach the U.S. “I never imagined this. I thought I would always be with my grandchildren.”
She and her husband will stay in Juarez, she said, and find a way to survive while they figure out what to do. They can’t go back to Michoacan, she said.
Trejo, who has hosted Valeria and her family for weeks, said that Juarez shelters are prepared whether the Mexican migration intensifies or shifts again.
“Ultimately,” he said, “people who have been displaced are looking for solutions, and they can be very creative.”