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Five Forces Driving the Migrant Surge
Hunger; Tyranny; Crime-War; Coyotes; Information
A decade ago, a Catholic migrant shelter opened in Mexico City’s Vallejo barrio with 80 beds for those passing though this mountain capital. But this month has seen days with over 600 people arriving there, and most have been forced to sleep on the street outside. Finally last weekend, a group of neighbors complained about the chaos and feces and blocked a road until riot police turned up and migrants moved on, some camping by a bus station.
When I visited on Tuesday, dozens more migrants had arrived and were sitting on the sidewalk with backpacks and blankets. Paola Suberan, 30, fled Venezuela with her husband and two young sons amid hunger and threats from a pro-government militia. Reina Muller, 28, voyaged from northern Nicaragua, a member of the Miskito indigenous group that suffers persecution and malnutrition. A group of Haitians bolted Port-au-Prince from gangs that have taken over chunks of the city. Up the street and round the corner sat more families, couples, young men, children, from across the continent with their own tragic stories, uncertainty, fears. Most are headed to El Norte, the United States.
This crowd is just a drop in a tidal wave of migrants flowing through Central America and Mexico as this year breaks a series of records. More than 330,000 have crossed the jungles of the Darién Gap from Colombia making Costa Rica’s president declare a state of emergency. More than 100,000 have applied for asylum in Mexico and on Monday a frustrated group stormed an asylum office in the city of Tapachula. And along the Rio Grande and desert, the U.S. border patrol “encountered” 11,000 migrants in a single day - adding to 5.8 million since 2021.
As the United States is the magnet, it’s where the migrant surge is the hottest political issue. Candidates at the Republican debate blamed the president with Nikki Haley asserting, “When Joe Biden waved the green flag, it caused more people to come.” But with 100,000 new migrants in the Big Apple, Democrat mayor Eric Adams also struck out and claimed, “This issue will destroy New York City.”
Discussion rages on about how Washington should handle the surge, with no easy solutions. But a crucial question is “Why.” Why now is a record number of people heading over land to the United States?
While pundits points to short term changes in regulations or rhetoric, the wave is not a freak occurrence of this year. Rather it’s the latest in a series of “border crises” over the last decade, with surges in 2014, 2018-19, and 2022 under Obama, Trump and now Biden. It can be better understood as a continuous growing wave that was just temporarily reduced by Covid, Trump’s threats and the Mexican National Guard. We are living in an era of a historic shift of people across the globe.
This is different than the migration over the Rio Grande in the 1990s and 2000s. That was a large movement of Mexicans, with the Border Patrol categorizing the rest as simply, “Other Than Mexicans,” and it finally evened out. Now there are people from across the continent, especially Venezuela, Honduras, Ecuador, Haiti and Cuba, but also from Africa and as far as India and China. While it used to be migrants sneaking over without papers looking for work, there are now also huge numbers applying for asylum.
So what caused this shift? Here, I look at five fundamental forces driving the migrant surge. Like with other seismic events, the forces might not individually cause the change. But together they form the perfect storm.
It’s wrong to claim that nobody arriving at the border is a refugee, as many have very legitimate claims of asylum. Yet it’s also wrong to say there aren’t any economic migrants. Or that people don’t flee both poverty and bullets. Hunger has always been a key force driving migration.
Of course, poverty is not new. But there is frustration among many people in many countries that their conditions haven’t got better despite the promises of global capitalism. And there have been some fast falls in living standards.
Central America has suffered severe droughts since 2014 creating the so-called dry corridor. It’s largely attributed to climate change, although a recent study reported by AP disputes this. Either way it has been devastating with losses of up to 70 percent of some crops.
Further south in Venezuela, the government of Nicolás Maduro led a man-made disaster that caused GDP to tumble by two thirds from 2014 to 2020 and leave millions malnourished. Since 2015, more than seven million people fled the country, an exodus even bigger than from Syria. Many settled in nearby Colombia and Peru but remained in dire poverty and are now heading north.
A change of government in Venezuela might alleviate the exodus. But the Maduro regime has dug in, getting us to point two.
At the beginning of the millennium, democracy looked triumphant in Latin America. The mustachioed generals who ruled in the twentieth century had retreated into the historical shadows and hopes of freedom and prosperity abounded. Only the island nation of Cuba held out with one-party communist rule.
But the pendulum has swung back. Nicaragua has become a violent authoritarian state with police and paramilitaries killing more than 300 in protests from 2018 to 2019. President Daniel Ortega claims to be a socialist but has built a family fiefdom like the Somoza regime he defeated back in 1979.
Venezuela has seen a revolution take hold in a much bigger and oil-rich country with even more disastrous consequences. While Hugo Chávez inspired leftists round the globe with the potential for positive change, it has degenerated into a corrupt clique of soldiers, gangsters and militias lining their pockets.
Dictatorships don’t always cause people to flee if they can actually make a country more secure. But that certainly isn’t the case in Venezuela, which has powerful political police but runaway crime and militias shaking people down.
It’s not only supposed leftists who have battered democracy. Honduras suffered a coup in 2009 to install a right wing government that led to Juan Orlando Hernández ruling for eight years and fixing an election before he was finally taken to the United States in handcuffs on cocaine trafficking charges.
Bolivia had a coup in 2019 to end the 13-year rule of leftist Evo Morales. And over the border in Peru, leftist Pedro Castillo was arrested after he tried to dissolve parliament in what is described as a “self coup.”
Yet it’s even worse in Haiti, where the democratic government now only exists on paper, while much of the country is ruled by gangs. Which gets to point three.
A hope with the end of the Cold War was that Latin America would become more peaceful. Guerilla armies like El Salvador’s leftist FMLN and Nicaragua’s right wing Contras hung up their AK47’s. The political civil wars were largely over.
Yet, where guerillas stepped down, gangsters stepped up. War orphans turned into maras, drug dealers in Brazil’s favelas became commandos, and Mexican drug traffickers became cartels - or rather paramilitary organized crime.
With an iron river of firearms from the United States and frag grenades and launchers stolen from Latin American security forces, these crime militias have achieved victories that guerrilla groups would envy. In the Culiacanazo of 2019, more than 700 Sinaloa Cartel gunmen faced down 350 soldiers until El Chapo’s son Ovidio Guzmán was released from custody.
While posing as friends of the people, throwing parties and handing out presents, the gangs, cartels, posses and commandos terrorize communities. Thugs extort, kidnap, rape, and murder. A huge amount of the asylum claims are now from people fleeing gangsters rather than governments
On the flip side, governments wage military campaigns against cartels in which soldiers commit massacres and human rights abuses and people can flee them too.
These bloody new battles are not like the old civil wars and can’t be understood as such, or ended as easily. They are strange hybrid conflicts that are somewhere between crime and war, or as some of us call them “crime wars.”
Still, Latin America has known poverty, tyranny and war before. But the following new factors drive people from them at greater rates.
In 2017, I interviewed a migrant smuggler (a coyote or pollero) nicknamed Flaco in the border city of Nogales. His first job was when he was a teenager back in 1984 and he showed some migrants a hole in the fence for a tip of 50 cents. By 2017, he said, the price to be smuggled into the United States had shot up to $5,000. Since then it has more than doubled again.
This provides a booming revenue for coyotes. Former Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said human smuggling networks could be making $14 billion a year in Mexico alone. With such riches, the same cartels who force people to flee have taken over the business. And corrupt police and immigration officials get a cut off the top.
It’s an impressive industry. Customers can pay more to go by boat or tunnel and be delivered to their address of choice in the United States. The networks stretch right down into South America. Colombia’s Gulf Clan charges migrants to cross the Darién Gap just as Mexico’s Gulf Cartel charges them to cross the Rio Grande into Texas.
While there are plenty of customers, the coyotes will also pitch. They tell migrants that a certain U.S. regulation is good for them getting in. Yet even when the Border Patrol is beefed up it just means that coyotes charge more money, and so have an incentive to pitch even harder.
It’s a touch logic to beat. Especially considering the final force.
Across Latin America, almost 80 percent of people now have cell phones and access to the internet - a sea change from two decades ago. Facebook word goes around about heading to the United States. WhatsApp messages give prices of coyotes and bribes and transport.
People are more aware of their rights. Asylum cases can be very real but people didn’t know they could apply. When everyone is aware, and there are tyrannical governments and crime wars, the case load is huge. There is now a backlog of more than two million cases in U.S. immigration courts, mostly for asylum.
More information means more aspiration. In the 1970s, a teenager in the countryside of Honduras with no electricity was less aware of life in Dallas. When you see a wealthier world out there, it makes you want to live it.
A popular response to the migrant surge, from people on both sides of the political divide, is to say the problem should be solved at the root, in the home countries. Of course, I agree that everyone should have a better life and not have to leave their homes.
But when you consider these multiple driving forces, that is much easier said than done. It’s very tough to change these fundamental factors. And this historic migrant surge could continue for years to come.
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All photos by Ioan Grillo