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New Migration’s Gordian Knot: Mexico and the Caravans of the Northern Triangle of Central America

Le nouveau nœud gordien des migrations : Le Mexique et les caravanes du Triangle nord de l'Amérique centrale
Silvia Núñez García and María del Consuelo Dávila Pérez
This article is a translation of:
El nuevo nudo gordiano de la migración: México y las caravanas del Triángulo Norte de Centroamérica [es]


Migration processes in Mexico are varied and complex; the country sends migrants abroad and receives returnees in addition to migrants in transit and others wishing to settle there. In this sense, Mexico may be considered a global migration hub (a country of origin, reception, transit and destination). This chapter focuses on transit migration and the reception of migrants seeking asylum, with a particular focus on migrant caravans from the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) between 2018 and 2020. These caravans, characterised by thousands of people (Kahn, 2018) fleeing their countries of origin due to situations of violence and threats to their personal security—in addition to economic factors—have posed challenges for Mexico’s domestic and foreign policies, especially in terms of its relations with the United States. In this context, we explore the actions and policies introduced to deal with migrants and refugees transiting Mexico, and the impact these have had. Taking mid-2018—the end of Enrique Peña’s presidential term—as the point of departure for our analysis, we examine Mexico’s migration policies more generally, together with the response of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration to Donald Trump’s immigration policies and the pressure the Trump administration exerted on Mexico to contain the flow of irregular migrants.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 The term ‘migrant caravans’ emerged as a way to describe large groups of people moving by land acro (...)

1We were motivated to write this chapter by the need to highlight, and to provide insights for the evaluation of, the complexity of the migrant caravans that passed through Mexico between 2018 and 2020.1 In addition, we wanted to address the phenomenon that has produced adverse and high-risk conditions for the thousands of Central American men, women and minors who pass through Mexico in pursuit of the ‘American dream’. These migrants band together in caravans to avoid being subject to a variety of attacks such as robbery by common criminals, as they seek to escape extortion by organised crime and some members of Mexico’s security forces, hoping to avoid paying traffickers (the so-called ‘coyotes’) and receive assistance from government and non-government organisations (Astles, 2020). This chapter also aims to analyse the migration policy designed by the Mexican government for the period 20182024 (SEGOB, 2018b) to deal with this migratory flow, in the context of existing United States (US) policy and President Trump’s immigration containment policy.

2A preliminary evaluation of the current complexity of this singular phenomenon of human mobility is made along these lines, using qualitative analysis methods based on the selection and study of specialised bibliographic sources, official documents and newspaper articles from Mexico and the United States, resulting from investigative journalism and drawing on well-known columnists, academics and political figures.

  • 2 The PDI (ECLAC, 2019) is an ambitious and comprehensive proposal that deals with the structural ca (...)

3This migration flow is above all the result of the combined presence of persistent violence and adverse economic conditions. From our perspective, both of these factors play an important role and, based on the available evidence, neither can be singled out as the primary motivating factor. We argue that they form a vicious circle that could be considered a complex driver of migration. This chapter examines some aspects of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) between June 2018 and July 2020. We offer a critical reflection on Mexico’s migration policies: the regional policy, involving the Comprehensive Development Plan for Northern Central America and Mexico (Plan de Desarrollo Integral del norte de Centroamérica y México, or PDI),2 which reflects several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda; the bilateral policy, essentially with the US; and Mexico’s domestic migration policy and the policies that concern the US government’s response to the same challenge between June 2018 and July 2020. We also analyse the policy proposals derived from the PDI.

2. Theoretical Framework

4Proceeding from a detailed description of the factors that have produced increased migration from the NTCA, this chapter draws upon an understanding of ethnomethodology that assumes that ‘social knowledge is inherently unstable’ (Clifford, 1998, 393). By this, we mean to emphasise, as a point of departure, that the theories that attempt to explain international migration only partially respond to the complexities of a topic that involves social and spatial transitions that are themselves often imprecise (Micolta León, 2005).

5We also note that Douglas Massey’s theoretical concept of push–pull factors (Massey et al., 1998), which attempts to explain the causes of international migration by identifying the factors that drive people out of certain territories, as well as the factors that attract people to other countries, is appropriate for this study. The extremely precarious living conditions in the NTCA— repression, violence, and a severe lack of economic and political freedoms—compel migrants to leave their country of origin. The conditions prevailing in the US, meanwhile—better wages, networks of institutionalised protection for refugees and irregular immigrants, and networks shaped by family or identity-based solidarity—constitute factors that attract immigrants. In this interpretation, conditions may influence the motivations of individuals who are willing to face the risks of migration, creating a stimulus to emigrate, which implies an instrumental rationality.

  • 3 Spanish is the common language of Mexico and Central America, in addition to being spoken by 41 mil (...)

6We want to emphasise throughout this chapter that for the migrants, the transit of the caravans represents a change in a highly conflictive social, political and cultural environment (Massey et al., 1998). Moreover, unlike similar processes—such as African migrants seeking asylum in Europe—it is important to consider that the widespread use of the Spanish language in the region (Mexico, Central America and the southern US) is believed to be one of the elements of attraction that orient migratory flows. ‘The language spoken is one of the characteristics of the destination that the person willing to migrate considers when choosing the destination of their journey’ (Bermejo, 2008). Use of the same language has multiplied and strengthened migrants’ networks in the region,3 leading us to consider it a bridge of communication and resilience worthy of mention (Gutiérrez, 2007; Otero Roth, 2007).

7Another theoretical concept useful to our analysis is globalisation. It is a fact that divergences between countries are marked by crises that may coincide in time but produce different economic impacts (Criado, 2001). For example, a marked imbalance exists in the international distribution of income and the exclusion of entire regions of the world that remain left out of global circuits. In this context, where differences in working conditions and wage gaps between countries are polarised, accompanied by closed borders and restricted human mobility (Abad Márquez, 2002), selection criteria (whereby states determine migrants’ eligibility for entry) provide the benchmark for measuring the success of migration management.

8It is precisely in this context that the widening economic, wage and social gaps between NTCA countries, Mexico, and the United States make undertaking the journey north an attractive prospect. If we add to this the increased presence of organised crime and the violence it entails, which has become another push factor for migrants in vulnerable situations, we can better understand the reasons for the growing numbers of migrants who decide to travel in large groups to reduce the risks they face on the journey north.

3. Mexico’s Foreign Policy and Transit Migration

  • 4 Migration to Mexico has historically been cyclical and has never been massive. Even today, with the (...)

9As mentioned above, Mexico is a country of origin, return, transit and destination for migrants. Departure and return have taken place with respect to the large numbers of migrants heading north to the US, while transit migration and the reception of asylum seekers in the national territory comes from the south, and has been occurring on a visible scale since the 1980s. This has increased in recent decades, particularly for migrants from the NTCA countries,4 but also for migrants from other countries such as Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela. This has forced the Mexican state to reformulate its migration policy (Gómez Johnson and Espinosa Moreno, 2020).

10Mexico’s migration policy has mainly focused on defending the human rights of the millions of Mexicans who migrate to the US, emphasising a policy of protection. Mexico has been a promoter of important international mechanisms for defending migrants’ rights and participated in the drafting of the 1990 ‘International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families’, which was only signed by 54 states at the United Nations (UN). It also championed the first ‘High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development’, held in 2006 (IOM, 2013). These efforts were limited in scope, however, because the vast majority of countries were opposed to a global discussion of migration issues, which were officially seen as a matter of state sovereignty as opposed to one of humanitarian law.

  • 5 Fernando de la Mora Salcedo points out that the events that triggered the establishing of a dialogu (...)

11The perspective changed significantly in international organisations when events such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the global economic crisis of 2008, and the eruption of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 amplified migratory flows dramatically, to the extent that questions were raised about the handling of the issue at the global level. The need to analyse the migration situation from a multidimensional perspective arose, and the adoption in 2015 of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development meant that, for the first time, the perspective on migration changed. In the list of SDGs, targets, and indicators, Target 10.7 clearly states the need to ‘facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies’ (UN, 2021, 11). The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) was adopted by the UN in 2018, representing an important step towards a comprehensive vision of migration from a human security perspective.5 The UN General Assembly entrusted Mexico and Switzerland with carrying forward the negotiations to reach the GCM, thereby completing the virtuous circle of Mexico’s historical treatment of migrants.

12It is also important to take into account the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Adopted by the UN in December 2018, it provides a framework for governments, international organisations and other stakeholders to contribute to the social and economic inclusion of refugees in host communities so that these refugees can contribute to their new communities and ensure their own conditions for survival (Aragonés, 2020).

  • 6 For decades the Mexican government’s protection policy was called into question by experts and publ (...)

13Mexican diplomacy displayed great commitment in all the meetings that were organised to conclude and sign the GCM. Nevertheless, Mexico’s favourable migration policy for its own citizens abroad has not been echoed in the way that transit migrants or those wishing to settle in Mexico are treated.6 Hence, as Sánchez Cano (2020) states, it is necessary to improve domestic legislation in this respect.

14Throughout the twentieth century Mexico experienced isolated episodes of serving as a destination for migrants, essentially for asylum seekers: Spaniards fleeing the civil war and Francoism; Europeans fleeing World War II and Nazism; and from the 1960s onwards, Latin Americans seeking asylum from persecution by the military dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. In all of these cases the migrants were workers and intellectuals who integrated into life in Mexico with relative ease. But beginning in 1980, Mexico saw an unprecedented influx of Guatemalan and Salvadorean refugees, approximately one hundred thousand in 15 years, who crossed the border into Mexico, fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries (Somohano and Yankelevich, 2011). In light of these events it became evident that the Mexican government had no policy for dealing with such a situation; initially it was left to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and churches to provide help for the refugees. In 1980 the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, or COMAR) was created and two years later an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in Mexico. It was not until 2011, when the Refugees, Complementary Protection and Political Asylum Act (Ley Sobre Refugiados, Protección Complementaria y Asilo Político Federal de México) was passed, that the country finally defined and recognised the concept of asylum in Mexico.

4. The Central American Situation that Spurs Migration

15The economic crises and armed conflicts that, since the end of the last century, have taken place in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua unleashed a series of violent political and social conflicts that in turn led to a rise in mass migration transiting through Mexico, which later also included Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians and others. Many migrants from the south who initially intended to cross Mexico to reach the US have sought, in light of the border restrictions applied by the US when Donald Trump became President, to remain in Mexico for some time before pursuing the American dream (Gómez Johnson and Espinosa Moreno, 2020). The numbers speak for themselves: according to data from the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid, in 2013 there were 1,296 applications for refugee status in Mexico; by 2017 there were 14,619 such applications, and in 2018 29,647 (Gómez Johnson and Espinosa Moreno, 2020, 10).

16Furthermore, and contrary to expectations, the end of the military conflicts in Central America did not lead to peace in the region. As Pedro González Olvera explains,

In El Salvador the end of the conflict meant demobilisation and unemployment for dozens of guerrillas, police officers and members of the armed forces, and a disproportionate rise in crime, which soon became a huge problem and a threat to national security in both Mexico and Central America; in Nicaragua, counter-revolutionary groups financed by the US appeared; and in Guatemala, while the peace negotiations lasted longer, the underlying problems—inequality and structural poverty affecting vast sectors of the population—have remained unresolved and continue to be a not insignificant factor in the high levels of violence.

(González Olvera, 2020, 532)

17Crime rose in the Northern Triangle with the proliferation of the ‘maras’, criminal groups that spread throughout the region and even into Mexico, engaging in all types of crime, robbery, extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking, as well as being linked to drug trafficking and transnational organised crime. This led to even greater vulnerability for the populations in these countries, many of whom saw migration as the only means of escaping such violence (González Olvera, 2020).

5. The Magnitude of the Migrant Caravans

18By October 2018 migration from Central America had taken on massive proportions, as migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador fleeing the difficult conditions prevailing in their countries of origin began joining together in caravans to enter and cross through Mexico. Their aim was to cross Mexico more safely, in the face of the types of violence to which they were subjected on their way to the US: rape, trafficking, robbery and extortion, as well as other forms of violence perpetrated by criminal groups. Some of the migrants had the intention of applying for temporary asylum in Mexico.

19Table 10.1 shows the magnitude of these groups of irregular migrants originating primarily from the three countries mentioned above. According to official US data (O’Connor, Batalova and Bolter, 2019), by June 2019 more than 363,000 migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador had been apprehended by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), with the authorities warning that the number of apprehensions was already triple the previous fiscal year’s total.

Table 10.1 Country of origin for Central American immigrants already in the US, 2017

Region and country

Number of immigrants

Per cent (%)

Central America (total)



El Salvador















Costa Rica









Source: Author’s calculations based on statistical data from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI, 2017, as quoted in O’Connor, Batalova and Bolter, 2019) with figures from the American Community Survey (ACS) of the United States Census Bureau in 2017.

  • 7 These figures correspond to the US fiscal year running from 1 October 2018 to 30 September 2019.

20Table 10.2 shows US government data about the total number of individuals–—including minors—apprehended by the US authorities at the Mexican border in 2019.7 A record, of close to one million human beings (977,507), was reached according to the CBP (2019a). A comparison of apprehensions by country for the four-year period 20162019 shows that the number of apprehensions rose significantly for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (CBP, 2019b).

Table 10.2 Southwest Border Family Unit* apprehensions by country (The numbers below reflect the fiscal years 2016‒2019).

Family Units* Apprehensions by Country






El Salvador




















*Note: a Family Unit represents the number of individuals (either a child under 18 years of age, parent, or legal guardian) apprehended with a family member by the US Border Patrol.

Source: CBP (2019a).

6. Mexico’s Response to the Migrant Caravans and Pressure from the Trump Administration

21By 2017, meetings entitled a ‘Strategic Dialogue on Obstruction of Transnational Criminal Organizations’ were being held between the governments of Mexico and the United States, in which both countries recognised their shared responsibility in the fight against drug trafficking and organised crime, and agreed to promote joint actions to tackle the problem. In the context of these dialogues, the ‘Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America’ (SRE and SEGOB, 2017) ​​was held to promote sustainable, inclusive and safe development in the Northern Triangle countries. It was believed that this strategy would help reduce the number of migrants passing through Mexico in an attempt to reach the US. However, in 2018 the problems related to violence and insecurity increased in the countries in which the migrant caravans originated, as did the pressure the US government exerted on Mexico to help curb the caravans. By the end of 2018, the migrant caravans’ attempts to flee violence coincided with the final months of Enrique Peña Nieto’s term as President of Mexico.

22In the Mexican media it was reported that the President had informed his supporters that only regulated entry to the country would be permitted, while Mexico was faced with the combined threat of a wall being built along the border with the US and President Trump’s decision to force Mexico to pay for it. In addition, the US administration threatened its counterparts in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as well as Mexico, with the imposition of economic sanctions if they failed to stem the flow of undocumented migrants heading towards the US (Domínguez, 2019).

23In October 2018 two meetings were held in Washington DC to prepare the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America with the objective of exploring ‘formulas for regional development based on enhanced competitiveness and private investment, to ensure that migratory flows, if not halted, would at least be orderly, safe and regulated, in accordance with the UN’s Global Compact on Migration’ (González Olvera, 2020, 6). This was complicated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s demand for ‘an intense effort by Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico to combat irregular immigration’, along with Trump’s threat to cut off development aid to Central America if an end was not put to the migrant caravans (González Olvera, 2020).

  • 8 The ‘Frontera Sur’ (‘Southern Border’) programme coordinates actions to trigger social and economic (...)
  • 9 The ‘Quédate en México’ (‘Remain in Mexico’) policy, implemented by the Mexican government since 20 (...)
  • 10 The ‘Estás en tu casa’ (‘You are at home’) plan was issued by the Mexican government in October 201 (...)

24The Mexican government implemented some programmes, such as ‘Frontera Sur’ (Southern Border),8Quédate en México’ (Remain in Mexico)9 and ‘Estás en tu casa’ (You are at home),10 to offer temporary jobs to migrants while their migratory status in Mexico was being resolved. However, according to the available data the number of people expelled increased at the end of Enrique Peña Nieto’s six-year term in office (González Olvera, 2020).

  • 11 PND 2019-2024 (SEGOB, 2019).

25This situation coincided with a new, leftist government in Mexico, whose arrival initially entailed a change in attitude towards migrants as it sought to bolster a development agenda. The National Development Plan 2019–24 (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2019-2024, PND) states that given Mexico’s tradition as a country of asylum and refuge, it is obliged to respect the rights of migrants arriving in Mexico and offer them hospitality and the opportunity to build a new life.11 Furthermore, the Ministry of the Interior’s ‘New Migration Policy of the Mexican Government (201824)’ (‘Nueva Política Migratoria del Gobierno de México (2018-2024)’) announces a policy ‘based on a paradigm whose focal point is migrants as persons and social and economic development as the basis for human mobility in a regular, orderly and safe manner’ (SEGOB, 2018b). The policy document underlines that Mexico, as a signatory of the GCM, is committed to developing a ‘migration policy that respects the rule of law and recognises the human rights of migrants’, and fulfils the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the dignified treatment of migrants, ‘recognising the positive contributions that migrants offer to countries of destination, transit and return’ (SEGOB, 2018b). Yet this attempt to implement a positive immigration policy in line with the GCM and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has not yet succeeded.

26At first, President López Obrador’s declarations favouring a human rights perspective on migration, and what was stated in the National Development Plan on policy, were taken as an invitation for Central American migrants to enter and cross through Mexico without fear, implying that they would be well received and supported in obtaining visas and jobs, and even receive monetary assistance (Ruiz Sandoval, 2019).

27To that effect, in December 2018 Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración de México, or INAMI) began, for humanitarian reasons, distributing visitors’ cards to those participating in the caravans, thereby confirming the open-door policy for irregular migrants. This process only lasted two months, however, and was stopped after the issuance of 13,270 cards, distributed in Chiapas, Mexico City and Coahuila (INAMI, 2019).

28The cards were valid for one year and allowed migrants free movement and the right to work. It should be noted that Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president with 53 per cent of the overall vote (Navarro, 2018), and his popularity generated enormous expectations on the part of Mexican society, a circumstance that worked against leniency in granting benefits to undocumented migrants, generating pockets of discontent. Diverting money from the income-redistribution social programmes designed by the new Mexican government would have been deemed unacceptable.

29The scale of this human mobility, concentrated in the Northern Triangle countries, amounted to more than 151,000 undocumented migrants entering Mexico between January and December 2019, as well as more than 142,000 deportations in the same period, according to Mexican government data (SEGOB, 2019). According to researcher Erika Ruiz Sandoval, ‘in October 2018, 60,000 people were detained at the southern border of the United States; by February 2019 it was more than 75,000; and the number exceeded 100,000 in both March and April, totalling 132,887 in May 2019, in contrast to the 40,339 registered in May 2018’ (Ruiz Sandoval, 2019, 5).

  • 12 The ‘Quédate en México programme, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPPs) in Eng (...)

30The complexity of analysing these events should not see us lose site of the public policy decisions that the US government implemented in parallel, seeking to curb the incursion of undocumented migrants across its border with Mexico. One of the actions implemented from the end of January 2019 until the end of May 2021, known as ‘Quédate en México’ (Remain in Mexico) consisted,12 as previously mentioned, of allowing asylum seekers from other countries to remain in Mexican territory while awaiting the official (US) decision on their cases (Domínguez, 2019).

31As a result, by the end of August 2019—according to the US Department of Homeland Security—the number of undocumented migrants stranded in Mexican locations along the US border totalled more than 37,000, and many began to disperse through Mexico (O’Toole, 2019). While for Trump this was a highly successful measure, the suffering and insecurity endured by migrants in Mexico exposed Mexico’s difficulty in protecting them.

32The measures that the US implemented on its border with Mexico at the same time as the number of people entering Mexico through its southern border was increasing presented escalating difficulties, leading López Obrador to make a public statement on 24 April 2019 in which he radically modified his original open-door policy, stating that ‘[w]e don’t want them to have free passage, not only for legal reasons, but also for security reasons. Unfortunately, in the north, we have had problems with migrants being murdered in the past’ (El Heraldo, 2019). This statement refers to the fact that the violence and insecurity that exist in Mexico make it difficult for the Mexican government to provide protection or guarantee the human rights of migrants.

33By June 2019, the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación) had established 58 immigration stations and temporary shelters for migrants in 23 of the Federal Republic’s 32 states. One of the most significant of these, in terms of protecting the migrants in the caravans, is the Siglo XXI (‘Twenty-first Century’) holding facility in Chiapas. In June 2019, it had already exceeded its very limited capacity of 960 people, with numbers reaching 1,230, setting a precedent that has become a recurrent situation in these shelters, where capacity is sometimes exceeded by 400 per cent (Gutiérrez and Villa, 2019) leading to increased tensions between residents and locals.

  • 13 ‘Mexico, as a transit country, does not offer a better panorama in this regard: organised crime and (...)

34As was to be expected, throughout 2019 Mexico received a significant number of asylum applications. According to data from UNHCR (2020), around 69,500 applications were made, an increase of 137 per cent in comparison to 2018 and generating an administrative deficit for the country as it had to handle an average of almost 6,000 applications per month. Hondurans formed the highest proportion at 43 per cent of asylum seekers, followed by Salvadoreans with 13 per cent and Cubans with 12 per cent. Women and children constituted 69 per cent of the total, their numbers highlighting the extreme vulnerability of both groups.13

35It is important to recognise that Mexico, in the midst of this extremely complex regional migration scenario, has strengthened its collaboration with agencies such as UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), making an effort to comply with their recommendations. One example of these efforts to comply involves an assessment that these agencies carried out to identify the needs and capacity of 60 shelters, which led to the Mexican authorities being pressured to adapt accordingly and transform their interventions into public policies to benefit the population served. It must, however, be pointed out that most of the shelters in Mexico are run by civil society organisations, and their leadership in this area should be recognised.

36A new threat to Mexico was added to this complex environment when, on 31 May 2019, the Trump Administration hardened its position on condemning the country for not making a greater effort to stop the growing flow of undocumented migrants who continued to seek an opportunity to reach the US. Trump threatened to raise tariffs on imports from Mexico by as much as 25 per cent, thereby forcing Mexico to formally adopt the aforementioned ‘Quédate en México’ (‘Remain in Mexico’) policy along all the land crossings of the shared border (Mars, Ximénez de Sandoval and Farisa, 2019). Mexico’s response to President Trump’s threat signified, as previously stated, a shift in Mexican policy on Central American migration. After tough negotiations, Mexico accepted a deal according to which it would ‘take unprecedented measures’ to stop irregular migration and human trafficking (Domínguez, 2019; Aragonés, 2020).

37When, following the June agreement with the US, the military was empowered to detain migrants under the pretext of supporting the work of the INAMI, Mexico made a flagrant change to its humanitarian approach to migrants. The journalist Pedro Domínguez reported that ‘[o]n the southern border, on the borders with Guatemala and Belize, they have deployed two thousand National Guardsmen, and 4,500 more have been added toward the interior of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, while on the border with the United States there are fifteen thousand federal police officers to stop irregular migration’ (Domínguez, 2019). The reinforcement of the National Guard increased conflict and led to an expansion of the human trafficking industry.

  • 14 Those seeking asylum in the US were being returned to Mexico to await their asylum hearing and the (...)

38The outcome, for the year, would prove positive for both the government of Mexico and that of the US, showing that the restrictions, detentions and deportations of migrants were having an effect. With the deployment of the National Guard along the southern and northern borders, Mexico became the de facto safe third country.14

39In addition to this migration crisis, there is another factor that has not been very visible, but which exists in Mexico and has to do with attitudes within the communities and localities that have received significant numbers of migrants and refugees. Since 2018, in the wake of the migrant caravans, xenophobic and intolerant slogans have become manifest. A public opinion survey conducted in February 2018 by Francisco Abundis of the polling company Parametría, addressing the general impression of Mexicans regarding the foreign population in their country, indicated a 70 per cent disapproval rate toward Central Americans (Abundis, 2020).

40In the same survey, respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the Mexican government allowing Central Americans to enter the country, with only 23 per cent answering in the affirmative. This data, it could be argued, should oblige Mexico to make a significant effort to develop policies for the integration of migrants and refugees.

7. The Comprehensive Development Plan for Northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) and Mexico

41We will now address the PDI, which we consider to be the most ambitious regional policy on Central American migration, promoted by Mexico and with the participation of the Northern Triangle countries and the US, which is expected to provide strategic funding.

42A detailed knowledge of the PDI is an important tool for fully understanding the objectives of this chapter. Drafted by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, (Comisión Económica para América Latina, or ECLAC), agreement on the plan was reached on 1 December 2018, the day Andrés Manuel López Obrador assumed office as the President of Mexico (ECLAC, 2019). On the same day, the heads of state of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico signed a political statement of intent to implement the PDI, which would be based on the recognition of the structural factors driving subregional migration and open the door to co-operation to promote prosperity and combat underdevelopment. The PDI came to represent a paradigm shift in the treatment of migration and has become the prevailing mechanism for implementing the GCM in the region (Gómez Camacho and de la Mora Salcedo, 2019). A clear example of this is the four axes of the PDI explained later in this chapter.

43On 20 May 2019, Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of ECLAC, presented the first version of the PDI to the Mexican president. The plan included recommendations for improving the quality of life of the region’s population, addressing the migration cycle within the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 SDGs. The PDI was subsequently adjusted to accommodate the projects presented by the countries involved (UN Mexico, 2020a).

44We consider it pertinent to outline some of the most important components of this plan. Its design and content constitute added value, in terms of identifying the common challenges for the promotion of regional development, seeking to resolve structural problems, and also taking into account that the governments of the four countries involved agreed to sign it, which represents a significant political accomplishment.

45The zone covered by the plan has exceptional access to the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, with a young demographic and a population that together represent a potential market of 60 million people. The plan is divided into four programme axes: economic development, social welfare, sustainability, and management of the migration cycle. The first axis addresses issues related to taxation and investment, trade integration, energy and logistics. Education, health and labour issues are included in the second, while risk management and environmental protection appear in the third.

46The fourth axis, which refers to migration management, lists various elements that place the human rights of migrants and refugees at the centre of the entire migration cycle, including the principle of non-discrimination; attention to people displaced by violence and disasters; comprehensive actions for deprived neighbourhoods located in migrants’ places of origin, transit, destination and return; and programmes to overcome rural poverty and hunger; as well as programmes for the inclusion of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and returnees in education systems. Another more ambitious and long-term element is the proposal to reach agreements concerning the portability of rights and social security benefits.

47The following macroeconomic aspects are decisive for the proper implementation of the plan: transparency and accountability; progressive taxation to prioritise public investment and eliminate tax privileges; strengthening the administration of tax revenues; and promoting employment and the minimum wage, as well as labour protection; together with fostering industrial policies that promote science, environmentally sustainable technology and innovation.

48As can be seen, in all of the specific aspects of the four axes of the PDI, there is clear concordance with many of the UN SDGs, some of the most prominent being: no poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2), good health and well-being (SDG 3), quality education (SDG 4), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), reduced inequalities (SDGs 10 and 5), and climate action (SDG 13) (UN Mexico, 2020b). It is also necessary to consider that unfortunately the PDI has not been implemented (Prado Lallande, 2020). Presidential elections in Guatemala and El Salvador in 2019, as well as the 2020 US presidential election, got in the way. But the most significant factors in this failure have been a lack of financial resources and the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • 15 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Labor Organization (IL (...)

49Among the most striking aspects of the PDI are its promotion of development in the place of origin, as migration is intended to become an option rather than an obligation, and the insertion of human mobility into a model that stimulates equality and sustainability. In 2019, Mexico estimated that the annual cost of implementing the plan would be USD 10 billion. There were also expectations of support from the European Union, Spain, Germany and Chile, and the added backing of 14 UN agencies.15

50In addition, it is worth noting that the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that the plan’s actions would begin in July 2019, through the ‘Sembrando Vida’ (‘Sowing Life’) programme to support farmers, and a youth-oriented programme, ‘Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro’ (‘Youth Building the Future’), both of which were initiated after the formingof the López Obrador government. ‘Sembrando Vida’ offers resources to farmers to work their lands in their communities rather than migrate. ‘Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro’ offers young people who are not employed or studying opportunities to work in companies and receive a stipend from the government, thus making them less easy prey for organised crime. The ‘Sembrando Vida’ programme, in collaboration with El Salvador, sought to generate 20,000 beneficiaries in addition to another 13,000 in Honduras. One year on, however, the desired results had not been achieved due to cuts to the programmes’ funding, which was diverted to combatting COVID-19 in Mexico (Prado Lallande, 2020; Pradilla, 2020).

51For the sake of objectivity, it is useful to illustrate some of the more substantive criticisms of the PDI in order to evaluate it properly. Marcela Valdivia, a specialist on the region, acknowledges that the plan takes into account the various factors that influence the decision to migrate—the search for economic improvement and security as well as other challenges such as climate change and inequality—but warns that expectations of what the plan can achieve are disproportional, as the priority projects, tied to large infrastructure works in the energy and communication fields, will not necessarily serve to deter Central Americans from moving to the US (Valdivia, 2019).

52Another issue is that one of the great uncertainties related to the plan is that its implementation requires constant and consistent political will from the parties involved. To this, Professor Farid Hannan Goyri adds that ‘regardless of the technical or regulatory issues related to this assistance, the fact that the countries have a roadmap is important per se for orienting existing efforts and resources’ (Hannan Goyri, 2019).

53A study published in the well-known Mexican magazine Letras Libres emphasised that one of the most important keys to the initiative’s successful progress would be the effective participation of the US (Letras Libres, 2019). It also pointed to the fact that the wide range of tasks to be carried out remained open-ended, and that the resources required, the necessary schedule and an evaluation of results were all lacking.

54Conversely, specialist Rolando Castillo recalls that while the current government of Mexico is presented as being at the vanguard of this plan, the country has a history of pursuing development initiatives in Central America. Some were promoted by administrations headed by the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN), including the Puebla-Panama Plan, later known as the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project (Proyecto de Integración y Desarrollo de Mesoamérica), which for various reasons failed to progress. For the PDI, Castillo notes in his analysis that the López Obrador government indicated that the US would participate with substantial funding for the region. In September 2019, however, the Trump administration performed an about-face and announced a parallel plan of its own. As was commonplace in Donald Trump’s approach, the strategy was to divide and rule, pursuing negotiations that privileged bilateral rather than joint agreements (Castillo, 2019). Trump’s plan to negotiate separately with each country provided no solutions and went nowhere.

55Fernando de la Mora Salcedo, meanwhile, diplomat and negotiator of the GCM, warns of the importance of ‘not falling into the old dichotomy of migration and development’ (Gómez Camacho and de la Mora Salcedo, 2019, 16), pointing to studies by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) that show that a lack of development does not necessarily lead to migration, and that neither do remittances from migrants promote development. Development and migration, he argues, must therefore be analysed from a multidimensional perspective, where economic, political and social factors play a role, along with climate change and public security, among many other factors. ‘One of the [GCM] lessons is that if migrants return to the same conditions that led to their departure, it is unlikely that they will remain, giving rise once again to cross-border movements motivated by need’ (Gómez Camacho and de la Mora Salcedo, 2019, 16).

56Since March 2020 and the onset the COVID-19 health crisis, the PDI has been adrift; the resources that were supposed to be allocated to the plan have not arrived, due to the problems faced by all of the world’s economies. In June 2020 Mexico contributed USD 30 million to the PDI, but there is no sign that more capital will be forthcoming or that what was previously agreed upon will be achieved. Moreover, the general situation in Central America has worsened as a result of the pandemic (Arista, 2020).

57It is worth noting that on 8 July 2020, President López Obrador made his first official visit to Washington. His encounter with the then US president was symbolic and was permeated by the context of the upcoming presidential election in the US. The issues of migration and the PDI were not discussed, meaning that the US–Central America relationship and any approach to the issue of migration remained, to say the least, uncertain (Sánchez Cano, 2020).

8. Conclusion

58In order to address the complexity of migrant caravans from Central America, we have reviewed the actions and policies proposed by Mexico between 2018 and 2020 initially under the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, who had a restrictive policy towards this form of migration, and then from the end of 2018 under the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which designed a new migration policy to respond to this growing group of migrants. These actions took place in the context of the Trump Administration’s threats to build a border wall and the pressures the US leadership exerted on Mexico, including the 2019 threat to impose tariffs if Mexico did not collaborate in containing the flow of irregular migrants, an issue that presented Mexico with challenges at the domestic, bilateral and regional levels.

59First, we addressed the environment created by the political, economic and social push factors that compelled many inhabitants of Central America’s Northern Triangle to migrate in caravans in order to minimise the risks encountered on their journey towards the United States. Second, we examined the way in which Mexico, primarily under the López Obrador government, implemented—in both the National Development Plan and the New Migration Policy—a policy that was open to migration and fostered a human development perspective, in line with the country’s international commitments in the GCM and the GCR. However, in 2019, facing pressure from the Trump administration, Mexico reversed this policy and began containing migrants at the country’s southern border thanks to the the deployment of the National Guard. Mexico also became the recipient of all such migrants seeking asylum in the United States, who have been obliged to remain on the country’s northern border until their situation has been resolved, with Mexico functioning as a ‘safe third country’.

60We reviewed the most important mechanism that Mexico has promoted to find a long-term solution to emigration from the NTCA, the Comprehensive Development Plan for Northern Central America and Mexico (Plan de Desarrollo Integral del norte de Centroamérica y México), drafted by ECLAC. In our initial evaluation of the PDI we recognise that it provides good analysis and proposes four axes of action to respond to the precariousness and defencelessness of irregular migrants; these actions are closely linked to many of the SDGs of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This represents an opportunity that should be contemplated operationally, establishing a road map for gradually moving forward.

61The set of elements outlined above allows us to see the contradictions in the Mexican government’s actions, as well as the lack of coherence between the proposals to foster regional development and Mexico’s migration policies. Mexico followed the course imposed by the Trump administration for the containment and exclusion of migrants, but progress must now be made in coordinating asylum policies if they are to be pursued effectively, and this must be done on the basis of reciprocity between Mexico and the US. While the June 2019 agreement also included other commitments related to assistance for migrants, including joint efforts to dismantle human trafficking networks, US co-operation on the PDI has not materialised. The US has not provided the agreed economic resources to contribute to economic development in the Northern Triangle countries, development that might prevent people from migrating and being subjected to violence, common and organised crime, and extortion by human trafficking networks.

62In 2019, actions were initiated to implement the PDI through the ‘Sembrando Vida’ (‘Sowing Life’) programme for farmers and the youth-oriented ‘Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro’ (‘Youth Building the Future’) programme. However, one year on, no progress had been made because of a lack of resources (Pradilla, 2020; Prado Lallande, 2020).

63Mexico has also strengthened its collaboration with UN agencies. For example, in coordination with UNHCR migrant shelters were evaluated in order to improve their services and with the aim of influencing local and federal authorities in Mexico to design and improve public policies for migrants.

64The migration crisis and the deteriorating economic and security situations, together with the COVID-19 health crisis, are affecting institutions and public policies in a way that foreshadows more complex situations in all areas. This is why we believe that international co-operation will have to be even more decisive and forthcoming if it is to facilitate regular and circular migration, where migrants’ skills and abilities are put to good use and contribute, upon their return, to the development of their communities of origin. As de la Mora Salcedo points out, in political matters there has to be a real and comprehensive strengthening of institutions. Both the National Institute of Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración) and the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana para Atención a Refugiados) require more staff specialised in migration and human rights, and more economic resources, in order to carry out the tasks assigned to them, with respect for the human rights of migrants and the integral development of Central America at their core.

65In terms of human rights, international migration is an emblematic area for learning about good practices and the policy implementation of international instruments (protocols, conventions, etc.). Human rights violations are widespread and much remains to be done to ensure migrants’ security and respect for their human rights.

66Another challenge that must be urgently addressed is the adverse reactions of various parts of the Mexican population that, as mentioned above, have been developing negative and xenophobic attitudes towards migrants. The realities of being a country of destination, refuge and transit have not yet permeated public opinion in many Mexican communities, and xenophobic and intolerant slogans targeting migrant caravans are manifest. A survey of public opinion already mentioned in this chapter (Abundis, 2020) shows that Mexicans have highly negative attitudes towards Central American migrants. This indicates the need for the Mexican government to make a concerted effort to develop policies for the integration of migrants and refugees. The challenge is to develop multidimensional public policies in the economic, social, political and human rights spheres to guarantee the well-being, dignity and respect of these migrant communities.

67It is also imperative to recognise that the year 2020 will go down in history for the havoc that the global spread of COVID-19 wreaked, with the loss of hundreds of thousands of human lives, illness, unemployment and a state of collective anxiety that led to high levels of violence. This situation obliges those of us who have remained healthy and kept our jobs to recognise, first of all, that among the most vulnerable are precisely those irregular migrants, refugees, displaced persons and the thousands of people who have not been repatriated, who have lost their sources of livelihood or the hope of starting a new life elsewhere.

68Furthermore, it obliges us to build bridges of solidarity to support them wherever we can: as academics and as a substantive part of civil society we can explore new alternatives such as promoting more international research projects that are underpinned by strategic alliances with the activism of human rights organisations, to help preclude policy improvisation and to remedy the lack of experience of various stakeholders. We believe this would help to properly manage the complex phenomenon of human mobility that many countries, Mexico included, will continue to face.

69The COVID-19 pandemic has placed us on an accelerated learning curve that was never foreseen or imagined, one on which we have learned that irregular migration remains an unmet challenge for humanity. In this logic, the innovative and committed promotion of development is now a sine qua non for a better world.

70Meanwhile, objective living conditions in the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America are driving the population to leave their countries of origin. These push factors, related to the disparities created by globalisation and reflected in precarious political, social and economic conditions, together with natural phenomena and high levels of violence, compel Central Americans to flee their places of origin, seeking a better standard of living—in short, the American dream.

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1 The term ‘migrant caravans’ emerged as a way to describe large groups of people moving by land across international borders. Migrant caravans from Northern Central America have increased in number and frequency since 2018 (Astles, 2020).

2 The PDI (ECLAC, 2019) is an ambitious and comprehensive proposal that deals with the structural causes of poverty, inequality and emigration. Central to its implementation are the governments of the countries in the area (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico), along with support from international organisations, foreign direct investment (FDI) and the co-operation of friendly countries. The plan emphasises investment in infrastructure: electricity connections, gas pipelines, roads and railways, which are all essential to boosting development. This is complemented by programmes and projects that, according to the proposal, address the causes of migration (transit, destination and return) at source, from the perspective of human rights and the United Nations paradigm of human security’(Castillo, 2019). Translation from original.

3 Spanish is the common language of Mexico and Central America, in addition to being spoken by 41 million people in the US (Sulbarán Lovera, 2019).

4 Migration to Mexico has historically been cyclical and has never been massive. Even today, with the new wave of migrants seeking refuge, essentially from Central America, the total number of migrants represents barely 0.1% of the population, although it has doubled in recent decades (Bobes, 2019, 2).

5 Fernando de la Mora Salcedo points out that the events that triggered the establishing of a dialogue on migration from a human security perspective were the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean and the large flow of refugees and migrants that caused the European migrant crisis in 2015, which also exacerbated xenophobia and the prevalence of hate speech, and the rise of populism and exclusionary nationalisms (de la Mora Salcedo, 2020, 90).

6 For decades the Mexican government’s protection policy was called into question by experts and public opinion in general, as it applied double standards to its own citizens abroad and to migration from Central America.

7 These figures correspond to the US fiscal year running from 1 October 2018 to 30 September 2019.

8 The ‘Frontera Sur’ (‘Southern Border’) programme coordinates actions to trigger social and economic development in the region and establishes measures to protect migrants’ rights (SEGOB, 2015).

9 The ‘Quédate en México’ (‘Remain in Mexico’) policy, implemented by the Mexican government since 2019 in light of Donald Trump’s threats, involves those applying for asylum in the US waiting in Mexico for their hearings to be scheduled. The colloquial name ‘Quédate en México corresponds to the US Government’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy. This policy was ended on 1 June 2021 and was substituted with transitional programmes.

10 The ‘Estás en tu casa’ (‘You are at home’) plan was issued by the Mexican government in October 2018 with the primary objective of providing temporary work options to Central American migrants while their immigration status is being resolved (SEGOB, 2018a).

11 PND 2019-2024 (SEGOB, 2019).

12 The ‘Quédate en México programme, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPPs) in English, was originally set up as a temporary programme.

13 ‘Mexico, as a transit country, does not offer a better panorama in this regard: organised crime and drug trafficking networks that often commit crimes of extortion, assault, murder, trafficking, smuggling, kidnapping, sexual violence, disappearance and recruitment, are part of a harsh environment that complicates the mechanisms for guaranteeing the safety of those who transit through Mexico’ (Gómez Johnson and Espinosa Moreno, 2020, 27–28).

14 Those seeking asylum in the US were being returned to Mexico to await their asylum hearing and the resolution of their claiming refugee status. With a growing population without economic resources on the northern border and the subsequent COVID-19 health crisis, however, the challenges that Mexico began facing in 20192020 have made the situation of irregular migrants in Mexico even more vulnerable.

15 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Labor Organization (ILO), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat).

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Cite this article

Electronic reference

Silvia Núñez García and María del Consuelo Dávila Pérez, New Migration’s Gordian Knot: Mexico and the Caravans of the Northern Triangle of Central AmericaInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 12 May 2022, connection on 03 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Silvia Núñez García

Silvia Núñez García is the Director of the Los Angeles branch of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a tenured researcher on US–Mexico relations at the Center for Research on North America (CISAN-UNAM). She is also a lecturer on North American Studies at the School of Social and Political Sciences at UNAM and has been a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University, Michigan State University, the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India and the University of Language and Communication (IULM) in Milan, Italy. Núñez has been a distinguished member of the US–Mexico Fulbright Commission, and participates as Member of the Advisory Board of the Mexico Institute from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Her field of expertise is social structure, social inequality, migration and gender in North America.

María del Consuelo Dávila Pérez

María del Consuelo Dávila Pérez is a professor at the Center for International Relations of the School of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She conducted her doctoral studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and at the Division of Postgraduate Studies at UNAM. She has been a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego, and at Complutense University of Madrid. Her fields of expertise include Mexico’s foreign policy, comparative policies of North America and of the European Union, Mexico–US relations, migratory policies between Mexico and the US, new actors in Mexico’s foreign policy, and Mexico–Spain relations.

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