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Blocking the Spread of COVID-19: Global Border Closure Policies in Central America and Mexico

Bloquer la propagation de la COVID-19 : politiques mondiales de fermeture des frontières en Amérique centrale et au Mexique
René Leyva Flores, Karol Rojas and Belkis Aracena
This article is a translation of:
¿El cierre de fronteras y el control de la Covid-19? El caso de Centroamérica y México [es]


One of the main actions implemented globally to control the COVID-19 pandemic has been the restriction of population mobility, by closing borders (aerial, terrestrial and maritime), restricting circulation, and ordering mandatory confinement. Latin America has been no exception, and various countries in the region have implemented, among other measures, border closures and curfew policies. Other countries, such as Mexico, have opted instead for persuasive measures appealing to the good will of the populace, asking them to stay at home and practice frequent handwashing, and have provided the public with daily information regarding the current state of the pandemic. It is to be expected that interventions that fall at either of the two extreme ends of this spectrum lead to different effects on the behaviour of the pandemic. This study aims to analyse the pandemic response measures of border closure and internal mobility restriction, and their relation to the behaviour of the COVID-19 pandemic (by case number trends), comparing Central American countries and Mexico. A document analysis was conducted, using official government publications and mass communication channels that provided information on actions taken to control COVID-19, as well as epidemiological reports from each country. The epidemic curve, which reflects confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, was not significantly different between the Central American countries, which mostly implemented border closures and curfews, and Mexico, which did not. Mandatory border closures and restrictions on internal mobility in Central American countries—with the exceptions of Nicaragua, which imposed neither, and Costa Rica, which imposed border controls but only minimal internal restrictions—were found to constitute human rights violations.

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1. Introduction

1Despite recent health emergencies in various regions the world over (WHO, 2017), the magnitude of the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, including in developed countries, has taken the entire world by surprise (Bauman, 2014). The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the scientific and technical developments of the modern world still lack the capacity to prevent and take on massive health catastrophes. Much like when faced with similar challenges in premodern times, human survival is effectively still a question of individual immune capacity and the individual and collective options available for risk management.

2From the onset of the pandemic, the global response has been characterised by a common thread. Between February and March of 2020, just days after the first COVID-19 cases were identified, governments of 70 countries around the world turned to health and sanitation measures that have been used since before the birth of Christ: borders were closed (ports, airports and any mode of physical cross-border travel) and individuals were placed under mandatory confinement, complete with sanctions for lack of compliance (Onda Cero, 2020; Coloma, 2020; De Gracia, 2020; Municipal Council of Panama, 2020; Cárdenas and Corro Ríos, 2020; Sequeira, 2020; López, 2020). The argument that reducing population movement would help slow viral transmission and consequently allow short-term control of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 was used to justify these policies.

3In the initial phase, the spread of the pandemic was explained by the arrival of ‘imported cases’ (WHO, 2020c; PAHO, 2020), mainly originating from China; but very soon Italian, French, German, Spanish and Mexican cases were identified, as well as cases from a long list of other countries. The rapid and frequent movement of the global population, which is integral to the modern social dynamic, was not factored in. This is why when measures such as border closures and population confinement were finally announced, the virus had already been identified in multiple regions of the world, with a presence initially concentrated in countries with greater human mobility. In 2018, 4 billion 233 million people around the world travelled by air (World Bank, 2020c); most (51.2 per cent) travelled to or from Europe, China or the United States. In contrast, Central America and Mexico contributed only 1.9 per cent of global air travel passengers (World Bank, 2020a).

4This explanation of the global spread of COVID-19 mirrors the reflections of Cipolla in his Who Broke the Gates of Monte Lupo? (Chi ruppe i rastelli a Monte Lupo?), set in a small, walled Tuscan village crippled by the plague between 1630 and 1631 (Cipolla, 1984). Today, much like in those days, political decisions made to address COVID-19 have led to the closure of ‘the gates’and the isolation of families. Like the authorities in those days, today’s figures have in some cases

promoted fiscal reform to relieve the poverty of the people, but found a strong opposition by the wealthy families of the population, who refused to contribute their money to alleviate the costs stemming from the pandemic. As a result of this situation, the social fabric is deteriorating, the poor are being forced to abandon their homes, and thievery and looting is rampant [...] meanwhile, the plague continues to decimate the population.

Tornafoch, 2020

5Despite the predominance of border closure policies throughout most of the world, some governments took other positions or, for any number of reasons, did not choose to adopt this measure as a tool for pandemic control (Paterlini, 2020). The Central American countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama) and Mexico, who share borders as well as a history of robust intra-regional population movement, took different approaches to one another. The Central American countries implemented border closures, including the closure of ports and airports; Nicaragua has been the only Central America country to neither close its borders nor impose other restrictions. Most also took more drastic measures such as military curfews in their interiors; again, Nicaragua is an exception, as is Costa Rica, which only imposed voluntary isolation measures and restricted circulation by vehicle. Mexico, meanwhile, did not implement border closures or mandatory confinement policies; rather, its actions focused on informing, sensitising and persuading the population of the importance of social distancing.

6It is to be expected that the implementation of differing measures among countries would yield differing results as far as the epidemiological behaviour of the COVID-19 pandemic is concerned. The present case study analyses the country-level measures implemented to control the pandemic in Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama) and Mexico, and observes their effects on the spread of COVID-19, from the first reported case until December of 2020. Contrary to expectations, the behaviour of COVID-19 in each country was relatively similar.

2. Methods

7A comparative case study was performed between Central American countries and Mexico, each of which implemented different policies to control the COVID-19 pandemic. A document analysis was conducted on statements made via electronic communication channels, public policy statements and government websites reporting information related to COVID-19. The period of analysis begins on the date of the first registered COVID-19 case for each country, and ends in December 2020.

8A content analysis was conducted to identify convergences and divergences between actions implemented by the countries of interest. The following analytic categories were applied: reasons or motives justifying border closures (when, why, for how long, what the desired result was), and the translation of these statements or orders into specific control measures with regard to both internal and international population mobility.

9The content analysis studied information taken from daily Internet publications of official government sources and other mass communication channels found using the search engine Google. Epidemiological information was obtained from official reports released by the health ministry of each country. The socio-economic situation of each country at the onset of the pandemic was also characterised. All analysed information was publicly available, and ethical guidelines to guarantee the anonymity, confidentiality, and privacy of sources were observed.

3. Results

10The analysis allowed the characterisation of the form in which global pandemic control measures were adopted nationally, difficulties regarding their implementation, and unwanted effects on human rights. Most Central American countries imposed mandatory measures restricting population movement. These included the closure of aerial, terrestrial and maritime borders, as well as school closures, the suspension of public events, general restrictions on international travel and the implementation of work-from-home policies except in essential sectors. The Mexican and Nicaraguan governments did not adopt any of these measures (table 11.1).

Table 11.1 Measures implemented to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Central America and Mexico, 2020

Table 11.1 Measures implemented to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Central America and Mexico, 2020

Sources: Created by the authors based on information from ECLAC, 2020.

11Table 11.1 shows that the implementation of internal mobility restrictions differed between Central American countries. The governments involved crafted and disseminated arguments to justify the implementation of mobility restriction measures aimed at containing COVID-19. Nevertheless, little to nothing was explained regarding the management of externalisation effects or the unwanted consequences that affected resident populations as well as mobile groups in border areas. The following sections outline the processes undertaken by governments to impose control measures and selected consequences of these processes and measures that have changed the dynamics of social, commercial and political interactions.

3.1. Costa Rica

12On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Days later, the government of Costa Rica adopted ‘immediate and efficacious measures to confront the current circumstances’ and on 16 March declared a ‘national state of emergency’ (Government of Costa Rica, 2020e).

13In this context, the government ordered an evaluation of the current national and international epidemiological situation in order to inform potential migration-based health measures as part of the actions essential for controlling the emergent pandemic. Clinical characteristics of COVID-19 infection (symptomatic and asymptomatic) were factored into the assessment of a potential saturation of healthcare services. On 19 March, with 87 confirmed cases (Ministry of Health Costa Rica, 2020), the government imposed entry restrictions on foreigners and declared by executive order that ‘only Costa Ricans and foreigners possessing a Special Category, Temporary Residency, or Permanent Residency in Costa Rica and who exited the country prior to March 24th, 2020 may enter national territory’. In this way, tourists were temporarily banned from entering the country. Furthermore, the general population was urged to practise voluntary isolation and restrictions were ordered on vehicular circulation (Ministry of Public Works and Transportation and Ministry of Health Costa Rica, 2020).

14During the first three months of the national state of emergency, Costa Rica was considered to be among the Latin American countries that were handling the pandemic best (Brooks, 2020). This perception was reversed several months later in July of 2020 when COVID-19 cases spiked, particularly in the lowest socio-economic stratum consisting mainly of migrants working in agriculture near the border with Nicaragua and inhabitants of areas with the highest rates of poverty and overcrowding (Murillo, 2020).

15As case numbers increased, the policing of aerial, terrestrial and maritime borders hardened in response to popular demands calling, with a high degree of xenophobia, for the ‘protection’ of the border with Nicaragua and of the country as a whole in the face of the pandemic (Adhanom and Etienne, 2020). The Costa Rican government responded with a large police deployment for border control (Government of Costa Rica, 2020a), despite relatively low reported case numbers on the other side of that border.

16The actions taken at the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua strained the already fragile diplomatic relationship between the two countries and negatively affected Nicaraguans residing in Costa Rica (Directorate of Integration and Human Development Costa Rica, 2017). The border closure also meant greater barriers for asylum seekers, who have increased significantly in number since the political crisis of the 2018 Daniel Ortega Administration in Nicaragua. Furthermore, although the government expressed its commitment to provide care to all individuals who display COVID-19 symptoms, it released an order not to provide care to undocumented migrants (Ugarte, 2020), which was subsequently revoked (Ruíz, 2020).

17The border closure measure was amended in the final months of 2020 to allow the opening of airports (Government of Costa Rica, 2020b), and more relaxed control measures for those entering the country by air (elimination of COVID-19 PCR testing requirements at ingress, with the aim of incentivising tourism). Nevertheless, land borders remained closed (General Directorate of Migration and Foreigners Costa Rica, 2020; Madrigal, 2021). This contrasts with the fact that the first ‘imported’ cases entered the country by air.

3.2. El Salvador

18On 14 March, 2020, the government of the Republic of El Salvador released Order No. 593, approved by the Legislative Assembly, which declared a ‘State of National Emergency, State of Public Catastrophe and Natural Disaster due to the COVID-19 pandemic [. . .] for a period of thirty (30) days [. . .] as a result of the risk and immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic’ (Legislative Assembly El Salvador, 2020); this was later extended to 1 May 2020. This order prohibited the entry of all foreigners to the country with the exception of permanent residents and diplomats, whereas Salvadorean citizens outside the country were required to submit to quarantine or clinical testing to determine whether or not they were infected with COVID-19 upon returning home.

19According to estimates by the Salvadorean government, if the rate of COVID-19 transmission was to continue unchecked—confirmed cases numbered just three on the date of the order—cases would rise to 768 by 14 April and to 49,152 by 3 May. The worst-case scenario, as calculated by the Executive Head of Government, was a potential 3,145,728 cases by 20 May 2021. From this position, the government justified ‘taking rapid measures to slow this progressive curve’ including border closures and the declaration of exceptional circumstances due to the health emergency; the government subsequently noted that both measures were ‘highly successful’ (Hoy, 2020).

20Many of the numerous, often undocumented, migrants who transit Mexico toward the United States originate in El Salvador. Mexican migration authorities routinely deport Salvadorean migrants, and in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic the Mexican government has continued the deportation process using vehicles, which cross the land border. The Salvadorean government, meanwhile, has rejected Salvadorean migrants returned from third countries upon arrival, using the COVID-19 border closure policies as its justification (Mariscal, 2020). By 17 March 2020, the national government had ordered ‘the immediate closure of the arrival runway of the Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport of El Salvador, and announced that those flights already on their way to the airport must turn away’ (BBC News, 2020). The government of El Salvador blocked the landing of an airplane originating from Mexico and with it the entry of Salvadorean citizens, citing that on board were ‘12 individuals infected with COVID-19’, thereby provoking diplomatic tension between Mexico and El Salvador.

21For the resident population of the country, actions to control internal mobility were intensified with the application of sanctions, including incarceration, for those who did not comply with the regulations.

3.3 Guatemala

22On 6 March 2020, the President of the Republic of Guatemala declared a state of ‘Public Catastrophe’, in accordance with the WHO’s statement that the COVID-19 pandemic was a global public health emergency (Government of Guatemala, 2020c). Soon after, the country’s first case of COVID-19 having already been confirmed, the President of the Republic broadcast by radio and television the measures that would be implemented ‘to mitigate COVID-19 transmission’ (Ministry of Social Development Guatemala, 2020; Government of Guatemala, 2020a).

23These measures, effective from 17 to 31 March 2020 with the promise that they would be re-evaluated one week later, included 15 prohibitions affecting labour, the socio-economic and cultural spheres, and population mobility and healthcare services. Regarding labour, work activities were suspended in both public and private institutions. In the social sphere, educational, cultural, religious, sporting and entertainment events were prohibited; visits to detention centres and facilities for the elderly were prohibited; commercial centres, bars, nightclubs and all other types of entertainment venue were closed; and all types of commercial establishment were closed between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., with the exception of pharmacies, petrol stations and establishments offering essential services. The sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. Furthermore, the operation of urban and intra-urban public transport, as well as the entry of foreigners into the country, was suspended, and all aerial, terrestrial and maritime borders were closed. Outpatient healthcare services were restricted—external consultations were prohibited—in order to allocate resources to COVID-19–related emergencies, and bans were put in place to prevent the hoarding of basic goods and medicines (Government of Guatemala, 2020b).

24The border closures did not apply to cargo transport, which could still enter and exit Guatemalan territory by air, land or sea. Entry by individuals was prohibited for anyone arriving from the People’s Republic of China (and anyone who had been in that country during the previous month), Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Iran, Korea, the UK or Japan, and for all Salvadoreans independently of their immediate provenance. Nonetheless, citizens and residents (temporary or permanent) of Guatemala, as well as those working for diplomatic bodies, were authorised to enter freely, independently of their immediate provenance, with the stipulation of an obligatory quarantine period. The closures were quasi absolute for entry into the country; exit by land was, however, freely permitted (Guatemalan Migration Institute, 2020).

25Following up on these measures, on 21 March 2020 the Congress of the Republic issued a new order, Order No. 8-2020, which extended the declared state of catastrophe.

3.4. Honduras

26The Honduran government responded to the pandemic by issuing executive order PCM-021-2020, whose objective was to ‘avoid the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ by way of ordering ‘the closure of aerial, terrestrial, and maritime borders in national territory [. . .] except for the entry of Hondurans and residents (temporary or permanent) and the diplomatic body accredited in the country’. Conditions were placed on entry, including a mandatory quarantine period, in accordance with the guidelines of the Health Secretary. Initially, the order was to take effect for seven days beginning at its issuance on 16 March 2020 (Government of Honduras, 2020).

27Beyond border closures, this order imposed significant restrictions and sanctions on internal mobility within the national territory, establishing that the Armed Forces, National Police, National Direction for Research and Intelligence of the Interinstitutional National Force (FUSINA) and other institutions must ‘detain any person found circulating in public areas outside of the established exceptions’ (Government of Honduras, 2020, Article 6). At the time this order was issued, six COVID-19 cases had been registered in the country.

28On the day following the release of the order (17 March 2020), governmental actions restricting and controlling internal population mobility intensified, and the press was informed that

[c]onfirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed to nine and, to avoid the continued spread of the virus, curfews were extended indefinitely in four regions [. . .] the Security Ministry indicated that this measure will be applied [. . .] and that absolutely no one will be permitted to circulate freely in the streets.

Deutsche Welle, 2020d

29Initially this measure was applied to inhabitants of the Central District (Tegucigalpa and Comayagüela), the city of Choluteca, La Ceiba in the department of Atlántida, and San Pedro Sula. The measures limiting internal mobility of the population were initially proposed for seven days; at the time of writing, however, they remain in force (Europa Press, 2021). The reopening of land borders with neighbouring countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua) occurred seven months after the closure (at the beginning of the fourth week of October 2020) (La Vanguardia, 2020), by which time an estimated 80,000 individuals had been affected by COVID-19.

3.5. Nicaragua

30In Nicaragua, official and publicly accessible information on the COVID-19 pandemic was scarce. According to available data, the Nicaraguan government did not restrict cross-border movement, impose quarantines or suspend work or academic activities or those involving mass gatherings. The president declared that ‘the fight against COVID-19 in Nicaragua has been possible thanks to the health model put in place, which is oriented toward prevention’ (Álvarez, 2020). According to this health model, the Ministry of Citizen Power for Health ordered that those individuals not showing COVID-19 symptoms would not be restricted in their mobility or circulation, even if they arrived from countries with a high risk of transmission (Ministry of Health Nicaragua, 2020).

31Official numbers show that the containment plan implemented in Nicaragua has been a success. However, the information provided through official channels has been highly criticised by a number of regional groups (including the Central American Integration System (SICA)) and international entities (including the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)) that have called on the government to review and reinforce preventive actions (Deutsche Welle, 2020a). The government’s response to these calls was to promote and conserve the current dynamic with no further social distancing measures, with the aim of protecting the national economy. For its part, civil society promoted voluntary social distancing through the ‘Stay at home’ (‘Quédate en casa’) campaign. This was deemed ‘radical and extreme’ by the country’s president, who also stated that ‘here, if we stop working, the country dies, the community dies’ (Romero, 2020).

32In this context, countries with land borders with Nicaragua tightened their control mechanisms and increased police deployment, with Costa Rica blocking the entry of more than 15,580 Nicaraguans between March and June of 2020 (Government of Costa Rica, 2020c). In response to the restrictions imposed by the Costa Rican authorities, the government of Nicaragua opted to close its borders to commercial activity and block the transit of merchandise to and from Costa Rica (Deutsche Welle, 2020b), which heavily impacted Central American commerce.

3.6. Panama

33On 12 March 2020, Panama declared a state of emergency, leading to the implementation of a series of COVID-19 containment measures. It was among the countries in the region that applied the greatest number of different measure, some national and others by province (including mandatory quarantine, mobility restriction in public areas by day of the week and by sex, a curfew starting at 5:00 p.m., and a ban on circulating on Sundays). Then, on 18 March an order was issued to close the borders (SICA, 2020b).

34The measures implemented in Panama affected Operation Controlled Flow (‘Operación Flujo Controlado’), resulting in the retention of over 1,500 migrants in Darién province—in March, in overcrowded conditions, with a lack of resources for food and personal hygiene—with great uncertainty surrounding the response of the Panamanian government (IOM, 2020a, 2020b). The measures also affected the transit of freight to Costa Rican territory. For this reason, a binational pilot plan was enacted between Costa Rica and Panama, but it did not factor in the Regional Coronavirus Contingency Plan approved by SICA (Government of Costa Rica, 2020d). Despite this binational agreement, the opening of the terrestrial border between the two countries occurred only after the opening of the aerial border, similarly to other countries in the region (Deutsche Welle, 2020c).

35 With regard to the epidemiological situation and COVID-19 case detection, Panama was one of the Central American countries with the greatest number of clinical tests carried out (Lima, 2020) and, consequently, the greatest number of positive cases reported. The largest proportion of cases was detected in indigenous areas in the Ngabe Buglé district, Bocas del Toro and the border at Peñas Blancas, as well as the peripheral, rural zones. This led the Ministry of Governance, alongside the Ministry of Health, to mobilise resources to improve basic services and infrastructure to strengthen the health response capacity in the 12 indigenous territories of the country (OHCHR, 2020).

3.7. Mexico

36Near the end of February 2020, the Mexican health authorities declared their alignment with the guidelines issued by the WHO. The Secretary of Health defined three phases and established COVID-19 control mechanisms corresponding to each phase. Phase one, where registered COVID-19 cases were strictly imported and with isolated outbreaks (cases numbering in the dozens), did not initiate restrictions on international travel into the national territory, but required screenings consisting of temperature checks and health questionnaires for those arriving from countries with active transmission (Health Secretary Mexico, 2020d). Campaigns were implemented advocating handwashing with soap and water, noting that this could reduce the number of respiratory infections by up to 20 per cent; ‘courtesy sneezes’ (into the crook of the elbow) or sneezing into a disposable handkerchief thrown away immediately afterwards, followed by handwashing; staying home if sick and using a face mask if it was necessary to leave home in order to seek medical attention; and resting for rapid recovery from illness (Health Secretary Mexico, 2020a). In phase two, marked by localised community transmission of the virus (cases numbering in the hundreds)—for example, in schools, neighbourhoods or workplaces (Government of Mexico, 2020)—the Mexican government implemented the National Safe Distance Campaign (‘Jornada Nacional de Sana Distancia’) and called on individuals to voluntary stay at home whenever possible (Health Secretary Mexico, 2020c). Phase three implied regional outbreaks (widescale propagation, with virus transmission across the country and cases numbering in the thousands), and was addressed by intensifying calls for safe distancing and stay-home practices, in addition to the suspension of non-essential activities (Health Secretary Mexico, 2020b).

37These measures were designed according to the characteristics of each phase and knowledge gained from the experiences of those countries affected earlier by the virus; they were broadcast to the public through official channels (institutional social networks) and various modes of mass communication. The goal was to inform and to create an impact with regard to the behaviours of the population, in order to mitigate the epidemic (Leyva et al., 2020): to reduce the number of infections, halt the advancement of the disease, and lower hospitalisation numbers (Health Secretary Mexico, 2020c), in order to avoid the collapse of the health system (Martín-Moreno, 2020).

38In addition, the Mexican government—as did other countries—opened a formal communication channel in the form of daily evening press conferences, in which a spokesperson for the health sector (the Subsecretary of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion) provided information on the pandemic situation at the global and the local level, and the corresponding social and institutional responses and/or those that would be required for transmission control, based on the available scientific evidence. These conferences were broadcast via television channels, and YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms.

4. Effects of the Actions Implemented to Control the COVID-19 Pandemic in Central America and Mexico

39Mexico was the first country in the region to officially report a COVID-19 case, on 27 February 2020, while Nicaragua was the last, on 19 March. Thirty days after reporting its first case, Panama was the country to report the highest increase, with a total of 2,200 cumulative cases, trailed distantly by Mexico with 848 registered cases. At the end of the first trimester, Mexico, with 78,023 cases detected, showed 92 times the number of registered cases it had during the first month; Costa Rica was the country with the lowest growth in caseload between the first and third month (2.6-fold). When contrasting the ninth month with the first, Mexico can be found at one extreme, with its 1,286-fold caseload increase, while El Salvador showed the lowest increase (227-fold); no information was available for Panama in the ninth month (table 11.2).

Table 11.2 Evolution of confirmed COVID-19 cases in 2020, Central America and Mexico


First registered case (between 27 February and 19 March 2020)

Months after the first registered case






Costa Rica







El Salvador










































N/A: Not available

Sources: Created by the authors based on information from the Secretaries and Ministries of Health of the Central American countries and Mexico.

40A trend analysis of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, as shown in figure 11.1, allows a common trend to be observed across all countries during the first three months of the pandemic. This common trend remained constant during the first six months, with the exception of Panama, which registered a much faster growth in caseload than the other countries (despite significant restrictions on population mobility). At the final measurement point, nine months from the first registered case, Costa Rica registered the greatest rate (2,853.4 per 100,000 inhabitants), almost 2.4 times greater than the country in second place, Honduras, which showed a rate of 1,207.5.

Figure 11.1 Trends of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020, Central America and Mexico

Figure 11.1 Trends of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020, Central America and Mexico

Sources: Created by the authors based on information from the Secretaries and Ministries of Health of the Central American countries and Mexico.

5. Discussion

41The findings of this study reveal that (using available official data) the behaviour of the pandemic has not been substantially different between the Central American countries that applied mandatory public confinement policies—curfews—along with mobility restriction measures and border closures and Mexico and Nicaragua, which opted to keep borders open and allow free internal circulation.

42Through these results, we can infer that in Central America actions such as border closures and control of the population’s mobility, along with others that view neighbouring countries as a source of risk (Embassy of Italy in Spain, 2021), functioned as relatively symbolic and/or political measures, with significant repercussions for human rights and commerce while not serving to control the pandemic. Although the traditional epidemiological perspective has established the restriction and control of population movement as the foundation of containment measures for infectious diseases, among these SARS-CoV-2 (Honigsbaum, 2017), evidence in support of this position is scarce. Human rights violations linked to COVID-19 measures were experienced in addition to difficulties already experienced by migrants in multiple contexts (Anderson, 2012). Nonetheless, they could constitute a window of opportunity in which to spark dialogue on the politics around migration, particularly in developed countries (Czaika and De-Haas, 2013).

43International population movement at the global level can be found to have links with immediate disease transmission; however, this fact cannot lead to the mechanical response of imposing border closures as an effective disease control measure, above all when taking account of the high-density, pace, and concentration of movement that directly correlate with the regions of greatest global economic movement (World Bank, 2020a). These regions may be ‘origin points’ and facilitators of a global ‘exportation process’, as has been the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, where the geographical regions with the greatest economic and population movement coincide directly with the origin and dissemination of the pandemic. In such circumstances, border closures will always be belated and ineffective in containing the global distribution of infections with high transmission rates, as has been the case with COVID-19.

44In the countries analysed—Mexico and the countries of Central America—mobility levels are very low by global standards. These countries may consider themselves to be predominantly sites of destination for global populations, although this contrasts with the way international migrants, many living in undocumented conditions, identify these places as countries of origin. These mobile groups are assigned a role equivalent to vectors (transmitters of infectious or pathogenic agents), upon which must be imposed rigorous procedures of maximum restriction of movement with the aim of controlling the spread of risk (Leyva, 2018). This contrasts with other mobile populations globally—tourists, businessmen and -women, diplomats, Europeans, Americans, Asians, etc.—which do not represent a societal ‘risk’ to their intended destinations. This perspective may help explain the differential application of mobility control measures between these groups, as well as the priority given to reopening Central American airports to flights arriving from Europe and the United States (not Latin America), despite the fact that the first ‘imported’ cases were registered as having entered by air from these same locations; meanwhile, land borders remained closed.

45Border closure measures are consistent with the International Health Regulations (WHO, 2005), which emphasise the importance of applying health control measures, particularly in ‘terrestrial border’ crossings since they may be the setting for the informal transit of individuals, who are cast as propagators of disease (WHO, 2020b). In contrast, those transiting ports and airports are assumed to be subject to better ‘control’ and security that governs their movement. These priorities serve to reveal stigma and xenophobic or discriminatory attitudes as common factors in the politics of mobility control, politics whose rationale and objective go beyond the dimension of health measures for disease prevention. These global health policies, based in a national security perspective, contradict other global governance frameworks, such as the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to reduce inequalities, stigma and discrimination, seek local and global alliances to confront social and health challenges, and in the case of migration work towards its safe, orderly and regular management.

46 During the first phase of the pandemic, ‘imported’ cases of COVID-19 were attributable to socio-economically privileged groups—those that moved in airplanes and cruise ships—and this was used as a justification for the closure of ports and airports. Once the pandemic continued its ‘natural’ course, the affected groups multiplied and, mirroring the distribution of poverty, the lowest income strata came to be the main group affected by COVID-19 (World Bank, 2020b). Measures to restrict internal population mobility within countries became countries’ principal preventative action.

47 The majority of Central American countries applied mandatory measures to restrict population mobility, which in extreme cases included the declaration of exceptional circumstances due to the health emergency and curfew policies for populations living in conditions of high social vulnerability. Over 50 per cent of the populations of these countries live in conditions of poverty or extreme poverty, with high rates of unemployment or underemployment and endemic violence, no social security, and governmental institutions with very limited response capacity for the provision of social support to communities (World Bank, 2021). Added to this is the low social credibility of these institutions, which, long before the pandemic, represented significant challenges for the governance and functionality of public administration.

48 Furthermore, border closures generated a series of unwanted consequences, among which were the weakening of regional institutions and an increase in political tensions between countries. SICA formulated a Regional Coronavirus Contingency Plan (SICA, 2020a), which could have constituted a political instrument to facilitate collaboration between countries and to optimise the use of limited available resources, although it prioritised aspects of commerce as opposed to other relevant areas such as mobility, migration, human rights and health. Countries opted for a focus on national response in favour of regional agreements, generating ‘outbreaks’ of confrontation between governments and straining diplomatic relations; this included discrediting countries for their handling of the pandemic, and blocking the transit of individuals in border zones, which, contrary to the desired effect, provoked a massive grouping of individuals and potentially contributed to the transmission of COVID-19. The distancing and the minimal collaboration between governments were symptoms of a global strategy based in national security, which relegated regionally constructed health initiatives to a secondary position. Under these conditions, the pandemic maintained its course, independently of border closures and other measures to reduce the internal mobility of the populace.

49Information available on the topic of global mobility, comprised of millions of people moving daily all over the world, questions the rationale of border closures and the declaration of exceptional circumstances when confronting health matters. Despite this, history repeats itself, and the experiences of the seventeenth-century inhabitants of Montelupo have now been scaled up to the global level; political motives and socio-economic and health effects today are no different than they were four hundred years ago. The experiences of Central American communities who have suffered particularly intense mobility control measures in El Salvador and Honduras constitute human rights violations that we thought were behind us, that we thought we had moved past with our notions of modernity and ‘progress’ (Bauman, 2012, 2014). In Mexico, where no border closures or mandatory confinements were imposed, the spread of the pandemic was similar to that observed in Central America, without the consequence of the rights violations evident in other countries.

6. Conclusions

50Border closures, mandatory confinements and declarations of exceptional circumstances due to the health emergency contributed to the exacerbation of fragile relationships between governments and societies, created human rights violations, and deepened the poor social dynamics already prevalent in the Central American region. Meanwhile, the pandemic maintained its course, despite restrictive measures implemented to reduce the internal mobility of populations.

51Border closures and mandatory confinement policies have not contributed to controlling the spread of COVID-19. No differences were observed in the trends for caseload, adjusted for population, between countries who implemented these actions and those who opted not to.

52Countries that, like El Salvador, applied extremely severe measures (a country-wide military curfew and the activation of the restrictions on constitutional rights laws) reported similar COVID-19 case numbers as Mexico, a country that focused its response on providing information and appealing to the population to voluntarily reduce mobility.

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List of illustrations

Title Table 11.1 Measures implemented to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Central America and Mexico, 2020
Credits Sources: Created by the authors based on information from ECLAC, 2020.
File image/png, 129k
Title Figure 11.1 Trends of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020, Central America and Mexico
Credits Sources: Created by the authors based on information from the Secretaries and Ministries of Health of the Central American countries and Mexico.
File image/png, 140k
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Cite this article

Electronic reference

René Leyva Flores, Karol Rojas and Belkis Aracena, Blocking the Spread of COVID-19: Global Border Closure Policies in Central America and MexicoInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 14 | 2022, Online since 12 May 2022, connection on 01 July 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

René Leyva Flores

René Leyva Flores is a Doctor in Sociology, a Research Professor at the National Institute of Public Health (INSP) of Mexico and a member of Mexico’s National Research System (SNI). He serves as Director of Health Economics and Systems Evaluation (INSP) and Coordinator of the Migration and Health Studies Unit (UMyS). His areas of scientific investigation and interest include health policies, population mobility–migration and health, and social inequality in health.

By this author

Karol Rojas

Karol Rojas is a teacher and a researcher at the School of Public Health of the University of Costa Rica. Her areas of interest are research on health systems and services, social protection systems, health and migration, public policies in health, management and evaluation of policies and programmes in health, and global health.

Belkis Aracena

Belkis Aracena is a professor and researcher at the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico (INSP) and a member of Mexico’s National Research System (SNI). She has collaborated on a range of scientific projects in which public health problems have been studied from an economic perspective. Her main areas of interest are the administration of health systems and services and economic evaluation as a tool for reducing inequality and social injustice.

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International Development Policy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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