Notes on The Mexican Military's Mission to the Guatemala-Mexico Border

By Todd Bensman on June 10, 2019

Soon, some 6,000 Mexican government troops will be on their way to fortify its 541-mile southern border with Guatemala against further mass economic migration surging through toward the American one. Their deployment is part of a negotiated settlement with President Trump to drop the threat of progressive trade tariffs on Mexican products.

But speaking as someone who has explored the Mexico-Guatemala border while reporting about the massive human smuggling industry that dominates Guatemala's economy, I am skeptical that 6,000 ground troops will completely succeed.

This is a border every bit as tough to seal as our own line with Mexico, but with not even a measurable fraction of the America's layered defenses, such as motion-detection technology, multi-agency air and marine assets, and bilateral intelligence collaboration. And we have a pretty good idea of how well all that's been working on the U.S. Southwest Border.


Likewise, in this perhaps better-than-nothing mission, the Mexican military faces an effective opposing army well-versed in unconventional offensive guerilla operations: Guatemala's smuggler class. A large cadre of smugglers are professionalized by the circumstance that geographically bottlenecked Guatemala has developed into a non-stop super-highway of human and drug smuggling over a period of many decades. They've learned from the best — Mexican drug cartels that have operated for years in Guatemala moving mostly cocaine and weapons, have corrupted Mexican military forces in the past, and won't appreciate any disruption.

Not only is this army of Mexican cartel-backed smugglers and organized networks likely to prove a wily opponent for the Mexican troops, but so, too, will the local populations who are in on it and have a stake in its continuation. Guatemala's economic lifeblood circulates through very developed systems of end-running capillaries that sustain villages on both sides.

Much will depend on what the Mexicans do with the Honduran, El Salvadoran, and Guatemalan migrants they confront or apprehend, a rules-of-engagement strategy that has yet to be fully shown. Will the troops detain these migrants in Chiapas camps for deterring lengths of time, or push them back over the border where they will try again elsewhere? In any aggressive confrontation, will Mexican troops simply yield, as we have seen in recent history, or stand their ground?

Smuggling works much like rain water; it will find every leak in your roof and get in. High-consequence deterring strategies, such as lengthy detention in Chiapas, may prove somewhat effective with the family units who make up the primary population of those heading to the U.S. border. Parents with children may think twice about ending up in long detention situations or being forced onto difficult jungle passages, and they'll go home instead and tell their neighbors about the new difficulties. It also would be effective if Mexican troops aggressively interdict the bus transports that are part of what's known as "the conveyer-belt system" on the Mexican side, moving tens of thousands of migrants to the U.S. border through Mexico, and empty their human cargoes instead into Chiapas detention camps.

Still, to lock in any gains from an operation that involves lengthy detentions or forces long-distance diversions, the Mexicans are going to need naval backup in the Pacific Ocean on the west for the fleet of darting Panga boats and merchant shipping that already moves people and contraband and probably has an easy capacity to take on bigger loads.

The Mexican troops are going to need the kind of endurance support necessary for long-range reconnaissance in wilderness to oppose probable increased foot and vehicle travel through well-established routes in the Petén Jungle in northeastern Guatemala. They'll need Guatemala's intelligence on who's moving where, when. They'll need a willingness to use non-lethal force such as tear gas, as the Americans did in January at the Tijuana, Mexico, border line. They'll need thick skins for staying the course in the midst of hostile media coverage that will accompany every success and every mistake.

Sorry, but I'm feeling skeptical that enough of any of these necessities will be forthcoming.

Guatemala and All of Its Institutions Are Neck-Deep in the Smuggling Industry

The Mexicans should expect no authentic intelligence assistance from the Guatemala government about where the migrants are moving, which will prove absolutely essential. And don't expect the Guatemalan government to detain Hondurans and Salvadorans to help take the pressure off. That's because Guatemala's leadership, border patrol, and police forces all have been neck-deep in the smuggling industry for years, despite ongoing corruption investigations and a contentious national election campaign. They're not interested at all in providing cooperation that would be essential to the success of any Mexican military mission in finding and detaining migrants who will be trying to circumvent the troops.

Consider this anecdote from one of my trips to Guatemala in 2007. I was interviewing Guatemala's then-National Director of Migration, Santos Cuc Morales, in his Guatemala City office suite. When I asked if Morales could have some of his 450 customs and border guard officers take me out on patrol or let me observe them work the airport, the sheepish answer was that he was unable because all of his men were not responding to orders lately; they belonged instead to politically connected smuggling organizations.

He went on to explain that this same circumstance prevented him from helping the American diplomats when they came offering training for his border guards to help break up smuggling organizations that were moving Iraqis and other Middle Easterners through the country to the U.S. border "because of terrorism and the situation in Iraq".

Morales told me he couldn't help the Americans "with their war on terror" because he lost his ability to task his agents; they were taken by powerful government bureaucrats partnered with smuggling organization chiefs.

One time, I was allowed to tour a Guatemala migrant detention center. It was almost completely empty and was always that way, I was told.

The smuggling infrastructure in Guatemala and on the Mexican side is entrenched, dynamic, and politically connected, having grown uninhibited for decades and with citizen populations on both sides depending on it for sustenance. The routes on both sides of the Guatemala-Mexico border are served by nationwide infrastructures of safe houses, private residences, hotels, bus fleets, and ship owners, according to investigation records I have. Nearly everyone along the way earns a cut, not least local police and immigration officers with every motivation to keep the traffic — and money — flowing on both sides of the line.

On the same reporting trip, I interviewed Gustavo Barreno, who served from 1997 through 2005 as a federal prosecutor in charge of enforcing his country's human smuggling laws. He called smuggling "the No. 1 cash industry for government officials in Guatemala".

"The business is gigantic. You have no idea," he said. "Everyone is involved — everyone."

Barreno told me he was eventually fired because his office had gotten involved in a joint counter-smuggling program with American ICE agents. The capture of several wanted Jordanian nationals led him and the Americans to a smuggling network controlled by senior Guatemalan officials. The American program and its investigation were shut down and Barreno was fired.

Consider many U.S. State Department reports like this one from 2009, a couple of years after my interview with Minister Morales and federal prosecutor Barreno, about Guatemala smuggling, which noted that:

Guatemala was a major alien smuggling route from Central and South America. ... Corruption, an ineffective criminal justice system, and a lack of resources have limited Guatemala's ability to combat transnational crime, especially in remote parts of the country. Guatemala's borders are porous and lack adequate coverage by police or military personnel.

Some Deterrence Likely, but So Is Evasion via Water and Jungle

A significant portion of the 6,000 Mexican troops no doubt will be deployed to a relatively developed, 100-mile, highway-fed stretch where the Rio Suchiate forms the Mexico-Guatemala border and through which most of the Central American migration has poured through so far. This is where the vast majority of Northern Triangle country migrants cross on their way to the American border because it's so accessible and easy with lots of roads and towns around.

I once drove from Guatemala City to the border smuggler's village of Tecun Uman along Highway 8, walked up to the river and crossed back and forth atop inner tube boats piloted by "camerata" pilots. The Mexican military was stationed on the Mexican side, but, at the time, told me they were under orders only to randomly check for weapons and explosives, which I rarely saw them do. No one ever asked to see my passport coming or going.

Mexican troops are now supposed to start interdicting migrants and possibly detaining them or pushing them back over.

No migrant wants that, of course. So the Mexican military mission's best hope of success is that a catch-and-detain practice in this trammeled area will persuade migrants to return home and tell their friends, family, and neighbors not to bother.

But smart money is on the prospect that Guatemala's smuggler army will take many around this region to slip by where the troops are spread thin, just like migrants slip by the U.S. Border Patrol in remote areas.

"I think they're going to start taking chances," Guatemalan journalist Carlos Duarte, who has covered migration through his country extensively, told me last week. "Smugglers are going to find new ways, new routes, maybe through more dangerous uncontrolled territory. Prices may go up for the smuggling industry and smugglers may ask for things of value other than money."

The Ocean Route

Just a couple of miles to the west of Guatemala's Tecun Uman crossing and Mexico's first sizable inland town Tapachula is, of course, the Pacific Ocean. The Rio Suchiate empties out there in a vast watery veld of beach and river known as "The Hook", a smuggling wonderland that will be difficult for Mexican troops to patrol very well from land or sea. Here speedboats loaded with migrant passengers zip around from Guatemalan shores and land every day on Mexican ones, locals around the beaches confirmed to me. The largely uninhabited Mexican coastline obviously runs for hundreds of miles northward, and any Mexican military operation on land is going to have to account for this easy workaround.


I saw the coastal smuggling infrastructure myself. Trudging around on the Mexican coast a stone's throw from the Guatemala border one day, I found many makeshift camps of thatch-roofed huts extending for miles up the coast, where I was told the shallow-water speedboats routinely drop their cargo.


River pilots push rafts back and forth over the Rio Suchiate, the border between Mexico and Guatemala where the vast majority of Central American family migrants cross en route to the United States.


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who have worked in this area on human smuggling investigations have shown me records and photos of longer-range commercial ships filled to standing-room-only with migrants from all of South and Central America, and from the rest of the world, too, who boarded in Guatemala and were dropped at Mexican beaches. Some of these ships are moving up from coastal countries like Ecuador, picking up and dropping off human cargo along the way.

The Jungle

Human smugglers have plenty of other options, too.

If you trace the border inland along its northeast route, where the Rio Suchiate veers away, it climbs into mountainous jungle crisscrossed by smuggling trails and no fencing whatsoever, following dry land and another river all the way to Belize. Here, the geography is mountainous. Little wonder that no one from either country bothers to patrol it. Local inhabitants move back and forth on foot and in vehicles as though there were no border at all.

Occasionally a public road touches an official crossing point, such as at La Mesilla. There are passport checks there and possibilities for roadblocks inside Mexico. But the cops and guards on both sides profit from the migrant traffic by boarding the buses coming and going and collecting cash from every passenger. The Mexican military will find itself at odds with these forces, if not finding themselves coopted by the steady easy money.

But just beyond the roads to the right and left is nothing and no one. From the official crossing point, the border traces over hundreds of miles of heavy jungle in northeastern Guatemala known as El Petén, much of which is a massive nature preserve known as a secure haven for smuggling drugs and people.


This wilderness here is approachable by roads and buses, initially. But it is reportedly not so disincentivizing that women and children will not cross through it to Mexico. The jungle can be accessed from Belize, too.

Duarte, the Guatemalan journalist, said he was just in the El Petén gateway town of Santa Elena from which a road leads to the official Mexican border crossing, but also networks of smuggling trails for those inclined to not be noticed by Mexican troops or border guards.

"I saw a lot of immigrants going through there, people alone or whole families going through," Duarte said. "I saw people arriving by foot or bus trying to figure out which buses to take to the Mexican border."

The Mexican military deployment to the Guatemala border may have sounded good enough on first blush to drop the threat of tariffs. But its success in halting to flood of migrants closer to the source is far from assured because borders are pretty complicated living organisms.