Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Militarized Borders, Mass Detentions: Mexico´s Migration Policy


Saulo Loya


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Saulo Loya. Saulo is a lawyer from Universidad Iberoamericana Puebla. His research interests focus on Mexico´s migration policy and the convergence between Constitutional, Immigration, and Human Rights Law.


someone walking through
Pictures taken in activities organized by Universidad de la Tierra en Puebla A.C.

In the first four years of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) presidency, the number of detained immigrants was 61% higher when compared to the same period in Enrique Peña Nieto´s presidency. Mexico´s geopolitical position makes it a transit country par excellence, as Central Americans -mostly Hondurans and Guatemalans - who wish to reach the United States need to cross Mexico´s southern border to make their way to the north. Most of these immigrants enter the country irregularly. Although irregular immigration is not considered a crime in Mexico, but rather an administrative misconduct, the Immigration Law states that every irregular immigrant must be detained. In the last few years, the number of irregular immigrants who transit through Mexico has reached record amounts, with 198,000 people detained in 2015; 186,000 in 2016; and 183,000 in 2019. In consequence, the country´s detention-based laws have been applied without restraint. In 2021 there were 307,679 people detained by Mexico´s immigration authority (INM), which represented a 273% increase from those detained in 2020.

During his presidential campaign in 2018, AMLO criticised the country's detention policies and promised a humanitarian approach that prioritized the structural causes of immigration and the protection of human rights. Sadly, this never materialized, as one of the only migratory policy “innovations” in AMLO´s presidency has been the incorporation of the National Guard into migration management, agreed upon through the 2019 Joint Declaration and Supplementary Agreement between the United States and Mexico. This security force, although supposedly civil, has prominent military characteristics. For example, 80% of its members and 100% of its commanders are military officers. Moreover, AMLO has recently issued an executive order to put the National Guard under the Army´s direct control. Under these conditions, the United States has pressured Mexico´s government into using the INM, National Guard, and Army to detain immigrants and stop them from reaching the United States.

As a result of Freedom of Information Requests to the INM, the author was able to obtain data on the total number of immigration searches - migratory revisions - in Mexican territory, as well as the participation of security and military forces in these searches. According to Mexico's Immigration Law, migratory revisions are operations where INM locates migratory checkpoints in places of international transit or anywhere in the national territory to review the immigration status of people in transit. These operations are not well-regulated and leave plenty of room for immigration agents to be negligent, violent, and racist. Racial-profiling techniques are so common that revisions outside of international transit places were declared unconstitutional by Mexico´s Supreme Court on May 18, 2022. However, the judicial sentence that affirmed its unconstitutionality has limited effects, so the INM is able to keep exploiting these operations to detain large numbers of people throughout the whole country.

people under a tent
Pictures taken in activities organized by Universidad de la Tierra en Puebla A.C.

The information obtained shows that, in 2021, the INM conducted 26,244 migratory revisions. 3,181 of these were carried out in Chiapas, which shares a border with Guatemala; 2,621 in Quintana Roo, bordering Belize, and 893 in Oaxaca, a crucial southern state for transiting immigrants. After reviewing the data, the military presence stands out. The National Guard participated in 100% of the Chiapas and Oaxaca operations and in 36.47% of those performed in Quintana Roo. Simultaneously, the Army participated in 100% of the Oaxaca operations, and in 5.57% of Quintana Roo´s revisions.

Mexico´s immigration and military authorities do not just operate in the south. Excluding Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Oaxaca, the INM performed an additional 19,549 revisions in other states. The National Guard participated in 3,702 of these revisions and the Army in 1,107 of them, for a combined 4,879 revisions. This demonstrates military activity in 25% of the total number of migratory revisions carried out in the rest of the country. Their influence is such that only 5 of the 32 states, Mexico City, Durango, Guerrero, Sinaloa, and Zacatecas, did not have any Army or National Guard presence in their migratory revisions. The constant activity of Mexico´s authorities throughout the whole territory exhibits a pattern of migration control described by Central American migrants and Amarela Varela as a “vertical border”. Containing immigrants at the southern border is no longer enough for the government. Now, immigration and security authorities need to stop immigrants from reaching the United States at any point of their journey: whether this is in Chiapas, in the south, or in Baja California, in the north; it all depends on how the power struggles of the economic, social, and political fields play out. Contrary to political frontiers, Mexico´s “vertical border” is not firm and has no designated form; it is made of soldiers, guards and immigration agents who will move according to the interests of Mexico and the United States governments. This fluid border has been best described by Wendy Vogt as an “arterial border”, one that is constantly “contested by state and non-state actors”.

person walking through a path
Pictures taken in activities organized by Universidad de la Tierra en Puebla A.C.

After analyzing this data, it is possible to assert that Mexico´s migratory policy has not been substantially changed during AMLO´s presidency. As the INM becomes a more hostile and active institution, carrying out migratory revisions in every state and thus reaching record numbers of detentions, it is evident that the Mexican government has turned to more aggressive detention policies and practices, as they have been described by Amalia Campos. Furthermore, the rising utilization of the Army and the National Guard in migratory revisions has successfully transformed Mexico´s political, vertical, and arterial borders into militarized zones.

The combination of these two factors -a hostile and active INM and the involvement of the Army and the National Guard- is producing not only a 20-year record in detentions, but is giving rise to more profound social, legal, and political implications. The under-regulated procedures, united with the lack of preparation from soldiers and guards to undertake migratory activities, are a perfect setting for systematic violations of human rights. These harsh procedures, recreated in almost every state of the country, are promoting a culture where it is acceptable for the authority to arbitrarily detain people as long as they are irregular immigrants. By doing this, the government triggers yet another pattern of illegalities: migratory detention. Finally, when irregular immigrants are deported, the Mexican government closes a circle of inhumane treatment, racism, and human rights violations only to start over as many times as it is required. This pattern will continue to cost the lives and dignity of tens of thousands of people whose only hope is to cross Mexican territory and attain a better life.



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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Loya. (2023) Militarized Borders, Mass Detentions: Mexico´s Migration Policy. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/06/militarized-borders-mass-detentions-mexicos-migration. Accessed on: 23/06/2024


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