Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Seed of Future Migration Crises in Central America and the Mexican Transit Control Regime



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Over the following weeks, we will be covering immigration and border control in South and Central America, with posts on Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao and Mexico, as well as the complex relationship between these countries. This new themed ongoing series has been organised by Ana AlivertiRimple Mehta and Andriani Fili, facilitated by Ritika Goyal, as part of their continuing work in expanding Border Criminologies in the Global South and building new networks and partnerships. While the issues highlighted in the posts affect millions of people, most discussions of border control focus upon realities in the Global North. This ongoing series attempts to fill this gap by presenting a view from the Global South. Do get in touch with us if you want to contribute a blog post in English or in Spanish.

Guest post by Amalia Campos Delgado. Amalia is Postdoc/Lecturer at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society at Leiden University.




During early November 2020, with less than two weeks apart, Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Central America. An estimated 5 million persons were affected. The damages generated by these natural disasters will aggravate the socioeconomic instability and food insecurity in the region. The Honduran population has been the most affected, as Jacobo García described: “What used to be modest streets of poor lighting and sanitation have been transformed into brown rivers that enter the living room of the houses and in which float refrigerators, armchairs or dogs swollen like balloons after several days in the water”. Looking back to the natural disasters that impacted the region in 1998, 2001, and 2005 and their interconnection with the history of migration in the region, it is not improbable to think that, as IOM’s Regional Director for Central America, North America, and the Caribbean, Michele Klein-Solomon, declared, the devastation left by Hurricanes Eta and Iota will be the “seed of future migration crises”. We certainly will see even more Central Americans forced to migrate in search of a better life, and many will try to reach the US by travelling across Mexico. As this post will illustrate, an unpleasant surprise will await them on their journey.

The Mexican Transit Control Regime

The Mexican Transit Control Regime (MTRC) aims to intercept, detain, and deter migrants in transit to the United States. In the 20 years that the control regime has been in operation, Mexican authorities have intercepted almost 2.5 million migrants, with migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala representing 90% of the total population. In the Central America-North America migration corridor, the actions of control enforced and performed by Mexican authorities have created a “vertical border” or, better yet, as Wendy Vogt define it, an “arterial border” with multiple ramifications and interplays of state and non-state actors. The displays of violence created because of, and as part of, the regime, not only affect and target the Central American population but also migrants of other nationalities who travel through Mexico, such as migrants from the Caribbean Islands, Africa, and Asia.

The origin of the MTCR dates back to the signing of the Plan of Action for Cooperation and Border Safety on 22 June 2001 between Mexico and the US. It has been reinforced through other border agreements and US-led initiatives, such as the Merida Initiative. For almost two decades, the enforcement of migration control in Mexico has been aligned with the US border control interests, so much so that we can trace the strengthening of control in the aftermath of specific events, such as the highly political and symbolically loaded so-called “migration crises”. For example, the US’s pressure due to the 2014 Unaccompanied Children Crisis, resulted in the implementation of the “Southern Border Program” (Programa Frontera Sur) in Mexican territory. Another example of this alignment is the mobilisation of around 15,000 Guardia Nacional’s officers and army soldiers into Mexico’s southern border region in response to Trump’s threats to increase tariffs on Mexican goods if Mexico did not control the flow of irregular migrants.  

Nevertheless, while incredibly shocking for the blatant frankness of its objective, the implementation of Transit Control Regimes is not new, but on the contrary, it is a well-known strategy of destination countries. For example, Europe has externalised its borders by promoting similar regimes in Libya, Morocco, Niger, whereas Australia has done so in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

In my most recent paper, drawing on Katja Franko’s work, I argue that Transit Control Regimes are an abnormal form of bordering. The most noticeable feature of this abnormality is that, whether for symbolic, economic and/or political benefit, the border control apparatus of the transit state is enforced for another’s benefit. These types of border regimes are the product of two trends of the geographies of migration control: reverberation and distancing. Thus, in addition to the instrumental function of intercepting migrants, Transit Control Regimes also serve a crucial moral function, allowing both transit and destination countries to distance themselves morally from migrants.

Migration Detention in Mexico

Irregular migrants’ perilous journeys across Mexico have been masterfully described and analysed by, among many others, Dolores ParisWendy Vogt, and Noelle Brigden. These studies highlight that the displays of violence against migrants should not be examined in isolation or as an unintended consequence of the control regime, but instead as a cornerstone of the regime and its deterrence strategy. The displays of violence are not limited to those inflicted by criminal actors, but also refer to the implementation of the regime and how it reproduces criminalising and penalising methods and practices, one of which is migrant detention. Through the work of NGOs and human rights observers, we have become aware of the precarious and appalling conditions of detention centres, such as overcrowding, shortage of beds, hygiene supplies, and lack of running water. However, migrant detention, while crucial in understanding the Mexican Transit Control Regime, remains unexamined in scholarly publications.

My work seeks to address this gap. Drawing on interviews with state agents, i.e., frontline migration officers, councils of countries of origin, and members of the institutional civil society, I focus on three aspects: (i) clerical control (that is, the administrative procedures); (ii) the precarious conditions of detention; (iii) the disciplinary and punitive measures implemented. Each aspect shows the intertwining of control, punishment, and deterrence in Mexican detention centres.

While we should defy the secrecy and opacity of what happens within Mexican detention centres and call for accountability, we should not lose track of how these are measures and strategies applied on behalf of the US. Although, as Nancy Hiemstra explains, US immigration policing has spread throughout the Americas, the US border control begins at Mexico’s southern border. This means questioning why one sovereign state is willing to enforce control actions in the best interest of another and examining not just the geopolitical implications but especially the moral implications.

Returning to the topic with which I started this post, it remains to be seen how the new administration in the US will approach the devastation caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, and how it will respond to the millions affected. The US stance will reverberate on Mexico and determine whether migrant detention will continue to be the guiding principle of the governmentality of migration. Meanwhile, Mexico’s recent actions to detain and restrict movement on the southern border shed light on the Lopez Obrador administration’s repressive approach, which will undoubtedly increase the racism, discrimination, and xenophobia experienced by migrants in Mexico.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Campos Delgado, A. (2021). The Seed of Future Migration Crises in Central America and the Mexican Transit Control Regime. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/04/seed-future [date]

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