Murders in Mexico surge to record in first half of 2019

FILE PHOTO: People stand near bullet casings on the ground at a crime scene after a shootout in the municipality of Tuzamapan, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, Mexico, May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Yahir Ceballos/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Murders in Mexico jumped in the first half of the year to the highest on record, according to official data, underscoring the vast challenges President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faces in reducing violence in the cartel-ravaged country.

There were 14,603 murders from January to June, versus the 13,985 homicides registered in the first six months of 2018, according to data posted over the weekend on the website of Mexico’s national public security office.

Mexico is on course to surpass the 29,111 murders of last year, an all-time high.

For years Mexico has struggled with violence as consecutive governments battled brutal drug cartels, often by taking out their leaders. That has resulted in the fragmentation of gangs and increasingly vicious internecine fighting.

Veteran leftist Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, has blamed the economic policies of previous administrations for exacerbating the violence and said his government was targeting the issue by rooting out corruption and inequality in Mexico.

“Social policies are very important – we agree they’ll have positive effects. But these positive effects will be seen in the long term,” said Francisco Rivas, director of the National Citizen Observatory, a civil group that monitors justice and security in Mexico.

The complexity of fighting criminal groups is a major test for Lopez Obrador’s young administration, which has vowed to try a different approach than that of his predecessor.

His administration last month launched a new militarized National Guard police force tasked with helping to fix the problem.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Additional reporting by Rebekah F Ward; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Minor quake shakes Mexico City, latest in week of tremors

People gather outside the buildings after an earthquake was felt in Mexico City, Mexico July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A minor earthquake struck Mexico City on Thursday, the latest in a series of small tremors that have shaken buildings and jangled nerves across the Mexican capital over the past week.

The magnitude 2.2 quake was registered at 1:55 p.m. local time (1855 GMT) in the central neighborhood of Alvaro Obregon, the National Seismological Service (SSN) said in a statement on Twitter.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries, according to the city’s civil protection authority.

A report published on Wednesday by the SSN and the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that 16 small earthquakes have struck Mexico City’s central Miguel Hidalgo district between July 12-17.

Situated at the intersection of three tectonic plates, Mexico is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries. The capital is seen as particularly vulnerable due to its location on top of an ancient lake bed.

(Reporting by Rebekah F Ward, Editing by G Crosse)

Mexican president vows to bring down violence after ‘El Chapo’ sentencing

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures during a meeting with the Mexican delegation competing at the Pan American Games Lima 2019, in Mexico City, Mexico, July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Thursday he expected violence in Mexico to fall after the U.S. sentencing of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, vowing to create a society less obsessed with making money at any cost.

Guzman will spend the rest of his days behind bars in the United States after a judge sentenced him on Wednesday to life in prison plus 30 years. A jury found him guilty in February after an 11-week trial.

When asked during his regular morning conference whether he expected violence to rise over the coming weeks following the sentencing, Lopez Obrador said: “No, on the contrary. We think that bit by bit the number of criminal incidents will decline.

“We will continue to create a better society, supported by values, that is not based on accumulating material wealth, money or luxury,” Lopez Obrador said.

Earlier in the conference, a member of his government showcased luxury jewelry and watches confiscated from convicted criminals that would be auctioned, with proceeds going to impoverished Mexican villages.

Guzman was extradited to the United States in 2018 following two breakouts from Mexican jails: one purportedly in a laundry cart, the other through a mile-long tunnel.

In an opinion poll conducted by Mexico’s Reforma newspaper, with support from the Washington Post, 52% of people surveyed said Lopez Obrador’s efforts to tackle crime were lacking while 55% said he was failing to bring down violence.

Forbes magazine once listed Guzman as one of the world’s richest men.

Lopez Obrador said Mexico would explore whether there would be legal ways for Mexico to claim Guzman’s assets, adding that Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard would be in charge of the matter.

“These resources, these assets legally belong to Mexico and the matter will be considered on a legal basis,” Lopez Obrador said. “I believe that the United States will agree.”

(Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Pentagon approves additional 2,100 troops to U.S.-Mexico border

A member of the Texas National Guard watches the Mexico-U.S. border from an outpost along the Rio Grande in Roma, Texas, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Wednesday it had approved a request to send an additional 1,000 Texas National Guard and 1,100 active-duty troops to the border with Mexico, the latest deployment in support of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration crackdown.

Major Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters that acting Defense Secretary Richard Spencer had approved the additional troops on Tuesday night, and they would be assisting with tasks like logistical support and aerial surveillance.

There are currently about 4,500 active duty and National Guard troops on the border with Mexico.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S. judge blasts drug lord El Chapo’s ‘overwhelming evil,’ imposes life sentence

FILE PHOTO: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers during a presentation in Mexico City, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

By Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Mexican drug lord who twice escaped maximum-security prisons in that country will spend the rest of his life in a U.S. penitentiary, a federal judge said on Wednesday after accusing him of “overwhelming evil.”

Guzman berated the U.S. justice system, and a former associate described how he had paid a gang $1 million to try to kill her before U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan imposed the mandatory sentence of life plus 30 years.

Cogan also ordered Guzman to forfeit $12.6 billion in a hearing in federal court in Brooklyn.

Guzman, 62, was found guilty by a jury in February of trafficking tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana and engaging in multiple murder conspiracies as a top leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, long known as one of Mexico’s largest and most violent drug trafficking organizations.

Guzman, whose nickname means “Shorty,” developed a reputation as a Robin Hood-like figure that made him a folk hero to many in his home state of Sinaloa, where he was born in a poor mountain village.

He has been held in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a fortress-like jail in lower Manhattan. Cogan last month rejected his request for more time to exercise on the jail’s roof, after prosecutors said that would risk an escape.

Guzman, who recently grew a mustache, complained about the terms of his confinement before his sentence was handed down.

“It has been psychological, emotional, mental torture 24 hours a day,” said Guzman. He alleged that the jurors on his case allowed media accounts of the trial to influence their thinking – an argument his lawyers have also made.

“Since the government of the United States is going to send me to a prison where my name will not ever be heard again, I take advantage of this opportunity to say there was no justice here,” he told the court.

Before he was finally captured in 2016, Guzman twice escaped maximum-security prisons in Mexico. He was extradited to the United States to face trial in January 2017.

Guzman made a name for himself as a trafficker in the 1980s by digging tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border that allowed him to smuggle drugs more quickly than any of his rivals. He amassed power during the 1990s and 2000s through often bloody wars with rivals, eventually becoming the best-known leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

His 11-week trial, which featured testimony from more than a dozen former associates of Guzman who had made deals to cooperate with prosecutors, offered the public an unprecedented look at the cartel’s inner workings.

‘EL CHAPO’ ASSOCIATE: ‘I SINNED’

Andrea Velez, a former associate of Guzman, said Guzman had paid the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang $1 million to have her killed, and that she had escaped with the help of U.S. authorities.

“I confess that I sinned, but I paid a high price for my faults,” Velez said of her work with the cartel.

The witnesses, who included some of Guzman’s top lieutenants, a communications engineer and a onetime mistress, described how he built a sophisticated organization reminiscent of a multinational corporation.

He sent drugs northward with fleets of planes and boats, and had detailed accounting ledgers and an encrypted electronic communication system run through secret computer servers in Canada, witnesses said.

U.S. prosecutors have claimed that Guzman sold more than $12 billion worth of drugs, and Forbes magazine once listed him as among the world’s richest men.

Though other top cartel figures had been extradited to the United States before, Guzman was the first to go to trial rather than pleading guilty.

Guzman often lived on the run. Imprisoned in Mexico in 1993, he escaped in 2001 hidden in a laundry cart and spent the following years moving from one hideout to another in the mountains of Sinaloa, guarded by a private army.

He was seized again in 2014 but pulled off his best-known escape the following year when he disappeared into a ventilated, mile-long (1.6-km) tunnel dug into his cell in a maximum-security prison.

He was finally recaptured in January 2016. The Mexican government says he blew his cover through a series of slipups, including an attempt to make a movie about his life.

Guzman’s lawyers have said they intend to appeal his guilty verdict. They have already asked Cogan to overturn it, citing a report that jurors disobeyed court rules by reading news reports about the case during the trial, but the judge rejected that request.

Despite Guzman’s downfall, the Sinaloa Cartel had the biggest U.S. distribution presence of Mexican cartels as of last year, followed by the fast-growing Jalisco New Generation Cartel, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Facing new asylum curb, nerves for those waiting at U.S.-Mexico border

A board with the number of migrants that are requesting asylum is pictured at the premises of the state migrant assistance office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ (Reuters) – Number 12,026 – better known as Marcial Artigas, 33, from Holguin, Cuba – waited nervously at a migration office at the U.S.-Mexico border as a Mexican official called out numbers from a long list of hopefuls waiting to cross to the United States.

Artigas said he was praying his number would be called next, before a new U.S. policy announced on Monday enters into force that bars almost all immigrants from applying for asylum at the country’s southern border.

The Trump administration’s interim rule, set to take effect Tuesday, requires asylum-seekers to first pursue safe haven in a third country through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The former cafeteria worker said he left Cuba in February, traveling to Nicaragua by plane before heading north through Central America and into Mexico by bus. If the new policy sticks, he could be required to apply for asylum in Mexico, or any one of the countries he passed through en route.

He had been waiting his turn to cross to El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez since mid-April, joining a line of thousands, according to officials and a list of asylum-seekers the city keeps.

By 9.20 a.m, the official calling out numbers from the National Migration Institute’s Grupo Beta unit had read out 10. He reached number 12,025 and called it a day.

As the other migrants clapped, number 12,025 rose, pumped his fist, and followed the official to cross to the United States to begin his asylum process.

Artigas was wearing a black backpack stuffed with clothing and other essentials, ready to leave Mexico behind for good. If he felt despair at falling a single digit short, the Cuban remained stoic.

He hoped there would be another round of numbers called that afternoon at the migration office, he said.

Still, he said, the constant shifts in U.S. policy made him feel annoyed that while he was playing by the rules, people who crossed illegally and then requested asylum were at an advantage.

“One is here patiently doing things as they should be done,” he said. “There are people who go illegally.”

Beside him, most of the nearly two dozen migrants at the office, in the shadow of the bridge connecting the two counties, appeared not yet to have heard about the newest U.S. policy.

If they had, they appeared unsure about what it might mean for their asylum chances.

Carolina Puente, 35, still had a crushing wait ahead. At number 17,243, hundreds more were scheduled to cross ahead of her, she said.

“I’m desperate,” she said. “Desperate is the word.”

Puente said she had fled violence in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Cuba two years ago, to live with her husband’s family. But in Cuba she faced poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.

Since June 24, she had been renting a house in Ciudad Juarez. But she said she had little faith in Mexico, which is racked by drug-related violence and high murder rates and notoriously unsafe for migrants.

“This country has opened the doors for us, but it’s an unsafe country,” she said.

Enrique Valenzuela, head of COESPO, the state population commission which oversees the center for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, said he had no prior knowledge of the new U.S. measure, having learned about it on television.

The number of people adding themselves to the asylum list in Ciudad Juarez had been dropping this month and last, he said.

But if the new policy holds, he said, “The number of (asylum) applicants will rocket in Mexico.”

(Reporting by Julia Love; writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)

Mexico’s new National Guard was created to fight crime, but now it’s in a face-off with migrants

An agent of the National Migration Institute (INM) talks to Honduran migrants after being stopped from crossing the border into the United States by members of the Mexican National Guard, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Anthony Esposito

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – A convoy of Mexican state and municipal police trucks roared along the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez to confront cartel gunmen, past National Guardsmen patrolling the banks of the Rio Grande River for migrants trying to cross into the United States.

“We should be with them, not here. We’re soldiers,” one of three guardsmen in a green camouflage uniform grumbled to himself within earshot of a Reuters reporter. He was frustrated that orders kept him from going to back up police in the shootout with gangsters.

The National Guard is a new security force that was created by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to bring down record homicide rates. But now it has been tasked with patrolling the border to placate President Donald Trump, who has demanded Mexico stem the flow of U.S.-bound Central Americans that pass through the country or risk tariffs on Mexican goods.

If the deployment of some 21,000 National Guard troops at Mexico’s northern and southern borders can reduce the flow of migrants, Lopez Obrador will have successfully kept Trump’s tariffs at bay and averted opening up another front in the global trade war.

But using almost a third of the National Guard’s total ranks for migration duties means fewer security forces to tackle one of Mexico’s most pressing issues, spiraling violence, which last year cost a record 33,000 lives. Those numbers continued surging in the first six months of Lopez Obrador’s term in office, which began in December.

In Juarez, where drug cartel murders are especially acute, many people wish the troops were helping fight crime instead.

The city across the border from El Paso, Texas has long been synonymous with cartel warfare, which pushed the murder rate to 244 per 100,000 residents by March 2011, according to data compiled by Juarez-based advocacy group Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia.

With help from civil society groups and businesses, the city made hard-won gains to restore security, and by late 2015 the murder rate had been cut to 21 per 100,000, the group says, citing numbers from the attorney general’s office it corroborates independently.

Now, crime is climbing back towards levels last seen in the darkest days of the drug war, with homicides growing fivefold in the last three years to 107 per 100,000.

“Murders, kidnappings, extortion have taken a back seat so the Mexican army can patrol the border,’ said Juan Hernan Ortiz, director of Citizens for Better Government, a watchdog organization in Juarez that keeps tabs on the local government.

The Mexican government did not respond to requests for comment on the criticism.

The National Guard in Juarez, mostly made up of active-duty soldiers equipped with ballistic helmets, body armor and assault rifles, is identifiable by small armbands emblazoned with the letters GN, for the Spanish words for National Guard.

“We have the army dressed up as the National Guard making sure migrants don’t reach the United States while the city is headed towards a much larger crisis of violence,” said Ortiz.

   

SHOOTOUT BY THE BRIDGE

The police convoy that raced by the National Guardsmen was heading to free a 53-year-old American man kidnapped by members of the Assassin Artists cartel. A car chase through the streets of Juarez led to a shootout near the Zaragoza border bridge, said the attorney general’s office of Chihuahua state. The American was freed, four kidnappers were arrested, another was killed and two policemen were wounded.

Visibly vexed at not being able to take part in the rescue, the three guardsmen remained at their post on the lookout for migrants as one cop car after another, sirens blaring, zipped past them toward the scene of the gunfight.

Along this stretch of frontier, the Rio Grande River is parched dry. Reuters reporters saw a steady trickle of women, children and men walking along the U.S. side of the riverbed, out of the guardsmen’s jurisdiction and into the United States, where waiting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents took them into custody.

Facing accusations the troops had been heavy-handed in their efforts to deter migrants from crossing the northern border, Lopez Obrador said on June 25 the National Guard does not have orders to detain migrants.

The guardsmen themselves, who are posted in groups at specific points along the border or patrol the frontier in military vehicles mounted with heavy weapons, say they do not detain migrants but are there to advise them not to cross into the United States.

Still, Reuters witnessed at least three adults and four children being detained as they tried to cross into the United States after Obrador made his statement.

Among them was 23-year-old Honduran Lixa Garcia, who was traveling with her two daughters aged 4 years and 10 months, when she was detained mere feet from crossing into El Paso and handed over to Mexican immigration authorities, who will decide if they are deported to Honduras.

And last week, Brigadier-General Vicente Antonio Hernandez, who heads the National Guard’s operations in Mexico’s southern states, said 20,000 migrants had been “rescued” since May 17, a euphemism for detained.

KEEPING TARIFFS AT BAY

Some business and industry leaders in Juarez said that with nearly 80% of Mexican exports destined for the United States they support the deployment of National Guard troops to the northern border if that keeps Trump’s tariff threats on ice.

“What I care about is that the agreement is met so we’re not subject to tariffs. Regardless of whether the (National Guard) is effective or not, if it is part of the agreement, they have to be there,” said Pedro Chavira, head of manufacturing industry chamber INDEX in Juarez.

Mexico struck a deal on June 7 with the United States to avert the tariffs, setting the clock ticking on a 45-day period for the Mexican government to make palpable progress in reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the U.S. border illegally. Under that deal Mexico agreed to send National Guard troops to the border.

Trump seems happy, at least for now, praising Mexico for its efforts and saying tariffs are off the table.

But, in Juarez doubts remain that containing migration is the right priority for Mexico’s newest fighting force in a city sinking deeper into lawlessness.

“That’s a political play to appease the United States and it’s not a job the National Guard should be doing,” said Isabel Sanchez Quirarte, who heads the Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia advocacy group.

“They should be doing crime prevention work,” she said.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito in Ciudad Juarez; Additional reporting by Rebekah F Ward and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City;editing by Ross Colvin)

U.S. dream pulls African migrants in record numbers across Latin America

FILE PHOTO: A migrant from Cameroon holds his baby while trying to enter the Siglo XXI immigrant detention center to request humanitarian visas, issued by the Mexican government, to cross the country towards the United States, in Tapachula, Mexico June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Torres/File Photo

By Daina Beth Solomon

TAPACHULA, Mexico (Reuters) – Marilyne Tatang, 23, crossed nine borders in two months to reach Mexico from the West African nation of Cameroon, fleeing political violence after police torched her house, she said.

She plans to soon take a bus north for four days and then cross a tenth border, into the United States. She is not alone – a record number of fellow Africans are flying to South America and then traversing thousands of miles of highway and a treacherous tropical rainforest to reach the United States.

Tatang, who is eight months pregnant, took a raft across a river into Mexico on June 8, a day after Mexico struck a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump to do more to control the biggest flows of migrants heading north to the U.S. border in more than a decade.

The migrants vying for entry at the U.S. southern border are mainly Central Americans. But growing numbers from a handful of African countries are joining them, prompting calls from Trump and Mexico for other countries in Latin America to do their part to slow the overall flood of migrants.

As more Africans learn from relatives and friends who have made the trip that crossing Latin America to the United States is tough but not impossible, more are making the journey, and in turn are helping others follow in their footsteps, migration experts say.

Trump’s threats to clamp down on migrants have ricocheted around the globe, paradoxically spurring some to exploit what they see as a narrowing window of opportunity, said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director for the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“This message is being heard not just in Central America, but in other parts of the world,” she said.

Data from Mexico’s interior ministry suggests that migration from Africa this year will break records.

The number of Africans registered by Mexican authorities tripled in the first four months of 2019 compared with the same period a year ago, reaching about 1,900 people, mostly from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which remains deeply unstable years after the end of a bloody regional conflict with its neighbors that led to the deaths of millions of people.

‘THEY WOULD HAVE KILLED ME’

Tatang, a grade school teacher, said she left northwest Cameroon due to worsening violence in the English-speaking region, where separatists are battling the mostly French-speaking government for autonomy.

“It was so bad that they burned the house where I was living … they would have killed me,” she said, referring to government forces who tried to capture her.

At first, Tatang planned only to cross the border into Nigeria. Then she heard that some people had made it to the United States.

“Someone would say, ‘You can do this,'” she said. ‘So I asked if it was possible for someone like me too, because I’m pregnant. They said, ‘Do this, do that.'”

Tatang begged her family for money for the journey, which she said so far has cost $5,000.

She said her route began with a flight to Ecuador, where Cameroonians don’t need visas. Tatang went by bus and on foot through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala until reaching Mexico.

She was still deciding what to do once she got to Mexico’s northern border city of Tijuana, she said, cradling her belly while seated on a concrete bench outside migration offices in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula.

“I will just ask,” she said. “I can’t say, ‘When I get there, I will do this.’ I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”

Reuters spoke recently with five migrants in Tapachula who were from Cameroon, DRC and Angola. Several said they traveled to Brazil as a jumping-off point.

They were a small sampling of the hundreds of people – including Haitians, Cubans, Indians and Bangladeshis – clustered outside migration offices.

Political volatility in Cameroon and the DRC in recent years has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

People from the DRC made up the third largest group of new refugees globally last year with about 123,000 people, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, while Cameroon’s internally displaced population grew by 447,000 people.

The number of undocumented African migrants found by authorities in Mexico quadrupled compared to five years ago, reaching nearly 3,000 people in 2018.

Most obtain a visa that allows them free passage through Mexico for 20 days, after which they cross into the United States and ask for asylum.

Few choose to seek asylum in Mexico, in part because they don’t speak Spanish. Tatang said the language barrier was especially frustrating because she speaks only English, making communication difficult both with Mexican migration officials and even other Africans, such as migrants from DRC who speak primarily French.

Those who reach the United States often send advice back home, helping make the journey easier for others, said Florence Kim, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in West and Central Africa.

Like their Central American migrant counterparts, some Africans are also showing up with families hoping for easier entries than as individuals, said Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute.

U.S. data shows a huge spike in the number of families from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras at the U.S. southern border. Between last October and May 16,000 members of families were registered, up from 1,000 for the whole of 2018, according to an analysis by the MPI.

REGIONAL APPROACH

The grueling Latin America trek forces migrants to spend at least a week trudging across swampland and hiking through mountainous rainforests in the lawless Darien Gap that is the only link between Panama and Colombia.

Still, the route has a key advantage: Countries in the region typically do not deport migrants from other continents due in part to the steep costs and lack of repatriation agreements with their home countries.

That relaxed attitude could change, however.

Under a deal struck with United States last month, Mexico may start a process later this month to become a safe third country, making asylum seekers apply for refuge in Mexico and not the United States.

To lessen the load on Mexico, Mexico and the United States plan to put pressure on Central American nations to do more to prevent asylum seekers, including African migrants, from moving north.

For the moment, however, more Africans can be expected to attempt the journey, said IOM’s Kim.

“They want to do something with their life. They feel they lack a future in their country,” she said.

(The story adds dropped word “they” in final paragraph.)

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Additional reporting by Paul Vieira; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

An ever-expanding job for border agents: sensitive decisions on migrants’ fates

FILE PHOTO: Men are crowded in a room at a Border Patrol station in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas, U.S. on June 10, 2019 and released as part of a report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General on July 2, 2019. Picture pixelated at source. Office of Inspector General/DHS/Handout via REUTERS./File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – In a U.S. border patrol facility in El Paso, Texas, labels on holding cells indicate whether migrants have been selected – “yes” or “no” – for a new Trump administration program that sends asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. court hearings in Mexico.

Democratic Congresswoman Nanette Barragan, who saw the signs on Monday during a tour of the station, said a cell labeled yes was filled; there was nobody in a cell labeled no.

Such determinations, highly important in the lives of migrants who may face violence across the border, are made on a daily basis by frontline uniformed officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

Under new Trump administration policies, CBP officers increasingly are tasked with making sensitive decisions about the fate of migrants even as they struggle with the pressures of increased arrivals and heightened – and sometimes highly critical – public scrutiny.

Tensions boiled over this week, as visiting legislators including Barragan and U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publicly denounced the conditions and practices in Texas border patrol detention facilities.

“I have never been a supporter of having CBP agents be the judge and jury for these migrants,” Barragan said in an interview, referring to the decisions on who will wait in Mexico under the new Trump administration policy known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). “The same people are apprehending them and judging whether they are eligible for a program.”

Adding to critics’ concerns about officers’ sensitivity, the investigative news organization ProPublica reported Monday (https://www.propublica.org/article/secret-border-patrol-facebook-group-agents-joke-about-migrant-deaths-post-sexist-memes) that a private Facebook group for current and former officers mocked migrant deaths and posted other derogatory comments.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, ordered an investigation into the group and said the social media activity was “disturbing & inexcusable.”

Some former CPB officials questioned the weight of responsibility placed on employees’ shoulders amid a growing crisis at the southwest border.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former policy advisor in CBP’s office of the commissioner said CBP officers and border agents are primarily law enforcement personnel. “Why are we asking border patrol to do more?” she said, adding that the strains on the agency are lowering morale. “This is not what they signed up for.”

Border apprehensions topped 132,000 in May, their highest levels in more than a decade, but declined last month as Mexico cracks down people heading north through their country.

Changing demographics are stretching resources. Instead of mostly single Mexican men trying to evade capture, officers are increasingly dealing with a surging number of Central American families – many with very young children – turning themselves in to seek asylum in the United States.

CBP said in a statement that the El Paso sector, where lawmakers visited this week, has seen a massive increase in apprehensions and that facilities there “were not designed for long-term holding.” Officers are facing “critical challenges” moving migrants out of border patrol custody quickly, the agency said.

Some Border Patrol officers complain their duties increasingly fall outside the bounds of their training – like tending to sick children and adults in their custody.

“People are coming in unvaccinated, there are outbreaks of mumps, flu, measles, we have had flesh-eating bacteria, all these various strains of diseases,” which is putting agents themselves at risk, said Joshua Wilson, a spokesman for the San Diego border patrol union.

HIGH-STAKES DECISIONS

In late January, the Trump administration began implementing the controversial MPP program in which asylum applicants can be forced to wait for their U.S. court hearings in Mexico.

As of the end of June, 16,714 migrants had been sent back to Mexico under the MPP program according to Mexican government data, often to border cities where crime rates are high and local officials say they don’t have the capacity to handle the influx. The program is expected to be extended across the entire southwest border.

Unaccompanied minors, Mexicans and people with known physical or mental health issues are supposed to be exempt. Migrants who express fear of staying in Mexico are referred to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer who decides if they can be taken out of the program and allowed to wait in the United States. But many do not know they can make such a claim and success is rare

Some border patrol officers also are beginning to have increased authority in a separate, high-stakes decision-making process for asylum seekers.

Migrants who are allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their asylum claims are supposed to first go through a “credible fear” screening process, to determine whether their concerns about threats in their home countries are believable.

Typically that interview is conducted by specially trained USCIS asylum officers. If they pass, they can go on to fight their case in U.S. immigration court.

Under a new pilot program, 35 U.S. border patrol officers have been trained to conduct those “credible fear” interviews as well, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of USCIS told reporters last week. He said early signs from the pilot were “positive” and that officers who have conducted the interviews – under the supervision of senior asylum officers – were handling them “capably.”

Cuccinelli said the credible fear training the officers were receiving was more extensive and thorough than any other training border patrol officers have received in their careers, including active shooter drills.

Still, it adds to the crush of other duties agents and officers handle.

“Right now we are at a critical breaking point,” said Wilson from the border patrol union.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)

Mexican president thanks Trump for taking trade tariffs off table

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attends a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Gustavo Graf/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday thanked U.S. President Donald Trump for saying trade tariffs were currently off the table in recognition of the Mexican government’s efforts to reduce the flow of U.S.-bound migrants.

Under U.S. pressure to radically shake up its immigration enforcement efforts after apprehensions at the U.S. border hit a more than 10-year high, Mexico last month deployed thousands of militarized police across the country. Migration flows from Central America have since dropped sharply.

“I am grateful that even President Trump is making it known that Mexico is fulfilling its commitment and that there are no threats of tariffs,” Lopez Obrador said.

Under the agreement reached between the two countries on June 7, the United States gave Mexico until late July to show results on lowering migration, or face renewed pressure over tariffs and further enforcement measures.

Trump had threatened to impose escalating, blanket tariffs on Mexican goods.

Last week, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said Mexico’s increased enforcement efforts, not seasonal factors, were behind an anticipated drop of as much as 25% in apprehensions from May’s record levels.

On Monday, when asked if tariffs were entirely off the table, Trump replied, “Well they are now, because I think the president is doing a great job.”

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jonathan Oatis)