Mexico City–Mexican authorities arrested two migrant activists Wednesday on suspicion of human smuggling in connection with the pair’s efforts to provide support for Central American migrants traveling to the United States. However, supporters believe the arrests are due to the ongoing dispute between Mexico and the United States over the potential imposition of tariffs on all Mexican goods entering the U.S.
President Donald Trump has threatened to impose a 5 percent tariff on Mexican goods, rising steadily to 25 percent, unless Mexico takes measures to stop migration from Central America through the country. The threat prompted a strongly worded letter from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who dispatched a delegation that included Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard to meet with U.S. officials. On Wednesday, Trump stated on Twitter that progress had been made but that it was “not nearly enough.”
Supporters of the two detained migrant rights activists gathered in front of the office of the Attorney General of Mexico (FGR) on Thursday to demand the immediate release of Irineo Mujica and Cristóbal Sánchez, and told media outlets they intend to file an official complaint with the FGR over the arrests.
Mujica and Sánchez are longtime migrant rights activists, with the former serving as the director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group that has worked to accompany migrants and provide support for the migrant caravans that pass through Mexico. The organization has drawn wide support from grassroots activists. It has also attracted the ire of many politicians on both sides of the border and has faced accusations by senior Mexican officials of not merely accompanying migrant caravans, but rather organizing them.
The supporters gathered in Mexico City told Truthout that they believe that the two activists were detained in order to appease the United States and provide proof to U.S. officials that Mexico was taking steps to deter migration through Mexico.
“How convenient that a [police] blockade is set up in Chiapas, negotiations between Trump and Ebrard are ongoing, and coincidentally, two people who accompany migrants are arrested?” Ramiro Sánchez, the brother of Cristóbal, told Truthout.
“This is an orchestrated action; the political pressure [being applied on Mexico] is obvious,” Alberto Moreno, who participated in the demonstration in Mexico City on Thursday, told Truthout.
In a statement issued Thursday, Pueblo Sin Fronteras said it considered Mujica and Sánchez to be “political prisoners” and that they were arrested in order to be “presented as trophies” to the U.S.
During his daily morning press conference on Thursday, AMLO denied that the arrests were connected to the tariff dispute with the United States and deferred the issue to the office of the FGR.
The office of the FGR said in a statement that Irineo Mujica and Cristóbal Sánchez were arrested by Ministerial Federal Police based on a complaint filed by two unnamed Honduran nationals that claimed Mujica and Sánchez offered them passage through Mexico to the border with the United States in exchange for money.
The Mexican government also announced that it had blocked 26 bank accounts allegedly associated with people who have participated in “migrant smuggling and the illegal organization of migrant caravans.” This action, taken by the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Finance Ministry, would seriously hamper efforts by groups like Pueblo Sin Fronteras and lends further credence to the argument that the arrests of Mujica and Sánchez were part of a coordinated effort to suppress the ability of migrant caravans to move through Mexico.
Mujica is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico and has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of conspiring with U.S. migrant activist Scott Warren, who is currently on trial in the U.S. for shielding migrants from authorities.
Ramiro Sánchez firmly denied that his brother Cristóbal was responsible for organization of caravans and that his brother had never personally benefited, economically or otherwise, from his work accompanying migrants.
Alberto Moreno told Truthout that the work of people like Mujica and Sánchez was focused on accompanying the migrants and working to mitigate the dangers they face along the journey. This assistance includes helping ensure migrants have food and shelter and that they are not picked up by organized crime groups or police.
Moreno said that the arrest of these two leaders would undoubtedly impact the work of human rights defenders.
“These arrests have been a strong blow against the movement,” Moreno told Truthout.
Supporters of the pair also noted that there were a number of irregularities in the arrests. Ramiro Sánchez told Truthout that plain-clothes officers did not identify themselves as police, did not present an arrest warrant, brandished their guns and used violent force in order to conduct the arrest. Ramiro Sánchez relayed that the circumstances surrounding the detention of Cristóbal prompted neighbors to believe that he was being kidnapped rather than arrested, and their protests were met with threats from the police officers on scene.
Ramiro Sánchez said his brother is dealing with mental health issues as a result of a previous arrest by Mexican security forces over his migrant rights activism, and was concerned Cristóbal was not receiving the medical care or medicine he requires. Additionally, Ramiro Sánchez said he was not allowed to visit his brother during his detention in Mexico City and that Cristóbal was whisked away to Tapachula, Chiapas, in southern Mexico without any notice.
With his voice cracking from anguish, Ramiro Sánchez called on AMLO to not “wash his hands” of the issue and ensure the release of his brother.
The Mexican government appears poised to crack down on migration from Central America. Mexico has offered to increase enforcement efforts by creating more checkpoints, building more migrant detention centers and using the newly created National Guard force to support police efforts, according to a report by The Washington Post.
In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the government has already mobilized more security forces. On Wednesday, it stopped a small caravan of approximately 500 migrants barely a few miles into their journey in Mexico.
“We have the full right to do it, we’re a sovereign country, we have migratory laws, we have to apply them and they must be respected,” Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero told local media, and added that Mexico would respect the human rights of migrants but demanded that they abide by Mexican law concerning migration.
Sánchez Cordero has previously criticized the work of Pueblo Sin Fronteras and has also claimed that migrant rights activists were responsible for recruiting people from Central America to form part of the migrant caravans.
In statements to the media, Sánchez Cordero also said she found it “curious, to say the least” that another migrant caravan had entered Mexico just as negotiations were happening with the U.S., attempting to suggest that migrant activist groups had ulterior motives for their work.
Supporters of the activists believe that by arresting well-known migrant activists, Mexico is also trying to send a signal and dissuade human rights defenders from accompanying migrants — and possibly deter caravans from forming at all.
“It is obvious that they are not detaining people who are engaged in human trafficking. They are detaining people who defend the human rights of migrants,” said Moreno.
The number of migrants arriving to the United States has increased significantly over recent months. According to U.S. officials, there were 144,000 arrests along the U.S.-Mexico border last month, the highest in 13 years.
Although Trump is eager to blame Mexico for the increase in migration to the U.S., the causes are more complex, and include political instability in places like Honduras, violence and unemployment throughout the region, and the effects of climate change, which is forcing more and more people to leave the countryside.
While the U.S. is pushing Mexico to adopt a heavy-handed approach, Mexico has been trying to get the U.S. to agree to a development plan for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in order to address the root causes of migration. Mexico has been working with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean to develop the plan and secure funding.
Talks between Mexican and U.S. officials are expected to continue; however, Vice President Mike Pence, who has participated in the talks, said that the U.S. still intends to apply the tariffs. Meanwhile, Mexico has asked for more time for negotiations to bear fruit and has indicated that if the tariffs are applied, they will walk away from negotiations.
During the 2018 presidential election, AMLO said he would not act as an enforcer for U.S. immigration policy and committed to respecting the human rights of migrants. However, the threat of tariffs — which would undoubtedly harm the Mexican economy — appears to have influenced his handling of the issue, shifting Mexico’s policy toward migrants away from the humanitarian approach seen earlier in his term.
So far, the Mexican government has refused to sign a “safe third country” agreement that would see migrants turned away from U.S. ports of entry if they have already set foot in another country deemed “safe.” However, Mexican and U.S. officials are discussing a plan that would see Guatemalan migrants returned to Mexico and other Central Americans returned to Guatemala instead of being granted asylum in the U.S.
AMLO has faced criticisms over the arrest of Mujica and Sánchez, including from a senator from his own party. The Mexican president has called for a rally in the border city of Tijuana as a show of “national unity,” but also of friendship with the United States.