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Mexico is leaping on migration to meet US deadline, overwhelming its houses and countering its neighbors



Detention center at five times capacity. Migrants held on sports courts. Not enough medicine or health workers to walk around.

In the weeks since Mexico signed a pact with the United States to stop migration, conditions in detention centers and shelter have been dramatically exacerbated, according to diplomats and human rights officials who have visited the facilities.

"It's an absolute indignity," said Ranger Morales, Guatemala's consul in the southern part of Chiapas, the first stop for most Central Americans entering Mexico. "The citizens of my country do not get medical help. There are sick children. The conditions are the worst I have seen."

Mexico has historically devoted far fewer resources to immigration enforcement than the United States. But in an attempt to avoid the US tariffs threatened by President Trump, the country has sent its new national guard to the southern border and added motorway checkpoints to stop the flow of Central Americans traveling north to the United States. Officials are working to meet a 45-day deadline to dampen the tide.

Everything that has led to an increase in the number of arrested immigrants, with almost no shelter or centers to keep them. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission says several schools and detention centers are now in multiple capacity.

"With that kind of overpopulation, you can't treat people with dignity," said Edgar Corzo Sosa, who visits the centers weekly as a human rights council inspector general. "The concern is that operations will only increase and with them the number of detained immigrants."

In the Chiapas town of Tapachula, the officials transformed an outdoor meeting place into a temporary shelter. The detainees who protested last week.

"Help me. Help me with my son," a woman wept through the fence. "He's sick. My son is dying." Officials said they closed the center.

In Comitan, also in Chiapas, Morales said he saw nearly 360 immigrants in a building with a capacity of 90.

The conditions have cast doubt on Mexico's ability to fulfill its promise of the Trump administration – too fast to complete the migration to the United States – while ensuring the human treatment of immigrants. The situation is also putting pressure on Mexico's relations with its Central American neighbors, whose diplomats are now expressing concern about the treatment of their nation's citizens.

Last month, Mexico's Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, acknowledged that migration facilities near Mexico's southern border were "well below the standards." The country's Deputy Minister of Latin America, Maximiliano Reyes, has been tasked with improving and expanding some shelters.

But with the number of detained immigrants rising so fast, corrections come mainly on the fly. In the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez, 400 immigrants were detained in a facility with a capacity of 80 people and they agreed to move some to a nearby boxing area, which troubled human rights officials.

Mexico has detained 99,203 immigrants this year and deported 71,110 of them, according to its immigration agency. It is more than detained throughout 2017. In June, Mexico detained 29,153 immigrants, the largest number in a single month in recent Mexican history.

In northern Mexico, which the United States is increasingly turning to asylum seekers to await their lawsuits – another part of the migration agreement – capacity has also become a major problem.

US Customs and Border Protection officials have told the local government in Nuevo Laredo that they will soon start sending asylum seekers to wait in the city.

But the city leader Raul Cardenas said that Nuevo Laredo's house was already overcrowded and that officials would now be forced to consider sending migrants to a local baseball or basketball court.

In international law, when Mexico resides abroad within its territory, it is obliged to inform the person's consulate. But Morales said Mexico detained 59 Guatemalans in southern Mexico without informing him or other Guatemalan officials.

He met them on a routine visit to a detention center in Comitan, where he described the conditions as "miserable."

"They are generating a terrible crisis," said Morales. "And what's worse is that they don't always tell us when they detain our citizens."

Guatemalan officials are not the only ones who are angry. A 19-year-old Salvadoran woman was killed shot after the truck transported her and other migrants spit through an immigration check in the state of Veracruz. Witnesses and survivors accused the police. The government is investigating.

Salvadoran officials have been careful not to speak publicly during the investigation. But privately, they have expressed deep concerns about the possibility that more immigrants could be shot and killed by the Mexican police in the midst of the crash, and as the spread of the National Guard is growing.

"Although in Mexico, migration is not a crime, migrants are treated as criminals and feel that way," said a Salvadoran official who has worked with Mexico on migration issues. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. "With the deadline for Mexico to comply with the agreement with the United States," the official said, "the measures could intensify and generate more victims both inside and outside the detention centers."

Under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the government of Mexico has said it will strike a balance between enforcement of immigration law and respect for immigrants' rights. López Obrador has said that any migrant who needs refuge can apply for a humanitarian visa to live and work in Mexico.

But immigrants are often detained for days or weeks while pursuing these visas, often more than the 15-day border mandate of the Mexican law, according to Sosa, the human rights officer. They are typically released in southern Mexico, with their visa waiting. But the visa process – especially for humanitarian visas – faces huge backgrounds.

Migrants can wait for several months without guarantee of shelter or food. One hundred are now sleeping on the Tapachula streets.

Gabriela Martínez has contributed to this report.


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