A checkpoint in Tonala, Mexico

Civil society organizations in Mexico have reported abuse and extortion at security checkpoints, with members of the security forces using equipment provided by the US Merida Initiative. Animal Politico investigates. 

The route from Tonala to Tapachula in Mexico's Chiapas state is one of the most heavily monitored strategic points in the country, with security checkpoints every 22 kilometers. However, civil society organizations complain that the population is subject to abuses and extortion at these roadblocks, which are generally equipped with technology provided by the US Merida Initiative

This article originally appeared in Animal Politico and was translated and reproduced with permission. See Spanish original here.

"Get off the bus and put down your bag."

The metallic voice of the customs agent sounds martial and authoritarian.

"Get off I said!" The man in uniform gets impatient when he sees the woman delay in getting up from her seat and gathering her things.

Said Salazar (pictured below), a 78-year-old woman, nods her head and, as well as she can, descends the stairs of the bus taking her back to Tonala, the Chiapan municipality where she has lived for three decades.

 

2015.01.09.mexicosalazar Photo by Manu Ureste for Animal Politico

 

As she gets off the bus, the old lady feels confused and nervous: in more than 15 years of trips to Tapachula to buy merchandise, she has never been treated like a "criminal" by customs agents. Back when the customs agency was a modest cabin in the village of Viva Mexico, they used to greet her by respectfully calling her "grandmother" and would tell her not to go through the trouble of getting off the bus.

Now, a pair of soldiers with prominent cheekbones and angular jaws watch her in silence, their rifles hanging from their shoulders, while immigration agents and more customs agents move back and forth, boarding the buses at the Huitxla customs post. This post was built in 2013 at a cost of $13.8 million, and was equipped with technology provided by the United States through its Merida Initiative. According to the General Customs Administration, two of its objectives are to "facilitate commerce" and "protect the community."

 

"The more checkpoints there are, the more corruption," she says with a tight laugh.

However, despite the modern tools for detecting drugs and the pledge to protect the community, Said simply watches with anger and a sense of helplessness as the customs agent dumps nearly $200 worth of merchandise she had bought that morning on the inspection table.

"He demanded 300 pesos [about $20] before I could pass through with my bag and get back on the bus, and since I didn't have more than the 50 pesos [about $3.44] that I always save for emergencies, well, it stayed there," said the shopkeeper. In addition to losing the money she had invested, she had to wait nearly three hours – at her 78 years of age – at the side of the highway until another bus took pity on her in the middle of the night and agreed to bring her back to Tonala.

Since that day, more than a year ago, Said hasn't returned to the Tapachula market where she used to buy baby clothes, blouses, underwear and boxers that she later resold in Tonala to make a little extra cash, and thus pad out the salary she made selling tamales and snacks that she cooked on the patio of her house.

"Why would I go back?" she asks with contempt, as she continues to move the handle of an old grinder in which she has just placed a fistful of corn. "After that night, I was depressed for more than a month. That money they stole I had received on loan, and I had to work hard selling bread and tamales in order to make it back." She points with her chin at the little piece of rusty iron that covers the opening of a brick oven. "And all because I didn't give them the money they wanted for their pockets."

Said pauses for a minute.

She inhales in order to get her breath back, and adjusts her glasses with the back of her hand.

"The more checkpoints there are, the more corruption," she says with a tight laugh when she is asked if, as the authorities claim, the checkpoints all along the southern border make the population feel safer. "It's a money distribution point, that's what it is! They give some cash to the people watching to make sure that the trucks don't pass through with drug shipments, and they let them go. It's the same thing they did with my clothes: if I had had $20, the merchandise would have passed through."

She sticks the first batch of tamales in the oven with arms that are still strong at her 78 years of age. She will go out to sell them on the street before daybreak.

"Everything is pure corruption here," the old lady sighs wearily. "Every day things are getting worse in this country."

Inspections at Checkpoints Increased 330% in Chiapas

On paper, Chiapas is not among the states with the highest military presence in Mexico – according to the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), in the area known as Zone 7, which runs from Tabasco to Chiapas, there are an average of 1,584 soldiers, compared to 9,888 in Zone 4, which includes Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi. However, civil society organizations report a latent militarization on the ground in this state, as has occurred throughout the southern border that divides Mexico from Central America.

 

Along this route, where the United States has invested millions of dollars in security through the Merida Initiative, both Mexican citizens and Central American migrants have reported abuses and extortion by the security forces. 

Moreover, they say that with the arrival of President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, the number of inspections of citizens at checkpoints multiplied, especially in Chiapas. This perception is corroborated by the numbers, which reveal that in just three years – from 2011 to 2013 – the number of inspections performed on citizens by the Federal Police at fixed checkpoints, known as "highway points of attention," rose by 330 percent in this state alone.

In response to a public information request put forth in conjunction with the Legal Clinic of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the police reported that in 2011 they performed 6,683 inspections, in 2012 some 15,216, and in 2013, another 22,095. In 2014, between January 1 and September 8, Federal Police agents performed 16,930 inspections on Chiapas highways – 111 percent more than in all of 2012 and about 253 percent more than in 2011.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

In order to document the effects of these figures in the region, Animal Politico travelled from Tonala to Tapachula – a 224 kilometer route, equivalent to the distance from Mexico City to Queretaro – and counted 10 inspection points. That is to say: one checkpoint for every 22 kilometers.

Along this route, where a blend of police, migration agents, soldiers and marines operate, and where the United States has invested millions of dollars in security through the Merida Initiative, both Mexican citizens and Central American migrants have reported abuses and extortion by security forces, who demand money in exchange for free passage.

"Drug Traffickers Pay a Fee to Pass Through"

Five minutes after leaving the center of Tonala en route to the city of Tapachula, the semi-trucks slow down before coming to a full stop.

"Warning. Military security post," reads a sign hung to one side of the highway -- here is the military base of the 61st Infantry Battalion of Tonala. The line of traffic also includes cars, buses, and pickup trucks loaded with mangos, an agricultural product that dominates the region,  along with corn, watermelon and tamarind. The area is also strategically important for commerce thanks to its proximity to Oaxaca and the fact that it is a transit point along the highway connecting Tuxtla Gutierrez to Tapachula.

On soldiers' orders, the vehicles pass by with idle engines, alongside a truck, bearing a logo that reads "X-ray," parked on the meridian strip. 

Some people are lucky. They just have to get out of their vehicles while the soldiers perform a basic inspection: they look between the seats, order the trunk opened, look for anything strange in the tires, and ask questions about where the travelers coming from and where they're going.

On the other hand, using military gestures, the soldiers order many others to park and turn off the motor.

These people have been chosen for an in-depth inspection.

"At this military checkpoint, they make you pass through an infrared to see if you have drugs or arms," says Jose Luis Lopez, a 47-year-old salesman who travels daily to Tapachula and the towns scattered along Mexico's southern border, with his truck full of limes. "But in reality, the machine they use doesn't matter, because when you pass through in your truck they order you to get out, because they are going to inspect you."

In addition to losing time -- the salesman claims that "they can keep you there two or three hours if they want" -- and having products go bad due to the strong Chiapan sun, Jose Luis Lopez says that, far from providing security, the soldiers commit acts of corruption at the checkpoints.


"It seems to me that it's for [the criminals'] security, rather than ours. Because whenever there's a checkpoint, everyone here knows that it's because something's passing through there."


"The truth is, I don't know what they want by keeping people there so long," he says. "Maybe they're looking for money, I don't know. But I see others that come through in a car and they just say, 'Go through, go through!' So I don't think that the checkpoints are for our safety, or that the treatment is fair. It seems to me that it's for [the criminals'] security rather than ours. Because whenever there's a checkpoint, everyone here knows that it's because something's passing through there."

Jose wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, and smiles when he is asked if he's referring to arms or drugs when he claims that "something has to pass" through the checkpoint.

"We don't know." He shrugs his shoulders without losing the smile. "But something has to pass through there."

"Here the Residents Are Bothered By Everything"

Sitting on the terrace of a hotel, the mayor of Tonala, Manuel de Jesus Garcia Coutiño, admits that in recent years, he has heard complaints over the checkpoints, like those of Jose Luis Lopez. However, he says that these control points provide "better security" to the population and that everyone receives equal treatment during inspections – including him and his police, who can't carry weapons.

"Yes, they've reported troubles at the checkpoints," he starts out saying, solemnly. "But here the residents are bothered by everything, there's no culture. However, as the representative of Tonala, I am happy about these checkpoints, because it means they're taking care of us."

"What are they looking for during those inspections?" I ask.

"They're looking for drugs and weapons, and sometimes there are problems with migrants. But we should understand that the military is here to help us. I'm not against the checkpoints, not at all. Because they bring more security for all of us."

 

"I tell my police that I'm not going to worry if someone gives them 100 pesos. What worries me is if they try to force that person to give them 500," says the mayor. br />

"Have the residents told you that they are asked to pay bribes at the checkpoints?"

"I am not aware of that, I don't want to get involved in the details," Garcia Coutiño responds, raising both hands. "But… it's likely."

A moment later, the mayor explains:

"Look, I've always said, and I'm going to say it clearly, that this shouldn't worry us, because it's something that has happened everywhere in the world since the times when Judas sold out Christ for some coins. What we should try to do is mold it, so that it has a reason for happening. I tell my police that I'm not going to worry if someone gives them 100 pesos [about $7]. What worries me is if they try to force that person to give them 500 [about $34]. At that point it becomes serious corruption!" says the mayor.

The US Spends $2.3 Billion to Equip Mexico against Corruption and Drug Trafficking 

As part of the fight against corruption and drug trafficking, and in order to strengthen the borders between both countries, the US government has invested billions of dollars in Mexico in recent years through the Merida Initiative.

To be precise, according to the report "US-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Merida Initiative and Beyond," written by think-tank the Congressional Research Service, between 2008 and fiscal year 2014, Washington has spent a total of $2.35 billion.

For 2015, President Barack Obama's administration has requested another $115 million to continue "assisting" Mexico through this initiative. According to the third of its four "pillars," the Merida Initiative aims to create a "21st Century Border" that will help both countries combat the drug cartels, control the flow of merchandise, and stop the passage of migrants coming from Central America.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband

 

"Is the US concerned about these complaints?" "If the Mexican authorities want to install checkpoints... that is 100 percent a Mexican policy." br />

"Our interest is to work together and join forces with the Mexican authorities in order to regulate the controls that Mexico puts in place along the southern border, which, and I believe this is something well understood, has various parts that lack migratory and customs controls and the application of the law," says Annie Pforzheimer, the Director at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL-Mexico) at the US Embassy in Mexico.

For this task, the official explains that the Merida Initiative has provided Mexico with non-intrusive inspection equipment -- such as x-rays, gamma rays, mobile inspection vehicles, portable equipment to detect explosives, etc. -- some of which "are highly mobile and can be used in airports, ports and in different inspection points throughout the country."

"However," says Pforzheimer, "the United States hopes to help Mexico not only with this technology, but also by training Mexican officials so that they can work more effectively."

At this point, I ask Pforzheimer if Washington is aware of citizens' complaints over the checkpoints along Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. Like the one in Tonala, these are equipped with millions of dollars in funds from the Merida Initiative and, thus, from the US government.

"No, I haven't heard any complaints. But I think it's possible that those feelings exist in that region," she says.

"Why do you think that?" I ask.

"I think that if you didn't use to have any checkpoints in the region, and suddenly you have one, you're going to feel like there are a lot."

"Is the US government concerned about those complaints?"

"If the Mexican authorities want to install checkpoints or try to focus on contraband, that is 100 percent a Mexican policy."

"There are also residents who denounce abuses and corruption at these checkpoints," I tell the official. "Are you aware of that situation?"

"For us, it is extremely important to avoid any association between security reinforcement work and corruption. But I have absolutely no information about how widespread that problem is."


Finally, when asked again about corruption at the Mexican checkpoints equipped with technology from the Merida Initiative, the US official admits that she "should know a little more about how the personnel operate" there.


"Could your government pressure Mexico to respond to these complaints?"

"I think our role is not so much to demand that Mexico responds to these complaints as it is to try to build Mexico's capacity to confront these complaints."

Finally, when asked again about corruption at the Mexican checkpoints equipped with technology from the Merida Initiative, the US official admits that she "should know a little more about how the personnel operate" there. However, she notes that there are ways to report such abuses in Mexico.

"There is an ombudsman that questionable practices can be reported to," says Pforzheimer, "although I can't tell you what exists and what doesn't exist with the Mexican citizens. People have to tell their stories, and there are ways to do so anonymously. The more stories are told, the more pressure can be built against the bad law enforcement officials so that they will be removed. I know these things happen," says the official, "but I also know they don't happen frequently."

2015.01.09.mexicocustoms

The customs post in Huixtla, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo by Manu Ureste for Animal Politico

Corruption Along the "21st Century Border"

"Are any of you carrying a computer?"

The taxi driver looks through his rearview mirror, which is decorated with Virgen de Guadalupe and soccer club stickers, with his wide, black eyes.

The passengers move about the backseat uncomfortably.

"I'm asking because if you've got a computer, you are going to have problems up ahead." He shifts gears and the taxi engine reluctantly speeds up.

"If you don't have the receipt, they're going to take your computer, even if it's not new, got it?" He lifts his index finger. "I pass by here 20 times a day and I've seen everything. I know how corrupt they are. It would be a miracle if they didn't register your things and want to keep something."

The taxi keeps moving forward.

At the end of a straight highway, the Huixtla customs post (pictured above) becomes visible. The building forms part of the "21st Century Border" that Washington wants to help Mexico build and that, as an official admitted off the record, is equipped with "non-intrusive" inspection equipment bought with the $2.35 billion provided by the Merida Initiative.

"Not long ago I drove a woman and they took all of her things there, in that customs post," said the driver, who, remembering the scene, squeezed the steering wheel with both hands. "They demanded 500 pesos [about $34] to return the clothing she had purchased in Tapachula."

"And I ask myself: how is it possible that, with sacrifice, you buy the things you need to support your family and they take them away? You would think that those who work for the government are paid a salary, no? So what right do they have to treat us in this aggressive way?" the taxi driver asks lowering his voice to a whisper while, slowly, the taxi enters the customs checkpoint and a uniformed official stops him.  

"It's not fair that they make you get out of your car and they treat you like a criminal," he mumbles between his teeth. "It's not fair."

*This article originally appeared in Animal Politico and was translated and reproduced with permission. See Spanish original here. This report was produced in association with Round Earth Media (@roundearthmedia), a US civil society organization that supports the next generation of international journalists. US reporter Jennifer Collins contributed to this report.

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