Mexico Says It Has Cut the Number of Migrants Heading to U.S.

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MEXICO CITY — Under pressure from the Trump administration, Mexico’s foreign minister announced Friday that the country had reduced the flow of migrants heading to its northern border by more than 50 percent in the previous three months, an effort meant to keep damaging tariffs at bay.

Through the deployment of its newly formed National Guard, the Mexican government has aggressively targeted migrants traveling through its territory on their way to the United States. The results are stark: The number of migrants detained along the American-Mexico border dropped to 63,989 in August, from 146,266 at the end of May.

The announcement, from Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, comes ahead of a meeting in Washington between the two nations. Tensions between the two countries flared this year, after President Trump threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican imports unless the nation did more to stem the flow of migrants.

To avoid the tariffs, and threats of even more draconian tactics, the government of Mexico dispatched more than 20,000 police officers and Guard personnel to cover its southern border and the highways running north through the nation.

The hope was that by interrupting the flow, and showing a meaningful drop in individuals seeking entry to the United States, the government could stave off Mr. Trump’s threats of economic retaliation. The decision to accede to Mr. Trump’s demands surprised some in Mexico.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised a policy of opportunity, dignity and human rights for migrants. However, with the economy teetering on the verge of recession, fears of the additional impact of tariffs have superseded those concerns.

Still, Mr. Ebrard said in his remarks that only seven complaints have been filed with the country’s Human Rights Commission, describing that as a success given how many troops had been deployed. Still, rights groups have denounced the crackdown, arguing it is not in compliance with the country’s own laws and is criminalizing vulnerable populations simply for seeking a better life.

Such criticisms have dogged Mr. López Obrador this year. In particular, critics have targeted his administration’s decision to allow the United States to send migrants seeking asylum back to Mexico to await their hearings. Reports of kidnappings and theft have emerged across the border, as migrants are sent back to ultraviolent states like Tamaulipas and Chihuahua to fend for themselves while they await their hearing dates.

In addition to halting the progress of those seeking entry to the United States, Mexico says it has also targeted smuggling networks, which it blames for instigating the large caravans that appeared earlier in the year en route to the United States.

So far, more than 750 investigations have been opened for human trafficking, and 357 people have been prosecuted. In addition, 35 cargo trucks were recovered with more than 2,000 migrants traveling on board, 40 percent of whom were minors, Mr. Ebrard said.

But many have viewed the Mexican administration’s response to the problem as little more than capitulation to the Trump administration. Mexico has promised to invest heavily in programs to incentivize Mexican and Central Americans to stay home — through job opportunities and infrastructure investments, among other things. But the latest numbers, and the vast, short-term reductions, were more a product of enforcement, critics say.

“The combination of the efforts made by the Mexican government to contain and stop the flow along the southern border and of migrants realizing right now is not the best moment to cross is probably what is causing this fall,” said Vidal Romero, a professor of political science at ITAM, a Mexico City University. “But it is nonsensical to think that this in anyway is a solution to the problem, since you are literally going against the current of human and economic incentives to migrant north.”