TAPACHULA, CHIAPAS.- When migrants arrive at the main crossing point into southern Mexico — a steamy city with no job opportunities, a place packed with foreigners eager to keep moving north — they soon learn the only way to cut through the red tape and expedite what can be a monthslong process is to pay someone.
With soaring numbers of people entering Mexico, a sprawling network of lawyers, fixers and middlemen has exploded in the country. At every step in a complicated process, opportunists are ready to provide documents or counsel to migrants who can afford to speed up the system — and who don’t want to risk their lives packed in a truck for a dangerous border crossing.
In nearly two dozen interviews with The Associated Press, migrants, officials, and those in the business described a network operating at the limit of legality, cooperating with — and sometimes bribing — bureaucrats in Mexico’s immigration sector, where corruption is deeply ingrained, and at times working directly with smugglers.
Fixers have always found a business with those passing through the country. But the increasing numbers over the last year and Mexico’s renewed efforts to control migration by accelerating document processing without clear criteria have made the work more prominent and profitable. The result is a booming business that often preys on a population of migrants who are largely poor, desperate, and unable to turn elsewhere.
Legal papers, freedom from detention, transit permits, and temporary visas: All are available for a price via the network. But even though the documents are legal and the cost can be several hundred dollars or more, migrants are at risk of arrest or return to their entry point as they make their way through the country, thanks to inconsistent policy enforcement and corrupt officials at checkpoints.
Crossing through Mexico — a country plagued by drug cartels that also make millions from migrant smuggling — has long been a risk. Legal, free channels that can mitigate danger have always been available through the government. That formal process usually involved requesting asylum, even when people simply wanted documents to move legally to the U.S border.
But the record number of migrant arrivals has wreaked havoc on the system, particularly at offices in the south.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, U.S. authorities apprehended people crossing the southwest border 2.38 million times. That’s up 37 percent from the year prior. The annual total surpassed 2 million for the first time in August and is more than twice the highest level during Donald Trump’s presidency, in 2019.
With more people has come more waiting, desperation and protests. In response, more than a year ago, the Mexican government loosened criteria for some temporary and transit permits, especially for migrants from countries where it would be difficult for Mexico to return them.
But with the influx of migrant arrivals, it takes months just to get an appointment to begin the process. Amid the waits and tension, it’s tempting to pay fixers and lawyers.
And with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday allowing pandemic-era asylum restrictions to remain in place until it hears arguments in February, it was unclear what kind of effects might be felt by the thousands of migrants already making their way through Mexico to the U.S. border.
In the south, migrants going to fixers can generally choose from different packages — transit permits, temporary visas — promoted on social media and adapted to various scenarios and budgets. Farther north, options are scarce, and paying specific operators may be the only way to get out of a detention center.
Migrants rarely report questionable practices. Most assume their payments and time are part of the price of getting to the U.S. Even when corruption is reported, authorities seldom take action, citing a lack of evidence.
In December 2018, when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office, he said fighting corruption was a top priority. He declared the National Immigration Institute one of Mexico’s most corrupt institutions. Yet in the past four years, only about one in every 1,000 internal investigations opened by the agency made it to the prosecutor’s office, according to data obtained through freedom of information requests.
The National Immigration Institute did not reply to multiple requests for comment about its efforts to combat corruption, and officials there refused to be interviewed. This month, the agency said it had followed up on every recommendation issued by the internal control office as part of its commitment to the fight against corruption.
The lack of accountability has made it easy for fixers to operate and exchange payments and information with officials.
The Federal Institute of Public Defenders has denounced arrangements between immigration agents and private lawyers. In response, some of its officials have been harassed and intimidated, according to the agency.
“This is never going to end because there are many high-ranking officials involved who are receiving a lot of money,” said Mónica Vázquez, a public defender from Puebla, in central Mexico. She and her colleagues believe the situation is only getting worse.
On a fall day in Tapachula, at the border with Guatemala, 100 migrants lined up outside immigration offices, hoping for documents to cross Mexico. They soon learn the free, government-sanctioned process can take months.
Just a few blocks away, the same papers can arrive quickly — for a price.
For one Dominican man, it took three days and $1,700 to get a permit to travel through Mexico, he told AP. He said a lawyer brought the government-issued transit document to a house where a smuggler took him after he crossed into Mexico.
While waiting for the lawyer, he said he suddenly feared he’d been kidnapped — nobody told him how long it would take to get the documents and he was too afraid to ask. But once the payment was transferred by a friend in the U.S., papers arrived and he took a bus to Mexico City, he said.
The man spoke with AP several times before leaving Tapachula, on condition of anonymity to remain safe as he traveled north. He refused to give other details for fear of retaliation. One of his relatives confirmed to AP that he has since managed to cross into the United States and lives there now.
He and others who travel through the country use “safe-passage” permits — the common term for some temporary documents issued by the Mexican government. Most allow the holder to leave the country through any border, including the one with the U.S.