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Why Mexico isn’t stopping the migrant caravan

Roughly 5,000 Central American migrants walk through southern Mexico toward the U.S. border. Here's what a few have to say about why they're traveling north. (Video: Luc Forsyth for The Washington Post)

TAPACHULA, Mexico — As thousands of Central American migrants continue their long walk to the U.S. border, prompting daily condemnations from President Trump, the Mexican government has had to decide: Are Trump’s threats enough to trigger an intervention?

For now, Mexican police have merely stepped aside as the caravan has passed, watching first as migrants took rafts across the river that separates the country from Guatemala, and then as they continued by foot along the main highway, chanting, “Si, se pudo!” or “Yes, we could!”

That response appears to have been conveyed to the White House, and now, once again, Mexico’s most important bilateral relationship appears to be on shaky ground.

“Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States,” Trump tweeted. He later said on Fox News, “I don’t know what’s going on with Mexico. It looks like the people are walking right through the middle of Mexico. So I’m not exactly thrilled there either!”

President Trump said Oct. 22 that he was "not exactly thrilled" that migrants from the caravan were "walking right through the middle" of Mexico. (Video: The Washington Post)

The caravan has marked another chapter in Mexico’s complicated effort to balance threats from the United States with the country’s own domestic politics. Detaining or deporting the caravan’s members would certainly please Trump, but it would flout Mexican immigration laws and further the impression that the government is taking orders from a hostile White House.

So far, the Mexican police appear to be conscious of that tension and the perception of their presence. Riot police have stopped to pose for pictures in their gear, as if ready to combat the migrants, letting international television crews film them before retreating.

The caravan risks a wider confrontation with Washington if Trump threatens to cut off aid to Mexico, as he has threatened to do in Central America, or attempts to seal the border with the U.S. military. Every day, billions of dollars in trade crosses the U.S.-Mexico border, and any attempt to block those flows could inflict serious economic harm on Mexico. The newly renegotiated North American trade agreement hangs in the balance as it has yet to be ratified by lawmakers.

The Mexican government’s dilemma is worsened by the fact that the incoming government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador campaigned on a gentler approach to migration, saying it would not hunt down migrants as if they were criminals.

“You have Trump’s government pressing Mr. Peña Nieto’s government to deter or stop the flows, but on the other hand, you have the pressure of public opinion and the new government saying you should treat the newcomers with dignity,” said Daniel Millan, a former spokesman in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government who is now a political consultant. “They are walking a tightrope.”

Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said Monday on Mexican radio that it would be a “big mistake” for the Mexican government to use its armed forces to try to stop the caravan.

“It would be inadmissible in Mexico to use the army against these people,” he said, adding that he didn’t think Peña Nieto’s government was considering that step. “We would not be in agreement with that at all.”

After a meeting Monday with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in Ottawa, he added that his administration would offer more work visas for Central Americans. “We are going to invest in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador,” he said.

Peña Nieto addressed the caravan on Friday when he said, “Mexico does not allow people to enter our territory illegally and much less so violently.”

That day, on the bridge connecting Mexico and Guatemala, Mexican police fired tear gas at the migrants, closing the official border as television crews and photographers captured their actions. But just next to the bridge, police watched as thousands of migrants crossed the border illegally by raft, settling for the night in the main plaza of the border city of Ciudad Hidalgo.

Still, the images on the bridge, at least for that moment, appeared to impress conservatives in the United States.

“I want to thank the Mexican officials and the Mexican police for putting their lives on the line,” said conservative commentator Laura Ingraham on Fox News on Friday night.

“I think this is the best Mexico has ever been,” said former congressman and Trump supporter Newt Gingrich on Ingraham’s show.

But in Mexico, the images were seen differently.

Mexican political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor captured the reaction of many here, tweeting: “The wall already exists. It’s called Mexico. Congratulations, Mr. Trump.”

On Sunday afternoon, there was yet another test. A convoy of police officers, wearing riot gear and carrying shields, headed for the migrant caravan, ready to form a barricade that would block the more than 5,000 Central Americans headed north.

“We’re here to enforce the laws of Mexico,” one police officer said. “You can’t just pass through our country without permission.”

When the migrants approached the police checkpoint, officers pleaded with them to apply for legal status in Mexico. There were empty buses ready to take them for processing. A police helicopter swooped overhead. The caravan paused briefly as the migrants talked among themselves. Maybe Mexican authorities would give them temporary visas, they thought, or maybe it was a trick, a sneaky way for Mexico to deport the migrants en masse.

“Vamos!” several migrants yelled, and they walked through the checkpoint unhindered. The officers then threw their riot shields in a bus and drove away. The caravan continued.

Mexico is by no means lax on undocumented Central American migrants. Last year, according to the Interior Ministry, Mexico deported 82,000 migrants from the region. It’s possible that, at any moment, the government could decide to take a harsher stance with the migrant caravan.

“We know they can decide to stop us at any time, and it scares me,” said Alside Caseres, a member of the caravan from Honduras, who is traveling with his wife and son.

It was Monday morning, and Caseres and his family were packing their bags, preparing for another day of walking in the heat. They had slept in the plaza on concrete the night before, eating noodles and tortillas donated by local residents.

“Viva Mexico!” yelled some of the migrants who had already started walking.

On Sunday, Trump had tweeted: “People have to apply for asylum in Mexico first, and if they fail to do that, the U.S. will turn them away.”

Indeed, Mexican authorities have repeatedly encouraged the Central American migrants to apply for legal status here, but it was unclear what that status would yield: asylum in Mexico, a temporary visa that would allow enough time for migrants to traverse the country, or something else. Several hundred members of the caravan have agreed to be processed legally, and over the weekend they were taken to a shelter in southern Mexico, which is currently closed to journalists.

On Monday morning, organizers of the caravan expressed skepticism toward Mexican immigration authorities.

“Humanitarian assistance has been predicated on detention,” said Irineo Mujica, the director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras.

Partlow reported from Mexico City.

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