The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) closely monitors a special class of migrants in Mexico—known as Special Interest Aliens (SIAs)—that are thought to have ties to terrorist groups, according to a declassified document obtained by the National Security Archive and cited in an important new report on Mexico’s southern border published this week by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
The document is a reminder that, even amid a worsening humanitarian crisis that has seen the number of unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. and Mexican custody skyrocketing in recent years, the U.S. remains focused on the amorphous threat posed by the potential smuggling of terrorists into the U.S. through Mexico. “To the extent we were able to determine, authorities have found no ties between international terrorist groups and any of the several dozen Asian, African, or Middle Eastern migrants detained each year in the Mexico-Guatemala border zone,” WOLA says in the new report.
U.S. efforts to combat the smuggling of SIAs through Mexico and into the U.S. is one of three “Hot Topics” listed in the declassified briefing paper from 2012, prepared for former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton in advance of a meeting with Mexico’s Secretary of Governance, Alejandro Poire. The “greatest threat,” according to Morton’s talking points, was “the potential mobility of terrorist groups through Central and South American countries, and through Mexico to the United States.”
The classified memo notes that ICE’s investigatory arm, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), had “established protocols outlining information-sharing on aliens from countries of national security concern” when they are detained by the Mexican government. Through these arrangements, HSI also obtained “critical intelligence on large scale human smuggling operations” and had produced some 280 intelligence reports “based on information gathered in Mexico,” according to the briefing paper. HSI had also established a “Tapachula Liaison Office” near Mexico’s southern border, “to build capacity in the identification of aliens from countries of national security concern who are released from the Tapachula detention facility.”
WOLA’s analysis criticizes the mishmash of policies and government agencies managing migration enforcement in southern Mexico. “[T]hese law enforcement, military, migration, investigative, and intelligence agencies are poorly coordinated, suffer from endemic corruption, routinely extort migrants, and manage to stop only a tiny fraction of U.S.-bound drugs,” according to the report. Migrants crossing Mexico’s porous southern frontier encounter “a border security policy that is hard to define, at times contradictory, and unevenly implemented—but clearly toughening, often with U.S. backing.”
“The real humanitarian emergency is not just in south Texas shelters and detention facilities. It runs along the entire migration route to the United States, from the violence-torn slums of Central America, to Mexico’s treacherous train lines and crowded detention centers, to the forbidding deserts on the U.S. side of the border where hundreds die each year.”
WOLA’s report also highlights the lack of transparency in Mexico when it comes to migration and security policies on the southern border:
In an individual response to a request for information from INM on its “Southern Border Plan” or similar document, the INM [National Migration Institute] affirmed that it did not have any information. The IFAI [Federal Institute for Access to Information] appealed, affirming that in fact the INM had worked on a “Program of Migration for Mexico’s Southern Border” together with national and international public officials, academics, civil society organizations and the private sector. In April 2014, the IFAI ordered the INM to do an exhaustive search in all of its departments for any documentation of this plan and the INM’s role in it.
Other declassified National Security Archive documents cited in the WOLA report include:
- The May 2011 report of the U.S. Embassy Mexico’s Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) notes the “seizure of an active methamphetamine clandestine laboratory” in Chiapas, highlighting the fact that Mexico’s southern border region is both a transshipment point and a production zone for illegal narcotics.
- The September 2010 NAS “Detailed Advanced Acquisition Program” for Mexico, including information about a “Document Verification for Travelers” program for the INM that “provides technical assistance, equipment, hardware and other services,” like construction assistance, for an INM document and biometric laboratory and “a document issuance point at various Mexican entry points (beginning on southern border with Guatemala).”