Tensions and Security Operations Heat Up in Central America

Climate change and natural disasters threaten livelihoods and kickstart migration across the region.

Border Crossings


De-pulping coffee in Chiapas, Mexico
Workers de-pulping coffee in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Joe Driscoll.


The volcano Tacaná, the highest point in the Mexican state of Chiapas, is split perfectly in two by the Mexico-Guatemala border. This region has a rich biodiversity and has historically been a coffee-producing region, one of the first in Mexico. Indigenous Maya people have long worked and lived on either side of the border, routinely crossing from one side to the other through the idyllic mountainous terrain.


Celia Ruiz de Oña, a climate change researcher and anthropologist who studies the communities in the area near Tacaná, spoke over a video call about the dangers of the slowly-evolving effects of climate change, as opposed to attention-grabbing disasters such as forest fires and floods. Though originally from Spain, she has lived on the Mexican side of this cross-border region for the past nine years.


“What we study are the effects that climate change has on the coffee farming communities mostly on the Mexican side, but also on the Guatemalan side,” said Ruiz de Oña. One of those factors is the spread of what’s called coffee “leaf rust”, a quickly spreading disease that destroys coffee crops and has caused an uptick in migration in the communities that have lost their harvests over the years.


“Coffee leaf rust is caused by a fungus. The last outbreak around 2012-2013 was different than previous outbreaks. Firstly, it was more virulent. Second, it affected crops in higher altitudes where before it wouldn’t thrive. That’s because now with global warming, this fungus reaches up into higher altitude areas that before were too chilly for it to survive,” said Ruiz de Oña.


The Mexico-Guatemalan border is sometimes referred to as the ‘third U.S. border.’ According to Ruiz de Oña, “it’s not just the ‘third U.S. border’ we’re dealing with – there is also what people are calling the ‘fourth US border’, which is the Guatemala-Honduras border.” 


Last year, U.S. border authorities on the ground in Guatemala violated restrictions placed on their operations there by directly helping local police deport migrants back to Honduras, actions which culminated in a Senate denunciation. However, more flagrant violations could be forthcoming.  President Biden recently sent U.S. officials to Mexico and Guatemala to work with local authorities on stemming the flow of migrants, though this time ostensibly just for “meetings” and with no mention of what concrete actions will be taken.


Media coverage of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has for years peaked in periodic waves, with panic and fear wielded by Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle to attack whichever administration happens to be in power. While much of the attention is on the increasingly militarized U.S. border, Mexico’s southern frontier with Guatemala has been beefing up security as well.


Mexican police and military, in some cases with logistical support from U.S. border agents, are more strictly policing border crossings with Guatemala and summarily deporting asylum seekers, in violation of both Mexican and international law. In late March, a Mexican soldier shot and killed a Guatemalan migrant at the border. A riot ensued and Mexican soldiers were kidnapped by angry assailants, both Mexican and Guatemalan.


Several huge showdowns, resulting in injuries and deaths, have also happened at the Guatemala-Honduras border where Guatemalan police have long attempted to stem the flow of migrants. Guatemala declared a state of emergency in April, reserving the right to use force against a new wave of migrants attempting to pass through their territory.


“It’s not just happening now, but it’s been the case with previous so-called ‘caravans’ – police have no mercy on them. They beat them like they’re trying to get the candy out of a piñata,” said Efraín Bámaca-López, a Guatemalan researcher and native of Quetzaltenango, a region near the border with Chiapas, Mexico. Bámaca-López spoke over a video call about the economic realities of migration in Central America.


The Trump administration piled pressure onto Mexico and Guatemala to stop the flow of migrants into Mexico. While Biden at first signaled a possible shift in policy, little has changed so far. A promise from the U.S. to send excess vaccines to Mexico on the condition they crackdown on migrants is seen by some as a quid pro quo, though U.S. and Mexican officials deny this.



Climate Refugees


As a result of climate change, hurricanes are posing greater challenges in Central America. Honduras was ravaged by two major hurricanes in 2020, causing billions of dollars in damages and contaminating water sources in parts of the country. Rising temperatures have also destroyed the livelihoods of many that depend on agriculture in Central America. 


“The agricultural sector is the bread and butter of the Guatemalan economy,” says Bámaca-López. He says he believes climate refugee movements will keep growing.


“It’s no prophecy to say this will get worse – it’s going to become critical all over the world. And not just in Central America. Also in Europe, Africa… the movement of people caused by climate change will be tremendous. And Guatemala won’t be any exception to that,” Bámaca-López said. 


While climate change is a serious factor influencing migration trends, Central America is also reeling from other serious problems like gang violence and the economic woes caused by the pandemic.


Putting aside tourism, the Guatemalan economy relies heavily on agriculture. Remittances – money sent back home by those who migrate and work abroad – also make up a large part of the economy.


Around 300,000 people could flee Central America and Mexico in the coming three decades, according to an extensive investigation into climate change and migration featured in the New York Times Magazine.


“Poverty will never go away as long as people make money from it – and people live well off that. That goes for migration too,” Bámaca-López said.



The Route Through Tabasco state 


Migrants in Tabasco State, Mexico
Migrants rest in parks as local shelters run out of space. Image provided by the author.


Back on the other side of the border, a migrant route running through Tenosique, Tabasco State, about 40 miles (64 km) from the Guatemalan border, has been increasingly busy since the pandemic. But some locals say their patience has run out. Others continue to try to help the groups of migrants, some of which have been sleeping in parks since the local migrant shelter ran out of space.


“Migrants, with legal support, will start the asylum process but migration authorities still just do as they please. And there are cases in which these foreigners definitely can’t return to their native countries – very serious cases, for example people with groups like MS13 looking for them to murder them,” Andrey Alonso Echavarria told me over the phone. Alonso is an attorney with a law firm that offers pro bono legal support to asylum seekers in Tenosique.


“We often see whole families arrive in Tenosique that, one way or another, had to leave their native countries,” said Alonso. “The climate has a lot to do with some of these economic problems” 



Borders, Border Security, Climate Change, Honduras, Guatemala, South America, United States, US Foreign Policy, Agriculture, Migrants, Migration