An increase in migration by sea along Mexico’s Pacific Coast has highlighted how adaptable the country's human smuggling networks have become, as well as the lack of care they show toward their human cargo.
Authorities broke up a large migrant camp in San Pedro Tapanatepec, Oaxaca, southwestern Mexico, on December 15, after locals voiced concerns that the town was being overwhelmed.
The camp had been set up by Mexican authorities in July to relieve pressure on another border town, Tapachula, where the number of migrants arriving from Guatemala had risen rapidly in recent months. Some 50,000 migrants arrived in San Pedro Tapanatepec in October, with a further 135,000 people passing through in November, reported Associated Press.
This rapid increase mirrored a dramatic rise in the number of migrants being smuggled from Guatemala into Mexico by boat -- usually fishing vessels -- traveling north along the Pacific Coast.
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Most journeys begin in Ocós, a small Guatemalan town just kilometers from the Mexico border, then past the southern state of Chiapas to arrive in Salina Cruz and the tourist town of Huatulco, both in the state of Oaxaca, reports stated. The journey covers around 450 kilometers.
Traveling by sea allows migrants to avoid a number of checkpoints on the most common land routes through southern Mexico and toward the United States, according to the newspaper El Universal.
But this journey carries its own risks. To evade authorities, smugglers sail 70 kilometers offshore. No lifejackets are available onboard, there is no emergency signaling should the boat run into trouble, nor is any food or water offered.
At the end of November, three Ecuadorian migrants, including a minor, drowned after their boat capsized off the Oaxaca coast, El Sol de México reported. A Senegalese migrant also died later while being held in jail after being rescued.
The overall number of migrants entering Mexico has increased massively in 2022, rising by 89.3% in the first quarter of 2022 year-on-year. Meanwhile, US authorities reported almost 2.4 million “border encounters” during the 2022 fiscal year, the highest-ever number. A change in the nationality of migrants was also recorded, with Venezuelan, Cuban, and Nicaraguan migrants outnumbering those from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
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The route along the Oaxacan coast rose to popularity among human smugglers in 2015 following the introduction of Mexico’s Southern Border Program (Programa Frontera Sur), intended to beef up security protocols along its border with Guatemala.
That year, the ocean route was described as “not very heavy” by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), with an analyst estimating that fewer than 30 boats were in operation each day.
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By 2017, a priest who worked with migrants in Chiapas told El País that the maritime route, previously "kept hidden [by criminal groups] and was dedicated to drug trafficking,” had recently “been systematized as a route for moving people.” These routes were controlled by the Zetas, the paper claimed at the time, as the Mexican cartel had a strong foothold in Guatemala. Then, as Mexico sought to stop migrant caravans moving through the country by land, the maritime route continued to expand throughout 2018 and 2019.
El País also reported that most of the smugglers moving migrants were struggling fishermen who used their boats for a more profitable form of business, charging around $400 per person.
Over the last year, migration flows moving through Mexico and toward the United States have evolved. Record numbers of "encounters" at the US-Mexico border are echoed in the numbers of migrants making the perilous trek through the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama. Simultaneously, security on the Mexico-Guatemala border has increased, compelling migrants to look for other ways to keep moving.
The seas, however, remain relatively unwatched.
In Mexico, the Navy rescued just 4,798 migrants in eleven years between August 2010 to October 2021, including 1,204 migrants during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, according to data cited by El País. On land, authorities detained 16,000 migrants over just four days in November 2022.
Migrants are not just taking to the seas in Oaxaca. Between the fiscal years 2019 and 2020, the US Customs and Border Patrol reported a 92% rise in maritime detentions around San Diego, California, where vessels dash across the border from Mexico’s Baja California state.