In the historic centre of the city of Tapachula, located in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala, sits a golden statue of Benito Juárez, the first Mexican president of Indigenous origins, who died in 1872. Behind the statue is a wall featuring a quote from Juárez in capital letters, the English translation of which is: “Among individuals as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace”.
It is an ironic backdrop, to say the least, for the scene currently playing out in Tapachula. The city not only hosts Mexico’s largest immigration detention centre, where I myself was imprisoned for one night in July 2021, but also effectively serves as an open-air jail for countless refuge seekers from Haiti, Central America, and beyond – many of whom are endeavouring to reach the United States but find themselves trapped in indefinite limbo and extreme precarity in Chiapas.
Of course, many of those on the move have been forced to flee their homes thanks in good part to the US habit of inflicting political and economic suffering on its fellow nations. So much for “respect for the rights of others”. Nor, to be sure, is it very respectful for the US to insist that Mexico perform its anti-migrant dirty work.
The attendant paucity of respect for individual rights has bred an abuse-ridden landscape in southern Mexico that merely adds insult to injury for people who have already risked their lives to get this far. As the Washington Office on Latin America noted in a report (PDF) last year, asylum seekers struggling to survive in Tapachula “face abuses by authorities ranging from arbitrary detention to extortion to other forms of violence”. The report went on to specify that “Afro-descendant migrants” were among those facing “particular situations of risk and discrimination”. Indeed, Haitian asylum seekers in Mexico are frequent victims of assault, including armed attacks on their camps. In August 2021, the internet was shocked by footage of Mexican security forces manhandling a Haitian father with a child in his arms.
Haitians comprise a significant portion of Tapachula’s refuge-seeking population – and you do not have to look too hard to see the discrimination. For example, when I returned to the city for a one-week visit in January, I ordered beetroot juice from a Mexican woman whose juice stall is located just behind Benito Juárez Park, where numerous Haitians and asylum seekers of other nationalities spend their days and nights waiting for their fates to be decided by the bureaucratic powers that be. No sooner had I received my beetroot juice and spilled it all over myself than I was being regaled with tales of alleged Haitian transgressions in Tapachula. These, according to the juice vendor, ranged from being “dirty” to having “no culture” to presiding over a veritable occupation of the city and subjugation of its native population.
The racism of the woman’s charges was mundane, unabashed – even upbeat – and was of a piece with the xenophobic delirium that passes for news in certain local media outlets, which get off on hyping the spectre of invading hygiene-challenged Haitian hordes. The day before my arrival, it turned out, there had been an extensive operation in the vicinity of Benito Juárez Park to remove Haitian vendors selling food, clothes, and other items – who were then displaced to another area of the city. A big show had been made, with elements of the Mexican National Guard and the municipal police overseeing the dramatic sweeping, mopping, and scrubbing of downtown streets that had never exactly been known for spotlessness in the first place.
I learned of the operation when, continuing on from the juice stall in search of an avocado, I came upon a handful of police deployed across the street with riot shields. In response to my inquiry as to whether there was some sort of trouble, a policewoman grinned broadly and assured me it was just “limpieza” – a word that means “cleaning” but that naturally acquires more sinister undertones in racialised contexts.
Later I spoke with a young man from rural Haiti, who had thus far spent two months and 11 days in Tapachula and who showed me a map on his mobile phone of all of the countries he had traversed to get there – starting from Chile, many thousands of kilometres away. To cross the notorious Darién Gap, he said, he had taken a boat from Colombia and then walked for five days through the Panamanian jungle, which had entailed seeing a lot of corpses and being robbed of $200 by an armed assailant. The final country on his map was the US, but there was no telling how much additional torment would be required to get there. After all, as a Haitian in Mexico, he was not only criminalised as an “illegal migrant”; he also had to contend with the added layer of persecution on account of skin colour – a combination that has at times proved lethal.
And yet the fundamental blame for the whole nasty setup lies with racist US border policies – blame that multiplies exponentially if you consider that the US has spent more than a century doing its best to make Haiti unliveable. Following an episode in 1914 in which US Marines rolled up to Port-au-Prince and stole half the country’s gold reserves for safekeeping on Wall Street, the US continued to profit at Haiti’s expense by invading and brutally occupying it, propping up despots and torturers, backing coups, and militating to keep Haitian wages down. But the beauty of imperialism is that, in the end, you do not have to worry about “respect for the rights of others”.
In her 2021 book Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, scholar Harsha Walia documents how the US’s “interdiction and detention of Haitian refugees during the 1980s and 1990s” – which included shipping them to the illegal US offshore penal colony known as Guantánamo Bay – “laid the groundwork for the US onshore and offshore immigration detention system in place today”. Immigration detention, writes Walia, is ultimately a “race-making regime” – one that perpetuates a social order predicated on categorical inequality. And as race-making proceeds apace in the US’s outsourced open-air jail of Tapachula, that seated statue certainly has a lot to contemplate.