Residents of Tapachula, Mexico, exchange goods in a makeshift open air market set up by migrants outside shops in downtown. (Photo by Salma Reyes/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
TAPACHULA, Mexico – Tapachula’s location near Mexico’s southern border has made it a city of migrants.
“We are a border city that has historically received migrants in different stages and in different ways,” said Roberto Fuentes, general secretary of the city council. “Those migrations practically formed our city.”
But something has shifted, Fuentes said.
The sound of marimbas still rings through the main square, but now barefoot children from countries all over the world congregate in shaded corners to take refuge from the blazing sun. The bright storefronts of local merchants are hidden behind the makeshift marketplaces of migrants. Hours-long lines form each day outside overwhelmed government offices as migrants apply for the documents required to find work or continue their journeys north.
According to Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM), the average number of annual migrant encounters in Chiapas state from 2007 to 2014 was 39,000. This refers to migrants’ encounters with federal migration officials, not individuals – the same migrant could be encountered twice. In 2021, INM recorded 76,333 migrant encounters.
There was a spike in 2015 and 2016, and then another in 2019 before numbers hit a low 28,498 in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions.
In the first three months of 2022, Chiapas reported 24,294 migrant encounters, 11,886 more than encountered in those same months in 2021, according to Mexico’s interior ministry.
These data reflect migrant encounters for Chiapas state, of which Tapachula is the largest city and where the vast majority of migrants are registered, processed or detained.
“Even though we’ve always had migration, it has worsened in this crisis because it has become worldwide,” Fuentes said.
Migrants from Central America and Caribbean nations made up 92% of migrants encountered in a mobility tracking survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2021.
Of these respondents, 46% said the principal reason for their migration was violence or persecution. 42% cited economic reasons.
“The city is in a state of siege, a state of chaos,” Fuentes said.
According to the IOM survey, 55% of migrants encountered by authorities in Tapachula planned to continue their journey rather than stay in Chiapas.
To stay in Mexico or even travel north, however, migrants must first obtain a humanitarian visa from federal immigration offices that locals say are understaffed and unprepared for the crisis they’re facing.
“They (Tapachula residents) never expected so much migration all at once,” said Román Mijanga Reyes, a native of the city. “There are migration offices here, but not enough for so many migrants – and all of the migrants want a prompt solution.”
According to an International Organization of Migration report, 75% of the migrants in Tapachula have been there for more than a month, and frustrations are growing as migrants begin to feel there is no way out.
“They think that it’s discrimination that they’re not giving them papers quickly,” Reyes said. “Unfortunately, that’s how it is. Politics are slow here. Unfortunately, our processes are slow in general.”
With frustration has come protests and, in some cases, violence. There have been reported physical altercations between immigration officers and migrants, and many downtown merchants reported an anecdotal increase in violence in the city.
“With what they are going through, there are times when these people are aggressive,” said Maibely Zurema Perez Verdugo, an employee at Bissú, a cosmetics store in the heart of Tapachula.
“I understand that they’re coming and going as usual, but it affects us in many ways,” she said. “Now we try to avoid those who pass by because the same thing happens in the streets. We try not to say anything to them because they can be very aggressive.”
Fuentes, however, said city officials have not observed an increase in violence since 2015, the approximate beginning of the current influx of migrants in Tapachula.
“They do not go out or attack the people of Tapachula,” Fuentes said. “Even looking at the crime rates in the city – the crimes committed have not worsened due to the migratory presence for the amount of people we have.”
Tapachula has a population of 350,000, not including the thousands of migrants living there.
Crime rates in Tapachula have shifted dramatically over the past five years, according to data from the National System of Public Security.
“79% of the resident population of Tapachula considers it to be an unsafe city, giving the city one of the highest insecurity perception rates in the country,” an IOM report from early 2021 said.
Data provided by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography shows that 36% of men and 28% of women older than 18 felt secure in Chiapas state; no data are available at the municipal level.
People who live close to immigration offices or areas where migrants set up their sidewalk businesses also have complaints.
“The locals, well, they have always had a certain tolerance,” Fuentes said. “In the case of the migrants, because of their needs, they have opened up business in certain areas and there has been a clash with the streets that they’re on. They’re overtaking their places.”
José Roberto Cigarroa Silva, an employee at an artisanal shop called Colectivo Xóchitl in the center of Parque Bicentenario – which has become a makeshift campsite for many migrants – said the impact of migration on the local economy is clear.
“There are many complaints about the central park area because the government actually gave a space to the migrants to set up their businesses, which is fair, it is valid,” Silva said. “But obviously, the local people who have public spaces there that they pay for do not like it.”
Not all Tapachula residents are upset with the shift, however.
“There are merchants who are very happy,” Fuentes said. “There are people who rent houses who may be happy.”
According to IOM, 28% of surveyed migrants were renting spaces, with 67% paying an average of $89 U.S. a month.
“The people, in spite of how small this city is, are very, very open,” Fuentes said. “We offer our hands to everyone of any condition, of any nationality, even to our local people.”
Silva said that cultural differences between migrants and locals has led to some tension. Additionally, he said some fear migrants are taking away job opportunities.
“It’s like the migrants are discriminated against a little bit,” Silva said.
“There is more cultural shock here that we do not understand in aspects of language, culture and behavior,” Reyes said.
Fuentes said that the municipal government has provided the most assistance with lodging.
“We have our shelters and above all we focus on women and children who are more vulnerable,” he said.
Silva said that when migrants have issues, he doesn’t think they approach the government for help, but instead rely on human rights organizations and non-profit, non-governmental organizations.
“I don’t think it’s the government that has been supporting the migrants as much as it has been the NGOs,” Silva said. “When they suffer, they pick up the phone – not to call the government, but an authority on the outside.”
Silva said migrants worry that the government will not act or offer support.
Fuentes said that the government was “not equipped to receive” the migrants, but the situation still “has not gotten out of control.”
“We did not expect this,” Fuentes said. “Even so, there are stages where we have shown moments of crisis – there are sudden marches among migrants and there are events that block facilities – but they don’t go out of control.”
Fuentes said he hopes this crisis will bring Tapachula good in the long run.
“We are looking to lay the foundation so that it will be easier for the city to manage in the future,” he said. “We must be prepared to face them (migrants) in a better way in the future with the support of the state, federal and municipal efforts.”