TAPACHULA, Mexico — When migrants arrive to the main crossing point into southern Mexico — a steamy city with no job opportunities, a place packed with foreigners eager to keep moving north — they soon learn the only way to cut through the red tape and expedite what can be a monthslong process is to pay someone.
With soaring numbers of people entering Mexico, a sprawling network of lawyers, fixers and middlemen has exploded in the country. At every step in a complicated process, opportunists are ready to provide documents or counsel to migrants who can afford to speed up the system — and who don’t want to risk their lives packed in a truck for a dangerous border crossing.
In nearly two dozen interviews with The Associated Press, migrants, officials and those in the business described a network operating at the limit of legality, cooperating with — and sometimes bribing — bureaucrats in Mexico’s immigration sector, where corruption is deeply ingrained, and at times working directly with smugglers.
Fixers have always found business with those passing through the country. But the increasing numbers over the last year and Mexico’s renewed efforts to control migration by accelerating document processing without clear criteria have made the work more prominent and profitable. The result is a booming business that often preys on a population of migrants who are largely poor, desperate and unable to turn elsewhere.
Legal papers, freedom from detention, transit permits, temporary visas: All are available for a price via the network. But even though the documents are legal and the cost can be several hundred dollars or more, migrants are at risk of arrest or return to their entry point as they make their way through the country, thanks to inconsistent policy enforcement and corrupt officials at checkpoints.
Crossing through Mexico — a country plagued by drug cartels that also make millions from migrant smuggling — has long been a risk. Legal, free channels that can mitigate danger have always been available through the government. That formal process usually involved requesting asylum, even when people simply wanted documents to move legally to the U.S border.
But the record number of migrant arrivals has wreaked havoc on the system, particularly at offices in the south.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, U.S. authorities apprehended people crossing the southwest border 2.38 million times. That’s up 37 percent from the year prior. The annual total surpassed 2 million for the first time in August and is more than twice the highest level during Donald Trump’s presidency, in 2019.
With more people has come more waiting, desperation and protests. In response, more than a year ago, the Mexican government loosened criteria for some temporary and transit permits, especially for migrants from countries where it would be difficult for Mexico to return them.
But with the influx of migrant arrivals, it takes months just to get an appointment to begin the process. Amid the waits and tension, it’s tempting to pay fixers and lawyers.
And with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday allowing pandemic-era asylum restrictions to remain in place until it hears arguments in February, it was unclear what kind of effects might be felt by the thousands of migrants already making their way through Mexico to the U.S. border.
In the south, migrants going to fixers can generally choose from different packages — transit permits, temporary visas — promoted on social media and adapted to various scenarios and budgets. Farther north, options are scarce, and paying specific operators may be the only way to get out of a detention center.
Migrants rarely report questionable practices. Most assume their payments and time are part of the price of getting to the U.S. Even when corruption is reported, authorities seldom take action, citing lack of evidence.
In December 2018, when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office, he said fighting corruption was a top priority. He declared the National Immigration Institute one of Mexico’s most corrupt institutions. Yet in the past four years, only about one in every 1,000 internal investigations opened by the agency made it to the prosecutor’s office, according to data obtained through freedom of information requests.
The National Immigration Institute did not reply to multiple requests for comment about its efforts to combat corruption, and officials there refused to be interviewed. This month, the agency said it had followed up on every recommendation issued by the internal control office as part of its commitment in the fight against corruption.
The lack of accountability has made it easy for fixers to operate and exchange payments and information with officials.
The Federal Institute of Public Defenders has denounced arrangements between immigration agents and private lawyers. In response, some of its officials have been harassed and intimidated, according to the agency.
“This is never going to end because there are many high-ranking officials involved who are receiving a lot of money,” said Mónica Vázquez, a public defender from Puebla, in central Mexico. She and her colleagues believe the situation is only getting worse.
On a fall day in Tapachula, at the border with Guatemala, 100 migrants lined up outside immigration offices, hoping for documents to cross Mexico. They soon learn the free, government-sanctioned process can take months.
Just a few blocks away, the same papers can arrive quickly — for a price.
For one Dominican man, it took three days and $1,700 to get a permit to travel through Mexico, he told AP. He said a lawyer brought the government-issued transit document to a house where a smuggler took him after he crossed into Mexico.
While waiting for the lawyer, he said he suddenly feared he’d been kidnapped — nobody told him how long it would take to get the documents and he was too afraid to ask. But once payment was transferred by a friend in the U.S., papers arrived and he took a bus to Mexico City, he said.
The man spoke with AP several times before leaving Tapachula, on condition of anonymity to remain safe as he traveled north. He refused to give other details for fear of retaliation. One of his relatives confirmed to AP that he has since managed to cross into the United States and lives there now.
He and others who travel through the country use “safe-passage” permits — the common term for some temporary documents issued by the Mexican government. Most allow the holder to leave the country through any border, including the one with the U.S.
Lawyers and brokers advertise prices for various safe-passage papers largely via WhatsApp messages. In one such message seen by AP, options ranged from $250 paid in Mexican currency for a simple document allowing transit to $1,100 in U.S. money for more sophisticated humanitarian visas, printed with a photo and fingerprint, for temporary legal stays in Mexico.
The broker who sent the message guarantees the papers are real government-issued documents, not forgeries. He showed AP the message on condition of anonymity because of the illegal nature of some of the work and fears for his safety and livelihood.
Much of the money goes toward paying officials at the National Immigration Institute, according to the broker. A lawyer who independently spoke with AP confirmed details about bribes. He also spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his business and avoid legal issues.
The lawyer said additional costs are added for middlemen — those who set up the accounts where migrants’ family or friends send payments for documents, for example.
The immigration agency did not answer AP’s requests for comment. In previous statements, it has said officials try to avoid bribery and corruption by installing surveillance cameras in offices and encouraging people to report problems.
The broker who spoke with AP said his contact at the National Immigration Institute is a senior official who always comes through with documents, except when transactions freeze temporarily — often when the agency is in the spotlight or in the middle of political tensions. The broker did not identify his contact to AP.
He told AP he deals mainly with Cubans who spread the word of his services to friends and family. With his growth in earnings, he said, he decided to set up an apartment to accommodate some migrants while they wait, charging $50 a week.
The lawyer described to AP another way to get migrants legal status in Mexico: buying a crime report from a prosecutor’s office, which can open the door to the humanitarian visa.
Any foreigner who has been the victim of a crime is eligible to seek such a visa under Mexican law. Over the years, thousands of migrants have been kidnapped, extorted or raped while crossing Mexico. Formal complaints, however, were rare, due to fear and distrust of authorities.
But now, reports of crime are up, along with hopes of visas.
In all of 2021, fewer than 3,000 migrants -- mostly Central Americans -- reported crimes and successfully obtained humanitarian visas in Mexico. In the first 11 months of 2022, there were more than 20,000, with Cubans constituting 82%.
Some public defenders and others in Mexico find the increase suspicious and fear some crime reports are being purchased to obtain visas. By paying someone for a report, migrants bypass the formal process of authorities requesting details and evidence.
Juan Carlos Custodio, a public defender in Tapachula, found more than 200 Cubans processing visas as crime victims in immigration offices in nearby Huixtla one September day he dropped by for paperwork.
He said he was surprised, so he asked some for details of the crimes and their situations. “They didn’t want to tell me,” he said. He and some colleagues fear a rise in false complaints will hamper the process for true victims.
Asked by AP, the Chiapas state prosecutor’s office said one official was dismissed in July and an investigation was recently opened into the sale of crime reports. The office wouldn’t comment further.
Mexico’s administration says the fight against corruption is at the top of its agenda, but few changes have come at the National Immigration Institute, especially as the flow of migrants grows.
Generally, when there’s an allegation of corruption, immigration officials demand that employee’s resignation or simply do not renew the contract, since most are temporary workers, according to a federal official who insisted upon anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to AP.
Tonatiuh Guillen, who led the immigration agency at the beginning of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term, said in an interview with AP that he asked for the resignation of some 400 officials suspected of wrongdoing. He said he found it the fastest way to tackle the problem given that a single investigation could take years. After he left in June 2019, some of those he asked to resign were rehired, he said.
Of more than 5,000 internal investigations opened since 2019, five made it to prosecutors by mid-2022, data obtained through AP’s records requests show.
There is conflicting information on how many officials have been sanctioned in that period. In December, the federal government in its freedom of information portal listed 16 officials, with no other details. But according to the agency’s internal audit office, 308 officials were suspended through August. When the immigration agency was asked directly, via freedom of information requests, it said it was just one.
Guillén said that by the time he left, he’d already detected “widespread and worrying” practices of many middlemen and lawyers, but he said the problem could be addressed only by changing the law to eliminate its gray areas.
After Guillén’s departure, the agency began putting retired military officers in charge of many of its state delegations — a move human rights groups criticized.
Andrés Ramírez, chief of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid, the government’s agency responsible for asylum seekers and refugees, said corrupt practices such as selling documents have been on the rise since last year. At that time, he said, his office was “on the verge of collapse” after receiving 130,000 asylum applications in 2021, four times that of 2018.
Last April, the sale of documents inside the COMAR office in Tapachula became the subject of an investigation when two complaints were filed with the Chiapas state prosecutor’s office. Four officials left the agency; the investigation is ongoing.
Ramírez said anyone else implicated will be fired.
“Zero tolerance,” he said in an interview with AP. “It is awful. How is it possible that people under international protection can suffer those criminal abuses from officials charged with protecting them?”
Even when migrants buy travel documents or visas, they aren’t guaranteed safe transit. The papers may be disregarded or destroyed by the very agency that issued them.
A 37-year-old Cuban man who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect himself and others who may be traveling through Mexico described buying his documents last year in Tapachula for $1,800, including transportation to the U.S. border.
A few days later, he was arrested, he said, as immigration agents boarded the bus he and other migrants were traveling on when it stopped at a gas station in Puebla. He described the agents tearing up safe-passage documents.
When he reached the immigration detention center, he said, an official told him the way things worked there: He could pay the man $1,500 to get out and be put on a bus to the border.
The man said he refused and went on hunger strike with others. Through the intervention of United Nations officials who visited, he contacted public defender Vázquez, who helped get him released.
The Federal Institute of Public Defenders has long complained about the way immigration agents in Puebla work. They have alleged in complaints to the National Human Rights Commission that immigration officials are working in collusion with a private law firm at the expense of migrants’ rights.
Vázquez says the firm is run by Claudia Ibeth Espinoza, whose services are advertised on large signs in front of the Puebla center. According to Vázquez and others, firm lawyers have privileged access not only to the detention center, but also to the lists of recently detained migrants before they arrive, so they can offer their services as the only alternative to languishing for months inside.
Espinoza denied the allegations and any wrongdoing in an interview with AP. She said she hadn’t received privileges or special treatment from immigration authorities. She confirmed that she charged migrants $500 to $1,000 for her services, though sometimes more.
Asked if she’d ever paid an official in her job, Espinoza said: “It’s not necessary to pay an immigration official.”
“We’re not benefiting, nor robbing, nor doing anything outside the law,” she said. “I charge because the law allows me to.”
But a former immigration agent with knowledge of the situation in Puebla told AP about the existence of an arrangement between immigration agents and Espinoza’s firm at least in 2019 and 2020. That former agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears over safety and retribution, said legal procedures were violated and requirements skipped to quickly release some migrants who paid.
Another former agent who spoke independently to AP and worked in Puebla also described a deal between local immigration officials and Espinoza. That former agent also insisted on anonymity because of fears over safety and retribution.
Espinoza filed complaints against Vázquez for defamation and extortion; both are under investigation. Espinoza reiterated to AP that the allegations of Vázquez , her colleagues and others are false: “If the Institute of Public Defenders doesn’t know how to do its job on immigration issues, it’s not the fault of private lawyers,” she said.
The federal immigration institution also denounced Vázquez and said she damaged the agency by filing an injunction for 300 migrants. But she said someone else did so in her name and has countersued.
Vázquez said she’s rejected proposals to make deals with officials because she suspects they want bribes. She said the public defenders’ office has become a target because it’s seen as taking business from others — she cites restricted access to the detention center as retaliation, as well as anonymous threatening phone calls and intimidating messages.
She said that when detainees opt for free representation from public defenders, they’re sometimes punished by immigration authorities — forced to go without food or showers.
“It seems like every office has its discretionary powers,” she said, and that leaves migrants more vulnerable.
Immigration officials have refused to answer questions about allegations of corruption in Puebla.
From 2020 to 2021, when the public defender’s office began denouncing irregularities and privileges linked to Espinoza’s firm, retired Gen. José Luis Chávez Aldana was in charge of the Puebla immigration office. According to online public records, he was transferred in September 2021 to a similar role in another state.
The agency did not answer questions about whether he is still employed or under investigation. Chávez Aldana did not reply to AP requests for comment.
David Méndez, who was appointed head of the immigration office in Puebla at the beginning of 2022, acknowledged irregularities when he started his role but said he did not file complaints because he didn’t have proof.
He said he tried to “close the information leaks” with new rules and made agreements to promote public defenders. But after six months, Méndez was transferred, then left the federal government. He wouldn’t discuss why.
Vázquez said she has filed three complaints with the National Human Rights Commission denouncing the practices in Puebla, the last one in August 2022. The commission told AP that two complaints have been closed and one remains open, but it would not explain its findings. Vázquez said she has not been informed, either.
Puebla’s office is now run by the man who was second in command during Chávez Aldana’s period.
Back at Mexico’s border with Guatemala, more migrants arrive daily. Most pass unseen, crossing the country crammed into semitrailers. Others take selfies with the “Welcome to Mexico” sign visible just after stepping onto Mexican territory. Then, they turn themselves over to authorities, with hopes of obtaining safe-passage documents.
One October day south of Tapachula, on the bank of the Suchiate River separating Mexico from Guatemala, immigration agents registered some 200 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, at one entry point. They were all given expulsion orders, but also told they could exchange those documents for transit permits if they made it to a small town about 185 miles (300 kilometers) north, San Pedro Tapanatepec.
It’s not clear why authorities chose an out-of-the-way place for what became a massive migrant camp. The immigration agency did not answer AP’s request for comment about the decision.
Thousands of migrants waited there, in a constant churn of arrivals and departures. More than 190,000 people passed through from the end of July through November, federal data show. By mid-December, the immigration agency suddenly announced the closing of the camp with no explanation. Migrants vanished from the town in a matter of days.
While the camp was open, some people said they spent days in detention in Tapachula before getting there; others said they were released immediately. Some were released for free, others after paying up to $500 to a lawyer.
For Luilly Ismael Batista, it was the latter. The Dominican man said a friend recommended the lawyer who got him freed after nine days.
“A friend went out with my credential; the lawyer called me on the loudspeaker,” he said. The agents “let me go, but I had to give my passport and credentials to the lawyer as a guarantee to pay him when I was free.”
Later, he paid $300 for transportation and a guide to bypass about 10 immigration checkpoints on the way from Tapachula to San Pedro Tapanatepec. “They moved us in all kinds of vehicles, vans, cabs, motorcycles,” Batista said.
He said he got on a bus heading north with his transit permit and no money left. He didn’t know how he would reach the U.S. border.
“I will sell my phone, I will sell my watch, I will sell whatever,” he told AP. “God will help us, he will bless us, and we will continue to move forward.”
It ended up being his last message to AP. His cellphone number no longer works.