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Mexico Scrambles To Establish National Guard After Promising To Tighten Border


We start this hour at an immigration checkpoint in southern Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

CORNISH: Late last week, the U.S. and Mexico struck a deal on immigration, a deal that stopped President Trump from carrying out a threat to impose tariffs.


As part of that deal, Mexico pledged to deploy its brand new National Guard to fight illegal immigration. Mexico also said it would keep more Central American migrants on its side of the border while the U.S. processes their asylum claims. In a few moments, we'll hear about the strain this puts on Mexican cities.

CORNISH: First we're joined by reporter James Fredrick at that checkpoint in southern Mexico. And James, I understand you're about 30 minutes from the border with Guatemala. Can you talk about what you've been seeing there?

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Yeah, so I'm under a bridge on a highway that goes north from the Guatemala-Mexico border, and there's about 10 immigration agents here as well as federal police and soldiers, and this is really what they're doing for migration enforcement right now. This is looking to change with the agreement that was made between the U.S. and Mexico recently. Mexican officials say that 6,000 National Guard members will be coming down here, and the National Guard is really the main new security force by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

CORNISH: Tell us more about the Mexican National Guard 'cause it was just announced a few weeks ago. What's going on there?

FREDRICK: So the National Guard is really the primary security policy of President Lopez Obrador, who is in his first year here. And basically he pitched the National Guard as a modern, sophisticated kind of hybrid military civilian force. This force would basically have police powers to arrest people. And then specifically talking about migration, it would be the only security force in Mexico that would have the authority on its own to arrest undocumented migrants. This is really all theoretical right now because President Lopez Obrador has talked a lot about it. But there is no active National Guard right now, and we're kind of waiting to see exactly when National Guard gets rolled out.

CORNISH: My next question was going to be whether these Guard members have been trained, but you're saying this force doesn't exist yet. So where are they going to come from?

FREDRICK: Well, so what we know so far is about 1,500 National Guard members are currently being trained. They're not fully trained yet. And this training question is really important because as President Lopez Obrador has pushed it, this is a modern force. It's going to be very respectful of human rights. He said Mexican police and army have had several scandals around human rights. And the feeling that they are trying to rush this out for migration enforcement really doesn't engender a lot of confidence that this is going to be the modern security force that can make Mexico safer.

CORNISH: You've underscored that troublesome history. Can you talk about how people are reacting to this? Is it controversial in Mexico?

FREDRICK: Yeah, it's really just a sense of not knowing what the National Guard is right now. I spoke earlier today to the mayor of the town of Ciudad Hidalgo. It's the little town that's right on the Mexico-Guatemala border. She said she has no news about when National Guard might be on the border, but she did say the federal government got in touch with her to ask her to find a plot of land where they could build a National Guard base. So I mean, that also gives you an idea of what stage the National Guard is really at in being rolled out.

CORNISH: In the end, is this establishment of the National Guard and this cooperation with the U.S. going to be a major kind of policy issue for Lopez Obrador? Like, is this going to be part of his political legacy?

FREDRICK: It sure seems like it 'cause, you know, the National Guard is what he said was going to be the thing that solves violence in Mexico. And what I'm really curious to see is if they indeed roll out these first, you know, 6,000 National Guard members here to the border, how are Mexicans going to react? This is a force they thought was going to be used to fight organized crime here in Mexico. If it's just for migration enforcement, I don't expect that Mexicans are going to feel very happy about that.

CORNISH: That's reporter James Fredrick in southern Mexico. Thank you for your reporting.

FREDRICK: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.