The construction of an internal humanitarian border: the case of Puebla, Mexico


The October 2018 migrant caravans prompted migration to be reconfigured as a political issue in the Central America–Mexico–United States region. Described as a forgotten crisis by the European Commission (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, 2021), transit and settlement migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to Mexico had until then been invisible to regional and international institutions (Coutin, 2005) and migrants were primarily assisted by networks of shelters and associations overseen by the Catholic Church. However, in October 2018, the situation changed radically when thousands of people mobilised in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to migrate collectively to the United States in migrant caravans, defying the region’s securitarian apparatus. Within a regional geopolitical context dominated by the United States, these mobilisations were framed as a national security concern and, in January 2019, the US government launched the “Remain in Mexico” programme. This restrictive migration policy remains in place and forces people seeking asylum in the United States to wait for a decision on their application on Mexican territory (Homeland Security, 2019; WOLA, 2019). As a result of this measure, Mexico was obliged to take responsibility for supplying humanitarian aid to the waiting migrants, while militarisation spread across the national territory in an attempt to limit the number of people reaching the northern border. The consequences of these changes are highly concerning: today, thousands of people are trapped at Mexico’s northern border in poor conditions and their human rights and rights to asylum are being violated.

As well as mobilising the security apparatus, the hypervisibility of the migrant caravans prompted the declaration of a regional humanitarian crisis and led many local and international humanitarian organisations to take action to meet the needs of people in transit or waiting at the borders. Media and humanitarian attention has focused particularly on Mexico’s northern and southern borders, which have become geographic and symbolic spaces of violent dispute over the right to mobility. However, Mexico’s interior states have been frequently overlooked as areas structurally traversed by migrants and shaped by tensions between securitarian and humanitarian concerns. What is happening in the states located far from the country’s borders? How is the migration issue constructed and what is the response to it? This post reflects on these questions in the context of the state of Puebla in Central Mexico, which has been identified as a key transit area for migrants where securitarian and humanitarian dynamics are reproduced and extended. It is based on ethnographic research conducted in Puebla between July and September 2019 with three non-governmental organisations (two international and one Mexican) and an international humanitarian organisation involved in providing migrants with humanitarian assistance. This fieldwork was carried out as part of the research project ‘Reinforcing the Permanent Seminar on Gender and Migration’ (2019) coordinated by the Institute of Feminist Studies at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain (INSTIFEM-UCM) and the Centre of Gender Studies at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico (CEG-BUAP).

These reflections are framed within the existing debate on humanitarian borders, which are defined by Walters (2011) as a complex, contradictory assemblage comprising humanitarianism and the securitarian dimension of migration control and management. Humanitarianism is a cultural model of assistance involving intervention at borders as spaces of migration management, with the aim and mandate of alleviating human suffering through a coordinated network of different stakeholders. According to De Lauri (2019), the expansion of humanitarianism in these spaces is redefining borders not only as basic components of migration control and containment, but also as areas affected by humanitarian crises, giving rise to new approaches to migration governance grounded in an acknowledgement of suffering, compassion and aid. Against this backdrop, it is important to conceptualise borders not only in terms of their securitarian dimension but also as cultural products, “invisible or ostentatious boundaries used to create ‘different’ groups of human beings” (Juliano, 1998). The borders shaping Mexico’s migration scene are culturally constructed and reproduced in multiple ways. The hypervisible process whereby migration is constructed as a humanitarian issue in a context of ongoing crisis (Benincasa & Cortés, 2021) is culturally redefining the migrant population in terms of otherness and foreignness. Migration is pinpointed as a regional issue requiring legitimate intervention and presented simultaneously as a depoliticised humanitarian object and a threat to national security. The dynamics and tensions inherent in the humanitarian border extend and are reproduced beyond territorial borders in the overlooked migration transit area of the state of Puebla.

The ethnographic context

The state of Puebla is located in the southern part of Central Mexico, approximately 130 km to the south-east of Mexico City. It has traditionally been a migrant-sending region, with migrants travelling to the United States in particular (Cortés, Forina & Manjarrez, 2017). Internal migration remains a priority on the local political agenda, which is currently focused on responding to return migration in the state. However, Puebla is also a destination for international migrants, especially those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. According to the Migration Statistical Bulletin, Puebla received 2,804 migrants in 2019 and returned 1,883, most of whom came from Central America (Unidad de Política Migratoria, 2019). Meanwhile, in 2021, 3,521 people arrived in the state and 2,266 were returned (Unidad de Política Migratoria, 2021). In their study of Central American migration in Puebla, Cortés, Forina and Manjarrez (2017) show that the state is a key stage in Mexico’s main migration routes. Firstly, it lies on the route taken by the Beast: the train used by many migrants to cross Mexico. Secondly, the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan for the Southern Border in 2014 and the increasing militarisation of the cargo train have transformed Puebla into a transit region, with migrants taking alternative, unnoticed routes on foot, accompanied by people smugglers or using motorised transport when their financial resources allow. Puebla is also a stage on the route to Mexico City, which is the departure point for the main routes leading to the northern border.

International migration in Puebla has been identified as transit migration, so it has not been labelled a political issue on the local public agenda. Although their institutional invisibility can facilitate their transit towards the north of the country, it also leaves migrants more vulnerable to dangers such as kidnapping, mugging, abuse, detention and deportation as they move (Cortés, Forina & Manjarrez, 2017). Indeed, migrants are only invisible on the local public agenda to the extent that their status as individuals with rights goes unacknowledged. Puebla has drawn increasing attention from the security apparatus as a stage on the migration route: the state is home to one of the 29 permanent holding centres used to detain irregular migrants that have opened in Mexico (Global Detention Project, 2021) and are coordinated by the National Institute of Migration (INM). In the words of Sánchez Gavi (2016), this institutional invisibility also contrasts with the visibility afforded to migrants as “delinquents” and their construction as objects of suspicion and peculiarity among some political groups and the local population. Amid these tensions, the Catholic Church has traditionally been responsible for providing migrants with humanitarian assistance in Puebla through the Human Mobility Pastoral Program and a network of five shelters. These are supplemented by impromptu aid initiatives (Sánchez-Gavi, 2016): a mobile Red Cross surgery on the Beast train route at Ciudad Serdán and groups of women known as Las Patronas led by Doña Luisa (Moncó, 2021).

Reconfiguring migration in Puebla

An analysis of the ethnographic data collected in 2019 shows how the arrival of the first migrant caravans in 2018 brought about major changes in humanitarian assistance for migrants in Puebla (Benincasa & Cortés, 2021). Firstly, one of the most significant impacts of the emergence of the caravans as a new form of regional mobility was a dramatic increase in scrutiny of the routes used by migrants to cross the country. In this context, Puebla has been publicly recognised as a stage on the migration route to Mexico City, where migrants continue towards the northern border (Benincasa & Cortés, 2021). Secondly, the emergency situation in October 2018 prompted a number of public and private stakeholders to mobilise to respond to the needs of the migrants in transit. The public authorities, coordinated by Claudia Rivera Vivanco from the left-wing National Regeneration Movement as municipal president (2018–2021), introduced measures to accommodate the migrants on a temporary basis, providing shelter, medical care and basic necessities. Civil society associations, local and international non-governmental organisations, and international organisations also played a part in managing the reception of the migrants.

Puebla’s increasing visibility as a transit region for international migrants has resulted in the emergence of a new political issue for the organisations covered by our 2019 ethnographic fieldwork. Despite traditionally being involved in preventing internal migration, they were obliged to reorder their priorities in response to the emerging migration problem. In the narrative they present, the political context of crisis and its tensions made it difficult to establish a clear stance and structured working agenda. Their humanitarian work was shaped by two tensions in particular. Firstly, the highly mobile nature of the population impeded longer-term planning. The extent to which migration is temporary varies across Mexico, ranging from high levels of mobility to long waits at the northern border or in detention centres (a consequence of policies intended to contain migration). In 2019, Puebla continued to receive large numbers of migrants travelling northwards, which led to prolonged uncertainty for humanitarian stakeholders.

Secondly, a clear tension emerged between the political stance held by humanitarian stakeholders and the contextual need to negotiate the security-focused law governing migration management in Mexico. Broadly speaking, the humanitarians’ political approach to migration revolved around the right to asylum and human rights (Benincasa & Cortés, 2021). However, this stance and the search for political responses were undermined by Mexico’s inconsistent official discourse, which wavered between concern for protecting migrants’ rights and restrictive measures used to detain, imprison and deport them, violating these rights and creating an ambiguity that has yet to be resolved (París Pombo, 2019). Moreover, the construction of a prolonged humanitarian crisis fuelled the notion of instability in relation to Mexico’s migration and political situation, legitimising and reinforcing humanitarianism as the only possible response to migration.

These tensions illuminate how Puebla has become a focus of attention for humanitarian intervention in migration in Mexico. Changes in the migration situation in Puebla, which have been driven and highlighted by the migrant caravans, are transforming the state into a clear space of tension between mobility, humanitarianism and securitarianism. This ethnographic case study shows how the intersection between border dynamics and humanitarian action transcends national borders to affect Mexico’s interior states. The humanitarian border that is being constructed in Mexico is expanding and being reproduced in the state of Puebla, which is emerging as an internal humanitarian border. This process highlights the urgent need to understand these specific local manifestations of the border with the aim of demonstrating and comparing the ways in which migrants are stripped of their political and human rights (Moncó, 2021) and the influence of the humanitarian border on their mobility and immobility as they cross the state of Puebla.


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