U.S. Government is Gathering Biometric Data On Potential Migrants in Mexican Jails

Army National Guard Spc. Gustavo Gutierrez, 23, of Las Cruces, N.M., scans the U.S./Mexico border from the top of Radar Hill, near Columbus, N.M., in June 2006. Norm Dettlaff/Las Cruces Sun-News via Associated Press
Army National Guard Spc. Gustavo Gutierrez, 23, of Las Cruces, N.M., scans the U.S./Mexico border from the top of Radar Hill, near Columbus, N.M., in June 2006. Norm Dettlaff/Las Cruces Sun-News via Associated Press

The U.S. government is expanding a program to capture the biometric data of tens of thousands of Central Americans and other migrants arrested in Mexico, gaining unprecedented access to Mexican immigration jails to identify criminals, gang members and potential terrorists long before they reach the U.S. border.

Operating in detention facilities in southern Mexico and here in the capital, Department of Homeland Security officials have installed scores of screening terminals to collect migrants’ fingerprints, ocular scans and other identifying features, including tattoos and scars.

President Trump recently blasted Mexico as doing “very little, if not nothing” to stop the flow of people across Mexican territory en route to the United States. While he later softened his tone, Trump has not acknowledged that Mexican authorities have, over the past several years, allowed the United States a wider view into the identities and backgrounds of those often headed for the border. U.S. authorities see this partnership as a potential model for other countries, and they are in talks with Central American nations to adopt similar measures.

The information gathered is immediately forwarded to DHS and other U.S. law enforcement and intelligence databases, alerting American officials if an individual in Mexican custody is a convicted criminal or in a category known as “Special Interest Aliens,” which includes potential extremists, according to current and former U.S. officials who described the program on the condition of anonymity.

“These are bilateral programs that build Mexican capacity in a way that benefits our security,” said an official from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which has budgeted $75 million to install the scanning equipment at immigration jails across Mexico and deliver mobile terminals that can transmit biometric data from almost anywhere.

Paid for through the $2.5 billion Merida security assistance program launched by President George W. Bush in 2008, the data-collecting effort requires the kind of U.S. access to Mexican facilities that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. It has been largely kept quiet by Mexican authorities, who risk public backlash over suspicions of American government technology and the perception that Washington interferes in the country’s affairs.

The two nations’ security cooperation came under fresh strain this week when Trump accused Mexico of allowing an unimpeded flow of Central Americans through Mexican territory, citing a caravan of more than 1,000 migrants that was traveling north through Mexico. When caravan organizers decided to end the journey in Mexico City, rather than head to the border, Trump thanked Mexico for its “strong immigration laws” and “willingness to use them.”

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