MEXICO CITY -- One year ago, Mexico's often chaotic southern border appeared relatively orderly: Mexican authorities processed thousands of U.S.-bound migrants for humanitarian visas, allowing them to travel north legally.
The free-transit regimen was a drastic change of policy pushed by a new Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who had denounced his predecessors for having done what he called the dirty work of Washington in deterring migrants' northbound passage.
But this week, Lopez Obrador's government greeted migrants in a more hostile fashion. Mexican National Guard troops in full riot gear blocked their way and fired tear gas canisters to disperse those seeking to breach the nation's border with Guatemala. Hundreds of people were put on planes and buses back to Honduras, where most of the migrants in the latest caravan began their journey.
For Lopez Obrador, Mexico's first avowedly leftist president in a generation and a political campaigner who pledged to welcome migrants, the past year brought a substantial shift in his view of how to handle the Central American influx.
Detractors have accused Lopez Obrador of bending to the Trump administration's tactics -- including threats of tariffs on goods imported from Mexico -- in creating a virtual wall in Mexico's southern boundary with Guatemala.
During 2019, the Mexican government's initial welcome mat for migrants quickly shifted into an enforcement-first policy of detention, deportation and sending National Guard forces to block migrants' passage from southern Mexico. Succumbing to U.S. pressure to stop the migrant flow has become a signature policy of the leftist president who regularly vows to respect the human rights of migrants.
The images this week of Mexican troops outfitted in helmets and brandishing riot shields against migrants prompted a wave of revulsion among many people in Mexico, a country with a long history of emigration -- both legal and illegal -- to the United States. For decades, a vociferous defense of Mexican migrants in the United States has been a pillar of Mexican foreign policy.
"The National Guard today reignited the aggression (against) Central Americans," congressman Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a political ally of the president, wrote Thursday on Twitter, denouncing the policy. "It appears to be a systematic attitude or a state policy against the most elemental human rights. Whoever ordered it should respond to the Congress."
Lopez Obrador, in his morning news conference Friday, was unapologetic, dismissing the criticism as a plot by conservative political enemies, and labeling the latest caravan a scheme fomented by unnamed leaders in Honduras seeking to cause problems.
"The most important (point) is that human rights are respected, and to be sure that there are no injuries," the president told reporters.