On the other side of the wall: how Donald Trump has divided Mexico

The wall between the US and Mexico.
The wall between the US and Mexico.

“Walls are an expression of fear,” Father Alberto insists. “We need to build bridges, not walls.”

At a crowded Mass in a migrant shelter in the jungle city of Palenque, Mexico, not far from the Guatemalan border, a parish priest is talking about the need for the people of his country to pull together in response to Donald Trump’s isolationist and racist politics. “Walls are an expression of fear,” Father Alberto insists. “We need to build bridges, not walls.” Packed into a dining room adorned with colourful murals of migrant stories, the congregation applauds. Many are moved to tears.

On 25 January, Trump signed an executive order to begin construction of a wall spanning the length of the 2,000-mile southern border of the United States. The order has caused uproar in Mexico and prompted calls from many different sections of society to unite against the US president’s hostility.

In February, tens of thousands took to the streets in cities across the country to protest against the wall and Trump’s immigration policies. There are approximately 5.6 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States who could face deportation. A renewed sense of patriotism was in evidence as demonstrators waved flags and sang the national anthem to express Mexican solidarity. But many were also marching against their own president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

In a video broadcast to the nation on Twitter a few hours after Trump signed the executive order, Peña Nieto stated, “National unity has to be the cornerstone of our strategy and actions both at home and abroad.”

The richest man in Mexico, the telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim, came out in support, saying at a press conference on 27 January, “This national unity is very important . . . We have to back the president of Mexico so that he can defend our national interests.”

Many ordinary Mexicans are cynical about this call for unity from above, however. “We don’t buy this story about nationalism as rallying around the president,” Father Alberto tells me at the migrant shelter in Palenque, which is located in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. “We will not gift unity to a president who has shown such great ineptitude, who has governed only to serve himself.”

Many consider Peña Nieto’s cry for national unity as a last-ditch attempt to rally support as his popularity dwindles. His…