TAPACHULA, Mexico -- Mexico and El Salvador signed a cooperation agreement Thursday that includes a $30 million Mexican donation for reforestation in the Central American nation, amid increased pressure from the United States to slow a surge of migrants toward the U.S. border.
The project to reforest some 124,000 acres (50,000 hectares), with the expected creation of 20,000 jobs, was presented as Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele met his counterpart Andrés Manuel López Obrador in southern Mexico, where tens of thousands of mostly Central American migrants have crossed into the country this year fleeing poverty and violence.
The meeting on addressing the surge came as Mexico is putting into effect a deal on irregular immigration reached with Washington to head off stiff tariffs President Donald Trump threatened to slap on all imports from Mexico.
López Obrador said plans similar to the El Salvador agreement are in the works for Guatemala and Honduras, the other two countries that make up Central America's Northern Triangle. He believes creating more opportunities there is the key to avoiding more migration.
"A region that is going to set an example for the world," López Obrador said, adding that migration control cannot come only through "the use of force, only coercive measures, closing borders, but through understanding the root of the problem and seeking solutions."
His government, however, has begun deploying some 6,000 National Guard agents to support police and soldiers on immigration enforcement as stipulated in the agreement with Washington.
Shortly after he spoke, and just a couple of miles (kilometers) away, Associated Press journalists witnessed immigration agents take three groups of immigrants, about two-dozen in all, into custody and load them into vans in the presence of uniformed National Guard.
While the arrival of migrants to Mexico's southern border appears to have slowed somewhat in recent days with the anticipated arrival of National Guard forces, some continued to trickle in.
Development plans could take a long time to have an effect, and migrants from Bukele's own country interviewed by The Associated Press expressed skepticism that things will get better any time soon.
Less than 12 miles (20 kilometers) from where the presidents spoke, a Salvadoran man who asked to be identified as just Brilo because of safety concerns boarded a rudimentary raft and crossed the Suchiate River that makes up the frontier between Guatemala and Mexico.
"I have heard that the president was going to come and sign an agreement so that we can all work," he said upon reaching the Mexican side. "That is not the problem. It is the gangs, the crime, that is the only thing there is in El Salvador."
Luis Antonio Vázquez, a 23-year-old Salvadoran, agreed.
"It's not only about finding work there," he said. "It's also because they extort you if you have a job."
In his eyes, the Guard deployment "may give us all security, but it also may not let through many of those who flee to avoid being killed."
Bukele took office June 1 and shares López Obrador's view on the need to create opportunities in Central America.
He said the agreement with Mexico will be "a light that will illuminate many parts of the world."
"Brothers working united, we can do so much more," Bukele continued.
He has also promised a crackdown on gangs in El Salvador following a spate of police and military killings, and on Thursday officers and soldiers began a deployment in commercial areas of the Salvadoran capital's historic center and 11 other municipalities with a gang presence. Some 80% of gangs' revenues are said to come from extortion, and Justice Minister Rogelio Rivas said the offensive seeks to strangle financially "the terrorist groups."
Carlos Vindel a 24-year-old driver from El Salvador who was waiting to request asylum in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, worried that could only make things worse.
"Now that President Nayib Bukele is hitting them hard, things are going to become more critical," said Vindel said. "There will be more violence because the gangs always respond."
Vindel, traveling with two adults and two minors, crossed the border on Tuesday, a day later than expected, because the group saw five uniformed agents on the banks of the Suchiate at Talisman, across from Guatemala. The group had to turn around and wait for the agents to leave.
"Even if there are (development) projects, people are going to keep leaving," said Vindel, who fled El Salvador after gangs tried to recruit him. Saying no to the likes of the notorious MS-13 and 18th Street gangs is often a death sentence.
So far this year, more than 24,000 people have requested asylum in Mexico, almost the same number as all of 2018.
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Wednesday that there are 14 U.N. agencies prepared to help with the Central America plan. The U.S. has also committed to support it, though there are no concrete details at least publicly available, as well as the European Union.
Those who decide to return to their countries received an offer of help from Mexican discount airline Volaris on Thursday.
The carrier said its "Reuniting Families" program will offer Central American migrants who are in Mexico without legal status flights to El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica for $1 plus taxes through June 30. Migrants who show up at airports in Mexico City, Guadalajara or the border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez receive the next available seats.
Many migrants who have registered for refuge in Mexico are hopeful and view positively its programs letting them normalize their migratory status and get temporary employment.
"For the time being I'm going to stay here, as long as there is work," said María del Carmen Ramírez, a 23-year-old who fled Honduras with her 3-year-old son, sister-in-law and after her brother was murdered. For the last month she has been earning money sweeping streets and cleaning plants.
Associated Press journalists Marcos Alemán in San Salvador, El Salvador, and Jorge Barrera in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, contributed to this report.