Keeping out the poor from one country to another, or even within a country, is not a new idea, though former U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have set off a new wave across the region, and the world.
If you are from Latin America and you hear the word “wall,” you most likely think of the one that Donald Trump began to build between the United States and Mexico. However, there are currently more than 60 border walls around the world, and, contrary to popular belief, Trump's is not the only one keeping Latin Americans out of a territory.
In recent decades, the misconception that migrants are a threat has gained ground from Mexico to Argentina. And just like in the United States, the justification is often “the defense and protection of the nation,” regardless of the human rights of those seeking a better life.
In defense of the Dominican Republic
Take the Dominican Republic, for example. Last February, the government began the construction of a wall on its border with Haiti, which is submerged in a deep economic, political and security crisis.
Dominican President Luis Abinader has said that the objective is to stop the migration of Haitians, in addition to fighting drug trafficking and illegal arms sales. In 2022 alone, the Dominican Republic has carried out 85,780 deportations. Its concrete wall, costing around $30 million, will cover 160 km, be four meters high and have 19 watchtowers.
Last October, Abinader announced the purchase of armored vehicles, helicopters, and surveillance aircraft as other measures for "the defense of the country". Despite the protests of activists and Dominican human rights organizations, this "Smart Perimeter Fence" has already been constructed with 3.2 kilometers.
A diplomatic conflict
But there are more. In 2014, Argentina began the construction of a four-kilometer, five-meter-high border wall between the city of Posadas in the north of the country and the Paraguayan city of Encarnación, as a supposed road improvement work that would also serve to prevent smuggling.
More than 8,000 people signed a Change.org petition to stop the construction of the wall, but it made no difference.
And in 2017, Ecuador began to build a wall between its municipality of Huaquillas and the Peruvian town of Aguas Verdes. The inhabitants of the territories involved rejected this border wall, which they compared to Trump’s. The Peruvian Foreign Ministry pointed it out as a breach of a 1998 agreement, in which Ecuador promised to leave a free space of 10 meters on the right side of Zarumilla, the channel that separates the nations. After the diplomatic conflict, Ecuador agreed to stop construction.
At the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana
Adam Isacson, director for Defense Oversight of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), says that it is possible the Dominican Republic's decision was inspired by Trump, since, as in the United States, this project is pushed by the political right wing.
Jacques Ramírez, a specialist in Latin American migration, agrees that there is a resurgence in Latin America of extreme right-wing groups that locally replicate Trump's xenophobic and discriminatory opinions against women and the LGBTQ+ community.
Those who cross the border of a country legally or undocumented find other “walls” of xenophobia
"We should be alarmed that these are leaders of political parties who do have an impact on the regional scene, such as the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, or the former presidents of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, and Chile, Sebastián Piñera," Ramírez says.
Ramírez also believes that the construction of border walls is related to the development of national identity.
“At the dawn of the 21st century, South America was a territory of free mobility,” he explains. “But later, some milestones changed that. One of the first was the flow of Caribbean people across the continent, many attracted by the demand for labor for the World Cup in Brazil. Then, the state of alert of governments peaked with the flow of Venezuelan migrants, which, given the difficulty of reaching the northern countries, transformed Colombia, Peru, Chile and Ecuador into recipient countries. From then on, states began to take action.”
The construction of walls has been one of those measures, but not the only one. Those who cross the border of a country legally or undocumented find other “walls” of social and governmental xenophobia.
Obstacles to access education, fair work, and social security, or to exercise their right to a life free from discrimination and violence, usually force them to migrate again to less hostile countries.
Lima's "Wall of Shame" was built between the 1980s and 2012.
Shutting out favelas
In Latin America, there is also “the wall” of aporophobia, that is, the rejection of poor or disadvantaged people.
According to the 2021 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Latin America and the Caribbean is the second most unequal region in the world, one where “while 105 billionaires have a combined net worth of almost $447 billion, two out of 10 people still don't have enough food.”
Thus, settlements, favelas and marginalized neighborhoods are sometimes seen not only as a social problem, but also as an aesthetic one. This has led to the construction of internal walls that, even if they are not intended to prevent human displacement, do create a visual and spatial division between people of different economic status.
Separating the upper class from those living in a marginalized area
This is the case of the so-called "Wall of Shame" in Lima, Peru, built between the 1980s and 2012. This wall, which extends for 10 kilometers, separates the upper class from those living in a marginalized area.
While the inhabitants on one side live in houses with swimming pools valued at millions of dollars, on the other side about 60,000 people face daily water shortages and other hardships.
From Mexico City to Buenos Aires
There's a similar situation in Mexico City, in the municipality of Naucalpan, where several neighborhoods marked by precariousness are contained by a three-meter wall that surrounds the imposing Bosque Real Country Club urbanization project, which has its own golf course.
And in the center of Buenos Aires, Argentina, there is another wall, more than two meters high, built by the State to prevent the expansion of the Villa 31 marginalized neighborhood, close to the exclusive Recoleta and Puerto Madero areas.
Silvia Saravia, coordinator of the Barrios de Pie community group, says: "The walls are the expression of the failure of the system to solve the real problems of the people."