It’s not hard to confuse the American Embassy on Paseo de la Reforma in downtown Mexico City, right by the Angel of Independence, for an elaborate 3rd world bunker – high walls, looming gates, bullet-proof glass. If you make it inside the building, you’re escorted floor-to-floor by armed guards.
Which isn’t to say that the hard-working diplomats inside aren’t decent or friendly people. But the overall experience – the architecture, barriers, pat downs and constant vigilance – can leave visitors cold.
To ordinary Mexicans seeking to visit family or do business in the US, the visa process is, at best, highly unpleasant. Most applicants know that their prospects depend, at least partly, on the person assigned to interview them. It’s not exactly a crap shoot but… To increase their credibility and chances for success, many show up with salary stubs, diplomas, property deeds and bank statements. Word has it that this can make a huge difference.
Yet according to Donald Locke, the Embassy’s Regional Coordinator for Fraud Prevention, “no documents are necessary for verification”, meaning that, other than an official ID, there’s no reason for applicants to bring any supporting documentation.
A dubious statement, at best.
Does excess bureaucracy instill corruption?
US diplomats posted to the Mexico City Embassy deal with more fraud than their colleagues at any other embassy in the world. Every one has been specially trained in detecting documents that have been falsified, either by applicants themselves or by third parties hired to help them. Many of these third parties (known as “coyotes”) occupy the stalls and storefronts surrounding the Embassy building.
These businesses hang out signs making false claims such as “100% success rate” and “inside embassy contacts”. They prey on the fears of people who arrive each day in the hundreds, many from provincial towns, some never having been to Mexico City before.
This combination of fear, uncertainty and cynicism – plus the parasitic tactics used by unsavory characters – has resulted in rampant fraud. At the Embassy, “there’s no high season,” said one diplomat. “Every day during interviews, we detect fake documents.”
In the first half of 2016, over 6,000 cases of fraud were filed for prosecution, all involving an intermediary who helped “falsify information” or give “inaccurate advice”. That’s an average of 1,000 cases a month, all involving a coyote.
Which makes no sense when you think about it. Most applicants accused of submitting false information do so knowingly. Yes, a few are tricked, or ignorant; and some are given “inaccurate advice” by intermediaries. But the vast majority falsify information on purpose, or allow someone to do it for them.
So coyotes aren’t the ones to blame.
Why the Embassy refuses to acknowledge this makes me question their motives. Are they using this as a pretext to clean up the surrounding area of sleazy businesses that reportedly pull in millions per year? That would at least make sense.
The Mexico City facility is the largest American embassy in the world in terms of applicant volume and cross-border movement. So it’s logical that more fraud occurs here than anywhere else.
But to really face the problem, it helps to speak the truth, not only about individual culpability but also the Embassy’s own harrowing visa process. For the real culprits here are the actors themselves – both the Embassy and the applicants, not parasitic third parties.
Is there a solution? Will ridding the storefronts that surround the Embassy eliminate the problem?
Or is this just another case of truth lost to political expediency?