“The central question is what is being done so that people have opportunities at home.”

(Sandra Dibble, San Diego Union Tribune) The caravans of Central Americans traveling north through Mexico are the “tip of the iceberg” of a huge and unseen flow of migrants at Mexico’s southern border from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, a high-ranking appointee in the incoming administration of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said.

“The caravans are not the problem,” said Tonatiuh Guillen Lopez, who will take over as head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, known as INAMI, when the new administration takes office Dec. 1. “The issue is the movements we do not see; those who are not in the caravan, that is the big issue.”

President Donald Trump, angered by the thousands of Central Americans making their way in large caravans to the U.S. border, has been pushing Mexico to step up enforcement. But Mexico’s incoming president has a different approach: to invest in impoverished areas of Central America and southern Mexico so people don’t feel forced to leave.

“The central question is what is being done so that people have opportunities at home,” Guillen said in an interview last week in Tijuana. “You can’t manage these movements if at the same time you don’t have a development program, these have to go hand in hand.”

The caravans have put the spotlight on the rising numbers of Central Americans who flee communities that are beset by poverty and violence.

“If we don’t come up with development initiatives based on international cooperation, and we don’t confront the problem of Honduras and its crisis, we’re going to have the same cycle, each time more amplified,” Guillen said.

The numbers are reaching levels not seen for more than a decade, said Ernesto Rodríguez Chavez, a migration scholar at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a government-funded think tank.

His estimates put the current annual flow of undocumented crossings from Central America to the United States through Mexico at 350,000 to 400,000. The calculations consider crossings, rather than people, as some individuals may cross more than once. Much of the traffic is out of sight, at night, in smaller numbers, Rodriguez said, to escape the attention of Mexican migration authorities.

Rodriguez said that compared with the earlier flows, the current exodus includes a rise in the proportion of women and particularly children, though male migrants continue to make up the largest proportion of those attempting to reach the United States.

Many don’t make it to the U.S. border as Mexican authorities detain tens of thousands every year.

Still, the hardening of the U.S. border means that growing numbers of Central Americans choose to stay in Mexico. That is a challenge for Mexico’s newly elected president, who has promised to respect human rights and promote social welfare.

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.