Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has responded to an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its media partners that documented nearly 19,000 migrants’ journeys to the U.S. border under dangerous conditions.

López Obrador, speaking in Spanish, described the smuggling of migrants through Mexico in cargo trucks as “very unfortunate,” but avoided questions about whether his government should bear responsibility for it during a lengthy press conference on Thursday morning.

“You should help us convince the United States authorities that we must address the migration phenomenon by helping poor people in their places of origin, so that no one is forced to migrate,” he said, addressing reporters directly.

The investigation, “Cargo trucks: a trap for migrants,” was led by Noticias Telemundo and the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), in collaboration with ICIJ, Bellingcat and outlets in Mexico and Central America.

The cross-border team found that over the past six years at least 111 people have died, with hundreds more injured, after traveling in cargo trucks — often in unsafe, overcrowded conditions and scorching temperatures. The reporters also created a database identifying more than 170 trucks that carried migrants and were inspected, detained, involved in accidents or abandoned from 2018 to 2023. Those cases represent only a small fraction of the millions of journeys to the U.S. border annually.

The investigation found the phenomenon was driven, in part, by increasingly restrictive migration policies implemented by the Mexican government — under pressure from the U.S. — that push migrants to take risks when traversing the country.

“There is a network of human traffickers who also have to do with the transporters, and unsafe trucks are hired,” López Obrador said. “These trailers, these boxes, there are many overturns, many deaths. Very unfortunate.”

When he took power in 2018, López Obrador said Mexico would be more hospitable to migrants, promising safer transit. But he soon reversed course when the Trump administration threatened to increase tariffs on goods imported from Mexico. López Obrador’s government deployed thousands of troops to Mexico’s borders and ordered bus companies to require documents from passengers before selling them tickets. Experts and migrants’ rights advocates said the policy prevented migrants from traveling across Mexico safely.

In December 2021, after an 18-wheeler overturned and killed 56 people on a highway in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, officials from six countries including Mexico and the U.S. announced a new action group to investigate. But ICIJ and its partners found the action group only met once, in January 2022, and never released a promised report.

When approached for comment for the investigation, a spokesperson from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said to direct questions to the government of Mexico. A spokesperson for Homeland Security Investigations didn’t answer specific questions from journalists but wrote in an email that HSI cooperates with Mexico to combat human smuggling.

During the press conference, a Telemundo journalist asked López Obrador if his government should be accountable for migrants’ deaths and survivors’ trauma. The president said Mexico is conducting investigations into those “responsible for this irregular trafficking of migrants, punishing transporters and arresting gang leaders.”

López Obrador also said his government is investing millions to address the root causes of the mass migration.

“We prefer to help them in the south [and] southeast, before they run the risk of reaching the northern border. It is not simple. We even offer them jobs in the southeast,” he said. “But those who leave their homes already made up their minds that they want to reach [the U.S.] They have already even made an agreement, a contract with the human traffickers.”

López Obrador also insisted the U.S. had not shaped Mexico’s policies. “Mexico is an independent country and the president of Mexico acts freely, he is not a puppet of any foreign government,” he said. But in June 2019 when the president announced the measure requiring passengers to provide documentation before purchasing bus tickets, he said he was doing it to avoid former President Donald Trump’s threat of higher tariffs.

When pressed by the Telemundo reporter on Thursday, López Obrador acknowledged Trump’s tactic had been “a problem” and that he had chosen the path of least resistance. “Politics is also choosing between inconveniences. You can’t please everyone. You have to make decisions, but you always have to prioritize what is most important,” he said.