Mexico City – Earlier this year, Hugo Rivera stood on the riverbank and scrutinized a group of thin teenage boys standing on inner-tube rafts, pushing their way across the river. Rivera is a border patrol agent, and he knows all about the surge of Central American migrants who have been coming into the United States in the last year.
But that isn't the border that Rivera patrols. The “river” isn’t the Río Grande but the Suchiate, which forms part of the frontier between Mexico and Guatemala.
“Migrants cross here,” he told Fox News Latino. He rested his hand on the butt of his AR-15 rifle, which he carried slung over his shoulder, and looked out casually toward the Guatemalan side of the river. “We see a lot of cases of Central Americans coming up through here.”
Diana Martínez, director of Mexican migration NGO SinFronteras, told FNL, “Right on the border, there’s no fence. It’s easy to cross on rafts."
Between 2000 and 2010 the number of Central Americans migrating to the U.S. increased by more than 50 percent. Since 2010, that migration includes a higher percentage of families, women and unaccompanied children migrating by themselves.
So far this year, U.S. border patrol agents have apprehended more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors, up from 24,000 or so in all of 2013. Most of them from Central America.
In Mexico, Central American migrants face threats from gang members, corrupt local police looking for bribes and, despite what many people on our side of the border believe, a migration system that is nearly as intent on detaining them and sending them home as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is.
In 2013 Mexican immigration officials detained and sent home more than 86,000 Central American migrants. Of those, nearly 10,000 were minors and almost 2,000 were younger than 11.
Martínez explained that the Mexican government has “built more checkpoints. The goal is to detain and deport more people. Mexico has opened more detention centers to hold more people. Every day there are buses leaving and [taking detainees] back to Central America."
Adam Isacson, a researcher from the Washington Office on Latin America told FNL, “Mexico hasn’t caught our fever for border fences, but as you go inland [in Chiapas] you’ll hit more roadblocks than you would in the U.S. They net a lot of migrants—and not a lot of drugs.”
Just in the state of Chiapas, where Officer Rivera works, immigration officials detained 35,422 migrants in 2013.
“It’s a porous border. Drugs, guns, money and migrants cross,” Jorge Andrade, a Mexico City-based anthropologist and human rights activist who works with Central American migrants, told FNL. “In Mexico, they just stop the migrants.”
Victims of genocides and members of social groups targeted for discrimination and violence in their home countries are eligible for asylum in the U.S.; Migrants who flee high crime environments generally are not.
As a result, between 2008 and 2012, 49 out of every 50 asylum requests from Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran migrants were rejected by U.S. courts.
Mexico, however, signed on to the 1984 Cartagena Convention which extends refugee status to “persons who have fled their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence.”
“On paper the laws for asylum are very clear,” Andrade said, “but there’s a huge gap between what’s on paper and the reality.”
Irmi Pundt, an amiable, middle-aged woman who works as a caretaker at the Casa del Migrante in Tapachula, a 30-minute drive from the border with Guatemala, told FNL, “You see more women running from violence and women with adolescent children. Before it was 10 percent women and now it’s 20 to 25 percent.”
Pundt used to see more older men moving north in search of jobs. Now she said, it’s more “16-year-olds, 17-yearolds. They’re running from the gangs,” she explained.
SinFronteras’ Diana Martínez is seeing the same demographic shift. “Before it was just moms or dads [among the migrants],” she said, “but now you see women coming with kids. There are a lot of adolescents who are running from the gangs.”
“It’s the violence,” she added. “Gangs want the kids to join. Families take their kids and head north to end the cycle of violence. Almost everyone [who comes] has had a family member killed.”
Yanira Elizabeth Goillen is a 25-year-old mother of three. Outside a migrant shelter in Chiapas, Goillen told FNL that she was on her fourth migration to the U.S. The first couple of times, she said, she left for economic reasons, making it through once and staying in Virginia before being deported.
“The third time, it was different—we were running,” she said. A neighbor tried to extort money from her, she said. “I didn’t think they’d do anything. That was my mistake. They almost killed me. They stabbed me, here, here, here,” she said, pointing to scars on her arms, side and chest.
While some migrants, especially children whose passage has been paid for by relatives in the U.S., travel north by car, tens of thousands of migrants still ride a freight train known as La Bestia (“The Beast”) toward the U.S. border. While trains are mostly ignored by Mexican migration authorities, they aren’t without risk for migrants.
“They are very much in the hands of organized crime,” Isacson explained.
Carlos Ballestros, a skinny 25-year-old with dark skin and a manicured goatee, was sitting in a rail-yard in Lechería, just north of Mexico City, with six other Hondurans. Ballestros was born in Honduras but grew up in the Bronx. He was deported from the U.S. after being pulled over for a traffic violation.
He said that a lot of the migrants are young. “I’ve seen probably 200 teenagers on the train—14 year olds, 15 year olds.”
After crossing into Mexico, people on the train face violence from international gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street as they travel through southeastern states of Tabasco and Veracruz.
Many migrants also say that local police demand bribes not to hand them over to Mexico’s National Immigration Institute. “The police took 3,500 pesos [about $270] from me,” Ballestros complained.
“There are people robbing the trains. They come up and attack the migrants. They shoot them, they throw them off the train,” he added. “If they ask you for money, you have to pay. It’s safer on the bus.”
According to data from SinFronteras, around 70 percent of migrants now opt to take buses, trading the risk of confronting violence on the train for the risk of being detained at a government checkpoint on the highway and sent home.
Ballestros is travelling in a small group that includes Héctor Bojorguez, a 28-year-old father. Bojorguez told FNL, “We don’t have money for buses. Up on the train it’s uncomfortable. You can’t sleep. But we’ll make it. I’m not sure if we’ll cross the river, or go through the desert.”
Severian Melgarejo, a 52-year-old Lechería storekeeper, told FNL, “There are all types of migrants, good and bad. Some come here to buy soda and potato chips, but when they’re hungry, they steal.”
The town has had a fraught relationship with the migrants. There was a migrant shelter once, but the residents held demonstrations and got it closed.
“There was crime,” Melgarejo said. “[The migrants] went to the bathroom in the street. There had been a lot of drunks there. The shelter was a danger to society.”
“They get off the train there—it’s so unfriendly,” Isacson told FNL. “Estado de Mexico is hostile. It’s working class, uniformly poor. [Residents] don’t want the migrants to stay and take jobs.”
So Ballestros and the Honduran migrants had no choice of staying in Lechería.
With the sun high in the sky, they climbed aboard a dark green freight train. The train’s wheels squealed as they squeezed around a bend in the track. After a moment, Ballestros threw down blankets and a backpack and then, along with other people in the group, leaped down to the ground next to the tracks.
The train picked up speed, and Bojorguez jumped into the grass, carrying a kindergarten-aged boy, a neighbor’s son, under his arm.
Leading the group back to the station, Ballestros explained, “It’s the wrong train.”
“We winged it to get here,” Bojorguez said. “We’ll make it there—improvising our plan as we go.”
Nathan Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @LatAmLENS.