By Fernando León and Mercedes Osuna
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
September 27, 2010
The journey that Central American immigrants have to take due to a lack of work in their own countries involves a forced hell in Mexico on their way to the United States. And Mexican immigration and police authorities have done everything possible to torment the Central American citizens and prevent them from making it to the US-Mexico border.
This month Mercedes Osuna, an organizer in Chiapas, accompanied a team of Italian journalists on one of the most dangerous stretches for Central American immigrants—a tour full of governmental traps to stop the immigrants from their goal: finding a job to make ends meet in North American lands.
The Tapachula landfill, where dozens of Guatemalan families live and work to survive.
Photo: D.R. 2010 Marco Diotallevi
Before crossing to Mexican soil, on the Guatemalan side there was a large group of immigrants gathered under a plastic tarp that seemed to have been part of a tent. The majority of the people gathered there said they were from Honduras, and that they had arrived there months or even years ago. According to them, they were there because on the Mexican side there had been beatings and assaults. They said that because they didn’t have anymore money they were forced to return to work on Guatemalan soil, to work outside of the boats.
On the Mexican side, the immigrants have the possibility of making it to an immigrant sanctuary in Tapachula to get food and shelter. However, they’re only allowed to be in the place for three days. If after that time they have left the city, they won’t be able to continue staying at the sanctuary.
The ability to get out of Tapachula is an achievement in itself on this bitter journey. Going through Mexico’s National Institute of Immigration (INM in Spanish initials) checkpoint on the outskirts of Tapachula could mean deportation from Mexican soil. The majority of the immigrants, in an attempt to avoid it, have to go through an area known as “La Arocera,” where most of the gangs—known as the maras in Central America—are located. It’s members are made up both of Central Americans and people from Chiapas. Their presence there is strategic to terrorize the immigrants who pass through. The maras,acting with total impunity, frequently attack the immigrants and rob, threaten, rape and murder them. There is a strong collusion between these gangs and Mexican authorities. During the tour it was common to find maras in police trucks, where they are moved to rotate the gangs and constantly maintain the criminal presence in order to terrorize the migrants who choose not to risk going through immigration control. The dissuasive job of the maras is fundamental to keeping immigrants out of the place. Often, intimidated immigrants have to go back to Ciudad Hidalgo to return to Guatemalan soil.
Many of the immigrants who haven’t been able to leave Tapachula, due to fear or a lack of resources, decided to settle in the vicinity of the city landfill. The foul smell is part of the atmosphere of the place. Here, entire families work from dawn to dusk to scavenge through trash. The vast majority of them are from the department of San Marcos, Guatemala. The ages range from 3 or 4 years to 70 years or more. These scavengers receive a peso for each kilo of cardboard or plastic that are able to gather, which they sell to truck drivers in Chiapas who are stationed on the banks of this place. These same families live, eat and work in this area. The inhumane conditions of the site constantly cause disease, but it is the only opportunity that they have to live and survive. In Guatemala, they say they don’t have anything. Here at least they can gather 10 pesos a day—if they’re lucky—to buy a few tortillas for subsistence. It’s that or nothing.
The immigrants have to cross the Suchiate River on rafts that cost 100 dollars per person.
Photo: D.R. 2010 Marco Diotallevi
According to interviews given by immigrants in the area, the Beta Group from the National Institute of Immigration is the same as the maras and smugglers, and extorts, robs, and beats the immigrants. Everyone gets a slice of the immigration pie.
In Ciudad Hidalgo, as in other parts along the way, there are groups of smugglers who work with immigration agents to kidnap immigrants. The kidnappers call the families of the immigrants demanding ransoms in exchange for the release of their kidnapped relatives, while lying to them that they are about to cross the border into the Untied States. The illusion of reaching the US means that many immigrants rely on smugglers who are supposed bring them from Ciudad Hidalgo to the northern border. However, many are brought to safe houses in Chiapas to extort money from their families.
Juan, 17 and from Honduras, left his home 10 days ago to try his luck in the United States. He doesn’t have anything to lose. His parents died when we was a boy, he didn’t go to school, and he never found work. His sister raised him, but right now he has to be responsible for himself. His destination: the United States, where he hopes to send a little bit of money back to his sister and find a way to survive. He’s still not sure if he’ll reach his final destination, as he’s scared of the violence from the maras and Mexican immigration authorities.
This is only one journey that immigrants have to make in the state of Chiapas. From Arriaga, they will leave for Ixtepec, Oaxaca, and from there a train will bring them to the state of Mexico, from where they will choose between a path along the Pacific or the Gulf—both of which are controlled by a network of smugglers and organized crime, which when joined with the INM will make it a difficult trip to forget.
The passage of immigrants through Mexico is a forced route to the United States. Anti-immigrant politics in the United States have provoked the criminalization of immigrants who pass through Mexico, in an attempt to stop the flow. For Mexican immigrants each time it is more difficult to make it to the United States, but for Central American immigrants the effort required is double, when many times the journey through Mexico is more devious and dangerous than in the United States.