In Guatemala, police officers stop northbound buses at every turn, forcing migrants trying to make the long journey to the U.S.-Mexico border to get off and turn over all their money, sometimes strip-searching them while threatening to send them south back to Honduras.
Across the border in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, criminals riding bicycles prey on unsuspecting migrants, while gun-wielding immigration officers threaten deportation if they do not pay up.
Further north near the U.S.-Mexico border, people hoping to cross into the United States live in fear of the return of an infamous Mexican gang that raided their sprawling makeshift camp last month in Matamoros and torched dozens of tents while trying to take some migrants hostage.
As the Biden administration struggles to control crossings into the United States — and looks to other countries in the region to control their own borders — asylum-seeking migrants are easy pickings for drug-cartel-backed gangs, corrupt police and immigration officials south of the U.S. border.
New U.S. immigration rules, limiting crossings at the U.S. border, will likely force hundreds of thousands of migrants to remain in Mexico and elsewhere in Central America, where they will have no means to sustain themselves or defend them from criminals preying on them, migrant advocacy groups contend.
“None of the governments are providing a solution and we are concerned that once these immigrants are deported and find themselves without any support network, these people will have no other choice but to become robbers to be able to eat and feed their families,” said July Rodríguez, the director of Support for Venezuelan Migrants, based in Mexico City.
Last week the United Nations refugee agency issued an alert about the growing pressure at migrant shelters in southern Mexico and in Mexico City, where Venezuelan citizens deported from the U.S. have begun to arrive without clarity about their own migration status in the country.
The alert came as Mexico began shutting down shelters, relocating migrants away from its U.S. border and some Mexican states began issuing expulsion orders, giving migrants just days to leave.
“Things here in Mexico have become more complicated,” said a Venezuelan migrant who spoke to the Miami Herald while stuck in Tapachula, and who asked to be identified only as “María.” She said she is afraid of repercussions after she and her group of fellow migrants were robbed and kidnapped shortly after arriving in the border town located on the Guatemalan-Mexican border in Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas.
U.S. border crossings down
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials say that since the pandemic-era emergency order known as Title 42 expired on May 11, they have seen “a significant reduction” in migrant encounters at the southwest border. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is averaging 4,000 encounters a day, compared to 10,000 before the lifting of the order, which had allowed agents to rapidly expel undocumented asylum seekers as potential health risks.
DHS says it has also repatriated more than 11,000 people to more than 30 countries. This includes 1,100 nationals of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti who have been returned to Mexico, which has agreed to accept up to 30,000 of the non-Mexicans a month after they’ve been denied entry into the U.S. and expelled.
Blas Nuñez-Neto, a top DHS immigration policy official, told journalists last week that the reductions in border crossings can be credited to three factors: the tougher consequences the Biden administration has put in place for anyone who shows up without having first requested and received permission through a smartphone app called CBP One; the expansion of lawful pathways to enter the U.S., and “the actions of our foreign partners.”
“We have been working with countries very closely across the region in order to both enhance access to lawful pathways, but also to enforce their immigration laws on their borders,” Nuñez-Neto said.
Both Guatemala and Mexico have deployed troops to enforce their borders, Nuñez-Neto said, while Panama and Colombia are “undertaking an unprecedented joint effort to attack smuggling networks operating in the Darién,” the treacherous, swampy jungle that separates the two nations.
Asked what law enforcement in those countries are doing, and if they are stopping or processing migrants hoping to travel to the United States, Nuñez-Neto referred questions to the respective governments.
The U.S.’s refusal to shoulder responsibility for other countries’ actions has elicited criticism from advocates who note that many of the estimated 20 million migrants forcibly displaced in Latin America are people fleeing violence in their countries and require protection to avoid being returned to places where they are at risk.
One migrant’s journey
For tens of thousands of migrants hoping to make it to the U.S.-Mexico border, the journey is a perilous 7,000-mile trek that can begin as far away as Brazil and cuts through 11 countries. Migrants who begin their journey in South America have to cross all of Central America to get to Mexico — traveling westward through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala before reaching the southern Mexican border.
For María, who began her journey in Colombia, the trip was shorter than it is for others, but just as dangerous. It required traveling through the Darién Gap— the remote, lawless mountainous jungle at the border of Colombia and Panama that separates South and Central America, and considered one of the world’s most dangerous border crossings.
A native of the eastern Venezuelan city of Barcelona, María, 43, began her trip on Feb. 11. She and her companions arrived in Necloclí, a town on eastern shore of the Gulf of Urabá in Colombia, to continue on to Capurganá, an isolated beach town on the country’s Caribbean coast where a campsite on the outskirts caters to crossing migrants.
In her group was her partner, his three sons and two of their girlfriends. Before boarding a boat in Necloclí, the organizers of the passage — presumed smugglers — took their photos and sent them to self-described “guides” at their arrival point so they could be easily identified. The guides, as they call themselves, are part of the network of smugglers and traffickers who help migrants cross one point to another.
“Once you land, they approach you and don’t allow you to go on by yourself,” María said. “They force you into a warehouse, and they keep you there until you pay the amount they demand, so you are a hostage there. We were forced to pay $100 each, which was most of the money we had, including money we had set aside for food.”
Afterward, the guides escorted her and her group to a camp where they spent the night. Early the next day, one of the guides escorted them to a spot that they call Frontera in Colombia to begin the crossing into the Darién.
There, several armed Colombians demanded payment before allowing them to begin the 60-mile trip inside the forbidding jungle.
“If you don’t pay, you don’t cross,” María said.
After giving the men $85, María and her group were allowed to go on by themselves, without escorts.
“They just tell you to follow the signs, which are blue or black bags placed along the path throughout the jungle,” she said. “You have to keep an eye out for these markings, often placed on the trees if you don’t want to lose your way.”
Inside the jungle, some migrants hire indigenous groups known as coyotes to help them navigate the treacherous terrain. But it’s a a dangerous proposition, since migrants have reported being physically and sexually assaulted inside the rain forest by members of armed criminal groups. The terrain is treacherous, and a wrong step can send people down to fast-moving rivers or tumbling down a mountain, where paths are sometimes so narrow, migrants have to move in a single file.
The migrants on the Darien trail come not only from crisis-torn Venezuela and Haiti, but also from as far away as Africa.
“You come across other groups along the way. Some of them move very fast through the jungle, but others are much slower,” María said. “We began with one group but they were very slow and we began traveling with another group, but this one moved very fast and we found ourselves running to catch up with them.”
With so many different routes inside the jungle, surviving also meant avoiding getting killed while climbing muddy slopes or crossing fast-flowing rivers. They also had to be on the look-out for drug traffickers, landslides, venomous snakes and other wild animals.
“They warned us, don’t open any closed tents you might find along the way,” María said. “They told us that normally, when you come across a tent that has been set up but it’s closed, it is likely that it contains a person who has died inside.”
“A group that crossed after us told us that they were 10 when they started, but only six when they came out” of the jungle, María said: Two of the migrants, a couple, were bitten by a poisonous snake inside their tent. Another traveler, an elderly man, suffered a heart attack. And a fourth, a boy, fell over a sharp rock.
María said she nearly died while trying to cross one of the last rivers in the Darién.
“I was nearly taken away by the currents,” she said. “Two young men jumped into the water and pulled me out.”
Throughout the trail, María said she kept her eyes on the ground, fearing that she would see the corpses that also dot the trail. “The boys traveling with me did see a dead man in the river,” she said.
It used to take migrants at least a week or more to cross the Darién. But now, with routes becoming more organized and more familiar due to the tens of thousands who cross every year, many migrants now do it in four or five days.
“It took us four-and-a-half days to cross,” said María, who near the end of the Darién crossing had run out of food and water purification tablets. By the end, she said, the group was “drinking water straight from the rivers.”
The U.N. agencies for refugee and migration estimate that nearly 100,000 migrants may have already crossed the Darién Gap this year, and as many as 400,000 could cross by the end of this year. The number, which would surpass last year’s record of 250,000, has mobilized efforts by the U.S. to dismantle smuggling rings operating along the route.
But migrants and human rights groups note that while smugglers pose a danger for those seeking to get to the U.S. border, so too do corrupt police and immigration officials, especially along the 2,000 mile stretch between Panama and the southwest border of the U.S. While migrants report no issues crossing Costa Rica, many have reported problems crossing through Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico. This includes tales about being beaten by police, jailed before paying bribes and threatened with deportation.
María says that after making it through Costa Rica and Nicaragua, she and her group were forced to spend a month in Honduras after running out of cash, doing odd jobs in order to be able to eat while waiting for relatives to send them money.
Then, in Guatemala, she said, they were forced to pay multiple bribes to corrupt immigration and police officials along the route.
They ran into trouble once more as they tried to cross the Guatemalan border into Mexico on rafts made from inner tubes.
“You run into immigration, police and other officials who demand bribes to allow you to continue on your journey,” María said.
After paying the bribes and hiding at times from immigration officials, the group finally reached Tapachula, in southern Mexico.
“We came across men on bicycles who told us we had to get on,” María said. “One of them told us we had to pay him because if we didn’t he would call the police. He insisted and he followed us for about an hour.”
After paying the men and getting inside a van to get around a Mexican immigration checkpoint, the group was intercepted by two men standing on the other side of a barbed wire fence. They were wearing military uniforms and armed with rifles, she said.
As the men pointed their weapons, they demanded that each person pay the equivalent of $57. Despite insisting the group had no money, they were was forced to turn over all they had— $172.
“After we gave them the money, they told us to turn around and kneel. We heard them talking behind our backs, but after a while we did not hear them any more and we turned and did not see them, so that’s when we got up and ran toward the road,” said María. “We were still afraid because they told us that if we mentioned what had happened they would find out and that something could happen to us.”
Sleeping on the streets
With Title 42 expiring and the new U.S. immigration laws still unclear to her, María found herself stuck in Tapachula, where she and her group were once more doing odd jobs to raise money in order to travel to Mexico City, and then to the U.S. Mexico border.
Though they had managed to acquire a 45-day pass to transit through Mexico, time was running out and things were increasingly looking look bleak.
In Mexico City, migrants are sleeping in the streets after the government dismantled one particular shelter. In the state of Chiapas, where Tapachula is located, María said the governor last week gave migrants 20 days to leave the state or risk being deported back to Guatemala.
“We are already here. After all the time and money we have spent and after all the risks we have run, we are not willing to change our plans,” she said.
Over the weekend, she and her group made it into Mexico City, and they are now contemplating traveling on top of trains to make it to the border.
Javier, a Venezuelan migrant who eventually made it across the U.S.-Mexico border before Title 42 ended, said while he saw danger and desperation in the Darién, what awaited him after he emerged was just as dangerous.
“We went through Panama, we went through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and México, running all sorts of risks, but the worst part for us was from Guatemala and Mexico to the United States border,” he said.
Javier said in Guatemala, he and other migrants were forced by immigration and police agents to get off a bus, and they were searched for valuables.
“Those who don’t really have money are threatened with being sent back to Venezuela,” said Javier, who asked that his last name not be used. “If people insist that they don’t have money, they have their clothes stripped off. And if the agents find money, they take it all.”
The bus he traveled in was stopped three times in Guatemala before he finally reached Mexico, Javier said. During one of the stops, immigration officials threatened him and his two other traveling companions with deportation and then took the equivalent of $51.33, which is all they money he had left.
Some of his fellow passengers, which included Haitians as well as Venezuelans, had as much as $200 taken from them, Javier said.
“We were all praying, asking God that the bus would not be stopped any more. There were people crying because they had already taken all of their money asking, ‘Now what am I going to do? I don’t have any more money,’ ” he said.
Javier eventually made it to Mexico. With no money left, he traveled to Monterrey on top of a train, a common but dangerous route that migrants take when they lack either cash or permission to transit by bus. From Monterrey, he went to Matamoros, the Mexican border town across from Brownsville, Texas.
What awaited him, however, was worse than what he experienced in Guatemala.
In Matamoros, Javier said, he was stopped at an immigration checkpoint and asked for travel passes. He said he was detained in a room, asked for money and threatened with deportation back to Venezuela if he did not pay.
Then, the camp he was staying in was attacked by the notorious Mexican gang, La Maña.
“They burned the camp down. They took my passport and robbed me. They were going to kidnap me, and they took many people with them and they were going to take me too. But I escaped,” Javier said. “They began chasing me. They had knives and pipes. And after that, the other immigrants began to run away as well. While running, I tried to jump over a wall, but when I landed, I broke my leg. The Maña members did not see me, they were busy chasing the other immigrants. Later an ambulance got to me and I spent 20 days in the Matamoros hospital.”
At the hospital in Matamoros he received painkillers, Javier said, but no treatment for his broken leg.
“I needed an operation, but they told me I would have to wait three months there because they did not have an operating room available,” Javier said. “They kept telling me that my broken leg was not a priority, that it was not life threatening. But they did have operating room. It’s just that they were being used for people who could pay them.”
Javier said that hundreds of Venezuelans have attempted to force their way into the United States in the past few weeks to flee the criminal gang ruling the area. “They were fleeing from La Maña,” he said.
After he was finally discharged from the Mexican hospital, Javier said he had an appointment to present himself before a Customs and Border Patrol agent at the Brownsville port of entry. A CBP agent interviewed him and he was allowed to cross into the United States.
With a long road ahead of him before knowing if he will be allowed to permanently reside in the U.S., Javier is currently at a shelter in San Antonio, Texas, awaiting his next immigration appointment.
His leg, he said, is still broken.