Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees

GUATEMALA: Following the Latest Route of the Central American Migrants

Alberto Mendoza*

SANTA ELENA, Guatemala, Aug 29 2006 (IPS) - With nothing but the clothes on their backs, some 1,000 migrants a week make the strenuous journey on foot and by boat through the jungles of the northern Guatemalan province of Petén on their way to Mexico – and ultimately, the United States.

The authorities turn a blind eye, the local economy grows, the coyotes (people smugglers) lick their chops, and drug traffickers extend their influence in the region.

“The borders of Tecún Umán and La Mesilla (in western Guatemala) are really difficult now,” says Arnulfo Hernández, a Salvadoran who was deported from Mexico. The word has got around among Hondurans and Salvadorans trying to make it to the United States, and they now prefer to brave the jungles of Petén, which until recently were only known for the majestic Mayan ruins of Tikal and Yaxha.

The busy but sullen town of Santa Elena, population 30,000, in the northeastern region of Petén, is their first gathering place. This reporter traversed the entire route as just another migrant.

Dozens of migrants a day arrive at the local bus station. If everything goes smoothly, the bus trip from the Guatemalan capital takes eight to nine hours. The owners of cheap hotels, who have connections with coyotes, flock to the station to meet the buses, as if they were disgorging tourists instead of migrants getting ready to set out on a hazardous journey.

Those who cannot even afford a two-dollar room go to the local church, where Catholic priest Roberto Guevara hands out vouchers for one meal a day, and allows people to make a telephone call.

In the church, the migrants meet other travelers, and sometimes hook up with new traveling partners. David Corona, who is going it alone, is not likely to find anyone else of his nationality – he is Mexican, and is preparing to return to his own country as an undocumented immigrant.

“They picked me up in Nuevo Laredo (across the U.S. border from Laredo, Texas), and since I wasn’t carrying my documents, they thought I was Honduran.” Unable to prove that he was Mexican, he was deported from his own country to Honduras. Once there, he was finally able to telephone his wife, demonstrate that he was Mexican, and leave Honduras, although without money and with a long journey still ahead.

A month after he was taken into custody in Nuevo Laredo, Corona has not yet managed to make it back to his home in Pachuca, which is located in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo. When he does return, however, he does not mean to stay long with his wife and 10-year-old son, but plans to try his luck again in the United States.

He has made it there before. Corona was among the first workers to reach New Orleans, Louisiana after it was devastated by the floods following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, to help rebuild the city. “We were working there, but then they kicked us out of the country,” he complains. Earlier, from 2000 to 2003, he worked in the construction industry in the state of California.

Under the attentive gaze of less experienced migrants, Corona warns of the risks along the way north: “I saw compañeros drown in rivers. And when you’re robbed, the thieves take everything, even your shoes. But above all, you have to watch out for the police.”

“Virtually 100 percent of the migrants who come through the church say they have been robbed by the police,” says Father Guevara.

“If you don’t have any money, they just tell you that you’re going to spend a little time with them,” says a Honduran woman, Nicole Rodríguez, who was extorted by the national civil police (PNC) in Guatemala City.

Rolando Quiroa, PNC head of operations in Santa Elena, says no formal complaints have been filed, and that his agents have received training in the need to respect the rights of their “Central American brothers and sisters,” who can stay in Guatemala legally with just an identity card.

The next stop along the route is El Naranjo, on the banks of the San Pedro River, around 35 km from the Mexican border. Many of the men here carry guns hanging from their belts. The rough pier and riverfront is crowded with money changers decked out in gold jewelry, coyotes who have returned from their trip up north with goods to sell, and “lancheros” or boat operators.

El Naranjo is in the area of influence of drug trafficking gangs that control northern Guatemala, a lawless frontier region where clandestine airstrips abound.

There is no police presence in the streets, although there are 35 police officers posted here. In July, three PNC officers were shot and killed.

The migrants pay around four dollars for a boat ride down the lonely waters of the San Pedro, past picturesque lily pads, flocks of waterbirds, and the occasional crocodile.

Shortly after leaving El Naranjo, the boat passes a Guatemalan customs post, where the travelers register and are allowed to leave the country without any problem, even though they lack the documents needed to enter Mexico.

The boat continues on for about an hour, until reaching El Ceibo, on the Mexican border, where the passengers disembark.

In this hot, arid place, hundreds of stalls selling a broad range of goods line the road to the border. The migrants mingle with Mexicans who have crossed into Guatemala to buy cheap merchandise.

The official border with Mexico is calm. The police don’t bother to stop the people crossing over by foot, and hardly any vehicles are in sight. But migration agent Antonio Sánchez says “many undocumented migrants cross over in the mountains.”

He is referring to the nearby hills, which Aurelí Paz, 28, plans to walk across with the help of a coyote. She has been traveling for four days since leaving her home in Honduras. Sitting at a bend in the dusty trail, she listens as other migrants return, commenting that it’s difficult to make it across. They know that if they lose their way, they could wander around for days, and would be at the mercy of local gangs of thieves.

The alternative is to follow the natural border: the Usumacinta River, only traversed by drug traffickers, migrants, and the odd tourist rafting in to visit the Piedras Negras Mayan ruins deep in the jungle.

Bethel and La Técnica are two of the towns from which boats packed with undocumented migrants set out. The economy here has been transformed: lancheros, coyotes and money changers have gotten rich while fuelling development through investment in land, construction, businesses and purchases of new products and services.

The last Guatemalan border post is in Bethel. But border agent Carlos García admits that if he and his colleagues are informed of suspicious movements at night, they stay put, “for fear of being murdered.” Drug traffickers have undisputed power here.

In Bethel it is said that a legendary local lanchero known as “El Colombiano”, who transports migrants downriver to Mexico, expelled the Mexican army from the river.

The story has it that after a few drinks, El Colombiano chased down an army patrol in his boat and opened fire on them. When the soldiers gave chase, he gunned his motor until he reached an inhabited area on the Guatemalan side of the river. The troops continued shooting, in the direction of the houses, which enraged the local residents.

“After that, they couldn’t patrol the river anymore,” says Bethel resident César Estrada.

Estrada carries up to 40 undocumented migrants at a time in his speedboat, on a five-hour journey to evade the control posts on land, for a combined total of 800 dollars. In La Técnica, he hooks up with coyotes who bring him customers.

In that town, no one is interested is talking, as people are well aware that the best business is not always strictly legal.

Across the river from La Técnica is the Mexican border town of Corozal. “More immigrants than tourists come through here,” says a taxi driver.

There are no border agents to be seen – only two traffic police officers eating lunch in a small restaurant, ignoring the boats that pull up to the riverbank.

Although the favorite routes may have changed, the constant flow of Central American workers to the United States has not let up. Around three million Salvadorans live there, as well as nearly two million Guatemalans and one million Hondurans, according to estimates provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in El Salvador, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) office in Guatemala, and the Migration Commission in Honduras.

Official figures from the central banks of these three Central American countries show that in 2005, emigrants sent 7.12 billion dollars home in remittances to their families.

* An earlier version of this report was published in Spanish in El Diario de Hoy, in El Salvador.

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