The United States is outsourcing its immigration enforcement to Mexico, according to a New York Times op-ed by author Sonia Nazario published earlier this month. The US has given Mexico tens of millions of dollars for immigration enforcement, and the number of Central Americans Mexico detains is exploding. While the number of Central Americans the US detains is expected to drop by half this year, Mexico’s apprehensions will nearly double, up from 92,889 last year.
Mexico sent hundreds of immigration agents to its southernmost states in July 2014. Central American migrants caught by Mexican police are sent to squalid detention centers and then typically deported back to their countries of origin, where many of them face violence and persecution. But being caught is only one of many risks: migrants passing through Mexico are often targeted for robbery, rape, and kidnapping.
In June of last year, traveling as a backpacker from Honduras to my home in Michigan, I witnessed one small stretch of this arduous journey. Even before the Mexican government had intensified its crackdown, it was clear that the trip through Mexico was full of dangers.
In early June I crossed from Guatemala into Mexico over the muddy Usumacinta River on a small motorized canoe piled high with luggage. With half a dozen or so other tourists, I piled into a full-sized van with about ten others who I assumed were locals. We were headed toward Palenque, a mid-sized Mexican town and home to the remains of a large Mayan city.
Shortly into the drive, our van was stopped at a police checkpoint, and after a short conversation between police officers and passengers all the men—except for us European and North American tourists—were taken into the police station for questioning. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw one of the men slip cash into his Honduran passport as he entered the police station.
The men all piled back into the car shortly after. The next police checkpoint came after another half hour or so of driving. As we approached, the van driver put up his hand and gave a lecture through the rearview mirror about how, this time, he was going to do all the talking.
We got through without any trouble, but when were coming up to what turned out to be not a police but an army checkpoint, he stopped the car before coming around the bend, and told the men to get out and walk. They passed through a line of trees at the roadside and into a nearby farm field. The van passed through the military checkpoint and picked the men up at a gas station on the other side. One of the younger among them sat down next to me in the vehicle.
I figured I would be doing the migrants a favor by not asking questions, but after they manipulated the authorities so openly, I figured they weren’t trying to keep secrets. I turned to the man next to me and asked: “How did it go?”
“Todo tranquilo,” he said. “We’re just hoping we keep having good luck for the entire trip.”
I asked him where he was headed. He told me his father lived in Miami, and he was hoping to meet up with him there and find work. He and his companions were from the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras, an area rife with drug trafficking and political violence (in many cases perpetrated by the US-backed 15th Battalion of the Honduran army). The van driver was helping this group reach Palenque, where they would meet up with another guide. They expected to cross the US border on foot within a week—a highly optimistic estimate, based on the New York Times report. He told me he was 25—nearly the same age as me—and that he hoped to practice his English once he arrived to the States. At some point I must have gotten too inquisitive, because after awhile he grew silent.
We came up to another police checkpoint, and I got nervous. All of the sudden I realized the consequences of my curiosity. I was now responsible for keeping this group’s secret, should police officers for some reason decide to question me. What would you do: lie to a police officer in a foreign country, in your second language? Or betray a group of acquaintances on a long hard road in search of a better life?
My anxiety only mounted when one of the officers climbed into our van, sat down, and began speaking to the driver as he pulled away. “Who are you taking them to?” the officer asked.
“To Tomas,” the driver responded.
“Who is Tomas?”
“To be honest, I don’t know.”
One of the Honduran passengers passed a wad of cash to this officer, and he accompanied to us the rest of the way to Palenque. I got out of the van and waved goodbye to the Hondurans in the van as they pulled away.
They had navigated four anti-migrant checkpoints and made two bribes in order to cover barely 100 miles and reach a city in the deep south of Mexico, still almost 2,000 miles from the United States. And many Central Americans traveling through Mexico face far greater challenges. According to Nazario’s reporting for the New York Times, Mexican authorities have been cracking down on travel on “The Beast,” the series of freight trains whose roofs migrants ride on in order to evade authorities. Low-hanging structures have been placed in the train’s route in order to knock riders off the top, and police apparently use their Tasers to remove people from moving train cars. Central Americans kidnapped in Mexico have reportedly been enslaved in marijuana fields, forced into prostitution, or killed in order to extract their internal organs and sell them.
One Honduran woman Nazario spoke to spent $3,000 on bribes and transportation just to make it to a migrant shelter 300 miles into Mexico. She fled her Honduran hometown of San Pedro Sula after gang members killed her 14-year-old son for refusing to serve as a lookout. This is her second attempt at the journey: Mexican authorities have already deported her once back to San Pedro Sula. She left again immediately. According to social scientist Elizabeth Kennedy, quoted in the New York Times, at least 90 migrants deported from the United States or Mexico have been killed after returning to their home countries in under two years.
A few days after my van ride to Palenque, I returned to the United States, taking comfortable buses full of tourists through Mexico, and then a plane from Mexico City to San Antonio. It occurred to me that the Honduran migrants were attempting to cover almost exactly the same ground, under obviously very different circumstances. I wonder if they made it.