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(LA TÉCNICA, Guatemala) — From Central America to Mexico and the U.S., the giant caravan of migrants has turned into a media sensation — and not in a good way. At least that’s the way many of the migrants who have been slipping into Mexico through La Técnica see it.
The tiny village, perched on the Guatemalan side of the Usumacinta River, has been booming with Central American border crossers — some banding together in groups of hundreds or more, large enough to use the C-word. But they’d prefer to stay small and under the radar in order to escape attention from President Donald Trump and the local Mexican migration office.
“The migration (authorities) can focus on the caravan while we get ahead and go around them,” said Honduran farm laborer Manual Alvarado, who crossed at La Técnica last week and started walking northwest with dozens of other migrants. “If they get the people from the caravan, we can go the other way and God willing we will have already crossed.”
Alvarado has heard about the political blowback in the U.S. — where Trump is now reportedly considering a ban on Central American asylum seekers — not to mention the treatment that awaited the migrant caravan in Mexico when it broke through the gates of a formal port of entry near Tapachula in southern Chiapas state. People were pepper sprayed, passed out in stifling heat and, in at least two cases, lost their lives.
Yet, as with most attempts to stop the inexorable flow of humanity, the migrants adapt — and so do the people who, for a fee, keep them on the move. Some migrants told me they got through Honduras and a large swath of Guatemala in giant caravans with 1,000 or more other migrants. Others say they started their journey alone or in small groups.
Not a single one I encountered between the Guatemalan border and the Mayan tourist hub of Palenque — on a road they call the La Ruta Hondureña, or the Honduran Route — had crossed anywhere else.
One Industry Town
I first landed in La Técnica on Sunday, Oct. 21, two days after the now famous migrant caravan tore down a chain-link enclosure on the Guatemalan side of the border bridge that connects Tecun Uman, Guatemala with Ciudad Hidalgo in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. The day after, Trump threatened to cut off all aid to Honduras and later promised to send the military to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The threats don’t seem to faze the Hondurans I find. They are fleeing for different reasons — rank poverty, gang threats and a globalized economy that left them behind — but they say they’re so desperate they’re willing to gamble on a dangerous trip north.
“Donald Trump called our President Juan Orlando Hernández and said if you don’t stop this caravan we are going to take away all the aid we give you. And what does the aid do for us? Nothing,” Alvarado said. “The politicians take it.”
“There is no work,” he adds. “That’s why we are coming here.”
Although it’s teeming with people, La Técnica is not much to look at. Imagine a long concrete boat ramp lined on each side with storefronts. I counted at least six flophouse hotels ($9.50 per night for two guests, no air conditioning) and five restaurants hawking fried chicken, huevos al gusto and a variety of meat you need a sharp knife to cut.
Buses stuffed with migrants — behind a windshield with “La Técnica” scrawled across it in shoe polish — arrive every hour or two and stop in the center of town. A not insignificant number of women and children mix in with men traveling alone in La Técnica. But the men dominate the foot traffic on the roads beyond, while the more vulnerable often travel in the company of paid guides. (According to Border Patrol stats, three-quarters of migrants apprehended at the southwest border in 2017 were male, and about the same percentage were adults).
You can generally tell by their apparel, demeanor and the company they keep whether the migrants are paying a smuggler or trying to freelance their way through Mexico. Experts say 60% or more do the former, making the majority of people migrating north largely invisible to the international media.
The latter, generally, is not a safe bet thanks to the abuse, shakedowns and price-gouging they’re almost certain to face along the way. Therein lies the attractions of caravans — safety in numbers — though bigger isn’t necessarily better.
The first two groups I saw on Sunday inside the Comedor Jehova restaurant in La Técnica both had guides — coyotes — who wore bejeweled Santa Muerte necklaces and could be seen doling out wads of the cash that fuels the town’s expansion.
“Everything we have is because of the migrants,” the Comedor Jehova owner told my traveling companion, Stephanie Leutert, a University of Texas migration expert who came along to help me understand La Ruta Hondureña.
“This is a one industry town. This is a town of migration,” Leutert says. “Everyone here seems to be making some money from it.”
She tells me this while sitting a few feet from the swirling Usumacinta. As if on queue, a motor boat carrying a load of migrants glides out behind her toward Mexico.
A Mass Exit
It only takes five minutes to get across the border. The migrants are dropped off on the banks of Frontera Corozal, Mexico, often right alongside the gringo and Mexican tourists who come for a peek at the world-class Yaxchilan Mayan ruins that are about 45 minutes upriver.
One local boat operator told me the business here traditionally breaks down into a 50-50 split between tourists and migrants, though in recent weeks desperation has been better for business than adventure seeking. To get to Mexico, he charges the migrants 15 Guatemalan quetzales ($2). Tourists pay a little more, about $2.50, for the same ride, and shell out roughly 800 pesos ($45) to get ferried to Yaxchilan in the same motorized skiffs.
The migrants who can afford a smuggler quickly disappear into private cars or, more likely, one of the dozen or so cabs that await each cargo load on the Mexican side of the river for the three-hour ride to Palenque. If self-smuggling migrants take a taxi or colectivo bus, they do so at their peril.
If they’re lucky, they’ll only have to cough up 250 pesos ($14), which is about five times the amount a Mexican pays a colectivo, to get to Palenque. The migrants often get dropped off far short of Palenque, while the drivers will actually take Mexicans all the way into town.
Worse scams than being dropped off out of town await other migrants. We encountered a group of eight young men, some of them teenagers, who said a colectivo driver and his accomplices relieved them, at gunpoint, of the 700 or so pesos they were carrying.
“When we got out the robbers were waiting for us,” said Honduran migrant Edil Fuentes, 25. “They took all our money and we had to walk.”
And walking they are. According to sources familiar with the shelter traffic, more than 5,000 people a month have been moving through the Tenosique corridor that includes Highway 307, where we found Fuentes and his recently robbed compadres. But sources in shelters along these routes say over the last couple of weeks the traffic has doubled.
“In the last 10 days the movement has increased and the people working the shelters are saying the same,” said Francesca Fontanini, the Americas spokeswoman for the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.
There are only two shelters, if you can call them that, along the 100-mile stretch of highway between Frontera Corozal and Palenque. One, a clapboard hut with concrete floors, sits behind a Catholic church off Highway 307 in the tiny village of Nuevo Francisco Leon, about 40 miles northwest of the river-crossing point. The casa de paso, or temporary shelter, expects to receive more people this October (120 as of Tuesday) than it did in all of 2016 (about 75). The shelter director thinks by the end the year they will have housed up to 2,000 people.
Inside the sweltering hut, I came upon five bedraggled men ranging in age from 17 to 60. The oldest, construction worker Juan Ramon Andino, said they left violence-torn San Pedro Sula, Honduras the previous Saturday in a caravan of more than 1,000 people after hearing about a planned “mass exit” on the radio. They said another one was forming right behind them.
The caravan Andino and his companions were traveling in eventually broke up into smaller groups and the five men walked and hitchhiked their way into La Técnica. They said they wanted to sidestep the confrontation and media frenzy stirred up by the giant caravan inching toward the U.S. border, publicly angering and perhaps secretly delighting Trump along the way.
“There was a lot of violence and we want to avoid that. People get scared,” Andino says, specifically referencing the tear gas police used on them. His fellow travelers nod their heads and murmur agreement. “But over here it’s going well.”
The men said they were fleeing both crime and poverty back home. Andino told me work has dried up and he’s only been able to eat two meals a day. It’s either rice and tortillas or beans and tortillas, but not all three. One of his companions, a 40-year-old bus driver named Jose — he only wanted to give his first name — said he’s leaving because he can’t afford to pay la renta, the rent, anymore.
He wasn’t referring to housing. He was talking about the slang word gang members use to describe the regular extortion payments they expect from virtually anyone with a job or business. In Jose’s case it’s the $42 he has to pay weekly to two different gangs, about half his salary.
“It just breaks my heart when my kids ask, Dad, I am hungry, what are we going to eat?” Jose said.
Using “Blind Spots”
Migrants have a second, slightly larger shelter in the town of General Emiliano Zapata, about 40 miles from Palenque and a little more than halfway from the Guatemalan border. But it, too, has gotten hammered with increased traffic in recent days — a record 45 on Wednesday, four of them women. Over the week they’ve gotten about 25 minors.
Fernando Aguilar, a volunteer there, said the migrants are telling him they have diverted to this far more remote crossing point to avoid migration authorities and “all the media.”
“They are telling us we don’t think it’s safe for us to travel in the caravan because we are never going to get past Chiapas,” Águilar said. “They want to use the blind spots where the police is not going to be there — la migra (migration officials).”
In recent days UN officials stopped by to check on their capacity and Aguilar said the director of the Jesuit-affiliated shelter told them they barely had any food left. Aguilar, who’s from Torreon, Coahuila near the Texas-Mexico border, took me to the warehouse and pointed to the bare shelves inside. I saw a single bottle of cooking oil, one box of tomato puree and, in plastic containers below, a few remaining kilos of rice, beans and masa for making tortillas.
“To be honest we don’t have the capacity. This is like humble people helping humble people,” he said. “Our storage room is almost empty.”
Migrants setting out on foot from the shelter in General Emiliano Zapata have to walk another couple of days before reaching the appropriately named “Casa Del Caminante,” or “House of the Walker” shelter in a part of Palenque the gringos don’t normally visit.
Famous for its beautifully restored Mayan ruins and sparkling waterfalls, Palenque has more recently emerged as a top destination for Honduran migrants, to the chagrin of many who are used to making a living off tourism.
“They commit a lot of crimes and they bring drugs,” said the owner of a restaurant overlooking the road that leads into Palenque from the Guatemalan border. “They take care of their (bathroom) needs outside.”
It was hard not to think of Trump’s immigrant-bashing presidential announcement in 2015, only Trump was complaining about Mexicans coming to the U.S., not Central Americans entering Mexico.
In front of the restaurant I saw the first feared white Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) vans, parked behind a tree, since I left Guatemala. I was sure I was about to witness some migrant apprehensions, since I’d seen several groups of Hondurans walking toward Palenque and this was the only road in. But the restaurant owner told me the migrants pass through during lunch breaks or at night, when the INM agents are nowhere to be found. Two nights earlier the restaurateur said 500 migrants walked past his restaurant.
Norma Lopez, 21, a breadmaker from Quele Quele, Honduras who wants to migrate to Houston, walked right past the INM agents — singing Christian songs and holding her chin up high, she said. They didn’t ask her for her papers, and simply said “adios” to her as she strolled by.
“I’m not scared. God will protect me,” she said. Her four male companions, who stayed back, later got caught near the same spot trying to slip into Palenque.
At the bulging Palenque shelter, the travelers are given three days and then have to move on. On the first day we visited, the men whose three days had come and gone lined the sidewalk outside, seeking whatever patch of shade they could find. One man, who identified himself as a former MS-13 gang member and had the eyelid tattoos to prove it, was rubbing ointment onto another migrant’s horrifically blistered feet.
The shelter is conveniently located next to the train tracks, which is the draw for most of the migrants we talked to inside and out. They were looking to hop a freighter headed to northern Mexico, ever closer to the American dream they’re all seeking.
That plan didn’t work out so well for 17-year-old Miguel Angel Lopez, a migrant from Chiquimula, Guatemala. Two weeks ago, he tried to jump on the train but he slipped and fell, and the train wheels sliced three toes off his left foot. He was in the hospital for two weeks and has been in the shelter recovering for another two weeks.
Sitting shirtless in a wheelchair and inexplicably smiling from ear to ear, Lopez said he hasn’t told his relatives back home what happened and doesn’t plan to: “I don’t want to worry them,” he tells me.
And why start worrying them now? Once he gets the bandages off and can walk without assistance, he’s just going to try again.
When we came back to the shelter on Friday, dozens of migrants were spilling out into the street in front, and the crowd quickly dissolved into a cacophony of screams and whistles. “Honduras!” one shouted. “Viva Mexico,” screamed another. Soon, more than 50 of them were marching out of town together, down the railroad tracks toward the highway.
“We’re going to leave in a caravan,” said 15-year-old Biron Joselin of Lempira, Honduras, right before the group left. “It’s safer.”
Or maybe not. A day later a third of the mini caravan was back at the shelter, drained of the jubilation and resolve they projected just 24 hours earlier. They said a few hours northwest of Palenque federal police called migration authorities, who managed to arrest roughly two-thirds of the group. About 20 escaped and made their way back to the House of the Walker.
One of them, Honduran Nelson Garcia, 28, summed up how many Central American migrants feel: unsafe at home, “oppressed” in Mexico and unwelcome in the United States.
“Nobody wants us,” he said.
Photojournalist Veronica G. Cardenas contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: The Texas Tribune and TIME have partnered to closely track the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.