The other Rio Grande: Central American migrants navigate the jungle on their way to the USA

A steady stream of boats carrying Central American migrants navigates a river that demarcates the international border. Adults carrying babies and holding small children’s hands get out of the vehicle. Guides with cell phones show the way to a new country.

“Why I’m here?” asked Norma Rodríguez, an American Honduran woman who was out and about with her children aged 16, 11, and 3. “To find a better life for my family.”

Is that the Rio Grande that separates Mexico and the United States? No, this is the Usumacinta River that forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala in the Lacandon Jungle of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

The Usumacinta – where howler monkeys screech from overhanging trees, crocodiles laze on sandbanks, and jaguars frolic in the adjacent rainforest – is more than 1,000 miles from the Rio Grande’s mostly arid environment. But many of the migrants currently arriving in South Texas first came to Mexico via the Usumacinta and other jungle areas where no authorities are present.

This vast, densely forested region has become a major human smuggling corridor – and a major challenge for Mexican and US authorities as they try to combat illegal migration.

The Usumacinta River has become an important corridor for people smuggling. Many of the migrants arriving at the US border came from Guatemala on the river to Mexico.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For the time)

The Biden administration dispatched a high-level delegation to Mexico and Guatemala on Monday that was repulsed by Republicans and others for their efforts to change the Trump administration’s tough policies. Roberta Jacobson, Biden’s Special Envoy for Borders and a former Ambassador to Mexico, and Juan S. González, Latin American senior official on the National Security Council.

The envoys are seeking help in Mexico and Guatemala to curb the flow of migrants.

Under pressure from the US, the Mexican authorities unveiled a number of measures last week, including closing the Mexican border with Guatemala to all but essential road users such as international cargo. While Mexican officials cited the COVID-19 pandemic, the move was widely viewed as a bow to a new U.S. administration concerned about the growing numbers of Central American migrants arriving on the southern border.

In addition, Mexico said it is strengthening law enforcement personnel on its border with Guatemala, a major entry point for US Central Americans.

Much of the new law enforcement deployment appeared to be centered on the Suchiate River, which forms the extreme western flank of Guatemala’s 600-mile border with Mexico. Trump-era pressures on Mexico had already focused considerable resources on the Suchiate region, pushing many migrants further west – often deep into the jungle, where there is little official presence on either side of the border.

“The [Mexican-Guatemalan] The border is very permeable, ”said Erubiel Tirado, security expert at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. “The allegedly controlled access points do not have the minimum infrastructure for operation.”

During the Trump administration, Mexican authorities stationed thousands of National Guard troops along major northbound highways leading from the Guatemalan border. Mexican authorities regularly intercept the smuggling of trucks and trailers carrying hundreds of Central American migrants north, including unaccompanied children.

However, officials admit that many migrants go undetected, especially those who arrive via the dense brush of the Lacandon Jungle deep into the Maya heartland, where the border is largely unsupervised. Bad roads, large hiding spots, and an extensive network of smugglers and safe houses can make detection difficult. The jungle area is also notorious for drug trafficking towards the north.

Central American migrants to the United States arrive on the Mexican side of the Usumacinta River.

Central American migrants to the United States arrive on the Mexican side of the Usumacinta River.

(Liliana Nieto del Rio / For the time)

In the past few days, hundreds of migrants, many from Honduras, have walked the paved road that ran from the Usumacinta River to Palenque, Mexico, where famous Mayan ruins and a major smuggling point were located. The only evidence of law enforcement along the two-lane road – past green pastures and dense forests and mountains – was an occasional police car, the occupants of which paid little attention to the migrants passing by.

Many migrants said in interviews that they led their decision to immigrate into poverty and the notoriously corrupt Honduran political class, led by President Juan Orlando Hernández, a longtime Washington ally whom US prosecutors now refer to as accomplices to international drug smugglers. The Honduran President denies the charges.

“Politics in Honduras are lazy,” said Alberto Gómez Pinera, 56, a farmer from the western Lempira region of Honduras, who spoke as he walked down the street in a group of eight people including Cintia Mariela Guzmán, 19; her son, 3; and a mother-in-law, Clara Caballero, 17. “Everything in Honduras is for the haves. Nothing for us who have nothing. “

Like the other migrants, they had crossed the Usumacinta River when they took off from Guatemala. The boats usually take ecotourists to Mayan ruins, such as the spectacular Yaxchilán site in Mexico, an hour’s drive from Frontera Corozal, a small river settlement. But the pandemic wiped out tourism. The revitalized migrant traffic has been a blessing.

The boats that bring migrants arrive at a steady pace, some carrying only a few, some as many as two dozen or more. Most of the passengers are men, but many women and children also make the trip.

The community representative Luis Arcos has downplayed migrant traffic.

“It’s normal,” said Arcos after arriving at the boat dock with a group of security guards to look for a group of journalists investigating and taking photos at the remote location. “This is a tourist attraction. We have a lot of people passing through. ”

As soon as the migrants arrive on the sandy Mexican banks of the Usumacinta, a group of waiting taxis and cars offer transportation north. Many migrants travel with “guides” or smugglers who help organize the trips and dial agreed contacts on their cell phones.

It’s a quick process. Within about 15 minutes, the 25 migrants had left the area northbound on a boat that arrived in port one afternoon.

Many are first taken to safe houses along the route, where they stage with others until transportation is available to take them further north. Some make long-haul trips immediately after making arrangements with smugglers to evacuate them.

Others, the poorest, withdraw on foot. It’s a long way. It can take four days to reach Chiapas City of Palenque, which is about 100 miles from the Guatemalan border. The majority appear to have arrived almost broke in Mexico after paying bribes to the Guatemala police along the way.

Those stuck at a Palenque animal shelter all said they couldn’t afford smugglers who could charge $ 5,000 per person or more to bring migrants to the U.S. border along the Rio Grande in Texas.

Many of them planned to hitch a ride on a network of freight trains heading north, collectively known as La Bestia (the beast), but the trains are not currently running in the area as the tracks are being renovated for the Mayan train . a pet tourism project by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Many migrants planned to move north to Veracruz state, where the freight train was still operating.

“We are stuck here for the time being, but we plan to keep trying,” said Jairo Joel Quintanilla, 33, from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, also at the shelter.

He traveled with his partner Nora Leticia Castellanos (33) and three children aged 1, 8 and 13 years.

In Honduras, Quintanilla said, one heard all the time – from friends, on social media, from relatives – that this was a good time to take a break for the United States while traveling with children.

Erlin Valle and a dozen relatives, mostly women and children, had left the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa on their way to the United States a week earlier. They felt it was the right time.

“We heard with the change of government in the United States that it is now easier to get in if you bring kids with you,” said 40-year-old Valle as she sat at a communal table in a migrant home in Palenque. “This seemed like an opportunity.”

Valles tour group consisted of four women, one man and eight children. Valle and two younger sisters, all with children, formed the core of the group. They went to North Carolina, where another sister from Valle lives.

Valle, a mother of four, brought her two youngest children; The others stayed in Honduras.

This seemed typical of families interviewed at the shelter – they often brought the younger children with them and left the older ones at home. It appears to be both a logistical and a humanitarian choice – the younger children need extra care and the older children can be left at home with relatives in extended family support networks.

“We felt we had a better chance up north for our children’s futures,” said Jessica Valle, 36, Erlin Valles sister, who kept her 1-year-old daughter as a shelter staff and served a meal of rice and beans and pasta .

People ate the food cheerlessly. Some children put their heads on the long table to take a nap and had little else to do in the crowded Catholic sanctuary.

“Everyone knows that it should now be easier to cross the border with children,” said Jessica Valle in the United States. “At least that’s what everyone says.”

Special correspondents Liliana Nieto del Río in Frontera Corozal and Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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