Migration Through the Southern Mexican Border

Photograph by: Alex Webb, National Geographic February 2008

Each year hundreds of thousands of migrants leave their homes in Central America—chiefly Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and enter Mexico via one of its border states, most frequently Chiapas or Tabasco. From there, they journey north to what they hope is a new life, some risking yet another treacherous crossing into the United States.

Chiapas is one of Mexico’s most rural states, with an economy based on fishing, forestry, and agriculture. Largely mountainous, it shares a lowland tropical forest region with southern states Campeche and Tabasco, as well as with Guatemala. Migrants tend to choose the Chiapas or Tabasco route because railroad lines crisscross both states, offering the chance to hitch a ride on one of the freight trains that pass through. This mode of travel, however, is fraught with danger. The trains have no set schedule, and migrants waiting by the tracks often jump aboard a moving car, an act that has injured many and even cost some their lives. Robbery, beatings, rape, and extortion are among the other potential perils of the trip.


Gorney, Cynthia. “Mexico's Other Border.“ National Geographic (February 2008), 60-79.

Instituto Nacional de Migración. Propuesta de Política Migratoria Integral en la Frontera Sur de México. 2nd edition. Secretaría de Gobernación, 2005.

Castillo, Manuel Ángel. “Mexico: Caught Between the United States and Central America.” Migration Information Source, April 2006.

Other Resources
“Peligro al Cruzar la Otra Frontera.” Univision Television. (in Spanish)

“Migrants Abused in South Mexico.” YouTube (In Spanish with English subtitles)

“The kamikazes of poverty; Mexico's immigration problem.” The Economist (January 31, 2004), 49.

Grayson, George. “Mexico's Forgotten Southern Border: Does Mexico practice at home what it preaches abroad?” Center for Immigration Studies, July 2002.

Grayson, George. “Guarding the South. Mexico’s Crime-Ridden Border With Guatemala Starts to Get Some Long Overdue Attention.” Business Mexico, May 1, 2004.

Kennedy, Duncan. “The Migrant Trail Through Mexico.” BBC News, July 9, 2007.

Mixner, David. “Interview With Matt Slaby as He Follows the Immigrant Trail From Guatemala to Mexico.”

Rodríguez Chávez, Ernesto. “Frontera sur y política migratoria en México.” Foreign Affairs en Español (October-December 2006).

Thompson, Ginger. “Mexico Worries About Its Own Southern Border.” International Herald Tribune (Paris), June 18, 2006.

“La Nueva Ruta del Emigrante.” Articles and photographs from El Salvador’s El Diario de Hoy, 2006.

Vericat Núñez, Isabel. “La Otra Frontera.” La Jornada Semana, March 4, 2007.

Zuñiga, Rubén and Rosario González. “Incrementa el Tráfrico de Ilegales en la Frontera.” Diario del Sur, September 10, 2007.

Women and Migration

Women make up about 20 percent of the migrant population passing through the southern border of Mexico. Interviews with Central American female detainees throughout the country reveal that most are mothers seeking better-paying jobs to provide for their children, whom they left behind. Almost 70 percent of the women are between 18 and 29 years old and more than half are single, separated, or widowed. The women saw the separation from their children as temporary, lasting only until they earned enough money to educate their kids and build a house back home. The reality, however, is that such separations often extend years longer than the women expect.


Díaz, Gabriela, and Gretchen Kuhner. “Women Migrants in Transit and Detention in Mexico.” Migration Information Source, March 2007.

Children and Migration

An increasing number of Central American children are making the journey north, from an estimated 1,000 in the year 2000 to more than 5,000 in 2006. In the rarest cases (an estimated 13 percent) they travel with one or both parents, while others are accompanied by polleros or coyotes, escorts hired by parents already in the destination country. But most children travel on their own to reunite with their parents. In the book Enrique’s Journey author Sonia Nazario retraces the journey of a 16-year-old boy who leaves Honduras for the U.S. to find his mother, who left to find work when he was five.


Miller Llana, Sara. “In Central America, Child Migrants Now Face Perils Alone.” Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2007.

Nazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey. Random House, 2006.

Temporary Closing of the Tracks

In July 2007 the Chiapas-Mayab freight train that most migrants use to begin their journey from Arriaga or Tenosique into northern Mexico ceased operation unannounced, stranding thousands of migrants. The next trains were 110 to 200 miles away. Instead of ceasing for a week, as promised, service didn’t resume until last fall.


Associated Press. “Se Les Va el Tren A Inmigrantes.” Al Día TX, August 16, 2007.

Noguez, Alejandra. “Miles Varados en México.” BBCNews, August 15, 2007.

López, René Alberto. “Buscan Migrantes Centroamericanos Rutas Alternas Hacia Estados Unidos.” La Jornada, August 27, 2007.

Other Resources
“Central American Migrants Can No Longer Use Train to U.S.” YouTube

National Institute of Migration, Mexico

Albergue Jesús el Buen Pastor

Last updated: January 15, 2008

Keywords: migrants, immigrants, Central America, train, migrantes, southern Mexico border, Tapachula, Arriaga, Tenosique, beatings, extortion, robberies, amputees, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chiapas, migration, migración