Published: February 2008 Mexico Border
Mexico’s Other Border
For many immigrants heading north, the first dangerous crossing is not the one into the U.S. It’s southern Mexico where the peril begins.
By Cynthia Gorney
National Geographic Contributing Writer

Jessenia and Armando López crossed the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico on a hired raft of wood planks lashed to giant inner tubes.

The raftsman pegged them immediately as undocumented migrants and charged them ten times the usual fare, even though Jessenia thought she had disguised herself as a local lady by wearing platform shoes and carrying all her belongings in a homemaker’s plastic shopping bag. She had managed to bathe and wash her clothes daily since they had left Nicaragua—in Mexico, Jessenia reminded her husband, thieves and officials identify migrants not only by their packs and caps and dirty walking sneakers, but also by the smell of their bodies on crowded buses. She put on makeup and perfume every morning, and dangling earrings. These were the rituals that gave her momentum, a certain degree of calm: launder, improve appearance, pray.

When they reached the Mexican side of the river, Armando unloaded the used mountain bicycle they had bought in Guatemala, and they waited while a uniformed soldier on the riverbank rifled indifferently through Jessenia’s bag, explaining that he was looking for weapons or drugs. Then the soldier assessed them a ten-dollar bribe, and the Lópezes got on the bicycle and began to ride north.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans cross illegally into Mexico—400,235, to cite one oddly precise estimate from the Mexican National Institute of Migration—along the country’s southern border, which angles over 750 miles of river and volcanic slope and jungle at the top of Central America. Nobody knows exactly how many of those migrants are headed to the United States, but most put that figure at 150,000 or more a year, and the pace of illegal migration north has picked up dramatically over the past decade, propelled in part by the lingering aftermath of the 1970s and ’80s civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. In depictions of this modern Latin American migration into the United States, the image of a great wave is often invoked, and Mexico’s southern border today feels like the place in distant water where the wave first rises and swells and gathers uncontainable propulsive force.

Before the Lópezes left Managua, they had heard the counsel repeated now in certain poor neighborhoods of Central America: If you are leaving for El Norte, find Padre Flor Maria Rigoni in the city of Tapachula, 20 miles north of the border, because the first dangerous crossing you will make is not the one that takes you into the United States. It is at the southern Mexican border where the perils begin—the thugs, the drug runners, the extortionists in official uniforms, the police and migration agents who pack undocumented migrants into detention facilities before forcing them onto buses to be deported. The Tapachula migration station was recently rebuilt, to hold 960 migrants and process them more quickly; the southward-bound buses roll out every morning before dawn.

The Lópezes rode for hours in the 90-degree heat, Jessenia standing on blocks attached to both sides of the bicycle’s rear wheel. She carried her shopping bag in the crook of her arm and kept her hands on Armando’s shoulders as he pedaled, avoiding migration checkpoints by veering at intervals off the pavement and onto dirt paths. They had remarkably good luck. No one assaulted them with machetes or rifles or handmade pistols fashioned from PVC pipes stuffed with gunpowder; no one beat Armando and dragged Jessenia into the weeds; no one forced them to undress so that their body cavities and secret sewn-in clothing pockets could be examined for hidden money. No passing taxi driver decided to collect a payoff that day by alerting muggers or immigration officials that a vulnerable-looking couple was approaching on the road.

Toward the end of the afternoon Armando pedaled into the outskirts of Tapachula, rounded a curving downhill past an untended field of banana trees, and came to a stop at the wide red doors of the Casa del Migrante, where Padre Rigoni took them in.

Flor Maria Rigoni is a wiry 64-year-old Italian priest who speaks six languages, has a cascading gray beard, uses a thin mattress on the floor for a bed, and wears a wooden cross jammed like a holstered weapon into the belt of his cotton vestments. His Casa del Migrante is a nerve center, an improvised message and transit depot, and an international sanctuary. He first arrived in Mexico more than 20 years ago, dispatched from his previous posting among Italian migrants in Germany.

“Migration, for me, is where we really encounter the God of the Bible—the God of Abraham, of Exodus, of the great journey,” he told me one day, in his Italian-accented Spanish, as we sat on worn couches in an open-air alcove where he receives migrants seeking advice or a blessing. At the entrance to the Casa’s dining hall is a bronze statue of John Baptist Scalabrini, the 19th-century Italian bishop who founded the order to which Rigoni belongs. The pastoral mission of the Scalabrinians is the care of migrants; the missionaries run centers in 24 countries, including four in Mexico and one just across the Suchiate River in Tecún Umán, on the Guatemalan side of the raft crossing. Three of the Mexican Casas del Migrante—in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Tapachula—were built up by Rigoni.

One evening, three dozen migrants sat on the sidewalk just outside the entrance to the Casa, too hot to go inside. A rooster crowed, and the migrants talked in low voices and smoked cigarettes, which a vendor across the street was selling for 15 cents apiece. Several huddled around a pay phone, peering by flashlight at pieces of paper with area codes indicating Houston and Atlanta and Pittsburgh and Chicago.

There was a 19-year-old Honduran who wrote poems every night about leaving his beloved behind in order to cross the border into America; he was on his way, he had decided, to Los Angeles. There was a Nicaraguan construction worker on his way back to Santa Cruz, California, where he had lived for six years, until American immigration officials threw him out. There was a Guatemalan woman on her way to a sister in North Carolina; a Salvadoran couple, passing their swaddled baby back and forth in the darkness, on their way to cousins in Maryland they’d never met; and a 15-year-old Salvadoran boy who turned to me suddenly, after learning I was American, and asked, “You have streets there with three lanes on each side, right?” He nodded when I confirmed this was so and said he intended to fall in love in the United States.

On a map on the Casa’s entrance wall, someone had attached a note containing distances, in kilometers. Tapachula to New York: 4,375. To Houston: 2,930. To Chicago: 3,678. Above the map was a warning poster about the hazards of the Texas and Arizona crossings—don’t risk it, the desert temperatures can be fatal. I had seen no one so much as glance at the poster.

“Where are we going? We don’t know,” said Fernando Somosa, a lanky Nicaraguan boy with an enormous smile, punching the arm of his friend José Ramos, who had left their village with him four days earlier. “We’re just going where the dollars are.” Somosa was wearing a shirt he had bought secondhand in a market near his home; it had permanent-marker writing on it, in a loopy scrawl: “To Alyssa—Ur Super Cool! Meghan.”

Jessenia López sat with her back against a boulder, her hair still damp from the shower. “Miami,” she said, when I asked where she and Armando, a car mechanic and handyman, hoped to find work. “We have a friend there. We’re carrying her phone number. But we haven’t been able to reach her. We don’t know what to do.” She is 33 and Armando 29; they had left their three children—two teenagers and a baby—with her family in Managua. When Jessenia told me her baby was two years old, she began to cry, but she pressed her hand against her face and stopped. “I never in my life thought I was going to do this. It’s just need that makes you do certain things.”

The wire gate beside the Casa swung open in the shadows, and from the building next door, where he lives, Padre Rigoni came out and looked at the migrants on the sidewalk. “Well, muchachos,” he said. He had taken off his vestments and was barefoot, in a dark T-shirt and rolled-up dungarees. He sat under a broad-leafed tree, near the boulder where Jessenia López was resting her head against Armando’s chest, and for a while Rigoni and the migrants talked about violence in Guatemala and kidnappings in Nicaragua and other grim accounts they were hearing from the road.

“I remember the first Nicaraguan migrant I ever met, 20 years ago,” Rigoni said. “He was 17. This was in Tijuana. He’d found some work there, but he’d keep looking in the direction where the border was, until one day he decided to go across. I got a letter from him, from San Diego. 'Here I am, Padre. But I live like an armadillo. Every time I go outside, I feel as though I have to hide. I can’t do this. I’m going back.’ ”

The migrants were silent. Rigoni sighed and stood up to go inside. He also had letters from migrants who told him they thanked God every day for having guided them to the United States; why the armadillo story had come to mind just then he would not later be able to say, except that he had learned over time that his pastoral role was not to urge migrants onward or back, but rather to give them shelter and blessing and a safe place to consider the enormous implications of what they had decided to do. “Muchachos,” he said, “mantengan sus corazones...” He hesitated, gazing at them, one hand on the gate. “Sanos,” he said finally. “Guard your hearts, children. Keep them...healthy.”

Mexico’s southern border bends east and northeast, from the Pacific at one end to the Caribbean at the other, much of it tracing the bottom of the big Mexican state of Chiapas. The city of Tapachula remains one of the principal gateways for Central American migrants; for many years this city was the southern terminus of the freight train that rumbles north toward the U.S. border, with migrants clinging to the roofs and sides. They call the train la bestia, the beast, and it is the subject of grim warnings about the importance of staying awake on the roofs of the rolling cars, lest one lose one’s grip and fall to dismemberment or death. There is a celebrated recuperation facility in Tapachula, run on donations, that takes in migrant amputees who have fallen from the freight trains and lost arms or legs beneath the metal wheels.

Tapachula is a city of 270,000 whose commercial streets and big central plaza crowd late into the night with taxis, motorcycles, delivery trucks, colectivo jitneys, businessmen on cell phones, teenage girls in tight blue jeans, Maya women in woven skirts, boys selling DVDs, children selling candy, and women slicing chili-powder-sprinkled mango and papaya into small plastic bags. Immigrants helped build the city’s economy—coffee merchant and hotelier Tomás Edelmann Blass inherited his German great-grandfather’s plantation north of town; orthopedist José Mak Chong is a second-generation Chinese Mexican—and when they talk now about undocumented migrants in their midst, they sound like Americans: resentful, sympathetic, patronizing, perplexed. A Mexican shop owner in Tapachula described the trouble with the Central Americans in town: The Guatemalans are too servile, he said, the Hondurans too gang-inclined, the Salvadorans too hotheaded. And all of them—simply because they’re isolated, vulnerable, and likely to be carrying money—attract assailants whose toxic presence alarms everybody in town. “I suppose I’d hire a Guatemalan over a Honduran, and a Honduran over a Salvadoran,” the shop owner said. “These people aren’t interested in staying in Mexico anyway. Those dollars are pulling them north.”

In Chiapas, where coffee, banana, and mango harvests have depended for decades on Guatemalan agricultural workers, employers underpay undocumented workers or refuse to pay them at all, counting on them to fear repatriation too much to complain. Gang members as well as freelance toughs lurk along the riverbanks and footpaths, alert to the backpack-carrying travelers who may have money secreted away. Although certain villages along the freight train routes are known for locals who hand free food up to the migrants hanging off the railroad cars, the locals at other stops jump onto the cars to beat and rob migrants, sometimes with police watching or joining in.

The word “porous” is poroso in Spanish, and you hear it from both Mexicans and Americans who study Mexico’s southern border and its increasingly complicated relationship to the United States. The U.S. wants the border made less poroso even as American employers keep demanding cheap labor and American drug users keep demanding smuggled cocaine. The drug routes and the migrant routes overlap only occasionally; organized drug smugglers prefer sea or air for most major cross-border transport. But the simplicity with which people and goods pass illegally across this border is obvious to anyone who spends time here.

It is possible to cross from Guatemala to Mexico by wading a river alongside day laborers on horseback and families washing laundry; or by strolling through a wide-open gate on a dirt road, while nearby Mexican customs agents ignore you; or by paying rafters the equivalent of a dollar to punt you across the Suchiate River. Around the uniformed Mexican soldier at the riverbank, improvised commerce bustles and hums: Brightly painted tricyle rickshaws carrying passengers and their parcels; taco vendors flipping hot tortillas on propane-powered grills; boxes of tequila and black beans and Crema Dental Colgate Triple Acción being tricycled to the raft landing and stacked 20 high for the cross-river float to the Guatemalan side, where they will be resold without the encumbrances of government paperwork.

“Look, this is a business,” said Rafael Fernández de Castro, a Mexico City international relations professor. He meant not only the daily business along the riverbank, but also the broader “business arrangement” created by the desperation of the Latin American poor and the fierce economic pull from the north. American dollars that working migrants send south to their families now help prop up banks, money transfer companies, and entire national economies; in Honduras in 2006, remittances sent home from the United States accounted for a fifth of the nation’s gross national income. The human smugglers called coyotes, their work a crime under Mexican law, charge $5,000 to $7,000 a head to bring Central Americans across the southern Mexican border, up the length of Mexico, and then into the United States; they distribute payoffs along the way. More sophisticated international operations charge several times that amount to smuggle migrants who have reached Central America by sea or by air: Chinese, Africans, South Asians. Central America’s geography, a narrow isthmus flanked by water, turns it into a funnel for immigrants from South America and all over the world.

“There is no solution to this,” a former Chiapas state official said wearily, after ticking off a list of southern border upgrade programs that have fizzled into ineffectiveness over the past decade. “You can put all the control measures down there that you want, but it’s not going to be fixed. The solution is to eliminate poverty.”

A longtime volunteer at the Casa del Migrante in Tapachula told me that some people call Padre Rigoni “El Caterpillar.” I imagined migrants inching their way to new locations, morphing into butterflies, taking wing. But the Spanish word for caterpillar is oruga, so I asked why the nickname was in English.

She burst out laughing. “Not that kind,” she said. “The Caterpillar. The earthmover truck that goes around opening roads by force.”

Rigoni preaches barefoot, in the thatch-roofed outdoor chapel in the Casa’s garden, and when he is absorbed in the Mass he bounces on the balls of his feet, his palms upturned, his face suffused with emotion. I have heard congregants warn him, during the lighting of candles for the service, not to set fire to his beard. The Mexican government gave him a national human rights award in 2006; he flew to Mexico City to collect it, dressed as usual in his white vestments and sandals, and he was congratulated and fussed over. Then he came home and went back to making trouble, publicly denouncing the mistreatment of migrants. He believes that the desperation of the poor is scattering death along the length and breadth of the Mexican migration routes. “There are crosses here without names,” Rigoni told me. “There are cemeteries here without crosses. Some of the people in the Casa say to me: 'For us, all of Mexico has turned into a cemetery without crosses.’ ”

How would Rigoni respond to American charges that the Central Americans he helps are intent on breaking immigration laws and taking what should be legal American residents’ jobs?

Rigoni smiled. “First of all, I would say that your premise is mistaken. There are enough jobs. Nobody leaves home in search of unemployment. Nobody uproots completely unless they have the most profound motives. These migrants are the very hardest workers, the people most willing to push for their futures.”

He nodded in the direction of the Scalabrini sculpture. “I look to our founder to answer this question. We believe in the right to migrate, but we do not believe in the right to force people into migration. Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala—they share the responsibility for what is happening. I’ve been in these countries. I have seen clearly the division between levels of society.”

Most migrants are limited to a three-day stay at the Casa. After that—once they have slept between clean sheets for a couple of nights, eaten a few hot meals of meat stew and black beans and tortillas—they begin the next leg north. Until two years ago that meant finding the rail yard in Tapachula and hiding from police while waiting to climb onto a departing freight train. But in late 2005, Hurricane Stan destroyed the tracks leading to Tapachula, forcing the migrants to travel by road to the makeshift new freight train terminus in the town of Arriaga, 150 miles north. So migrants pool money for taxis, or they walk, or they take buses and hope no one will board asking for papers.

Word has spread in Central America that migrants traveling through Tapachula are at high risk of being picked up by migration agents. For this reason a second border-crossing region began flourishing in eastern Chiapas and the neighboring state of Tabasco, which also abuts Guatemala: Fewer Mexican migration agents work there, but many more assailants lurk on the footpaths.

The grim calculus of risk—greater likelihood of deportation around Tapachula, greater likelihood of assault in eastern Chiapas and Tabasco—had been carefully considered by every migrant I met. In Tabasco whole swaths of arid countryside had been ceded to assailants after dark; even police did not go near them at night. On one bleak stretch, officials found a tree decorated with women’s undergarments: trophies, each from a different rape.

When I asked Rigoni whether he intended to open a Casa del Migrante in Tabasco, he shook his head. “We don’t have the personnel,” he said. “I can counsel them, offer assistance. Someone has to help stop the exploitation and violence.” He smiled, just slightly, and switched to English. “But the Caterpillar needs a tune-up,” he said.

The morning I arrived in Arriaga, a dry, hot wind was wrapping plastic garbage bags against barbed-wire fencing at the edge of town. The main street was four blocks long and ran straight across the railroad tracks, which appeared deserted; a half mile or so down the length of track, two railcars sat motionless amid the high weeds.

Then Francisco Aceves put a whistle between his lips. Aceves is an engineer who runs the southern Chiapas branch of the federal migrant protection agency called Grupo Beta. The U.S. has no equivalent to the Grupo Beta agents, who are explicitly directed not to check for documentation nor to turn people over to federal or migration police. “Grupo Beta! Agua!” Aceves shouted, blowing his whistle. There was movement in the weeds. A young man with a bandanna around his forehead stepped out, straightening his back as he emerged. Another came out behind him, and then another, and a woman, and six more men, the weeds parting and people climbing out and seeing Aceves and his bright orange Beta shirt and breaking into a trot as they approached. Soon nearly a hundred people had surrounded the truck. “Make a line!” Aceves cried. “Here’s water for you! Who wants a can of tuna? Anybody have a headache?”

I saw faces I recognized from the Casa del Migrante: Fernando Somosa and José Ramos, the young Nicaraguan men who had announced they were going wherever the dollars are. Somosa, the lanky one with the big smile, was still wearing the shirt with the loopy handwriting on it. Jessenia and Armando López, they said, were still back at the Casa. Jessenia was trying to overcome her fear of the train.

Aceves handed out booklets instructing migrants that even if they have no documentation, no one is supposed to rob or abuse them. He held one of the booklets up and cleared his throat. “Remember the worst is still ahead of you. In some parts of where you’re going, the days can go above 50 degrees”—Celsius, he meant, or 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “There are thieves on these roads, and rapes happen not just to women. Don’t get on trains while they’re moving. It’s better to wait for the next train than to lose a leg.”

It was the third perils-of-the-journey lecture that Somosa and Ramos had heard in a week, and they both walked away, lit cigarettes, and squatted on the track beside a half dozen men who had been waiting two days for the train. No schedule is posted for the freights; locomotives arrive every few days, gather train cars, and roll out without advance notice, sometimes in the middle of the night. Somosa and Ramos had lain all night on the ground, curled up against the wall of a house near the tracks.

I asked how they would respond if they got to the U.S., somehow eluding all the newly stepped-up illegal immigration enforcement, and then Americans said to them: Boys, I’m sorry you came all this way, but without papers there isn’t any work for you here.

Somosa shrugged. Ramos said, “I’ll keep looking. I’ll find my own work.”

“You didn’t answer her question,” said a 56-year-old man who overheard our conversation. He was on his way back to Houston, he said, where he’d been living before being called home to Honduras when his mother died. “You have to be able to answer this question,” the man said. “The answer is this: 'You Americans have plenty of work. You’re not going to do the cleaning. You’re not going to take out the garbage. That is for the Latino, or the black person.’ ”

The Honduran man leaned in, his voice urgent. “Look,” he said, “they’re going to offer you seven dollars an hour. That seems like a lot of money. But do you know what rent costs? You’re going to want a girlfriend. You’re going to want to visit the cantina. 'Hey, give me a Bud Light!’ How are you going to eat?”

A look of uncertainty flickered across Somosa’s face. In Nicaragua he had a single mother and seven siblings, not including the one who had died of alcoholism after leaving to find work in Costa Rica. He was 21 years old. “If a door is closed on me, I’ll open another one,” he said, and he radiated the big smile. “I have to go live in the land of marvels.”

Ramos got up impatiently and stretched his legs. “The land of illusions,” he said. “They receive you, and they reject you.” In Spanish, in his soft voice, it sounded like a line of poetry: “El país de las ilusiones: Te reciben, y te rechazan.”

By midnight there was still no sign of a train. At a hotel nearby, the desk clerk said he would hear the engine when it came. He said everyone in town would hear it, that the metallic crashing of the freight trains was the loudest noise in Arriaga. He promised to ring my room when it began. But that night the warm wind came up hard, rattling the window glass, and the desk clerk never called, and when I went out at dawn, the two railcars that had been standing on the tracks were gone. The gusts picked up empty Doritos bags and plastic cola bottles and skittered them across the dirt. Burlap sacks still flattened the weed patches where the migrants had slept. I tried to imagine the scramble onto the freight cars in the moonlight: The only handholds are high metal pipes, and the edges of the massive metal wheels look as sharp as ax blades.

I wondered whether the two Nicaraguan friends were seated side by side atop one of the boxcars as their train rocked along, holding the roof rails tightly; or whether they had chosen to stand, the way I had seen some of the southern border migrants ride the northbound train: feet apart, shoulders back, balancing like surfers with their arms in the air.