Mario Rosales organizes the trip for his latest clients, a Honduran woman and her two elementary school-aged children who hope to reach the United States.
Rosales, 47, a coyote, or smuggler, sends his photos via WhatsApp to his contact at the Mexican National Institute of Immigration (INM) in order to obtain fake identity cards – all part of the family’s travel package, which costs 1 $800 per person to cover approximately half (1,750 km) of the region’s most dangerous migration route.
Rosales (assumed name), is one of about 10 coyotes operating in La Técnica, a small border town in northwestern Guatemala, where hundreds of Central American and Caribbean migrants cross into Mexico every week, despite a crackdown orchestrated by the United States.
Seeking to avoid the crippling trade tariffs threatened by Donald Trump, Andrés Manuel López Obrador deployed a newly created national guard across the country to stop the flow of migrants. Checkpoints popped up along major roads and immigration officials raided migrant shelters.
This week, Mexico’s president declared the plan a success after apprehending around 108,500 migrants in the first half of 2019, a 70% increase from the same period last year.
Migration always declines during the hot summer months, but US numbers have also shown a dramatic drop.
Meanwhile, in Guatemala, U.S. federal authorities, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) and intelligence agents, are deployed to dismantle smuggling rings, under the controversial ‘third-party’ agreement. safe countries” with the United States.
But despite the crackdown, large numbers of people continue to travel north, aided by Mexico’s burgeoning migration industry, a multi-faceted array of networks that include coyotes, corrupt officials, con artists and concerned citizens.
Local aid workers estimate that 70% of migrants crossing the porous 871 km border between Mexico and Guatemala travel with coyotes – or “guides”, as they prefer to be known – but the quality of service varies wildly.
Rosales is proud to offer safe passage and says he understands the plight of migrants: He previously lived as an undocumented migrant in Los Angeles, and together with his girlfriend was once kidnapped in Veracruz, trying to reach United States.
He works with a close-knit group of associates, who move small groups of people by car and plane, providing – he says – three decent meals a day. (Other coyotes guide larger groups and outsource dozens of short trips to truck, bus and taxi drivers.)
Along with his latest clients, Rosales will accompany the Honduran family across the Usumacinta River in a small motorboat, to Frontera Corozal in Chiapas, Mexico. It will then drive them 300 km to Villahermosa airport in the neighboring state of Tabasco.
Mexican migration and security forces – including national and local police, navy, army and national guard – patrol the highways that Rosales will drive, but the group will not be stopped. Rosales sends his contacts the program of the trip and photos of the car and its customers, to guarantee a blind eye.
“Everyone gets paid, so I never have any problems,” said Rosales, who claims to spend 70% of what he earns on bribes. “The National Guard are the same officers in different uniforms, always ready to cut a deal.” (An INM spokesperson said corruption was not tolerated and every allegation was investigated.)
From Villahermosa, the family will use their new IDs to travel to Reynosa, a Mexican border town known for its warring cartels and clandestine graves. Here, more associates will be waiting to guide them when they seek asylum or cross the border illegally.
Rosales admitted that the current crackdown has reduced demand, forcing him to cut prices, but history shows such declines rarely last. Last year’s migrant caravans were also bad for business, until travelers stranded in Tijuana began hiring his team to take them through less congested border crossings.
Rosales leads a comfortable life in La Técnica, which thrives on the money migrants spend on hotels, showers, food and transport. But not everyone is in it for the money.
Filomena Barrera, 67, a retired nurse and committed Catholic, has been providing a safe haven for migrants since 2002. She offers free room and board to the most desperate families, letting them sleep in her adult daughter’s former bedroom.
Barrera, who is constantly shaking because she cannot afford to treat her Parkinson’s disease, has taken in countless migrants over the years. “I look easygoing, but I’m brave and would do anything to save these poor people.”
Across the river, the indigenous Chol community of Frontera Corozal is supported by two groups of people: tourists who flock to the nearby Mayan archaeological site of Yaxchilan – and migrants.
Around 11 a.m., Noé Pino, 29, leaning on his taxi waits for migrants who often cross during peak tourist numbers to avoid being spotted. He picks up a Honduran with a suitcase and drops him off at the junction with Highway 307, which heads northwest.
At the crossroads, groups of migrants come and go in taxis, combis and on foot. Pino – alias – points to a man as he gets out of a tourist minibus to buy a cold soda. “He is a pollero [coyote]. He dropped off a group last night, now he’s off to the next one,” Pino said.
Pino knows this because he also worked last night, after receiving a call at 12:30 a.m. to pick up four migrants from the river and drop them off in Palenque. It was a “typical night”, according to Pino, with five taxis and eight minivans, each holding 15 passengers, contracted by smugglers.
Pino says he doesn’t mind meeting with migration or security guards because they are paid up front. But the northern route is plagued by armed bandits, and he narrowly survived a gun attack in 2015 that left him traumatized and out of work for six months.
Along the way, Pino advises migrants to delete messages discussing the trip from their phones, but other than that, he avoids conversations with customers.
“I don’t get involved – I just do my job.”
At the crossroads, a group of seven children and six adults from Honduras arrive by taxi from the river. They seem nervous and confused, not knowing what to do next or who to ask for advice.
“Honestly, I don’t know where we’re going, just that we’re going,” said a skinny 16-year-old, who asked not to be named.
The group wanders outside the general store in silence, until a toddler starts crying and tugs on his mother’s sleeve, demanding his favorite toy car. As she rummages through a plastic bag full of their belongings, a Navy patrol jeep pulls up across the road to question a man. It’s the national guard, looking for migrants.