TENOSIQUE, Mexico — For migrants at the Casa de Migrante, there’s not much to do but wait.
Men and women lean against the chapel wall, trying to stay in the shade it provides. A group of younger immigrants plays a pickup game of soccer. More still nap in the doorways of the shelter’s dormitories.
Once a pit stop on the long, dangerous trail north to the U.S. border, Tenosique has become ground zero for a remarkably successful push to cut off the flow of undocumented immigrants into the United States.
In the wake of more than 70,000 minors crossing the U.S. border, a Mexican government initiative launched in July has attacked existing immigrant routes, in particular along the southern border of Mexico, and ruthlessly choked off the flow of people.
As a result, tens of thousands of migrants have found themselves caught along that southern border. It’s impossible to travel through the border states of Tabasco, Chiapas, and Veracruz and not see them everywhere: walking single file down jungle roads, selling foreign foods like pupusas from crude street carts, begging outside churches — and increasingly filing local jail cells for petty crimes.
It’s a looming humanitarian crisis, activists warn, that could rock Mexico’s southeast region and send the extremely poor border states already plagued by cartel violence and endemic corruption into chaos.
“This is just a ticking time bomb,” said Fray Tomas, a Franciscan friar who along with Fray Aurelio runs the shelter in Tenosique. “We are filling up the southeast with tons of people, crime, corrupt authorities. This will explode.”
When President Obama and congressional Democrats named overhauling U.S. immigration law in the wake of the 2012 election as their top priority, a new reality had already begun along the U.S.–Mexico border.
Thousands of children, most unaccompanied by a parent or adult relative, started showing up. The minors weren’t from Mexico — most came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where dismal economies have met increasing gang violence.
The situation reached crisis level this spring, just as Obama came under intense pressure from activists to slow the deportations of undocumented immigrants already in the United States. The arrival of thousands of children complicated those efforts, politically. But it also posed a logistical nightmare for the administration.
The administration put hard pressure on governments to the south to get control of the situation in Central America and bring the flood to a halt.
For its part, the White House launched an aggressive propaganda campaign of billboards, radio and television ads, and even pop songs to warn of the dangers of the trip — and stress immigrants will be deported when they’re caught.
The result of that multimillion-dollar effort: so far, very little.
While a number of migrants told BuzzFeed News they were too afraid make the treacherous journey to the United States, most of those who saw the ads and heard the songs said they didn’t play any part in their decision making.
Others seemed to be approaching the campaign as more of a public service announcement than a warning. Oscar, a 27-year-old Honduran, said he found the advertising campaign helpful in planning his trip north.
“I believe it,” he said of the warnings, explaining they are useful to “just keep in mind all of the dangers. The people are more dangerous than the snakes.”
The real, significant crackdown came in Mexico.
The government of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto launched “Plan Frontera Sur” on July 7, stemming in part from talks with the United States and Central American countries.
For decades, Mexico’s southern border has been extremely porous. According to government sources, while there are 11 “official” crossing points, immigrants have established at least 370 “informal crossings.”
The government’s Plan Frontera Sur, is in many ways simple: Use the region’s geography and a series of skirmish lines to choke off human trafficking. Coordinated by the National Defense Secretariat, the first part of the plan includes “a first control line” along the physical border using troops and immigration officials to force migrants into the established official crossing sites.
The plan also established an “internal control line” ranging from 30 to 100 kilometers from the border to “prevent illegal access of people, weapons, drugs and contraband,” according to a government source. A third “contention line” has also been established at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico’s narrowest point, and uses the rugged terrain and stepped up patrolling by federal authorities to block access to the rest of the country.
Mexican officials have stepped up aerial surveillance of the border and have established a “culture of citizen watch” to allow Mexicans to anonymously report trafficking, the source said, while at the same time increasing patrols of La Bestia, the series of trains that thousands of immigrants have used to move through the country.
Migrants paint an increasingly brutal picture of how the plan is playing out on the ground along the border.
Oscar said that on his first attempt to ride La Bestia, the train was stopped deep in the jungle outside of Tenosique by immigration officials. “When the train stopped, everyone jumped. I tried to, but I couldn’t because there two federales with rifles. After they got me, they hit me … in the back and they knocked me to the ground and kicked me.”
Oscar’s friend saw him being beaten and rushed one of the immigration officials, knocking him to the ground and giving Oscar enough time to get to his feet and run. After hiding in the jungle for several hours, the two men eventually made their way to the shelter in Tenosique, where they could nurse their wounds and wait for their next chance to jump the train.
But Mexican officials are doing something else quietly, activists and migrants say.
They charge that Mexico has transformed a state-run humanitarian organization originally designed to help migrants into an arm of the immigration services.
Grupo Beta was established to provide food and medical assistance to migrants moving through the country to the United States. With facilities across the country along migratory routes, migrants have long become accustomed to seeking out the organization for help.
But since July, activists said that Grupo Beta workers in Tabasco and other border states have begun turning migrants into law enforcement. Several migrants in Tabasco said they had been targeted by law enforcement officials minutes after seeking out mobile Grupo Beta units providing food and water near the border.
“Now, it has collaborated in [immigration] operations. It helps with raid operations against migrants,” Fray Aurelio said, explaining, “At the beginning, they helped the house a lot with food, taking sick people placers. But suddenly they stopped [over the summer].”
The plan had an almost immediate impact.
The Department of Homeland Security in August announced that apprehensions of unaccompanied minors were cut in nearly half between June and July. Activists and immigrants also said it’s become much harder to cross into Mexico.
For instance, Casa Tochan, a shelter that works with Central American immigrants in Mexico City has the capacity to house up to 20 people each night. And while for most of its three-year existence it has been full, it's seen a marked drop-off in recent months.
“With the increasing security on the U.S. side as well as the Mexican side of things, definitely. And the danger with the gangs has also increased,” said Joseph Young, a Chicago-area native who is volunteering at the shelter.
“In the first couple of years of starting we were at capacity … but since the spring things have been less, like half capacity,” Young said, adding “It’s interesting now their goal is just to stay here … because of the dangers.”
Migrants also said immigration authorities in Mexico have become more aggressive in deporting Central Americans caught in the country’s interior. One Salvadoran in his late fifties, who declined to give his name, said he’s made six attempts to get to the United States this year — and only on his first in the spring did he make it, briefly, to the U.S.
But despite the repeated detentions and deportations, he remains committed, saying that he see reaching the U.S. as the only way to pay for cancer treatments for his wife. “I have no way to help her without work in the United States,” he said.
The increased tightening of control over known migratory routes has forced immigrants increasingly into more dangerous areas — areas where MS-13 and Mexican cartels have set up their own patrols, making the journey even more dangerous.
“The biggest challenge right now is to fight against organized crime,” Fray Aurelio said. Migrants said gangs will charge anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per person — sums so high few can actually afford the bribes. Not having the money can result in kidnappings, rape, beatings, or even death for any migrant willing to risk the wrath of criminals.
According to migrants, even the mere 50 kilometers between the border and Tenosique has become treacherous territory with cartel men demanding money from anyone trying to cross.
“Kevin,” an affable Honduran busboy in a Tenosique restaurant, left home with his family after his brother-in-law was murdered by drug dealers for setting up a neighborhood watch program.
Making his way into Mexico was relatively easy, though they lost most of their money to bribes to corrupt Guatemalan soldiers and Mexican border officials. Once he and his family had crossed into Mexico, they attempted to take a bus north, hoping to make it to the United States.
Cartel coyotes told them that it would cost $5,000 per person to be taken to the border — but not crossed. Although Kevin has family in the U.S. and could get the money, he said, "We didn’t say that we had family up north, for fear that they would kidnap us or something like that. If you tell them, ‘Yes, my uncle works in Colorado’ or whatever, whatever, they kidnap you and then in Colorado extort [your uncle].”
Unable to use a coyote to move north, Kevin’s family tried to take a bus, which for years has been the easiest way for migrants heading to the United States to move through much of Mexico.
But the bus drivers refused them. “They just didn’t want to help. Because there’s also mafia there, and they expect [bribes],” Kevin said, as well as immigration officials who will also demand bribes from not only immigrants but also bus drivers.
Eventually an elderly man, seeing that the family had small children, took them to the shelter in Tenosique, where he and his family have decided to settle temporarily in hopes of getting asylum from the Mexican government.
“We didn’t know how dangerous it was until we got here and they told us,” Kevin said.
And for those who do take the risk of traveling north, cartel violence quickly stops being a potential problem to a real world crisis.
“It’s the gangs,” Young said. “They’re asking for more and more money. I think they’re asking for a thousand dollars passage. And so obviously with the majority of people not being able to pay that, they push them right off the train. Or they take all their things. We have two gentlemen [in the shelter] right now who are missing legs because they were pushed off the train. I think for most of them, the concern is the gangs.”
But while it’s become more difficult to move north through Mexico, immigrants are still finding ways into the country, which has forced the Franciscans to adapt their efforts.
The Casa de Migrante that Frays Tomas and Aurelio operate wasn’t supposed to become a home for immigrants.
When they started three years ago, the two Franciscans were responding to the growing problem of transients moving through the area. Tenosique is one of the first stops of La Bestia, and its proximity to the Guatemalan border makes the city a popular choice train hoppers. But the trains’ schedule can vary wildly, and immigrants can find themselves cooling their heels in town for several days before moving on.
So Tomas approached a wealthy landowner, secured property on the edge of town, close enough to the train tracks so that migrants could hear it approaching. The idea was to give migrants a safe place to spend a day or two and get some sleep and food while they waited for the train.
But the semi-permanent population at the shelter is steadily growing, Fray Aurelio said, “since the south border reform. Especially now that there’s been a decrease in the migratory flow, people are staying here. They don’t know what to do.”
“They can no longer hop on the train, because there are raids. If they take to the road, well, they run into organized crime, or they [run into] police,” he explained.
As a result, the priests have begun helping migrants apply for asylum in Mexico, a process that can be extremely difficult for applicants who often have little formal education.
On the run from MS-13, Edwin crossed into Mexico earlier this year. Like tens of thousands of other Salvadorans, he, his wife, and small son were looking for a new start, a place free from armed gangs — some of whom he counted as friends, neighbors and business acquaintances — and a collapsed economy.
So he found what he hoped would be at least sanctuary. But like other immigrants in Mexico, life has been hard. Shortly after arriving at the shelter in Tenosique, Edwin was arrested by immigration officers. Although he had decided the journey to the U.S. was too dangerous for his wife and child, he hadn’t yet filed asylum papers with the Mexican government. The friars at the shelter eventually contacted the El Salvadoran consulate, and Edwin was released.
Initially, Edwin was unemployed, a situation he’d never found himself in. “I’d never had to ask for anything, and now I had to beg for money,” Edwin said. The local population was often unsympathetic, he said, including one group of men who made “me sing the El Salvador hymn to prove I was a migrant” while they laughed.
Shortly after, Edwin took a job at a local restaurant where for 100 pesos a day — roughly $8 — he washes dishes, buses tables, and does prep work. The days are long — 12 hours or more.
Although Edwin moved his family out of the shelter and into an apartment he shared with another family, he’s since moved back, in large part because of the increasing danger of living as a migrant in Tenosique.
Those dangers came into sharp focus in mid October. His wife and child had come to visit him at work, and on the way back to their home, a man approached them. Although his wife didn’t know his name, she recognized him: like Edwin’s family, he was an immigrant, and she’d seen the Honduran man around the Casa de Migrante.
As she turned down a dark street, the man came at her, kicking her 18-month-old to the ground and attempting to pull her into the shadows. Panicked, his wife reached for a pair of scissors she had in her pocket.
“She took some scissors she had and stabbed him. He got her phone and money, but didn’t get her,” Edwin said.
Edwin’s just one of many, many people. Gilsa, a 23-year-old Honduran mother of two, works when she can cleaning houses and selling food on the streets of Tenosique. “I would like to go somewhere else, but ever since I left Honduras, I have been here.”
Although she and her husband applied for asylum in Mexico, they were denied earlier this year, and now find themselves in limbo. She was nearly arrested this year while accompanying a friar to deliver food. Asked what she will do in the future, Gilsa said, “I don’t know. I hope that I will get my papers. I don’t know when, but as soon as I have them I will decide to move out of Tenosique.”
Residents of the town, meanwhile, are increasingly concerned with the flood of immigrants and the criminal element that they often attract.
“There’s lots of people asking for money in the streets, stealing from people. It’s bad,” said Aaron Herrera, a 29-year-old factory worker from Tenosique.
Fray Aurelio and other activists say the situation facing Mexico along its southern border is not simply the responsibility of their government, but the United States, which has pressed Mexican officials to crack down on immigration.
“It’s not only the Mexican government; it’s [because of] the U.S. that they are stopping more of the humanitarian help … and putting more pressure on catching them, and wall and all that,” Fray Aurelio said.
Fray Tomas warned a confrontation is coming.
“What have we, defenders of human rights, done? We have done peaceful protests — students and other advocates have blocked highways, burned government palaces,” he said. “And when [activists] say that they will give them this amount of time to do this or that [and no changes happen], what else can they do?”
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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