The air is thick with humidity on the Suchiate River that separates Mexico from Guatemala. Yet the pontoon men are busy as usual. Using long poles, they strain as they push wooden rafts lashed to huge inner tubes from one bank to the other, illegally but openly ferrying goods and humans from one country to the other for the equivalent of just over a dollar a head.
This is how many migrants enter Mexico on their journey north to the United States. They come from many places, but mainly the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Increasingly, they come from other nations too, including Cuba, Haiti, and a number of African nations. These are the people US President Donald Trump – using tariffs as a weapon – has demanded Mexico somehow halt in their tracks.
In our time on the river and in the nearby town of Tapachula, we meet many migrants. They tell us they want the world to know they’re not numbers, that they have names and lives they don’t want cut short.
Amid so many heartbreaking cases, the Gonzalez Trejo family from Honduras stood out: The matriarch, Juana Isabel wept as she told us that three generations of the family – the youngest just five months old – had been sleeping on the streets for more than a week in the stifling heat and afternoon downpours, waiting for their next processing appointment, still nearly a month away.
They will spend that month on the sidewalk, with no money to pay for accommodation, she told us.
Juana Isabel said gangs murdered her husband when he didn’t pay a gang “tax”. Her son-in-law, a bus driver, said he was also the victim of demands to pay gang “taxes” and, when he didn’t, the thugs fired multiple shots into his bus.
The final straw was a note pinned to the family’s front door the next day. “Everyone get out. You have 24 hours to leave with your family. If not, we will kill you,” the note said.
The family fled, heading north into Mexico and their life on the streets, waiting to be processed and – they pray – get permission to stay in Mexico for now.
“I feel bad – I feel shattered to know how our country is now,” Juana Isabel told us. “I never thought my country would ever be this way. I cry because of the situation we’re now living here,” she said in tears, her voice cracking.
Others have come from much further abroad. On June 15, our team received word of a disturbance at a local detention center called “Feria Internacional Mesoamericana”. As we approached, dozens of mainly African migrants ran toward us, screaming and wailing as marines and police tried unsuccessfully to hold them back.
Separated from the rest of the world by a gate, one woman who refused to give her name described the people detained inside. “Cameroon, there are Ghanaians, there are Nigerians, there are Congo, Angolans, there are so many Africans, Bangladesh, there are Indians,” she told us. “There are so many people in there.”
Originally from Cameroon, she said that she took a flight to Colombia before ending up here, but that others fly to Brazil and other places in the region. When we asked how she paid for it and who organized the trip, she suddenly stopped talking and turned away. Mexico says the migrant crisis is a six billion dollar a year industry.
She also complained of poor conditions at the center—an issue that the Mexican government has acknowledged, promising improvements and renovations for some holding facilities.
A job too big for Mexico alone
To stem the flow of migrants entering Mexico and traveling onwards to the United States, the Mexican government has promised to send six thousand National Guard to enforce its southern border, among other things. However, it had already failed to do so by the stated June 18 deadline, and since conceded that perhaps only 50 percent of the troops would be in place by June 22.
As we traveled the area, border control officers were few and far between. Most were not the promised National Guard, but rather Federal Police, army or marines, some wearing arm bands with the letters GN to signify that they were proxies for National Guard forces.