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.
The Mexican government’s difficulty in fulfilling its promise speaks to the monumental task at hand: The border between Mexico and Guatemala stretches for 870 kilometers (540 miles). With mountains, forests and any number of potential river crossing points, policing it is a tough assignment.
As President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration has said, shrinking the migration flow is a job Mexico cannot do alone; it is a regional issue requiring a regional response. Mexico has called on the UN and US to help, as well as the countries where these migrants begin their journeys.
Still, Mexico has detained thousands of migrants, deported many more and pledged to do what it can to placate the Trump administration. The number of checkpoints on the road to Tapachula has increased in recent days, and more and more migrants are being detained at them.
At a highway overpass, immigration officers, under the watch of marines and federal police, stop virtually all taxis and mini buses, checking the occupants. Every now and then a migrant’s dream is shattered, or at least interrupted, as they are taken away to detention and processing centers. At this one checkpoint, sometimes 100 dreams end this way each day, we are told.
The people removed from vehicles at this checkpoint are mainly young men and women, who look resigned as their journey ends with detention.
Some are eligible for a Mexican humanitarian visa which will allow them to continue traveling north as they attempt to enter the US. Those who don’t receive the visas are taken to detention centers for further processing and, in many cases, are deported.
The root of the problem
At Tapachula’s Fray Matías de Córdova human rights center, a privately funded NGO, volunteers play with children while parents receive legal counsel. Salva Lacruz, the center’s coordinator, says he’s seen more migrants in the past five months than the previous three years combined. Many factors feed into this surge, including increased violence in origin countries like Honduras, drought, and recent publicity around so-called “caravans” of civilians walking north to the US border.
We ask Lacruz if sending troops to Mexico’s southern border is the answer. “No, no – because these people need protection, they don’t need more violence, more detention, deportation – sent back to violence in their countries,” he says shaking his head.
His words echo what many of the migrants tell us: The problems that need solving aren’t in Mexico, nor on the US border. They’re in the countries these people fled. The violence, corruption and structural decay that literally puts their very lives at risk exist in those places and, along with economic factors as well, drives people to run north.
“Nobody is going to stop,” says Ricardo, a migrant from El Salvador we met in the area. “It’s like someone trying to take away air, trying to do something that is impossible.”
“They can send 10, 20, 1000 lines of soldiers, but we will always migrate because our countries are badly governed – because there is no life.”