Quest for the American Dream


By Vivienne Stanton and Témoris Grecko

Luis Osorio Castillo can’t remember which came first—was it the flash of metal, or the poke of steel against his ribs?

The tall, 21-year-old Nicaraguan with gentle eyes and a thin moustache had been in Guatemala City less than half an hour when the bandits held him up. Three pistol and machete-wielding men with scarves wrapped over their faces stole his wallet, his watch, and the $400 that was supposed to take him through Guatemala across the border to Mexico, from where, like the estimated 300,000 undocumented Central American migrants who leave their homes in search of a new life each year, he planned to head North. His destination: Miami, Florida, where his wife and newborn baby, Stephanie, are living already.

“I want to meet my daughter. I’ve only seen photos of her,” he says, sitting on a wooden bench in a migrant shelter in Tapachula, Southern Mexico. He’s just trekked seventeen hours through the low-lying jungles of Chiapas, slicing through scrub with machetes, travelling at night to avoid immigration officials and bandits, getting soaked in torrential rains. When I meet him, he’s hungry, wet and exhausted.

I’m here, on the borderlands of Southern Mexico, to follow the migrant trail, to find out why so many Central Americans are leaving their countries; and what makes them risk their lives to undertake a journey toward a destination many of them will never reach.

I trace parts of their journey, through Guatemala, across the border into Southern Mexico, and north along the train routes in Oaxaca and Veracruz States. On the way I meet young men—the majority of Central American migrants are men aged between 18 and 35, about 10 percent are women, and a small percent are children—from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Mostly they wear jeans and t-shirts and baseball caps, and carry small backpacks with few supplies: tins of tuna, a water bottle, a change of clothes. Most are running from poverty, debt, restlessness or the street gangs who terrorise Central America’s cities. All are running toward the dreamed-of riches of the US economy, where in a single day they can make more than in a month of back-breaking labour back home.

For some it’s their first time away from rural village homes; for others, already deported several times, both from the US and Mexico, it’s their fourth, fifth, or sixth attempt. There are young men full of bravura and Huck Finn excitement of travel; others are frightened, tired, anxious and sick with longing: for a bed, a hot meal, dry clothes, the homes they’d left days, weeks or months ago. Like Luis, many have been robbed and assaulted, or raped, bribed, and cheated along the way. They see it as par for the course. What strikes me most, listening to their stories, is their determination, like salmon swimming upstream, to get to their goal.

“We suffer, but we keep going,” says Luis, who gave up his job working 12-hour days in a jeans factory for $5 a day. As he speaks, he clutches a small black bible to his chest. His eyes shine, as though buoyed by the adversity he faces, forced to find reserves in himself, and a faith in something external, he didn’t know existed. Listening to him, I realise that, like so many of the migrants I meet, indoctrinated by the powerful Catholic and Evangelical churches in Central America, he sees his journey in terms almost biblical; an economic quest cast as a journey of faith, in which he must confront good and evil in his bid to reach the Promised Land.

“It’s a question of economic survival,” says Padre Flor Rigoni, the barefoot, bearded, Italian Catholic priest who runs the Tapachula shelter. Nearby, groups of migrants lie resting on the ground, nursing blisters, chatting and playing checkers with bottle tops for pieces. Rigoni likens the Central American exodus to other great migrations in history, like the Irish after the Potato Famine in the 19th Century. He believes that as long as Central American countries remain in poverty, and the US demand for cheap labour continues, the migrants will keep coming. “You can’t stop a river from flowing,” he said, tucking an enormous silver crucifix, pistol-like, into the belt of his white robe. “You can try to block it, but it will find a way to the sea.”

* * *

Touching down through rain clouds into Guatemala City, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed in a war zone. Debris and dust cover the cement floor of the still-under-construction, La Aurora (“Daybreak”) airport, where billboards optimistically welcome you to “Central America’s most modern airport: Coming soon!”

Guatemala resembles a war zone in other ways. It has the highest murder rate in Latin America, with more than 5,000 people killed so far this year, at a rate of about 15 per day. Drug-related killings, vigilante death squads, gang violence and almost total impunity for murderers make it one of the most lawless places on the planet.

Half the population suffers from chronic malnutrition; 56 percent live in poverty and 16 percent in extreme poverty; the average years of schooling are the lowest in Central America (3.5 years) and only 18 percent complete secondary school education. Add to that political instability, high unemployment, corruption and natural disasters, Guatemala is symptomatic of Central American countries whose citizens are leaving in droves. According to the International Organization for Migration, nearly one million Guatemalans now live in the US, out of a population of nearly 14 million. About one third of those are undocumented, according to US-based Pew Hispanic Centre.

It seems everyone I meet in Guatemala has a friend or relative living in the US, if they haven’t been there themselves. Like Abel Cordoba, a Guatemala City taxi driver who traveled 48 hours through Mexico in the hollow pipe of a petrol tanker, eating apples and salt pills to curb the need to urinate. Like 17-year-old twins Efrain and Oseas Lopez Tebelon, heading to New York to work as kitchen hands, carrying little more than a bible in their pockets, and a crumpled, hand-drawn map with “u-s-a,” scrawled in childlike letters. Or like Santos Joel Puzul, a pint-sized, 21-year-old Kaqchikel Mayan from the Western Highlands, who bribed border guards all the way through Mexico, made it across the Rio Bravo and walked 48 hours in the Texan desert before getting caught and deported just outside of Crystal Springs (see sidebar).

* * *

The 950km Guatemala-Mexico frontier is a wide, wet, tangle of jungle, river and flatland. As a border, it’s virtually open. According to US-based non-profit Rand Corporation, who recently named it among the ten most dangerous places on the planet, it’s increasingly under the control of gangs, smugglers, criminal organizations and vigilante groups, who exploit the weakness of state presence.

Tecun Uman, on the Guatemalan side of the border, 50 km from the Pacific Coast, is the kind of place you don’t stay long. Hot and steamy in the morning, bucketing with rain by the afternoon, it’s known as “Little Tijuana”, for its similarities with the lawless border town in the North of Mexico, famous for smuggling, trafficking, unsolved murders, prostitution and corruption. In Tecun Uman, anything can be bought—drugs, arms, women, passports—for a price.

Stalls sell second-hand clothes and single rolls of toilet paper, shampoo in small packets and tins of sardines and tuna. Cantinas with red curtains blare music into the street at all hours of the day, while scantily clad women within move from plastic table to plastic table, soliciting custom. There are black market moneychangers and hawkers offering to take you to Mexico in minivans with black tinted windows. There are dirty hotels with multiple beds crammed into single rooms. Groups of dusty young men with backpacks shuffle along the streets, heads down. One young boy I passed was shouting into a payphone: “Mama! I’m here. I’m fine!”

People come here to make the most of the virtually unmanned border to move goods, legitimate and otherwise, between Guatemala and Mexico. Every day, in full view of immigration and customs officials, rafts made from planks tied to inflated inner tyre tubes, cross back and forth over the narrow, brown Suchiate River into Mexico for a nominal 10 quetzal fee (about US$1). On one day I made the illegal crossing twice, rowed by a ten-year-old boy, gondola-style. No one bothered to check our papers, despite my obvious foreign-ness.

Under pressure from the US, Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon has stepped up measures to reduce the numbers of immigrants crossing the Southern Border and to address crime in the area, increasing the presence of soldiers and federal police. But social workers and NGOs say migrants are finding new, often more dangerous, routes. Last October, the bodies of two dozen Central American migrants washed ashore in Mexico near the coastal town of San Francisco del Mar, about 300 kilometres west of the border with Guatemala, evidence that smugglers are increasingly turning to boats to avoid highway checkpoints. Others travel in semi-trailers with false floors, below which they lie horizontally, in groups of 20 or more.

“They suffocate, or get crushed by the weight of the cargo above them,” says Francisco Aceves, the 51-year-old, blue cowboy boot-wearing coordinator of Grupo Beta in Tapachula, a government organization that provides food, water and assistance to migrants. “It’s very dangerous, many arrive dead.”

* * *

It’s nearly midday on Saturday when Pablo Barragan opens his trackside kiosk for business. He unlocks the padlocked window of the green and orange shack, hangs a few fleeces outside, places a small potted fern with a Mexican flag stuck in it on the counter. Already, a few migrants are hanging around, escaping the harsh sun under the small corrugated iron shelter he’s erected alongside his shop. Their wet clothes—soaked from a night spent riding on top of a freight train—lay out to dry on the tracks, near flattened plastic bottles, discarded shoes, torn backpacks. Alongside the shop, a group of young men shave with a disposable razor and hand mirror over a bucket of water. Another group sit under the shade of a hibiscus tree, waiting. There are no schedules. No one knows when the train’s going to come.

Pablo’s kiosk caters to the thousands of migrants who get on and off the freight trains that run through Dos Rios (Two Rivers) in Veracruz State in Mexico’s north, all the way to the border with the US. He sells tubes of superglue for repairing shoes and backpacks, dry crackers, tins of sardines, gloves, jackets and balaclavas for cold nights. Every day in the three years he’s been here, the train called alternatively “The Beast” and “The Train of Death” passes his store, carrying hundreds of illegal migrants looking a free ride through Mexico to the US. Plenty don’t make it, and he’s seen many lose life and limb in the process. “Once I saw something bouncing along the tracks as the train went by,” he says. “I thought it was a ball, but after the train had passed I realized it was somebody’s head.”

Sitting alongside Pablo’s store studying a map of Mexico are two couples from Honduras. Roberto, the oldest of the group, with a cigarette behind one ear, had lived in the US and spoke a few words of English, most of which he learned from watching sitcoms. (“I’m losing my mind!” he says, in a mock US accent.) They’d traveled by combi van from Tecun Uman, getting out and walking around the immigration checkpoints, then for 17 hours on top of the train from Iztepec in Oaxaca. The night before they’d stayed in Orizaba, paying $30 pesos each to sleep in the back of a wagon with 20 people, on folded cardboard boxes. “You fall straight asleep,” Roberto’s girlfriend Maribel said, “you’re that tired.”

No one had slept a wink on the train. It wasn’t just the rain, it was the fear of falling off, or of getting caught by immigration, “La Migra”, or of gangs of thieves getting on. “It’s dangerous. Anything can happen. You can fall, you can get assaulted, thrown off the top, if three or four guys come at you with pistols and machetes, there’s nothing you can do,” Roberto says. He’s referring to the “maras”, the notoriously violent Mara Salvatrucha street gangs who terrorize the train tracks, known for their tattoos and extreme initiation ceremonies, which often involve beatings and killings.

Traveling with Roberto and Maribel, 38-year-old Honduran Marco Antonio, could easily be mistaken for a Mara. He’s got scars on his back and face, missing front teeth, tattoos, a Philadelphia Eagles beanie, a Virgin of Guadalupe amulet around his neck and a crumpled US deportation document in his pocket. He’s been riding the trains for ten years, he announces, boastfully. When he talks, everyone hushes and listens.

“When you jump on, you have to pull yourself up to the level of train quickly, or your legs will get sucked under,” he says.

Standing nearby, thumbs thrust deep in his pockets, Mauricio Gonzalez looks terrified. His thin mustache and sideburns do little to toughen a baby face still chubby around the cheeks and dotted with acne. Despite his youth—he’s 22—there are deep creases between his eyebrows and dark circles under his eyes.

The day before, while crossing through the mountain on foot, he’d been caught by Mexican police, who robbed and beat him, stripped him naked and threw him into a lake. “I didn’t want to take my pants off, because that was where I hid my money,” he said. “So they hit me and kicked me. They took my money. They even took my wristwatch. I’m not from here, so what can I do? They said if I told anyone they’d come after me and kill me.”

He’d thought of going back to Honduras, where he worked in a bed factory making $30 a week. “But I’ve got a wife and two kids. I want them to go to school.” Like many migrants, he plans to work in the US for three years, sending money home, and saving enough to go back to Honduras and start a small business.

As Mauricio speaks, peering down the track, the sleepers begin to vibrate, as 3,000-odd tons of rumbling steel carriage roll into view. From what seems like nowhere, the trackside fills with people, about 30 in all. They run alongside the moving train and jump on the carriages, pulling themselves up by ladders and bars. Some will strap themselves to the ladders with belts and cattle lassoes so they don’t fall off, others will climb up to the roof and ride from there. Ahead lay hot days and cold nights, the threat of machete-wielding bandits, immigration officials, kind townspeople who run alongside the train throwing water, tacos and sandwiches to the people on top, and, finally, if they make it through all this, their dream: the US border.

I run after them with my camera. Many are whooping and making thumbs up signs. As the train starts to gain speed, the trackside empties as one by one the migrants jump on, and my companion points to the roof of the train. It’s Marco Antonio, running along the top, leaping from moving carriage to moving carriage, waving and yelling for us to take photos.

* * *

Many won’t make it. According to Guatemalan daily, Prensa Libre, only about half the Central American migrants who try to cross through Mexico succeed in getting to the US.

Like Estela Madariaga, a 26-year-old Honduran mother of two, who looks to the distance as she speaks, as though telling a story that happened to someone else. The memory of the last time, the bitter taste of it, knots inside her belly. It makes her sick.

A few weeks before—she can’t remember when or where—in the middle of the night, a policeman had come on board her bus to check identity papers. For Estela and the other undocumented Central Americans travelling north through Mexico to look for work as cooks, cleaners, construction workers and gardeners in the United States, this meant paying a bribe. The policeman pointed at her and three other women, and ordered them off the bus. He took them to a darkened office, where three men without uniforms waited. The bribes they’d paid weren’t enough, he said, something more was expected. When Estela tried to argue, the policeman slapped her face. “Don’t play the innocent,” he said. “You know this is part of the payment. If you don’t agree, you won’t get back on the bus.” She pictured her children, four and five, on the bus waiting for her.

“It made me sick, having to give myself to the guards,” she says, “but the thought of my children gave me the strength not to kill myself right there.”

Most likely she’d heard the stories—of women on the migrant trail using their bodies like automatic tellers, “cuerpo-matics,” dispensing sex instead of cash; taking the Pill months before leaving. She knows that as an undocumented migrant she’s easy prey for corrupt officials, smugglers and criminal gangs who target Central American migrants. She’s no doubt heard about the assaults, abuse, robberies and killings, and she knows, that without papers, she can expect little or no protection from the authorities. For this she sold everything she owned back in Honduras to pay a smuggler, called a coyote, to help smooth the way. She thought she could trust him—after all, she had a recommendation from her brother-in-law in the US—but it had turned out to be a terrible mistake.

The next time the guards got on the bus, they bypassed Estela and went straight for a pretty, fourteen-year-old Honduran girl who was travelling with her family. The girl’s parents followed her, shouting and crying and offering money to the guards. The coyote said they were making too much trouble, and told the driver to drive on without them, leaving their bags and, more important cargo—their youngest daughter—on board. “These are the risks of travelling without documents,” the smuggler told them, as the bus sped away.

Less than an hour later, Estela discovered the seven-year-old girl hiding under her seat, where her parents had told her to wait. “She was scared and trembling. I lifted her out, hugged her, and promised to take care of her until we found her parents.”

They got as far as the US border, where they paid a coyote $6,000 to take them across the desert, the final and most dangerous leg of the journey. The coyote told her she’d never make it with so many children, but agreed to take her money anyway. Then one night, without warning, he simply disappeared. Stranded at the border with no money, Estela tried to find work, without success. Desperate, she turned herself over to the authorities. The seven-year-old girl got taken to a shelter, and she and her children were deported back to Honduras. When I meet her, after a hot meal of beans, rice and coffee in a migrant shelter in Southern Mexico, she’s on her way North again—this time without a coyote. “I’m not going back to Honduras,” she says. “I’ve sold everything I have there. For me there’s nothing left.”

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