As dusk falls on the dusty Guatemalan village of Tecun Uman, Javier Castillo prepares to sneak across the Mexican border to continue his perilous journey to the US.
“Several of my family members live in the US. They helped me pay for the trip. Now, seeing how things have turned out, it might be a challenge to get there,” the 17-year-old from El Salvador said, clear-sighted in acknowledging the perils that lie ahead.
On the shores of the Suchiate River, which marks the border between Guatemala and Mexico, local smugglers charge 10 quetzals (about US$1.30) per crossing on rafts built from tree trunks and tires.
The “captains” of the rafts often let a large number of people onboard in order to limit the trips they make and boost their profits, but the practice also means they risk capsizing, making smugglers and migrants alike easy prey for the unscrupulous Mexican customs officers on the other river bank at Ciudad Hidalgo.
However, the crossing only foreshadows the many dangers to come for about 140,000 illegal migrants who try to reach the US-Mexican border each year, according to Mexican estimates.
One out of seven of these risk-takers falls into the hands of organized crime, according to Mexico’s national human rights commission.
Mexican gangs used to simply rob the travelers. Now, drug cartels have found ways to obtain ransoms of several thousand US dollars from the migrants’ families living in the US, or use their victims as drug mules.
Some are even sold into slave labor. Women are often forced into prostitution, while men are made to work in the fields. Some groups, like the Zetas drug cartel, even execute those who refuse to join their ranks.
If Castillo manages to escape their grasp, corrupt local landowners or police officers could rob him before delivering him — if he is lucky — to authorities who will promptly deport him.
Before embarking on this long journey across Mexico, many of the migrants catch their breath in Tecun Uman, a hot and humid village that bears the name of a Maya national hero killed by the Spaniards in the 16th century.
Despite its calm appearance, the northwestern village poses plenty of risks, because locals disapprove of the migrants and are themselves targeted by Mexican organized crime, whose reach extends across Central America.
“Tecun Uman is a small village, but it is also hell. Here, undocumented migrants suffer humiliation, attacks, mistreatment and violence,” said Father Ademar Barilli, who heads a shelter that has already housed tens of thousands of migrants since 1994, most of them from El Salvador and Honduras.
“Fundamental human rights are flouted like never before and not a single official takes this seriously. Great permissiveness reigns everywhere. It’s deplorable,” he said.
Barilli has already received several threats from groups that exploit migrants.
His shelter is a peace sanctuary of sorts for Edmundo Lopez, a Honduran on his third attempt to reach the US and have a shot at the American dream — at the age of 65.
“I travel to reach the US because I have to,” said Lopez, pointing to widespread poverty and unemployment in Honduras.
“There are risks everywhere, and I’m not afraid of anything serious happening to me in Mexico,” added Lopez, whose country has the worst homicide rate in the world.
After nightfall, Castillo and Lopez will try their luck.