US-Bound Migrants Find Town In Guatemala No Haven

All along the banks of the Suchiate River separating this humid town from Mexico, people from Latin America tell wrenching tales of their efforts to migrate north to a "better life" in the United States.

The tales often include robbery, beatings, and rape at the hands of gangs operating on the Mexican side of the border or by Mexican authorities. Often the migrants are defrauded by the very guides - or polleros - to whom they have paid their life savings to get them to US cities.

The tales are told by the thousands, since Tecn Umn, with a fixed population of 20,000, is a way station for an estimated 25,000 passers-through. The town's unpaved side streets are lined with cheap hotels, many of which are either owned or run by polleros, authorities say.

For months, Mexico has been castigating the US for reported abuses of Mexicans migrating illegally across their country's northern border. But many say conditions for migrants entering Mexico from the south are worse.

Even Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len acknowledges the harrowing circumstances. During the uproar in Mexico earlier this year over a widely broadcast videotape showing sheriff deputies in Riverside County, Calif., beating Mexican migrants, Mr. Zedillo stated publicly that his "nightmare" was that someday someone would produce a video of Mexican treatment of migrants in the country's south.

Recognizing that it can hardly demand better treatment for its own migrant citizens in the US if conditions in Mexico remain unaddressed, the Mexican government has recently taken steps to reduce the crime and human rights abuses that Central Americans and other migrants in Mexico encounter.

Cooperating on crime

At the same time, migration officials from the Mexico and Central American countries are stepping up cooperation to reduce the crime and poor conditions their citizens face in Mexico. Under pressure from both the US and Mexico, this summer Guatemala is expected to approve legislation that would make migrant trafficking a crime.

But in Tecn Umn, such efforts have so far gone unnoticed.

"Being robbed and attacked once was enough, but I don't think anything has changed over there [in Mexico] so that it would not happen again," says Hector Garcia, who, along with fellow Peruvian Harold Tapia was first abandoned just inside Mexico by a pollero to whom they had each paid $2,200 to reach Houston. The two were then attacked with machetes by a gang of Salvadorans as they tried to make their way alone beyond Tapachula, Mexico, about 20 miles north of the Guatemala border.

"Those gangs are bad; they'll kill you for a pair of pants, no problem," says Mr. Garcia, who was slightly injured. After the gang left, the Peruvians were apprehended by Mexican immigration agents and returned to Tecn Umn. Now the two men are awaiting more money from family members so they can try again - this time by boat to Acapulco, then by bus to Mexico City, and on to Laredo, Texas.

As for any mistreatment by Mexican officials, Garcia adds, "We were treated well, but I was already robbed clean and left with nothing when their immigration [agents] got us, so maybe I'm not a good judge of that. I've certainly heard of [robberies and beatings by officials] happening."

The Peruvians' experience is typical. According to recent surveys conducted by Roman Catholic Church officials working with migrants in Tecn Umn, more than 90 percent of migrants questioned reported having been robbed - most of them by gangs or individual criminals, but also a disturbing number by Mexican authorities.

Catholic Church officials have been among the most vocal in bringing attention to Mexico's southern border at a time when Mexicans were focused on what they consider the racist and violent treatment of Mexicans migrants in the US.

"I don't want to sound like I'm defending the attitudes we saw displayed in California earlier this year, but conditions on this [southern] border are much worse," says Ademar Barilli, a Brazilian priest who worked for seven years with migrants in the northern Mexican border city of Tijuana. He is now supervising construction of a "migrants' house" in Tecn Umn.

Violence against migrants has grown tremendously on the southern border over the last three years, says Father Barilli. "We used to call this the forgotten border, but now Mexican officials are controlling it more carefully."

That makes crossing more difficult and thus the use of polleros becomes more necessary, he says. That in turn means migrants must carry more money - sometimes as much as $10,000 a family - to pay the guides. Such large sums on generally defenseless people has encouraged corruption among officials and attracted a criminal element to the area.

The Salvadoran gang operating north of Tapachula is one example. They learned the gang business in Los Angeles in the 1980s, says Raul Morales, a Mexican immigration district superintendent. After returning to El Salvador they made their way to the Mexican-Guatemalan border to rob migrants.

An 'industry' for migrants

The polleros, the safe houses along the way, the gangs, bribes, false documents - even specially fitted tanker trucks for clandestinely transporting more than 100 illegal migrants at a time - all are elements of the "industry" Barilli says has boomed around the exploitation of migrants. "This industry has grown to be very big since the US not only put more effort into closing its own borders, but also began putting more pressure on Mexico and other countries to control theirs," says Barilli.

Apprehension of undocumented migrants on Mexico's southern border is up more than 6 percent this year over nearly 60,000 arrests in 1995, says Mr. Morales.

Officials are also confronting more sophisticated fabrication of false documents.

"We come across everything, from very official Mexican documents made up by falsifiers in Tecn Umn who have official Mexican seals, to US passports that look very legitimate but where the date of birth just doesn't fit the person presenting it," says Jaime Cruz Lucatero, immigration inspection chief in Ciudad Hidalgo, the Mexican port of entry on the Suchiate River.

Not a quarter-mile from Mr. Cruz's office, a group of young Hondurans sits on the Guatemalan side of the river, washing clothes and waiting for the "right moment" to try to cross again.

"Most of us have already tried twice, but both times we were stopped and sent back by [Mexican] officials," says 18-year-old Marco Antonio Viera.

"We've run into gangs and some of us were robbed by [Mexican federal police], so we have no money for papers or polleros, or even food," he adds. "But we'll let our clothes dry, then we'll go again. We have to get to the North," he says.

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