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In Mexico, migrants choose between bad and worse

Joseph Sorrentino Mexico City
January 27, 2019

While President Trump claims there's a crisis on the US side of the US-Mexico border, the real crisis is on Mexico's side, where thousands of Central Americans live in a state of uncertainty. And it's only getting worse.

Migrants on their way north in Chahuites, Oaxaca, Mexico, in March 2015
Image: DW/J. Sorrentino

Manuel Laba Alvarado sits on the bed he shares with his 13-year-old son, Jairo, in Tochan, a small shelter in Mexico City for Central American asylum-seekers. The bed is small, the bottom one of a set of worn bunk beds, and really only big enough for one person. Although Jairo is a small boy, it's still a tight fit.

"There is not much space," admitted Alvarado, "but it is not so bad." Like an increasing number of Central Americans, he's seeking asylum in Mexico but, like many of them, he's unsure he can stay. "I have family in Honduras," he said, "three more children. I earned 215 pesos per day (about €10, $11) ... working in construction as a general helper [here]. This is only enough to survive. I cannot send money to my family."

According to Claudia Leon Ang, the advocacy coordinator at the Jesuits' Service to Migrants in Mexico City, most Central Americans don't want to live in Mexico but, she said, "They can't get to the US and can't go back [to their home country]." They are, in essence, trapped.

Read more: 'Migrant caravan was my only chance' for a better life

It's estimated that between 400,000 and 500,000 Central Americans enter Mexico irregularly each year; that is, not through an official entry point. They pay 20 pesos to take a raft across the Suchiate River, which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

The majority are fleeing the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), which consistently rank among the world's most violent. Most of that violence is perpetrated by two gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street, which murder, kidnap and rape with impunity. They also demand "renta," extortion money, from businesses, and people often pay renta just to be allowed to live in a neighborhood. When asked what would happen if someone refused to pay, Jonathan Arnoldo Varias, a Salvadoran living in Tochan, formed a gun with his hand and imitated pulling the trigger several times.

Manuel Laba Alvarado and his son, Jairo, sit on the bed they share (DW/J. Sorrentino)
Manuel Laba Alvarado felt he had to take his son with him to Mexico to protect him from the gangsImage: DW/J. Sorrentino

Before 2014, hundreds of Central Americans could be seen riding the freight trains they call "La Bestia" (The Beast), hoping to make it to the US. But in August of that year, Mexico's president, Enrique Pena Nieto, implemented "Plan Frontera Sur" (PFS). Although he claimed that PFS was designed to protect migrants, what it actually did was stop them from boarding La Bestia while doing nothing to slow the number crossing into his country. They instead found alternate routes and ways to make it through Mexico.

Read more: Migrants gamble with their lives on the 'death train'

For Alvarado and his son, that meant walking as many as 12 hours a day. "We walked for three or four hours," he said, "and then we would rest." When asked if it was difficult, Jairo shook his head and said, "I did not tire." There are grave risks for any Central American traveling through Mexico — advocacy groups that work with migrants estimate that 80 percent will be assaulted, 60 percent of the women raped — but Alvarado felt he had to take his son. Gangs forcibly recruit boys as young as 10.

'The gangs will kill you'

Until Donald Trump's increasingly cruel immigration policies, most Central Americans planned to cross into the US, where many hoped to apply for asylum. But, aware that there's almost no chance of that happening now, they're viewing Mexico as a country of destination. In 2015, 3,400 Central Americans applied for asylum in Mexico. There were 14,000 in the first six months of 2018 alone. But it's not clear if Mexico is really a viable option.

Read more: MS-13: The rise of a deadly gang in US suburbia

"Most Central Americans [entering Mexico] don't have much education," said Francisco Senties, who works at Casa Refugiado in Mexico City. That means they really only have two options when looking for a job: work for minimum wage, which is 102 pesos a day in Mexico City, or work in the informal economy.

People cross the Suchiate River on rafts
People cross the Suchiate River on rafts. Those with backpacks are Central Americans heading northImage: DW/J. Sorrentino

That is, if they can get work. "They hear us speak and can tell from our accent we are migrants," said Joel Linares Lizana. "Sometimes you cannot get work because of this." And, added Edgar Galeas Morena, "Sometimes here, you work and then they do not pay you, or they pay you less."

Oscar Molina Molina faced another challenge. "I am 69 years old and it is hard to get work," he said. He has lived at Casa Tochan for five years, ever since he lost his apartment when he could no longer pay his rent. He does maintenance at the shelter in exchange for room and board and has a small workspace where he makes keychains that sell for 30 pesos. Each one is inscribed with a few lines about people who have lived at the shelter. He sells some to visitors. A return to his home in El Salvador is impossible. "The gangs," he said, "they will kill you."

Promise of the USA

Despite the dangers, some Central Americans have decided they have to return to their home country.

Oscar Molina Molina paints keychains he sells for 30 pesos
Oscar Molina Molina sells the keychains he makes for 30 pesos (€1.40, $1.58)Image: DW/J. Sorrentino

Varias, who has a wife and three children in El Salvador, is one of those. "I must return," he said. "I cannot earn enough here to support my family. It is impossible. It is very dangerous in Salvador ... but there are no other options."

Discrimination and insufficient pay aren't the only problems migrants face. Many said Mexico was almost as dangerous as their home countries. A 2017 study by Doctors Without Borders found that Central Americans, "... are trapped and exposed to more violence in Mexico due to ever tighter and more callous United States border control policies."

Regardless of those policies, many migrants still dream of making it to the US.

Carlos Cuellar eats lunch on the steps at Casa Tochan
Carlos Cuellar dreams of making it to the USImage: DW/J. Sorrentino

Carlos Cuellar worked in Brooklyn as a roofer for 10 years before being deported back to El Salvador in 2012. Threats from gangs have forced him to repeatedly attempt to reenter the US. Despite being deported four more times, he's determined to try again.

"I cannot earn enough [in Mexico]," he said. "I have my mother, four sisters and daughter [in Salvador] and I cannot earn enough to help them. When I cross the border I'll be excited, because that is my dream, to make money, money to help my family. I will think, 'Good. Now I can help my family' and then I am going to order a big meat lovers' pizza and eat it all."