Central Americans fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty back home endure perilous journeys through Mexico to reach safety in the US. Now they face additional hurdles as Mexican authorities implement a crackdown.

Story and photographs by Amy Stillman in Saltillo.

Sitting in the shade of a stairwell at the Casa del Migrante de Saltillo, a migrant shelter in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, Sulma Ortega’s dark-brown eyes well up with tears. “It has been no better here than it was back home,” she says, wiping her face with the palm of her hand. “But I can’t quit. Leaving behind Guatemala is the only chance my children have for a future.”

Ortega, 39, arrived at the Saltillo migrant shelter with her family in May, one year after they fled their home to escape persecution by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a notorious Central American criminal gang. In 2008 and 2009, MS-13 murdered Ortega’s two teenage sons. In March 2013, they kidnapped and tortured her 17-year-old daughter Isuara, who was only released after the family paid a ransom of 30,000 Guatemalan quetzals (about $4,000), equivalent to more than 11 times the monthly minimum wage.

  Sulma Ortega and her family were victimised by the MS-13 drug cartel in Guatemala and granted asylum in Mexico. But they have received no help from the Mexican government to rebuild their lives there, and they are now looking to reach the US.

Sulma Ortega and her family were victimised by the MS-13 drug cartel in Guatemala and granted asylum in Mexico. But they have received no help from the Mexican government to rebuild their lives there, and they are now looking to reach the US.

The Ortega family fled to Mexico, where they were lucky to receive asylum. While Mexico saw asylum applications surge by 67 percent last year, only about 40 percent of applications were successful. But the Ortega family’s troubles didn’t end with getting refugee status. Ortega was unable to find work in the impoverished Mexican south, and, when the family attempted to reach the capital, her three daughters narrowly escaped being kidnapped by human traffickers. Unable to make ends meet in Mexico City, the family now hopes to cross Mexico’s northern border and start a new life in the United States. 

“Going to the border is dangerous, but there is no other choice,” says Ortega. “We can’t earn enough to survive in Mexico and we live in constant fear.”

Ortega is among hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who enter Mexico every year because of violence and extreme poverty in their home countries. Many hope to start over in the US, but the journey of more than 2,000 kilometres from the south of Mexico to its northern border is perilous, and human rights groups fear that a recent government crackdown has increased the dangers they face.

In July last year, under US pressure after a record number of unaccompanied Central American children reached the Mexico-US border, Mexico launched “Plan Frontera Sur” (the Southern Border Plan).

The initiative has seen security beefed up along the border with Central America's Northern Triangle – including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – but it has also led to a crackdown on migrants and asylum-seekers heading north on buses and trains. 

As a result, in the first four months of the year, deportations of Central American migrants from Mexico rose 79 percent compared to the same period last year, while detention of minors almost doubled, according to Mexico’s National Immigration Institute (INM). 

According to Segismundo Doguim Martínez, the INM representative in Coahuila, adults arrested by immigration authorities are given the opportunity to apply for asylum before being deported, while unaccompanied minors are transferred to the government social welfare agency. 

  Eleven-year-old Allan’s older brothers were slain by drug gangs in Guatemala. An influx of child migrants at the border last year has resulted in record numbers of minors being detained in Mexico.

Eleven-year-old Allan’s older brothers were slain by drug gangs in Guatemala. An influx of child migrants at the border last year has resulted in record numbers of minors being detained in Mexico.

Conditions at detention centres in Mexico and the application of the law vary greatly by region. In the south in particular, detention facilities have become badly congested as a result of the crackdown and human rights groups say conditions fall below international standards. 

INM did not permit IRIN to visit the detention centre in Coahuila, but Martínez says deportees spend on average one week there and have “dignified living conditions.”

The new measures have only added to the hurdles migrants face while crossing the country. In the first two weeks of June this year, an estimated 220 Central Americans were attacked by armed men in separate incidents in the northern states of Veracruz and Sonora. Local media reported that as many as 100 migrants also fled kidnappers in the southern state of Oaxaca. 

Abducting migrants is big business for Mexico’s powerful drug cartels, which demand a ransom from family members for their release or recruit them to join their ranks. Corrupt local officials sometimes collude with criminals, and municipal and state police have been known to beat and rob undocumented Central Americans.

Many migrants also risk life and limb riding on the roof of “La Bestia” (The Beast), the name given to the cargo trains that carry them to the US border. Migrants at the shelter in Saltillo tell IRIN that to avoid slipping off, they don’t sleep for three to four days at a time. “Sleep is the enemy,” says one. And almost all of them reported being forced to pay a fee or “quota” of $100 on average to Mexican police and criminal gangs at regular intervals along the journey.

  A young migrant travels on the notoriously dangerous “La Bestia” cargo train in the northern state of Coahuila. 

A young migrant travels on the notoriously dangerous “La Bestia” cargo train in the northern state of Coahuila. 

Eva García González, a social worker at the Saltillo shelter, describes how one recent arrival from El Salvador had to be taken to hospital because his arm was severed after a gang member pushed him under the rails for not paying the fee they demanded.

José Amilcar, 22, also from El Salvador, says such incidents are common as crime bosses seek to instil fear among other travellers. “If you can’t pay the quota, you will die or you must walk,” he tells IRIN. Amilcar himself walked for five days from Tenosique in southeast Mexico to the city of Palenque after being robbed by gangs on the train. It took him three months to get to Saltillo, while the average journey time for migrants that use the cargo trains is about three weeks. 

  “The border is hot with criminals, so I travel like the tortuga,” says Salvadoran, José Amilcar, referring to the Spanish name for a tortoise. Amilcar was forced to walk for five days in the south of Mexico after being robbed by a gang on the train.

“The border is hot with criminals, so I travel like the tortuga,” says Salvadoran, José Amilcar, referring to the Spanish name for a tortoise. Amilcar was forced to walk for five days in the south of Mexico after being robbed by a gang on the train.

A number of migrants at the shelter will pay smugglers known as “coyotes” to take them across the US border, a day’s journey from Saltillo. Víctor Corrales, 25, is bound for Houston, Texas, where he has two cousins who will wire $10,000 to the smugglers. “It is safer with the coyotes because they work with the cartels,” says the young Honduran. But others cannot afford to pay smugglers’ fees, which have soared as the journey has become more difficult.

Even so, only a handful of people opt to turn back, and many will only spend a few days at the Saltillo shelter before continuing their journey north. 

  At the Saltillo migrant shelter in Coahuila, a day’s journey to the Texas border, migrants are given food, medical care and legal aid.

At the Saltillo migrant shelter in Coahuila, a day’s journey to the Texas border, migrants are given food, medical care and legal aid.

José Noel, 25, from Guatemala, injured his back and was left unconscious after he tried to jump onto a moving train pulling out of the station in Tierra Blanca, Veracruz. An elderly woman who saw him fall brought him to her home to recover from his injuries. A week later, he got back on the train. “I can´t give up, this is my dream,” he says.

  José Noel fell off a train en route to the US and rolled along the track several times. He says his back is injured but he is afraid to go to the hospital.

José Noel fell off a train en route to the US and rolled along the track several times. He says his back is injured but he is afraid to go to the hospital.

There have been some efforts to improve protection for undocumented migrants in Mexico. A law enacted in 2011 decriminalised migrants who enter the country without papers and entitled them to education and health services. It also provided safeguards for shelters like Casa del Migrante de Saltillo, which are run by a Catholic order and dot many of Mexico’s well-travelled migrant routes. For instance, a municipal police car now sits outside the Saltillo shelter to ward off criminal gangs. Human rights observers are stationed in detention centres in the north of the country, says Doguim, and an arm of the INM known as the “Beta Group” has been designated to defend migrants’ rights.

The Southern Border Plan is broadly viewed by migrant rights activists as a step in the wrong direction. Claudio Montoya of the Human Rights Commission of the state of Coahuila argues that migrants are less willing to report abuses or go to the hospital with a medical emergency because of fear of being detained or deported, and are more likely to take dangerous routes to avoid detection.

  Migrants spend only a few days to a week at the Saltillo shelter before continuing their journey north. 

Migrants spend only a few days to a week at the Saltillo shelter before continuing their journey north. 

The number of migrants trickling in to the Saltillo shelter has declined sharply. According to Pedro Pantoja, a Catholic priest who runs the facility, there are currently about 80 migrants at the shelter compared to between 200 and 300 people on average in previous years. “The migrant problem still exists, but it has gone underground,” says Pantoja. “And there is more violence against them.”

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