Beyond the Border

Dispatches From Mexico’s Southern Border: Migrants, Tourists and Money

By Stephanie Leutert
Thursday, July 19, 2018, 9:33 AM

This is the second in a series of four "Dispatches From Mexico’s Southern Border." Read parts onethree, and four.

It’s 8:30 a.m. in the Guatemalan border town of La Tecnica, and the small plastic tables in one of the three makeshift restaurants along the main street are covered in fried chicken, french fries, eggs, beans—and fat stacks of pesos and quetzales. The owner, a man in his late 20s, is picking up one stack after another, meticulously counting each bill. He’s getting ready for 8:45 a.m., when a man dressed in all black—except for his gold chain—will pull up on his motorcycle, sit down in one of the white plastic chairs, accept his stack of money and begin silently counting. It’s the daily preparation for the work that is to come. At 9 a.m., the first bus will arrive from the Guatemalan town of Flores and 30 Central American migrants will pile off, looking for a hot breakfast, a map and free phone call from the local Red Cross, and a guide for the next part of their journey toward the United States.  

Just across the river border, in the Mexican city of Frontera Corozal, the workday is also just beginning. It’s 9:45 a.m. (an hour ahead of Guatemala time) and the women working at the thatched-roof tourist center are setting up behind their individual counters. Nearby, indigenous women surrounded by their small children are propping up boards on park benches to hang bracelets and necklaces handmade with red and white seeds from the local jungle. Other women are opening the stores that will sell water, soda and chips to the day’s steady stream of visitors. By 10 a.m. the first buses will arrive from the city of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, and international and Mexican tourists will pile off, looking for water and a guide for the next part of their journey to the tourist sites.

I spent time in La Tecnica and Frontera Corozal this past month during a two-week trip along Mexico’s 700-mile southern border. While the U.S.-Mexico border has drawn international attention in recent weeks, I aimed to document the dynamics along Mexico’s own southern border and the conditions for Central American migrants traveling north.

The Tecnica/Frontera Corozal crossing is a small outpost along the Mexico-Guatemala border tucked deep into the Lacandon jungle. To outsiders, the area is known for two things: the crossing point for migrants, mostly Hondurans, looking to travel irregularly to the United States; and, as the home of the Yaxchilán Mayan ruins (inhabited from 250 to 900 AD), which are accessible only by a 45-minute boat trip up the Usumacinta River. In the morning, motorboats bob up and down in the swiftly moving brown water, waiting to ferry migrants from Guatemala to Mexico and to shuttle tourists toward the ruins. On the riverbanks, an array of taxis and tour buses wait, ready to carry people onward to their next destination.

Honduran migrants waiting to cross in La Tecnica, Guatemala, in June 2018.

In this part of Chiapas, the economy is propped up by the movement of outsiders. Some are migrants and some are tourists, but all want to go somewhere, all are willing to pay their way, and all make a lucrative business.

For irregular migrants, there is no standard business model. One option is to pay guides for transportation services from their homes in Central America to destinations in the United States (the fee most often cited along this part of the border was about $6,000 [all transit prices given in U.S. dollars], the equivalent of 22 months of Honduras’ minimum wage for agricultural work). This covers migrants’ transportation, housing, and bribes to Mexican officials and organized criminal groups for the right to pass through certain territory. Alternatively, migrants might pay for their journey in chunks, bargaining a package for crossing the river and then a taxi ride to the next stop in Palenque, Chiapas ($50). These migrants pump money into the local economy by hiring taxis driven by residents and by paying an informal tax—more accurately, extortion—at roadblocks set up by authorities along the routes. Only those who pay this tax will advance.

On one of these illicit river crossings from La Tecnica to Frontera Corozal last month, I boarded a boat with 10 migrants and three guides. The guides chatted among themselves and snapped photos of the river on their phones. By contrast, the migrants’ mood was somber; having already traveled at least nine hours from Honduras, they held their backpacks close and quietly stared into Mexico during the crossing. On the Mexican riverbank, a line of marines stood guard, armed with automatic weapons, as they waited for the incoming group of migrants. The marines met the boat on Mexican territory to search the migrants’ backpacks for contraband. Once no weapons or drugs were found in their possession, the migrants were free to board taxis and speed off to their next stop. Under Mexican law, the only agency allowed to apprehend irregular migrants is the National Migration Institute, but unlike the marines, its agents were nowhere to be found.  

As these migrants disembark the boats and board taxis heading north through the sweltering jungle, tourists are simultaneously zipping south on the same highway in air-conditioned buses. They move swiftly from one tourist site to another, paying varying amounts depending on the services they desire. The local communities that control access to the Yaxchilán ruins charge $75 or more per arriving  boat (this amount gets divided by the number of passengers). For the nearby Bonampak, it’s $1.50 for entrance to the community and $17.50 for transportation to the ruins. After paying these fees to enter, the thousands of tourists who flock to these sites each month are likely to purchase local artisan crafts and/or a hot meal while there, pumping more money into the communities.

While tourists without sufficient funds would not embark on a trip in the first place, migrants without money continue to come, driven by some form of desperation. These migrants set out walking from Frontera Corozal to Palenque: a five- to six-day journey of 101 miles on the main road. Along the way, some band together in small groups, attempting to find strength in numbers against robberies and assaults from local criminals and aiding each other in the constant search for food, water and shelter during the region’s daily downpours. Others—including even elderly migrants—walk slowly along the road with shirts draped over their heads, trudging onward under the jungle sun in 100-degree-plus heat. Many of those arriving at the shelter in Palenque have numerous blisters from the trek.

Migrants walking from La Tecnica to Palenque in June 2018.

The fundamental difference between the tourist and migrant populations in this corridor is the matter that has sparked a political firestorm in the United States in recent weeks: One of these movements is legally sanctioned and the other is not. Yet on the surface, there are surprising similarities. Each day, tourists open Google Maps to track the distance to the next Mayan ruin. Each day, migrants unfold their Red Cross maps to track the distance to the next shelter. Both purchase different services on a sliding scale of prices. Both use local guides to get them to their next destinations. And both are taxed—one on the books and one unofficially.

Once they arrive in Palenque, their paths will diverge. Tourists will board planes back to their homes, while migrants will continue on via far riskier means of transportation. Yet along this 101-mile stretch of the Mexico-Guatemala border, the differences blur: Migrants and tourists are all travelers, moving from one place to another and leaving a trail of money in their wake.