As US-driven immigration crackdown forces many to find alternative routes through Mexico, activists fear an increase in trafficking and drownings
The highway from Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas into the neighbouring region of Oaxaca hugs the Pacific coast, cutting through dusty towns and densely forested mountains. It only takes a few hours to drive, but for migrants trying to reach the United States, it is one of the most perilous sections of the overland route.
Undocumented travelers who take a bus or hop a freight train will almost certainly be detained by immigration agents. Those who choose to walk face a gruelling two-day journey through remote forests – and risk robbery, rape and even death at the hands of armed robbers who prey on the men, women and children heading north.
Yet, a rising number of Central American migrants are heading out to sea in small open boats to evade the immigration officials and bandits who have proliferated along Mexico’s southern border.
Coyotes – or people smugglers – have established maritime networks linking isolated villages along the Pacific coast to transport people along routes previously favoured by drug traffickers, according to migrants, fishermen and local residents.
It’s not the first time Mexico’s long shorelines have been used to smuggle people, but maritime routes have proliferated since a US-driven immigration crackdown forced migrants to find alternative routes through Mexico.
Mexico’s Southern Border Plan was launched after a surge in unaccompanied Central American children seeking refuge at the US border triggered a humanitarian crisis in June 2014.
American aid supported the deployment of thousands of troops to patrol alongside immigration agents along established migrant routes, forcing travellers to take even greater risks on their journey north. Many of the maritime routes are still controlled by drug-trafficking organisations: cocaine and chemicals used in the production of crystal meth have been discovered in navy operations against seaborne traffickers.
“The numbers of migrants travelling by sea has greatly increased since the launch of the Southern Border Plan. This migration policy has forced people to take more dangerous routes through drug trafficking corridors, increasing their vulnerability. The only ones benefiting from the policy are the traffickers,” said Rubén Figueroa, from the Meso-American Migrants Movement.
So far, there have been no mass drownings on the scale seen in the Mediterranean Sea, but the journey by open boat is fraught with risk. In July, three children drowned when a fishing boat carrying Honduran and Salvadoran migrants from Guatemala capsized in a storm off the coast of Chiapas.
Sergio Ramírez, 17, from Comayagua in central Honduras, left home in mid-May with seven others, hoping to find work in the US. Traveling by bus and taxi, they made it to the town of Arriaga in Chiapas, where before the clampdown, migrants would continue north on a freight train known as the Beast.
In the past two years, hundreds of migrants walking from Arriaga have been mugged at gunpoint, according to civil society groups running shelters along the route.
In Arriaga they joined up with another group from Honduras including five women and four children aged two to 10, who were travelling with a coyote.
“He told us about the boat, he said it was the safest option as the bus and walking from Arriaga are very dangerous. He knew the fishermen as he regularly works with them,” Ramírez said.
From Arriaga, they travelled 30km by bus to the tiny fishing village Pesquería de Gloria, from where you can see Bird Island – a spectacular reedy mass home to pink spoon-billed ibis and frigates.
On arrival in Gloria, they were taken to a house where they were given food and water. Each migrant paid £40 (1,000 pesos) for the ride, and late in the afternoon, they set out.
Three hours later, at dusk, the group arrived unscathed in the picturesque hamlet Rincón Juárez. They immediately set off by foot, walking all night to reach the town Unión Hidalgo.
“For us the boat was a good option, we were safe and saved a lot of time,” said Ramírez, who is currently in Mexico City awaiting money from relatives so he can continue his journey.
Only a handful of boat owners in Gloria transport migrants, said Javier, 22, a fisherman. “Not just anyone can do it, it’s their business, you can’t just get involved,” he said.
Those with double-engine boats take up to 30 passengers; smaller, single-engine vessels carry six to eight migrants.
Javier, who like other interviewees asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, added: “I don’t have my own boat, but sometimes I help, I’ve done it just a few times … I went last week, we took 20 people to Rincón Juárez. They have to lie down because the navy patrol this area.”
Two or three boats arrive daily in Rincón Juárez. From there, migrants continue on foot, avoiding the small naval base on the outskirts of the village.
This relatively short route is within a huge lagoon, known locally as the Dead Sea, where the water is relatively calm.
But the open sea is far riskier.
Paredón, Chiapas, is a fishing village of 6,000 habitants with stunning views on the southern tip of the Dead Sea lagoon. Local fishermen say that every day, several boatloads of migrants can be seen passing by on the open sea, where conditions can get very stormy, very quickly. In 2007, 15 migrants drowned near Aguachil, Oaxaca, a few miles up the coast.
“They start in Central America, in Guatemala, and sometimes stop here for petrol. Some migrants also come here overland and leave by boat, but less at the moment as the navy carries out many operations,” said one elderly fisherman.
It was very close to here that a Honduran fisherman lost control of his boat in 2012, drifting for 14 months, before miraculously turning up 6,500 miles away in the Marshall Islands. Scores of fishermen have died in these waters.
The boats carrying migrants are heading for beaches such as Bahía La Ventosa in Oaxaca, a small fishing village with a handful of seafront restaurants where migrants and drugs have been passing through for years, according to local resident Raúl Salinas.
“Around 10, 15 years ago, 200 to 300 Central Americans would disembark every few days, but that virtually stopped because of navy operations. Numbers have started to go up again in the last couple of years, and right now at least 80 to 100 land every week,” said Salinas, who has attempted to rescue drowning migrants on several occasions.
They arrive at night to avoid detection, and are met by local fishermen who take them home where they can rest, eat and bathe. Most leave the next day in taxis or buses arranged by their coyotes; others take to sea again, heading to the state of Guerrero.
According to Salinas, some local families have been persuaded to work with migrant smugglers and drug traffickers because of dwindling fish stocks caused by oil spills from the nearby refinery.
The involvement of organised crime groups means that migrants who travel by boat in an attempt to avoid danger, are instead at risk of falling prey to human traffickers. In this zone, Los Zetas, the Gulf and New Generation Jalisco cartels are currently battling for control over land and sea territory to transport drugs, arms and people. Reports of extortion by local police are common.
Amid ever-increasing violence in Central America, thousands of people continue to flee every month in search of safety and a better life. Activists and fishermen fear trafficking and drownings will rise as more migrants are persuaded to travel by sea.
Salinas said: “I’ve seen dead bodies, I’ve tried to rescue people. The open sea is dangerous, small boats can easily overturn, and most can’t swim. But people keep coming because they are desperate.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
The Guardian |Nina Lakhani