Mexico’s Other Dangerous Border

Q&A with 2008 IRP Fellow Macarena Hernandez

Fellows Fall 2008

By Macarena Hernandez

June 11, 2009

Macarena Hernandez

Macarena Hernandez

Macarena Hernandez is a freelance writer and producer. During her five-week IRP Fellowship Hernandez traveled to Mexico's southern border where she reported on the dangerous journey north for many Central Americans. On her return, she sat down with IRP Director John Schidlovsky to discuss her experience:

Q: What did this story mean to you personally?

A: I grew up in La Joya, Texas, a tiny community three miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. My parents are from the state of Nuevo Leon, which is about an hour south of where I grew up. I was also lucky that I spent a couple of years writing about that region for the San Antonio Express-News, so I had the opportunity to travel along both sides of that border. I love that part of Texas, the border, in general, that blurry line between countries. And I had never been to Mexico’s southern border or to Chiapas or Tabasco, which border Guatemala. I was really curious about that region.

Q: Were you surprised in what you found on the southern border?

A: I didn’t expect it to be so easy to cross back and forth. I paid about five pesos, about 50 cents, for boat-rides across the Usumacinta River. I must have crossed into Guatemala at least seven times and only two of those were through an international bridge. There are many unofficial long-standing crossing points along that border.

I was also very interested in learning about the immigrant communities along that border. In Tapachula, Chiapas, there is a sizeable Guatemalan community, many of them young men and women who work in the service industry or, in the case of the women, as housekeepers. A short drive away in Union Juarez, you have the coffee farms. The workers are all from Guatemala. Many of them are children. I was able to get into a coffee farm and I was really surprised to see so many kids, so young, working there.

Q: Some of the routes people use to enter Mexico are also used by drug smugglers. Did you encounter any rough customers or dangerous situations along the way?

A: We spent about seven days in Tenosique, Tabasco, which in the last few years has become one of the main migrant routes along the southern border. On any given day, there are close to 100 Central Americans, mostly from Honduras, waiting by the railroad tracks in the outskirts of town. They wait there for the freight trains that will take them for part of their journey north. It became obvious pretty quickly that a handful of guys from Honduras was controlling that stop. They were charging immigrants about $20 to let them ride the freight trains and threatening them if they didn’t pay up. They pretty much intimidated them into staying by that part of the tracks. They also threatened them with the Zetas. The Zetas have been working with the Gulf Cartel in the northern Texas-Mexico border for the last six or so years. And now they’re in the southern border. Drug and human trafficking are intertwined.

Q: You decided not to take the trains?

A:The train tracks are really what dictate migration routes. Hundreds of people used to cross through Tapachula on any given day. It was there that they’d catch the freight trains north. But Hurricane Stan washed away those tracks so the train doesn’t pass through town anymore. As a result, the Tenosique, Tabasco region has become a more popular route.

But the story that I wanted to tell was the story of the southern border. I wanted to meet people who live there and also those who travel back and forth. I wanted to explore that blurry line.

Q: Were there no authorities trying to stop people from crossing the border?

A: On the Guatemalan side, immigration officers are not enforcers. They don’t carry guns. They’re there to stamp passports and answer questions. A Guatemalan immigration officer in El Ceibo told me he tries to discourage immigrants from continuing north. He tells them to go home where at least they’ll be safe.

Q: What about the Mexican authorities?

A: You don’t find immigration offices or agents along that Mexican border. There are checkpoints, though, further north. But you do see military checkpoints everywhere, part of the crack down on drug and weapon smuggling. In Tenosique, Tabasco, the immigration offices are a two-minute walk from the railroad tracks where migrants congregate to wait for the train. The only thing that stands between the immigration office and the railroad tracks is el Hotel California. There is an unspoken rule that kind of protects migrants. As long as they don’t venture from the tracks, immigration agents won’t go after them.

Q: What percentage of the people that pass the border from the south get to the United States and what percentage stay in Mexico?

A: I don’t know how many of them will ultimately make it to the U.S., but the majority of people I met were on their way to the U.S. For many, this was there second, third trip. And a lot of them have family in the U.S. Some stay in Mexico, but I wouldn’t say those numbers are huge. Some experts predict that those numbers will increase as it becomes tougher to get across the northern border and into the U.S.

Q: You went to Mexico City and met with officials there. What was their point of view on what’s going on in the southern border?

A: Its been only recently that Mexico has taken on the role of enforcer. In the last nine years, the number of detention centers in Mexico doubled from 25 to 52. Fifteen of those are in the state of Chiapas. And their crown jewel of detention centers is in Tapachula. I wasn’t allowed in there. Actually, it was pretty difficult to get a meeting with any high-ranking immigration official, but I did, finally, the day before I flew back. Mexico has been called out on it’s inhumane treatment of Central Americans. Corrupt police and immigration agents are some of those who prey on migrants. Because of the debate over immigration in the U.S., Mexico has had to do some soul searching. And it was only in the last year that Mexico decriminalized illegal immigration.

Q: What types of abuses?

A: Two years ago, Mexico’s Human Rights Commission came out with a report documenting all the ways in which detention centers violated basic rights. Migrants were not given food or medicine. Some were not allowed to call their country’s consulate offices or their families. They weren’t separating the sick from the others or the women and children from the men.

Q: What are you most satisfied with after your five weeks of reporting?

A: I spent 20 days driving up and down that border and really got to take it all in. I met so many people and recorded so many stories. It really was an incredible opportunity, especially at a time when so many newspapers have closed down their foreign bureaus and are preaching local, local, local.

View photos from her trip >>