CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — George Salgado kissed his three children goodbye, embraced his young wife and left his two-room shack in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, for the bus station on the bad side of town. He had $2,000 in his pocket, money borrowed from friends. He knew the journey north, to the United States, would cost him much more.
For four days, Salgado, 28, traveled over borders, dodging immigration officials in Guatemala and southern Mexico and barely eating to save his limited cash. In Mexico City, he found work at a construction site, rented a small room in a house on the outskirts and saved up for six months until he felt he had enough cash to continue. His uncle and best friend had made the same passage years before, following the train tracks that lead the way to Texas and Arizona. But Mexican immigration officials were cracking down, he was told, and he if wanted to pass the border he would have to pay $6,500 to a human smuggler who promised to see him through safely. Salgado wasn’t sure he trusted the man, but worried he couldn’t make it by himself.
That was three months ago. Salgado since has been separated from his guide, detained by immigration officials and robbed by a group of villagers along a rural highway before hitchhiking up to Ciudad Juarez where the United States’ southern border is a short walk away and all he needs is to find the right person who will get him to the other side.
“Getting into the United States, finding a job, I know people there, I am not saying it will be easy, but I have hope,” he said on a recent day as he waited in a migrant shelter in Juarez. “But getting out of Mexico, it’s like the devil. It tests you again and again and you pray to God, I am here.”
Pope Francis visited this border town Wednesday as part of an ongoing campaign to highlight the struggles of migrants fleeing violence and poverty. Arriving at a wide field along the Rio Grande for an outdoor mass, he walked across a ramp lined with flowers and prayed before a cross erected in memory of migrants who died trying to reach the United States before urging government officials to have compassion for people searching for a better life. But for Central Americans looking to pass through Mexico and reach the United States, making the trip north has never been more expensive or dangerous.
Pressured by the United States to tighten its border controls, Mexico began two years ago targeting train routes popular with migrants, setting up new checkpoints across southern Mexico and returning thousands of people to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, nations plagued by widespread poverty, crime and violence. As a result, Mexico is now deporting more Central Americans than the United States and migrants who once relied on a network of shelters aimed at providing humanitarian assistance are walking further distances, carving out new, more treacherous routes along remote stretches of the Mexican countryside and paying soaring smuggler fees to avoid detection. The shift has made hundreds of thousands of migrants defenseless against robberies, kidnappings, rape and other offenses committed by organized crime rings, law enforcement officials, petty thieves and local gangs as they’ve been forced to try their luck with human traffickers.
“The traditional routes had mechanisms for protecting migrants, soup kitchens, shelters. They did protect a lot of these really vulnerable populations from being even more vulnerable to exploitation from kidnappers to traffickers to organized crimes,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington. “The concern really now is that since the migration patterns are spread out, they are new, they aren't established, so that really these populations are that much more at risk to all the horrible things we already know they faced.”
Critics say Mexico has militarized its National Immigration Institute, which is officially tasked with protecting migrants but has been accused of mistreating foreigners. In La Trinitaria, a crossroads town in the state of Chiapas, the government opened a $5 million checkpoint facility last year outfitted with nearly 100 personnel. Another nearby facility opened last year protects the road leading from Mexico’s border with the remote Petén region in Guatemala. The effort has been funded with millions of dollar from the Obama administration, which sent helicopters, scanning equipment and jeeps and provided training on protecting and securing Mexico’s 714-mile southern border zone separated from Central America by narrow rivers and dense vegetation.
The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico reported a 40 percent uptick in migrant complaints against authorities in 2014. “They are at the mercy of possible abuses of migration agents, security forces and organized crime,” concluded a report from the group detailing the death of a migrant girl who was the victim of anal rape in Juarez last year.
The Catholic Church has long played an important role in overseeing migrant shelters across Mexico that help those traveling to the United States. For his part, Francis, the first Latino pope, chose to spend his time in Mexico tracing the typical migrant route from Chiapas along the Guatemala border, to the central state of Michoacan and finally in Ciudad Juarez where he ended his six-day visit by celebrating Mass just 80 yards from the border crossing.
“We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis, which in recent years has meant the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones,” he said Wednesday. “They are our brothers and sisters, who are being expelled by poverty and violence, drug trafficking and organized crime.”
The pontiff, however, never directly mentioned the U.S. or Mexican governments, which in recent years have worked together to create an international network of border checkpoints that exposed migrants to perilous routes and brutal organized crime groups. As thousands of children flooded the U.S. southern border, Mexico rolled out its “Programa Frontera Sur” border security plan in June 2014, sending 5,000 federal police to the border with Guatemala and opening more checkpoints on highways and roads. Mexican immigration officials deported nearly 108,000 Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans that year, a 35 percent jump from 2013 and more than double the number of deportations in 2010. Of those, 18,169 were children, a 117 percent increase from 2013, the latest figures from Mexico’s secretary of the interior show.
More recently, Mexico apprehended 92,889 Central Americans in 2015. In the same time period, the United States detained roughly 70,000 people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Overall, illegal immigration to the United States has dropped to its lowest level in at least two decades, with the nation’s population of undocumented immigrants falling by about 1 million last year, the Pew Research Center reported. While the decline comes as the U.S. has tightened its border security, boosting the Customs and Border Protection budget by $10.7 billion in the past decade, or 75 percent, the White House has also praised Mexico’s enforcement operations for helping to deter illegal immigration. After meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto last year, President Barack Obama heralded Mexico’s efforts in addressing the unaccompanied migrant children crisis. “In part because of strong efforts by Mexico, including at its southern border, we’ve seen those numbers reduced back to much more manageable levels,” he said.
But human rights activists say Mexico is clamping down on illegal immigration by violating basic human rights and forcing migrants to pursue new, precarious routes to the United States. Under “Programa Frontera Sur,” reports of immigration officials rounding up and deporting migrants at trains, buses and hotel rooms have become widespread and illegal roundups at shelters also are growing. The National Institute of Migration said it conducted 153 raids on trains in 2014. Meanwhile, local reports have documented allegations of rampant corruption. A newspaper from the state of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico reported last year an immigration agent allowed migrants to escape detention for $2,680.
“They’ve crossed all the states of Mexico. They worked their way up north,” said Jose Mena, director of the Casa del Migrante shelter in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego. “They've been robbed, they've been beaten, not only by smugglers, but in some cases by the authorities.”
Most of the migrants who visit the Tijuana shelter are 18 to 25 years old and have traveled alone from Central America, often with false documents. “If they don’t have money, it’s very hard for them to cross,” Mena said.
Mexico’s border plan also calls for railroad lines that migrants traditionally have used to travel north to take steps to fight illegal immigration, including increasing the speed of trains so migrants can’t climb aboard. Some companies have hired private security armed with rifles and pistols to keep migrants off the trains, popularly known as La Bestia, or The Beast. Others have erected concrete poles near the tracks to keep migrants from hopping on for a free ride.
“Mexicans are pulling kids off the trains,” said Kevin Appleby, international migration policy director for the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic think tank in New York.
The enforcement policy marks a turnaround from previous border security policies that saw the Mexican government prioritize migrant safety over deportation. Mexico ordered immigration agents in 2010 to cease all night raids and reduce day raids of northbound cargo trains. Detentions at migrant shelters was prohibited.
Rodolfo Casillas, a migration expert at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute in Mexico City who has focused on Central American migrants in Mexico and organized crime, said Mexico intentionally focused on train routes to address concerns from Washington that its immigration enforcement was lax.
“The image of the train crawling with migrants — it became a symbol,” he said. “The people who ride the train, they are the ones that have the least support. They have the least protection.”
More than 400,000 Central Americans enter Mexico each year determined to reach Texas, California or Arizona. Most migrants traveling across Mexico toward the United States are leaving behind friends and family in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, among the most impoverished and violent nations in the world. Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate, El Salvador ranked fourth and Guatemala fifth in a 2014 United Nations report.
The border plan has seen migrants and smugglers forge new routes using third-class buses and fake Mexican passports, or by boat from the coasts of Chiapas and Oaxaca. Other migrants walk many miles along rural roads where they have been attacked by Mexican villagers who steal their money and possessions, according to research from the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights and released earlier this month a comprehensive map detailing Mexican border policies.
In the western state of Jalisco, human rights activists in Guadalajara said they saw about 50 percent fewer immigrants last year compared with previous years because of the new policies. “That doesn’t mean 50 percent less migrants are coming into Mexico. It means people are looking for new routes and they are not able to take advantages of these services we provide,” said Rafael Alonso Hernández López, director of the Dignidad y Justicia en el Camino shelter, which provides migrants with three meals a day. The migrants who do arrive seem more embattled than ever, he said.
“They are in extremely vulnerable conditions. They are walking a lot. They are physically and emotionally deteriorated,” he said.
As the route has become more menacing, smugglers are raising their fees. The high prices attract local gangs and organized crime rings, who for years have sought to control the routes and reap profits, exposing migrants to greater risks of cruelty. In some cases, the cost of traveling to the United States has soared from $2,000 to $7,000.
“Because it’s harder to get north, you have to get through more checkpoints, it costs more to get north, smugglers are charging more because more and more migrants are feeling forced to hire a smuggler to go north,” said Maureen Meyer, director of the Mexico program at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s about how criminal groups look at migrants as merchandise. You can kidnap them, you can rob them for their belongings. ... Crime is following migrants where they go.”
Whereas migrants used to spend days with smugglers, building trust, the new routes have encouraged short-term guides who can contribute to confusion and violence.
“The smuggling business has moved from where a smuggler would move you from south to north, but now it’s a chain,” said Victoria Rietig, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in New York where she works for the Regional Migration Study Group and the Transatlantic Council on Migration. “So it’s basically one smuggler is responsible for one leg of the journey, then he hands the merchandise — the migrant — to the person who is in charge of the next smuggler.”
At the same time, Mexican officials have done little to help migrants running from crime and economic disaster in their home countries. Only 16 percent of asylum requests in 2014 were approved and even as the government sought to send migrants home, it raised the budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance by only $70,000 last year, to roughly $1.73 million. Asylum seekers who do attempt to follow the process have complained of physical and verbal abuse by immigration officials while they waited in detention for a resolution to their case.
Activists have urged Pope Francis in recent months to call for more compassionate migration policies from the U.S. and Mexican governments. Ahead of the papal visit to Ciudad Juarez, dozens of women walked from the Mexican city to El Paso, Texas, Tuesday to raise awareness for migrants’ rights. Blanca Navarrete, the group’s leader, said Frontera Sur sent a wave of migrants to the city who previously traveled to the U.S. through other border openings.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of Central Americans who are coming to Juarez and the entire state of Chihuahua. It takes longer to get to the northern border. They don’t want to stay in Mexico, they want to get to the border to cross to the United States,” she said.
The Beast train line ends its journey in Ciudad Juarez, only a short distance from El Paso, known as the Ellis Island of the Southwest. The Mexican border town was a former drug war capital where cartels strung bodies from pedestrian bridges as a warning and thousands of women disappeared in the 1990s. It’s also home to many Mexicans and Central Americans who lived illegally for years in the United States before they were deported, as well as hundreds of migrants who pass time in the city’s various charity centers seeking food, a bed, a shower, medical help and spiritual attention before continuing their travels north.
As the pontiff brought his message of hope for migrants here Wednesday, many residents wore T-shirts that read, “I Love Pope Francis,” and chanted his name from the sidewalk as he drove through the dusty desert city. “No more death. No more exploitation,” the pontiff urged during his Mass.
But in Mexico City, where the seat of government relies heavily on U.S. funding and trade, it’s unlikely the Vatican’s emotional pleas will hold much weight, critics said.
“The Mexican government is very interested in cultivating a strong relationship with the United States and you’ve seen that as Mexico’s immigration policy has begun to more closely mirror that of the United States and that’s putting a stop to Central American migration,” said Casillas of the Latin American Social Sciences Institute. “They are going to applaud him very forcefully and then nothing will change. The pope is in Rome, but the United States is just across the border.”