Thursday, May 15, 2008
For Mexicans trying to get to the United States without documents, the journey is difficult and involves a very dangerous border crossing. For Central Americans the problem of crossing a border without documents is multiplied times two or three. Patrols along the Mexico-Guatemala border may seem relaxed compared to the camera towers and unmanned drones scanning the Sonora desert but threats are still real and corruption often rules the day.
Steve and I took a bus from Guatemala City to the border town of Tecun Uman. It was not half as nice as the bus I took in to Guatemala City but the price was right and it went directly to the border. Just west of the city Guatemala turned green and for the next few hours we enjoyed the fresh scents of tropical vegetation while watching pineapple vendors in tin shacks fly through our cracked window.
Near the border town some local police stopped our bus and demanded everyone to show their documents. Everyone in the bus started squirming in there seats and agitated glances were passed across the isle. Steve and I found our passports but the officers skipped our row and went directly to the back of the bus. After some muffled discussion the last half of the bus was escorted off.
For fifteen minutes we sat there. The group that had left was negotiating with the officers. We could only pick out glimpses of concerned faces but the gist was clear enough. As the crew slowly made their way back on the bus they started muttering in the back. They, same as most of the other passengers on the bus, did not have documents and therefore had to pay their way through a checkpoint that was never supposed to be their in the first place. Why were they picked while the front half of the bus was passed by? It was not because the front half was any more legal. We saw many of the same people at the migrant shelter later that day. It was not because they were suspicious looking working age men. Several women and children had been taken off as well. It just was not their lucky day.
Not paying the police is not an option either as one of the guys from the Guatemala City shelter discovered the week before. He did not have money to pay so the police took their pound of flesh leaving several lacerations on his arms and back that are now infected (Father Abraham made sure he went to the hospital the day we left). As undocumented travelers, migrants are constantly preyed upon by corrupt police and local thieves. The only people we have talked to that have not had much trouble are the migrants who are on their first attempt which is roughly one sixth of the people we talk to.
At the shelter in Tecun Uman we were again allowed to stay. We are continually impressed by the generosity we have been shown at these Catholic Missions. The shelter is conveniently located just a block from the river which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The next morning we watched as half a dozen migrants waded across the river in one’s and two’s. A trio of women and their Nicaraguan friend had enough money to pay a local to use his inner tube raft. The river is nearly 200 meters wide and never gets deeper than waist height.
Nearly all the commerce across the river is by inner tube rafts which are pulled across by foot. During the four days we stayed along the border, not once did we see a truck cross the bridge only a few hundred meters away. Instead, everything was unloaded by hand, placed on rafts, dragged across the river, and re-loaded into trucks on the other side. The informal economy here is not only alive and well, it is the economy. We are quite sure that this commerce is technically illegal but no one seems to mind-not the officers protecting the bridge, not the military men driving around in their humvees, and certainly not the local police who we never saw again after our incident on the road.
Breaking the law here, if it even could be called that, is a daily occurrence. It is not hard to see why migrants have little concern for immigration laws. The only people that need to be feared are the ones who can take advantage of those outside the law.
After leaving Tecun Uman, we spent a few days on the other side of the border. We only saw a couple migrants and they were just passing through. The next stop for most people is Tapachula which is a 45 km (28 mi.) hike. In order to walk there in a day migrants cannot hang around for long so most cross the river in the morning in hopes that they can reach the city by sundown.
There are three basic groups we witnessed breaking laws here.
1. Migrants who do not have documents with which to cross the border.
2. Locals who daily bypass formal checkpoints while crossing international borders.
3. Officers who use their position for personal gain through bribes.
We are curious to hear what you think about all the law breaking we have seen along the border. Are these people finding their way around corrupt systems or are they all law breakers that should be brought to justice? If the latter is true who would be responsible for doing it? How does this compare to the border situation between the U.S. and Mexico?
at 11:17 AM