Warring mafias have turned once-sleepy farm towns and rail crossings in Mexico into notorious junctions of kidnapping, torture and death, creating a new geography of fear spanning from the U.S. border to the most humble villages in Central America.
The soaring number of attacks on migrants in Mexico, and the widely dispersed news of their barbarity, is discouraging many Central Americans from even attempting the trip to the United States, according to immigration officials, human rights advocates and the travelers themselves.
The flow of illegal Central American migrants to the United States has been slowing since 2005, the result of the sagging U.S. economy and increased law enforcement along the U.S. border, experts say. But a powerful new reason has emerged: Today’s migrants face a far more sinister journey and many have concluded it is just too dangerous.
“This is my fourth trip, but everything is different now. They’ll kill you for nothing,” said Darling Diaz Garcia, a Nicaraguan who was spending the night at a shelter in Tapachula across from the Guatemala border.
He had heard the horror stories of the crossing through Mexico. “Everyone has,” he said, but he was willing to risk it “to eat.”
Cheap hotels and migrant shelters here in southern Mexico that were once filled with wayfarers from Central America are now half-empty.
In Mexico, apprehensions of Central Americans have been cut in half, down from 240,269 in 2005 to 122,049 last year.
Even more telling, U.S. agents this year are catching far fewer Central American migrants trying to cross into the United States. In an average month in 2010, U.S. officers detained 4,242 illegal migrants along the southwest border that they classified as “other than Mexican,” meaning mostly Central Americans. In 2011, the monthly apprehensions of Central Americans have slowed by almost 20 percent.
The number of Central Americans trying to enter the United States without documents has been decreasing even as the U.S. economy begins to revive. Illegal immigration from Mexico has fallen as well, as travelers from Mexico’s impoverished southern states also face savage attacks and roadside kidnappers.
A difficult journey becomes more treacherous
The trip north has always been arduous. But where migrants once faced being robbed or molested, they now fear being killed and dumped in mass graves — or forcefully recruited into a gang and made to smuggle drugs — or abducted and tortured for weeks.
“Their lives are drained away at every step of the journey,” said Friar Tomas Gonzalez, who runs a shelter at the edge of this frontier town, just north of the Guatemala border. In a cement-block room, haggard men slept on bare foam pads, waiting to catch the next freight train north.
Father Flor Maria Rigoni, an Italian priest running a shelter in the border city of Tapachula, said the Central Americans seem more desperate to him now than when he arrived a decade earlier. “There is nothing for them back home,” he said. “They come through here like sheep going to the slaughter.”