Meeting Danger Well South of the Border

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 8, 2006

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala -- Mario Lobo stood on the muddy bank of the Suchiate River just after dawn, staring dispiritedly at the roiling current separating him from Mexico.

The slight, 22-year-old Honduran was still 1,500 miles from the U.S. boundary line. But for Lobo and tens of thousands of other impoverished Central Americans who sneak into the United States each year, the real border begins here, at Guatemala's frontier with Mexico -- and onward through the entire length of Mexico -- as they embark on a succession of ordeals of which the dangerous trek through the desert into Arizona or Texas is merely the final chapter.

Every step requires split-second decisions that can mean the difference between life and death. Should they ford a rushing river or spend precious pennies on a raft ride? Are the bandits on a remote path more dangerous than the immigration checkpoints along the main road? And will hopping a speeding freight train dramatically reduce the journey time, or will a slip and a fall permanently cut it short? Lobo had heard about these perils from others who had made this trip before. Yet as he contemplated the coffee-colored waves of the Suchiate, all other dangers paled in comparison with the one foremost in his mind.

"That water," he muttered to his two traveling companions, "looks very deep."

Most migrants cross the river on rafts built from two black inner tubes lashed to a couple of planks of wood. But the raft owners charge 10 Guatemalan quetzales per person -- about $1.30. Lobo and his friends had only seven quetzales between them.

"We can wade across like him," suggested one of Lobo's friends, Francisco Quintero, 28, pointing to a sinewy man who was pulling his raft against the current with a rope tied around his waist. "See, the water only reaches to his chest."

"No," answered Lobo glumly. "Look at him. He's not wading, he's swimming. You know how to swim. I don't."

Quintero gave a sigh that betrayed a touch of impatience. A veteran of the trip north with wide scars across his body to prove it, he had left a construction job in Reno, Nevada, to help guide one of his nephews from Honduras to the United States. Lobo and their third friend, Juan Vicente, 24, had decided to come along, drawn by the promise of jobs that pay more than $3 a day.

But Quintero's nephew had changed his mind on the bus from Honduras before the foursome ever reached the run-down border town of Tecun Uman, terrified by the stories he was hearing from fellow passengers.

Now it looked as though Lobo was going to bail as well.

"Okay," Quintero finally said. "What if I offer that rafter our seven quetzales to take only you? Juan and I can swim across."

Lobo silently nodded his assent.

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