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On the road in Mexico, Central American migrants face an uncertain future

April 13, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Thousands of Central Americans cross into Mexico every day, dreaming of more peaceful and prosperous lives. For many, this is the first moment of a long, dangerous journey north. While more and more migrants are choosing to stay in Mexico, others still hope to make it to the United States. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin reports on the difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, next, we head back to Mexico.

On Tuesday, we reported from Mexico’s northern border with the U.S. Tonight, we travel to Mexico’s southern border.

Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are the world’s deadliest countries outside war zones. Many Central Americans flee violence and poverty, and hope to reach the U.S. Mexican authorities are now trying to block their movement, but critics are asking, at what cost?

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin begins his report tonight in Ciudad Hidalgo on Mexico’s southern tip, on the river that separates Mexico from Guatemala.

NICK SCHIFRIN: On this border, the sound of the water is the sound of hope.

The Suchiate River separates Guatemala from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Every day, thousands of Central Americans cross north, dreaming of more peaceful and prosperous lives. There’s no security and no authorities. The rafts are inner tubes with plywood planks. Entire families travel together. Women bring their children.

Each crossing costs 50 cents, but many can’t afford that, so, on this day, the water is low enough to walk across for free barefoot.

Leading the way in the backpacks are 21-year-old Dilber Avila and his 15-year-old brother, Eduardo Hernandez. They’re from Honduras.

DILBER AVILA, Honduran Migrant (through interpreter): We’re very poor there. The house we live in is made of mud. It could collapse on us at any point. So, we went on our way to look for a better life.

NICK SCHIFRIN: They’re unsure how far north they will go. They have heard the route is dangerous, but they’re hopeful and willing to sacrifice.

DILBER AVILA (through interpreter): This path is tricky. You never know how it will go. With the help of our lord watching over us as we travel, we pray, and he sends angels to help us on our journey.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In total, 450,000 people are crossing the border every year. Some will just go for the day to shop or sell. But for many others, this is the first moment of a long, dangerous journey north.

Their first destination is the Mexican city of Tapachula. The shelter run by Todo Por Ellos, or All For Them, offers them a safe place to stay. In the last two years, more than 900,000 unaccompanied Central American children have crossed into Mexico.

Eleven-year-old Luis Uno de Lyon fled El Salvador to escape horrific violence.

LUIS HUGO DE LEON, El Salvadorian Asylum Seeker (through interpreter): I have a brother who was in a gang, and they told me they wanted to kill me. They entered my house. They hit me, and they said they will kill me. I had to leave.

My dream as an immigrant is to reach America and meet my mother. I don’t want to stay here. I want to go and stay in America.

NICK SCHIFRIN: This has been his bed for the last three months.

What do you want to be when you grow up? A migration judge. Why?

LUIS HUGO DE LEON (through interpreter): To help migrants achieve their dreams.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Increasingly, those dreams stay alive here, outside the local immigration office. This group of Hondurans are applying for Mexican humanitarian visas so they can travel north more safely.

JONATHAN JIMENEZ, Honduran Asylum Seeker (through interpreter): I am trying to get to America. I know that there are many risks traveling through Mexico safely, and I have heard about people getting hurt. This permit will protect me.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Twenty-two-year-old Jonathan Jimenez is from Honduras. He says, under President Trump, the U.S. is harder to reach and deportations are more likely. But he won’t be dissuaded.

JONATHAN JIMENEZ (through interpreter): Even if I can just $100 a month, it means a lot. America is the land of opportunity.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But Mexico has always struggled to assist Central Americans who are here temporarily before they move north. At night, the group of Hondurans wanders the street. They didn’t bring any paperwork from home, so they can’t work. They can’t afford to rent rooms.

Where will you sleep tonight? Where will you sleep?

JONATHAN JIMENEZ (through interpreter): The truth is that we don’t know. I haven’t been told, and no one knows where they will go.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Why is it worth being here in order to try and get to the U.S.?

JONATHAN JIMENEZ (through interpreter): There are gangs and so much crime and violence back home. I believe that this is an important goal that I must achieve, and all the suffering will be worth it. I have to think about helping my family.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Forty-year-old Rosa has decided, to help her family, she has to stay in Mexico. She’s from El Salvador, and has lived here for four months. She received asylum because she fled violence. She sits with her nephew.

ROSA, Refugee from El Salvador (through interpreter): Then they sent someone to attack me. They asked me for $75. I couldn’t afford that kind of extortion.

NICK SCHIFRIN: She longs to live in the U.S., but the journey would cost $5,000. So she’s staying. Tapachula is safe.

ROSA (through interpreter): I wake up early, and nothing happens. I am out until late, and it’s safe. Back home, at 6:00 p.m., everyone goes inside, and you can find danger at every corner.

NICK SCHIFRIN: More and more Central Americans are deciding to stay in Mexico. In 2011, 752 Central Americans applied for asylum. In 2017, the U.N. estimates that number will be more than 22,000.

PAOLA BOLOGNESI, U.N. Refugee Agency: These are really the persons who have no choice but to leave their country in order to save their life

NICK SCHIFRIN: Paola Bolognesi is a U.N. Refugee Agency protection officer. She says asylum requests are increasing because of a U.N. education campaign.

PAOLA BOLOGNESI (through interpreter): We are making a big effort in providing this information through posters and leaflets and talks.

NICK SCHIFRIN: At the same time, migrant arrivals are decreasing, in part of because of Mexican efforts to stop them.

For the last three years, the government has created rings of security within 100 miles of the border. Police use checkpoints to find drugs and migrants. Mexico is now finding and deporting more Central Americans than the United States is.

In the past, the train known as La Bestia, or The Beast, was covered in Central Americans riding north toward the U.S. But, today, Mexican authorities have tried to make it much more difficult for migrants to ride these trains.

There’s a private security company that prevents migrants from getting on the train, and they have built these concrete barriers just a few inches from the edge of the train. The idea is to make it much more dangerous to jump from the train.

That danger has reduced the number of train riders, but it’s also killed three migrants in this stretch, says immigrant rights activist Sergio Luna.

SERGIO LUNA, Immigrants Rights Activist (through interpreter): This type of structure is a clear violation against the human rights of migrants.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Luna runs La Sagrada Familia shelter right next to the train tracks. We are 500 miles north of the Mexico-Guatemala border. He says Mexico’s methods to deter migrants are brutal.

SERGIO LUNA (through interpreter: Mexico does the U.S.’ dirty work, in a way. We’re at a turning point when it comes to a marked increase in institutionalized violence against migrants.

NICK SCHIFRIN: A pro-immigration activist Web site hosted this video of immigration agents abusing a Honduran migrant. An immigration official told “PBS NewsHour” this was a — quote — “rational use of force.”

Why can’t you better protect these migrants who are moving north?

CARLOS SADA SOLANA, Mexican Deputy Foreign Minister: The issue is that it is not the authorities that are violating human rights. You know that you have to include drug trafficking.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Carlos Sada Solana is Mexico’s deputy foreign minister.

But do you acknowledge that there are some authorities in Southern Mexico that are abusing these migrants?

CARLOS SADA SOLANA: Well, I think that everywhere. You cannot say that, in the United States, there is not.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But many of the migrants accuse authorities of threats and extortion.

Twenty-one-year-old David Gonzales is from Honduras. He crossed the border 18 days ago, hoping to get to the U.S.

DAVID GONZALES, Honduran Migrant (through interpreter): I was approached by state police. They took me to the station, accused me of burglary, took everything I had, stripped me down and left me naked.

They gave me a choice. I can either take my money, and they will lock me up for a crime I didn’t commit, or I can leave without my money. I left. We’re no longer migrants, but a business for those who take advantage of us.

NICK SCHIFRIN: He used to live in Texas and North Carolina, and made in one day as a gardener what it took him one week to make at home. But he says he’s now giving up on getting back to the U.S.

DAVID GONZALES (through interpreter): It’s no longer worth it. Laws have changed. A new president has been inaugurated who doesn’t want us, because he says we’re the bad guys. What he doesn’t understand, with all due respect, the migrant who goes there goes just to work.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Twenty-five-year-old Alner Mendez has also given up his American dream. We met him on the train tracks.

ALNER MENDEZ, Guatemalan Migrant (through interpreter): I was scared of being detained. It wasn’t worth me going. There’s so many people who have lived in the United States for years who are being deported.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But he says he’s been treated so badly here, he doesn’t trust Mexico either. So he’s headed south, back home to Guatemala.

ALNER MENDEZ (through interpreter): I don’t feel safe here in Mexico. Aside from organized crime, authorities also extort us. They ask us for money. And if we don’t hand it over, they beat us.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Mendez climbs the train, and asks his friend for a photo. It’s the closest he will get to the journey north.

The train leaves empty, without him, without the Central Americans whose difficult journey through Mexico meant they lost hope.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Nick Schifrin in Apizaco, Mexico.

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