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In desperate quest to reach U.S., Central American migrants fear gangs, police

Around 3,000 Hondurans are currently traveling through Guatemala on their way to the U.S. President Trump has threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if the caravan isn't stopped. But migrants say they fear not just deportation, but threats from violent gangs and police during the journey north. Special correspondent Danny Gold, embedded with a police team in Chiapas, Mexico, reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Around 3,000 Hondurans are traveling through Guatemala to the United States.

    And, today, President Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if Mexican authorities don't stop the caravan. The U.N. estimates that over 500,000 migrants illegally cross into Mexico every year in order to come to the U.S.

    Mexico is pushing a plan that's already deported more than half-a-million Central Americans. But migrants say they fear much more than just deportation their journey.

    For a closer look, special correspondent Danny Gold embedded with a police team Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.

  • Danny Gold:

    Just north of the Guatemalan border, Mexican police patrol a desolate area popular with undocumented migrants.

    But they're not here to detain illegal border crossers.

  • Jose Velasquez (through translator):

    The purpose of these patrols is to stop gangs who are out to rob migrants.

  • Danny Gold:

    You're fully armed out here. You guys are on high alert. Is there a lot of danger on these trails?

  • Jose Velasquez (through translator):

    The criminals sometimes carry machetes. Sometimes, they have pistols or even shotguns. We have had a few close calls. Thank God everything has turned out OK so far.

  • Danny Gold:

    This area, known as La Arrocera, is off the beaten path, which makes it attractive to migrants trying to avoid detention by the increasing number of immigration patrols.

    We walked along the railroad track that runs next to a roadway dotted with checkpoints. Criminal gangs often prey on migrants. The isolation makes them easy targets.

    Conrado Espinoza Villalobos is a prosecutor in the Crimes Against Migrants Unit in Chiapas State. He says, before these patrols started, migrants were robbed, raped, even murdered here.

    What sort of stuff do you see out here? Have you guys come across armed groups on these patrols?

  • Conrado Espinoza Villalobos (through translator):

    This is a hostile area. We have found gangs of armed robbers. Most of the robbing is done with knives or machetes. Why machetes? That's their M.O.

    The criminals pretend they are working in the fields. Sometimes, they even fool us.

  • Danny Gold:

    Migrants heading north cross the Suchiate River that separates Guatemala from Mexico. And they often carry large sums of money for the long trip ahead.

  • Alejandro Vila Chavez (through translator):

    Yet, even if they fall victim to crime, they don't want to draw attention by contacting law enforcement.

  • Alejandro Vila Chavez (through translator):

    The state of Chiapas represents 68 percent of Mexico's border with Central America. This makes this state the biggest immigration gate from Central America to the United States.

  • Danny Gold:

    Alejandro Vila Chavez is the assistant attorney general for the state of Chiapas. His office is tasked with protecting migrants who cross into his state from Central America.

    Can you describe what sort of situations are they fleeing?

  • Alejandro Vila Chavez (through translator):

    Many factors encourage migration from Central America. One is the precarious economic situation, the lack of opportunities, but there is also danger the gangs present, from MS-13 to the 18th Street Gang.

    His agency has worked hard to bring a level of safety to migrants crossing through Chiapas.

    How dangerous is it out here for Central American migrants crossing into Mexico?

  • Alejandro Vila Chavez (through translator):

    Since the creation of this office, we have dismantled 149 criminal gangs that contained about 1,600 people. There used to be muggings, rapes, extortion, even homicides, almost on a daily basis. We have managed to reduce crimes by almost 95 percent.

  • Danny Gold:

    But it's not just the criminal gangs that have found migrants to be easy prey. Law enforcement have also targeted them.

  • Alejandro Vila Chavez (through translator):

    We have detained over 60 members of law enforcement that have, unfortunately, strayed from obeying the law and respecting human rights.

  • Danny Gold:

    All of this leads to a pretty desperate situation for undocumented migrants in Mexico. Many now attempt to get special Mexican visas that will allow them to travel legally to the U.S. border.

  • Juana De Jesus (through translator):

    I'm waiting to get a visa to leave Mexico, but the visa will only allow me to travel to the northern border. I can't get a U.S. visa here. Right now, I don't have money, and I'm surviving with my son on the streets.

  • Danny Gold:

    Migrants like Juana De Jesus are staying at the shelter, waiting to see if they will be granted permission to travel through Mexico legally.

    From Honduras, she left the country to seek treatment for her developmentally disabled son and because her husband was violent.

    Why do you feel you need this humanitarian visa?

  • Juana De Jesus (through translator):

    If I had money, I would have applied for a U.S. visa from Honduras. But since I don't have the money, I can't buy an airline ticket or anything. I'm not allowed.

    Without a humanitarian visa, it would be very hard to travel through Mexico, because the gangs are killing people. And near the borders, they also kidnap people. Migrants suffer so much to get to the U.S.

  • Danny Gold:

    Some at the shelter complain of mistreatment by locals. But while we were there, a local business owner stop by to donate food.

  • Maite Bolanos (through translator):

    When we have some bread left at the bakery, we share it with these people who are fighting for a dream, fighting to provide for their families. So we like to share what we are able to give.

  • Danny Gold:

    Have you seen lot more migrants from Central America coming through in the last few years?

  • Juana De Jesus (through translator):

    Yes. It won't slow down. They sometimes want to stay in Chiapas, but in Chiapas, there's not much to do.

  • Danny Gold:

    Since April, migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala Honduras have been joined increasingly by Nicaraguans fleeing the political instability and violence that has gripped the country.

    Adrian Lopez, a supporter of an opposition party there, was staying at the shelter on his way to the United States, in hopes of securing political asylum.

  • Adrian Lopez (through translator):

    You can't speak out. The police retaliate against you, because they are the government. The police belong to the president. The army belongs to the president. The TV channels belong to the president. Who am I going to complain to? All you can do is flee the country.

  • Danny Gold:

    This is all your stuff here?

    Adrian had been at the shelter for two weeks awaiting his visa to cross Mexico when we met him.

  • Adrian Lopez (through translator):

    We go north, because the reality is there is an no possibility for growth in my country. You can't grow economically or mentally in a country like Nicaragua or El Salvador or Honduras, Guatemala, because these are countries, where, if you're not getting screwed by gangs, you're getting screwed by the government. So we cross into the United States to grow and search for a job, gather money and send it to the poor relatives we have left at home.

  • Danny Gold:

    Has it gotten much worse here in Chiapas for people from Central America heading north than it was years ago?

  • Adrian Lopez (through translator):

    Well, compared to back then, today, it is much more dangerous to cross without papers, much, much more dangerous.

  • Danny Gold:

    Now behind me is a shelter where Central American migrants and asylum seekers are staying. And just to give you an idea of the kind of dangers they face here in Chiapas State, right outside the front door, MS-13 graffiti marking the gang's territory.

    In 2014, Mexico adopted its Southern Border Program after a firm push and millions of dollars from the United States. After the plan went into effect, detention and deportations shot up due to increased police and military presence on Mexico's southern border.

    We're only a few miles north of the Guatemala border. And, already, we have hit a checkpoint a federal police and migration officials trying to catch undocumented Central American immigrants going north.

    Checkpoints like these can now be seen across Mexico's southern region, but the Southern Border Program has proven itself controversial in Mexico's political sphere.

    Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator): Our neighbors to the north would want us to continue doing the dirty work of detaining the Central American migrants that leave their homes looking for a better life, those fleeing violence and misery. No.

  • Danny Gold:

    Migration was a fiery topic in Mexico's recent presidential election. President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador expressed compassion for migrants.

  • Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    We're talking about the lives of migrants who leave their homes looking for new lives. And we must protect their security.

  • Danny Gold:

    But other than this debate, Lopez Obrador has been vague about his actual plans.

    Since 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the United States. In 2016 and 2017, it deported twice as many. But the numbers flowing into the U.S. have held steady. And while Trump's zero tolerance policy may have had a temporary impact on migrants trying to make it north, the most vulnerable, like entire families and children, feel desperate enough to still make the journey.

    And it is the policy in the United States that worries Juana de Jesus, traveling north with her developmentally disabled son.

    Are you worried about what you're hearing right now from the U.S. border about situations like mothers and children being separated at the border?

  • Juana De Jesus (through translator):

    Kids don't deserve to be separated from their parents. It's wrong because a mother suffers for her children, and children suffer for their parents. All I want is the best for my son.

  • Danny Gold:

    And she's willing to take a big risk for a better life for her sick son.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Danny Gold in Chiapas, Mexico.

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