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Ivan Castaneira for The Globe and Mail

No one is talking about building a wall, but Mexico's southern border has become as contested as its neighbour's to the north. Stephanie Nolen reports on the human toll of a joint U.S.-Mexico crackdown on migrants fleeing terrible violence in Central America

They made it to the fourth point before they were robbed. Heading out of the tiny Mexican frontier town of Arriaga before dawn, the men had a map in their heads. Other migrants had described it to them; one sketched it roughly in the dirt. There were six places, on that day's 14 hours of walking, six places where the banditos typically waited. Six places they must pass through and survive, as if this were some sort of real-life video game.

The men, three Salvadorans and two Hondurans, walked for 12 hours and got through three of the points with no visible sign of trouble, just a constant sense of imminent disaster.

Then, at dusk, as they walked down a path among the huge trees of a mango plantation, the robbers appeared: three men in masks – one with a machete, two with pistols. "Stop," they said, simply. "This is a robbery."

They ordered the walkers to strip, and snatched up their clothes. In a mercilessly efficient process that took less than 15 minutes, they used a flashlight and checked all the men's pockets, and the seams of their clothes, the soles of their shoes, for any cash that might be stitched up and hidden. They plucked 500 pesos, about $30, and five phones from the group – and then handed back the clothes and sent the men on their way, melting back into the trees to wait for the next group of travellers.

Two hours later, the walkers stumbled into the shelter here – without the phones that connected them to their families, without a single peso left to pay for their onward journey, but relieved.

"The fear is, the first ones rob you, so then you have nothing left to give the next ones – and so they just kill you," explained Armando Salinas.

Mr. Salinas, 38, and his travelling companions – his nephew César Rojas, 24, and three other men they had met on the road up from Central America – didn't know how they would pay for their journey onward. But they were too tired to think much about it. They had rinsed off the dust, washed out their T-shirts, pried throbbing feet out of shoes, and they were sitting and staring vacantly at an ancient television showing a Chuck Norris movie.

Chahuites is a town of fewer than 10,000 people in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. It didn't figure prominently on any map until the United States and Mexico struck an agreement about border security in 2014. That July, at U.S. urging, the Mexican government adopted Programa Frontera Sur, the southern border plan.

Watch Taking an illegal ride on a raft to cross the Mexican-Guatemalan border


The U.S.-Mexico border has received a great deal of attention of late, with presumptive presidential candidate Donald Trump saying he would build a wall along the frontier to keep out Mexican "rapists … bringing drugs and crime." But the focus of border traffic these days is not Mexicans, and in fact, the critical border is nowhere near Texas: It's down here, thousands of kilometres to the south. This new frontera has made the journey to the U.S. dramatically more complex and dangerous for migrants, but it has done little to lower the numbers of those trying to cross it.

No one at Mexico's National Migration Institute, which is responsible for Programa Frontera Sur, nor the Ministry of the Interior, would answer questions from The Globe and Mail. But in an internal report from the ministry, drawn up in late 2015 and obtained by The Globe, the government says the program's goal is "to overcome common challenges related to migration and respect for human rights" and to establish "a more modern, efficient, prosperous and secure border." Some 400,000 migrants enter Mexico from the south each year, and as many as 20,000 of them were disappearing or dying on the trip through Mexico – victims of organized crime, human traffickers and harsh conditions, according to a rights organization called the Meso-American Migration Movement. With more knowledge of who came in and where they went, Mexico said, it could better keep those people safe.

The number of people who enter Mexico from the south matters to the U.S., of course, because this country is rarely the destination for the migrants, but only a transit route on their way to el norte. The news may surprise Mr. Trump, but a few years ago the net flow of Mexicans into the U.S. reversed – more now leave than arrive. Instead, the U.S. government's focus has shifted to Central Americans, who in 2014 precipitated a crisis when tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, and mothers with toddlers and babies, surged over the border and rapidly overflowed U.S. detention centres. Last year, 49,557 Central Americans made asylum claims; an unknown number more arrived unseen and melted into the vast network of the undocumented.

The administration of President Barack Obama, which has taken a more aggressive line on land-based immigration than has any previous U.S. government, wanted that stopped. It did part of the work by aggressively stepping up its deportations; fewer than a third of asylum claimants from Central America are granted permission to stay, and many more are pressured out of detention centres before they ever get the chance to register a claim.

In fact, many of the people now making the trip north have been previously deported from the United States and are trying to get back to family they have left behind.

But once they cross the border, the U.S. must spend the money and the effort to deal with them, and it would much prefer that they never get that far. Washington wanted Mexico to take over the job of stopping migrants long before they got to the frontier with Texas or Arizona. It effectively outsourced border control, and shifted the frontier 3,000 kilometres south, with layers of new controls that stretched up through Chiapas (at the border with Guatemala) to the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, to the skinniest portion of Mexico, where traffic was easiest to control.

Often on the highway between Arriaga, Chiapas and Chahuites, the bus meant to shuttle migrants to the village where they can find shelter doesn’t stop, leaving them to walk.

Often on the highway between Arriaga, Chiapas and Chahuites, the bus meant to shuttle migrants to the village where they can find shelter doesn’t stop, leaving them to walk.

Ivan Castaneira/for The Globe and Mail

For criminals, new opportunities

The initial thinking may have been that new controls would persuade people not to try to make the trip; but the data suggest that, as elsewhere around the globe, new enforcement changed routes, but not numbers. The push factors – the outrageous levels of violence visited each day on civilians in the gang crises of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, plus the ongoing challenges of limited economic opportunity and the desire for family reunification – have only increased. "Programa Frontera Sur didn't deter anyone – there's been no decline in the number of people migrating," said Diego Lorente, a lawyer who directs the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, in Tapachula, a small city in Chiapas on the Guatemalan border.

It's impossible to know whether anyone has been deterred, of course – no one can count how many people chose to stay in El Salvador because the route is now more complicated – but in interviews with staff at a half-dozen migrant-service organizations across southern Mexico, none said they believe fewer people are now attempting the journey. The difference is that instead of the passage into Texas or Arizona being the major hurdle of the journey, the migrants must first get through Chiapas. In 2015, Mexican authorities arrested more than 170,000 Central Americans who were trying to traverse the country illegally – more than double the number stopped two years before.

That spike in detentions was one outcome of Frontera Sur – the relatively benign one. The second was much darker, and entirely predictable, Mr. Lorente and other advocates for migrants say, leaving them with no patience for the idea that the plan was intended to make migrants safer.

"It's caused the routes to disperse a lot: Before, there were two very clear routes, either here or Tabasco, and now there are many routes, and migrants are much more likely to suffer violence at the hands of authorities and of organized crime," Mr. Lorente said.

He doesn't dispute that the journey was dangerous before – that migrants were kidnapped, extorted, raped and assaulted. But now there are vastly more opportunities for criminals to prey on migrants, while the travellers are afraid to come far enough into the open to access the slender network of services that exist to support them.

"It's a very complicated situation: More people are leaving than ever, from threatening situations, while the government is adding more police, more military, all the time more rigorous enforcement …" He held his hands apart in illustration, balled into fists, and slowly moved them together.

After walking for more than 20 hours, migrants stop to rest at a shelter in Chahuites, Oaxaca, established after the Frontera Sur plan was implemented by the Mexican government.

After walking for more than 20 hours, migrants stop to rest at a shelter in Chahuites, Oaxaca, established after the Frontera Sur plan was implemented by the Mexican government.

Ivan Castaneira for The Globe and Mail

Corrupt officials, sexual abuse

Mr. Salinas, slumped on the bench in the Chahuites shelter, with feet that looked like raw hamburger, is the result of the meeting of those forces. He and his compatriots were given the information about where they were likely to be attacked when they left Arriaga for Chahuites, as they would be at so many other points on the journey.

This isn't secret information; migrants acquire it within minutes, each time they arrive at a hostel or a bus station or a bridge where they meet others on the journey. And it's information that law enforcement could easily acquire – indeed likely already knows, according to Rodolfo Córdova, secretary of the International Network on Migration and Development, a non-profit research organization, describing a deep complicity between criminals and state officials.

Indeed when Mr. Salinas was finally robbed, he was not more than 500 metres from a pop-up Programa Frontera Sur police post on the highway. Police may work in concert with criminals, or may extort migrants to allow them to keep moving, Mr. Córdova explained. The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico reported a 40-per-cent increase in migrant complaints against the authorities in the year after Frontera Sur was implemented; but most migrants, Mr. Lorente noted, don't dare approach authorities, and never report.

Emma Sagastume is a 24-year-old Honduran who fled the town of La Ceiba with her seven-year-old son after she was forcibly recruited into a gang late last year. She said she was extorted at the border into Guatemala, and then again by migration officials who boarded the bus in Guatemala, and then by others at a checkpoint in Mexico. She began the journey with savings of nearly $200. "I didn't have a peso left when I got here," she said. Other migrants paid the last bribe she was asked for, and then passersby told her how to find a shelter for families. The only thing of value she had left was her son's report cards – all A's, she pauses to point out.

Ms. Sagastume said she wanted to continue north, but was terrified of what lay ahead of her: While both male and female migrants are targeted for sexual exploitation by authorities, women report near-universal levels of harassment and assault. Amnesty International says that 60 per cent of women who make it all the way to the U.S. border experience sexual assault. There is a large poster on the wall in the shelter in Chahuites, and others along the trail, telling women they can choose to use injectable contraceptives to prevent pregnancy from rape on the journey, and can seek out antiretrovirals to block HIV infection.

The women on the trail have heard the stories of the spots between Arriaga and Chahuites where old mattresses are piled beside the train tracks – where the "rape tax" is collected. Ms. Sagastume was stuck in Tapachula convinced she could not go home, but afraid to go forward; she began an asylum claim to stay in Mexico but did not think she could find enough work to raise her son there.

Ramon Verdurgo, who runs the shelter where Ms. Sagastume and her son were staying through a charity called Human Development Initiative, said many migrants turn temporarily to sex work because they need money to pay off police, or because a night in a hotel room gets them off the street and away from police. When he and other advocates report corrupt officials, they become targets for threats themselves – he has already chosen to send his family away, he said, after someone tried to mow his daughter down with a car. "There is a lot of money and political interest behind all of this," he said.

Ivan Castaneira for The Globe and Mail

The border reconceived

Before Frontera Sur the route up Mexico was fairly straightforward, through Chiapas or Tabasco. Migrants hitched rides on one of the freight trains collectively called The Beast, part of a network that runs south to north. Or, if they had enough money to pay a coyote, a human smuggler, they travelled by bus and shared taxi, paying off police who might stop them along the way. The train was always dangerous – migrants could be robbed or abducted or crushed under the train wheels as they ran to jump on, or fell from the crowded roof.

But now travel on the trains is banned, and they are patrolled and raided. That route has been replaced with walking, perhaps interspersed with a few risky journeys on a bus or Kombi van, maybe a short haul on the train. Some migrants walk in the hills, and some on the coast, sometimes paying for brief trips in fishing boats. They are prey the whole way for kidnapping (by drug gangs that want free labour, for example, or for ransom from their families); for robbers; for rape; and for extortion – by organized crime, which is thriving on this population that is newly accessible and more vulnerable – and by corrupt officials.

Frontera Sur isn't an actual physical border control – a wall of the kind in Donald Trump's dreams. Today you can cross the river at Ciudad Hidalgo, for example, entering Mexico from Guatemala by taking a raft, made of old pallets balanced on tractor-tire inner tubes, across the Suchiate River for $1.50, in full view of the official border post. Here migration control is now done through layers of checkpoints, on the main roads and lesser ones, some fixed, some mobile, some set up right outside the migrant shelters. They are staffed by a mix of civilian officers from the National Migration Institute, military police, army and navy personnel. It is the border reconceived "as a system rather than as a line in the sand," in the words of Christopher Wilson, vice-president of the Mexico Institute, a think tank in Washington, who studies Programa Frontera Sur.

As a system, it is not popular with those who speak for migrants. "The military police only know how to screw them over, not help them: Now Mexican enforcement is just like the U.S., with the same strategy," said Mr. Lorente – a bitter irony, he added, given that Mexico has for so many years decried the treatment of its own citizens by U.S. officials. "They have no intention of resolving the problem but they are going to hide it, to disperse the problem and make it harder to identify."

Still, people come. Mr. Salinas drove a truck for a bakery in San Salvador; his employers gave him the money to pay renta, extortion cash, to gang members as he passed from one territory to the next each day. But drivers kept turning up dead. "In El Salvador you can lose your life at any time – it doesn't matter if you're old or young, life is worth nothing," he said.

The title of the world's murder capital shifts each year of late between El Salvador and Honduras; more people were killed in a typical weekend in El Salvador in 2015 than in Toronto, which has the same population, in the entire year.

Sitting near Mr. Salinas in the shelter was Rosita Draco, who said she fled Nahuizalco in El Salvador after her partner was murdered, her dismembered body dumped on their doorstep. The partner was transgender, as Ms. Draco is, and that, she said, may have been why they were targeted – but maybe it had nothing to do with it, because that kind of thing happened all the time in their neighbourhood, she added with a shrug. Ms. Draco said she had experienced no violence on the road, until she was robbed on the walk from Arriaga, and she wasn't too worried. "But then, I've never travelled before."

Diego Lorrentes said there has been a significant change in the cases his organization sees these days. "Until a few years ago, people came because they were afraid of something happening, and now it's because something has happened," he said. "There are much higher levels of trauma and desperation." His centre tries to help individual migrants fight deportation orders; if they get through the process, he said, they almost always win in the courts, but it takes 10 or 11 months, during which the migrant is stuck in a bleak, overcrowded centre, pushed by the authorities every day to sign the papers and get out.

"In migration centres there is a lot of intimidation, abuse, harassment – but still most people would rather fight to the end than go back," he said. "You can see they don't want to be home for even the three hours it takes to pay the coyote and go again."

Ivan Castaneira for The Globe and Mail

Children in the crosshairs

The United States was particularly keen to see Mexico tighten up the border after the surge in unaccompanied children, who created new challenges for its migration system. In 2014, some 69,000 children, nearly twice as many as in the previous year, were stopped at the U.S. border. The children are being sent by desperate parents trying to put them beyond the clutches of gangs – parents who believe there is less risk to their child travelling the length of three countries alone, or with a coyote, than there is staying at home.

Once unaccompanied children are in the United States, international and U.S. law stipulates that they must be housed separately, and, in theory although rarely in practice, provided with access to education. They cannot be deported by simply piling them on a bus and turning them out to fend for themselves. If they don't make it past Oaxaca, it solves a major U.S. problem.

Those discovered before making it to the border are taken off buses and out of taxis and safe houses by Mexican police and held – sometimes for months – in detention centres. The number of children deported from Mexico last year rose by 170 per cent over the year before; the number deported from the U.S. fell by more than 50 per cent.

"Most of the young people I see these days are genuinely terrified of going back," said Mr. Lorente. "It used to be they just wanted to sign the papers and be deported – now they fight the process to the end."

But they are fighting in Mexico, not in Texas or California, and that means the plan is a success from the U.S. perspective, said Mr. Wilson, the Washington-based researcher – even if the Mexican perspective is less clear. "One argument would be that you are decreasing the absolute numbers who make the trip, and if you stop migration you stop attacks on migrants," he said. "Can you make an argument that the policy they chose is in favour of migrants? It's a tough argument. But I don't see a lot of good alternatives, so I have some sympathy."

Mr. Córdova, who is based in Mexico City, said it is no surprise the policy is viewed positively in Washington, since the State Department helped draft it.

" Frontera Sur was negotiated directly with Washington; there was a lot of pressure on Mexico after the summer of 2014," he said. "You have to understand the plan in the larger framework of bilateral relations with the U.S. – this was an easy yes, and it was one of the few."

Migrants are forced to walk from city to city on the railways since the start of Frontera Sur, because police won't let them climb on the train.

Migrants are forced to walk from city to city on the railways since the start of Frontera Sur, because police won't let them climb on the train.

Ivan Castaneira for The Globe and Mail

Good news for smugglers

The plan has no security benefit for Mexico, Mr. Córdova said, and in fact stands in clear contravention of a number of obligations Mexico has as a signatory to the international convention on the rights of migrants. But it has other appeals for government: "Mexico as a state has no benefit, but the agencies have benefit," he said. Washington provided $86-million (U.S.) to train the security forces and purchase new communication, protection and inspection equipment.

"And the private sector makes money off building and supplying the migrant centres – migration isn't just about illicit ways of making money." Smugglers are making money off Frontera Sur, too. The cost of reaching the U.S. with a coyote has soared; now, high-end smugglers use private cars for the trip and make big payments to convince Mexican migration officials to look the other way. For those who can't afford the $5,000 for such a trip, there are only the fields, and the maps in the sand of the points of near-certain attack.

Mr. Salinas hoped to make enough money doing construction work around Chahuites – where some locals are kind to migrants, even if many others are resentful – so that he could afford to move on. Not too much money, because of course he would be robbed again. He thought he might risk hopping the train for a little while; he watched when it blew through Chahuites and a handful of other migrants grabbed their backpacks and ran to try to jump on.

He wanted to get to Laredo, where, he hoped, he could do some more work and save up the $3,000 he had heard it would take to pay a smuggler to get him across to el norte. There, he hoped he could find work, save cash, get his family out of El Salvador. "I'll just have to be ready," he said. "You just have to be ready to jump, and to run."

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's Latin America correspondent.