Migrants as pesos

Dan Grech Jan 19, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: Today Mexico’s president signed an agreement with businesses to try and contain the soaring price of tortillas. They’re a staple of Mexican cooking, especially for the country’s poor. White-corn producers south of the border have pushed up prices because of a lack of competition from U.S. farmers, who are growing other corn for ethanol.

Tortillas are the least of the problem for immigrants trying to cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico. For many of them, it’s not the first border they have to cross. We sent Dan Grech from the Americas Desk at WLRN to Mexico’s southern border to see first-hand what a difficult and dangerous place it can be.

DAN GRECH: How much is a migrant worth in southern Mexico? A migrant’s worth 100 pesos, or 9 bucks, to the border guard who slips him into the country. He’s worth 150 pesos to the bus driver who overcharges him for a ride. He’s worth 200 pesos to the cop who shakes him down on the highway heading north.

Migrant Landoll Suazo is in a detention facility waiting to be deported to Honduras. A parrot near the holding area makes a blood-curdling scream. The 21-year-old used to be worth 20 bucks. That was before a group of thieves armed with guns and machetes approached him as he was walking down abandoned railroad tracks.

LANDOLL SUAZO [translator]: I was afraid. I thought they were going to kill me because I didn’t have a lot of money, just 200 pesos. A lot of times, if you don’t carry enough money they kill you.

The thieves stripped Suazo naked. They found his money stashed in the sole of his shoe. A smuggler, known as a pollero, could have guaranteed Suazo safe passage to the U.S. for a few thousand bucks. But Suazo couldn’t afford the migrant’s equivalent to first-class travel.

An immigration officer arrives at the holding area. He loads Suazo into a bright orange truck for the first leg of Suazo’s long journey back home. The immigration officer’s name is Julio Cesar Cancino Galvez. He’s with Grupo Beta, an agency the Mexican government formed in 1990 to protect migrants.He says in Mexico the line between good guys and bad guys is gray.

JULIO CESAR CANCINO GALVEZ [translator]: A migrant here not only confronts police, but also immigration officials, armed groups, assailants and gangs. The migrant headed for the United States is assaulted by everyone, stripped clean and left with nothing.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants pass illegally through Mexico’s southern border each year, all looking for the same thing: a decent wage.

Mexico detained and deported more than a quarter-million people last year. That’s eased pressure on its northern border with the U.S. But most of these deportees eventually head north again.

Pedro Bermudez Cruz of Nicaragua was caught sneaking through Mexico. Now he’s in El Carmen, a Guatemalan border town. He’s hiding in a stairwell, gearing up to make another attempt. His eyes are bloodshot but steady.

PEDRO BERMUDEZ CRUZ [translator]: We’re like dogs. We’re not educated. No one supports us. We have to leave our home country to abandon it. We’re not in a war of bullets. We’re in a war of hunger.

Just across the border, in Tapachula, Mexico, Olga Sanchez Martinez runs a shelter for migrants.In 16 years she’s taken in more than 2,500 migrants with machete wounds or limbs severed by a freight train. She knows exactly how much money these illegal immigrants can be worth to corrupt Mexican officials.

OLGA SANCHEZ MARTINEZ [translator]: Not just 50 pesos. They’re worth more. They’re worth 500, 5,000, 10,000 pesos. A peso sign, that’s how migrants are seen. We tell people in our shelter, “You are a peso sign here. You are a business for the authorities.”

In Mexico, bribes demanded by law enforcement are called mordidas — which means bites. Police and border patrol in Mexico are poorly paid. They use mordidas as a way to bump up their salaries. Once a migrant’s stripped clean, he’s worth nothing — less than nothing. He’s seen as a nuisance, a blight, a threat.

The town of Arriaga is where migrants with no money end up. It’s the departure point for a freight train headed north. There are dozens of people waiting in the pouring rain for the train to pass — though you’d never know it. You can’t see them.

When the train springs to life at daybreak, migrants emerge from the tree canopy, from under cardboard, from between grave stones. They emerge from the shadows to gather along the tracks, hundreds of them, a silent army.

As the train slowly picks up steam, migrants race to grab hold. They hang off ladders, sit on train tops, crowd in the containers. Many are joyful. This is a free ticket north.

But this ride may be short-lived. A few miles ahead, police have set up a checkpoint. And thieves hide in the bushes, waiting.

In Arriaga, Mexico, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.