East Goes West: Mexico

Thanks to Transparency International and 100 Reporters for the fellowship. You made this investigation possible. This piece was originally published in ENGLISH here and in SPANISH here.

East goes West: A tale of two Mexican borders (Tijuana and Tapachula)


Ali sits in a coffee shop in downtown Tapachula, Mexico’s southernmost city. He is clean cut and eloquent, with short curly hair and big expressive eyes. Originally from Somalia, and the proud holder of a BA in Business from a prestigious college in Ethiopia, he explains how he used a network of smugglers to travel 6,500 km all the way from São Paulo, Brazil, to this town on the Mexico-Guatemala border.

After his father and his brother were killed in a terrorist attack, he feared for his own life and decided to flee his country. Two years later, in Uganda, he claims he was abducted and tortured, before escaping to Kenya and then Zambia. But after years of trying to settle, he gave up: he knew he had to leave Africa.

“I was desperate,” he explains. ”And someone that worked at the Brazilian embassy in Lusaka told me that for several thousand dollars he would expedite my visa faster. I took his offer, and he gave me a genuine visa in days.”

Traveling alongside a number of African and Asian migrants, Ali has traversed the continent in an attempt to reach the United States.

“First, I paid someone to find me a smuggler in Brazil. He charged me $600 to connect me to a network of smugglers that would take me all the way to Mexico,” said Ali, adding that each smuggler belonging to the network would come and pick him up in a specific location, sometimes with food and drink, and take him and other migrants to a town further north.

From there, a new smuggler would come and the pattern would repeat. All of the smugglers he met had his picture – that is how they recognized and trusted him. Every time he was handed over to a new smuggler he would have to pay $50 to $600 for their services, a fee which did not include payments to cross rivers, ride on dusty buses, or the bribes they had to pay to organized crime gangs, the military, and to corrupt police and migration officers that they came across en route.

Migrants are vulnerable to being mistreated during the smuggling process and the conditions that they are made to endure are often severe. When they realize the situation they are in, some migrants try and turn back, but they are often forced to continue with the journey. “In Peru, I was caught by the police. Once in their offices, they asked me for money. Sixty dollars. I was refusing to pay and they told me that it was either my money or my freedom. I ended giving them all of my money,” said Ali.

His is just one story revealing how profit-seeking smugglers are ferrying people across borders and between continents by providing them with fake documentation, by bribing authorities and making them hike through extremely dangerous regions like the Darien Gap, on the Colombia-Panama border. Taking advantage of migrants desperate to leave their countries smugglers are searching out new business opportunities as the old routes to Europe become increasingly complicated. What’s more, they know migrants are willing to take risks in search of a better life when they cannot access legal channels of migration even if it means being smuggled thousands of miles and across several national boundaries.

Tapachula might be a forgotten border , but it has become a new passing place for migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Somalia, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and many more countries that want to reach the US or Canada: a “ciudad de paso” for those that want to go north.

In this bustling border town, migrants are key for certain unregulated businesses. Hotel owners where migrants stay charge them money for other services such as buying plane tickets or for money transfers via Western Union or Moneygram.

Ravi, a 25-year-old migrant from India, has been traveling for almost a year and hopes to get to California, where he has family. He is staying in a cheap and dark hotel in 8th Street, alongside the Bangladeshi, Indian, Haitian, and Cuban restaurants that have popped up to serve the migrants newly arrived in town.

In order to pay for the smugglers that took him all the way to Tapachula, he relied on loans from family in California and back in India, receiving money every three or four weeks. While he speaks, he keeps checking his phone: “This is the most precious tool I have, it allows me to talk to tell my family I am safe,” he explains.

A couple of blocks away, he introduces me to Sadek, a young businessman who opened a small “fonda”, or home food restaurant called Bangladesh. The walls are green and there’s a big patio out the back. Sadek has been living in Tapachula for five years. He understands Spanish perfectly, but he speaks with difficulty having only learnt “from Mexicans in the streets”. He asks some Bangladeshi clients if they want “rotti and yogurt”, which he translates as “tortilla y danone” to the cook.  His restaurant has become a comfort place for Asian migrants: when clients cannot pay, he let’s them eat on credit and has a notebook where he writes what everyone owns him.

Life has not always been easy here, says Sadek. Every now and then a police officer comes asking for 50 pesos ($2.50) to “take care of the restaurant” at night. He laughs, but says he pays them because that is not much compared to the money he earns. Unlike those headed north, Sadek has decide to stay in Tapachula, at least for now. He sees a good business opportunity here, and says that he might even find a Mexican woman to marry.

In 2016, as many as 20,000 Haitians and African migrants are believe to have passed through the northern Mexican border town of Tijuana, according ot the National Migration Institute, scores of them funneled through southern crossings in places like Tapachula and Tabasco.

Many reported wanting to reach the United States but others stopped en route. Some were fearful of a tougher immigration regime in the US, others were stayed by the fear of being deported back to Haiti.

“When it happened, we had no support from the government. No funds, nothing,” says Father Canaveral, a Jesuit priest who runs a centre supporting migrants in Tapachula. “If that happened again, we would not be ready.”

Yadira de los Santos, the director of Migration and International Policy of the city council, says there is still a lot to be done. “We need a comprehensive analysis of how many migrants have crossed in the city, and from those, how many stayed in Tapachula”, she says.

However, as the Mexico-Guatemala border is wide and has many points where illegal “balseros” cross people and all types of goods for less than $5 for a five minute trip, it is hard to keep track of who comes and goes, and when.

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Some 4,000 kilometres north, in the US-Mexico border town of Tijuana sits Carol, a 40-year old Ghanaian that has been living here since December 2016. With short hair and strong features, her voice is serene in contrast to the busy street outside. She says she left her country because of her religion, opting to hire smugglers for a journey that would take her thousands of miles through South and Central American jungles, mountains, and rivers.

Laura Thompson, the deputy director general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), says there are more women migrants today than ever before. In the past, women were seen as followers of their husbands or families while today, they are seeing more and more educated women traveling on their own, but they can be particularly vulnerable en route.

Carol’s journey saw her experience misinformation, robbery and corruption. After flying into Ecuador, she took a bus to a Colombian border town. She stayed in camps and walked for more than a week through the jungle of the Darien Gap, a roadless forest which was until recently partially controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). She was bitten by insects, mosquitoes, and a snake, but knew getting lost in the forest could mean losing her life. She was robbed on a number of occasions and had to hand over her cellphone and the few dollars she had in her pocket.

“I saw people dying on the road. Some were drowning in rivers; some fell from the high mountains. Just getting to Panama was not easy at all. [Even then] the Panamanians treated us like dogs. Sometimes we had to give them money, or our own clothes to be left alone, and I had to pay various times to cross to Costa Rica. I spent around $300 there,” she says, adding that some women migrants sold sex in exchange for food.

Unlike others that are using this border city as a staging post, Carol says she is here to stay and hopes she can eventually make enough money to send for her two daughters. “Tijuanenses have been very welcoming to me”, she says. “There are many foreigners in this town.”

She is not the only one to have got so close to the US only to decide to stay south of the border. Asylum applications in Mexico have risen in recent years, with 8,781 applications in 2016. COMAR, the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees, saw a 150% rise in asylum applications from November 2016 and March 2017, compared to the same period a year before, and predicts they could receive over 25,500 in 2017.

This might have been caused by a growing perception of the United States as being an inhospitable place for migrants, documented and undocumented alike, says Dr Guillermo Alonso Meneses, a professor at the College of the Northern Frontier in Mexico.  “Many migrants have decided to stay in Mexico, and many others see Canada as a more welcoming place than the United States.”

Carol returns to the improvised shelter where she is staying at the Emmanuel Christian Church. The shelter consists of a large patio, where the pastor’s home is located, as well as a big room for migrants. Around 70 people are staying on the floor – men and women of all ages, including children – using sleeping bags or cardboard boxes and blankets. In the center are wooden tables where migrants eat their meals, or sit and talk to each other.

Before last year, there were around 10 shelters in Tijuana that supported deportees from the United States and migrants wanting to cross the US-Mexico border that for the most part, were Latin Americans.

However, in 2016, something changed. The flows of people started to diversify, alongside the Guatemalans and the Salvadorians, were migrants from Africa, Asia and Haiti. A huge surge in arrivals saw between 16,000 and 20,000 African and Haitian migrants arrive in the city of Tijuana that year, most of them Haitians, according to Rodulfo Figueroa, the head of the National Migration Institute in Baja California. The shelters were overflowing. Migrants who couldn’t find a place to stay started sleeping in the streets, and in the face of an unprecedented crisis, local churches rushed to set up more than 30 improvised shelters to at least provide food and a bed to the needy.

Jose Maria García, known as Padre Chema, is the Coordinator of the network Alianza Migrante Tijuana. He says that in May 2016, a number of African and Haitian migrants were staying in tents in his backyard. “We realized that some people were staying in the streets, and we could not let that happen,” he says. At the time of our visit, a year later, a number of Haitian and African migrants are still sleeping in tents.

He is not alone in suggesting that the state response has been inadequate. Father Pat Murphy, the director of the Casa del Migrante shelter says that “if we had to survive with the funds that the government gives us, we would have closed our doors a long time ago”. He says he receives around a quarter of the shelters running cost from the government, the rest is donated by international organizations and private donors.

Activist Adriana Reyna is a member of the Strategic Humanitarian Aid Committee in Tijuana. She has worked with migrants from Eritrea, Sudan, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. She and her colleague Soraya Vazquez believe migrants are victims of a corrupt system since a failure of legislation to address the smuggling of migrants in many parts of the world often means that smugglers and traffickers can continue to operate with little fear of being brought to justice.

Where they are discovered, or captured, Vazquez says, a failure to convince migrants to testify means that prosecutions are often difficult and opportunities to convict are missed. What is more, the smuggling of migrants is not always considered a serious crime for which a heavy penalty can be imposed.

“The new wave of migrants in Tijuana is a blessing to the city, not a problem,” Adriana says. “These people are fleeing poverty and war, and we need to help them. After all, Tijuana is a city that was formed by immigrants too”.

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To see more images and videos related to this investigation, click here.

One thought on “East Goes West: Mexico

  1. Andrea,

    Thank you for sharing this article with me. It was very enlightening. I’m proud of you, your research, interview skills and ability to make people aware of these shocking situations.

    Barbara Capozzi


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