TECUN UMAN, Guatemala - In the $2-a-night hotels of this predatory border town across the river from Mexico, thousands of Central Americans determined to reach the U.S. gather not so much to rest as to regroup.
The government of Mexico was always complaining about the treatment of Mexicans in the U.S. But they don't look here ... there are more human-rights violations here in one day than there are in a year in the United States.
- Rev. Ademar Barilli Some wait to hook up with "coyote" guides who promise to show them the way across Mexico. Others merely jam themselves in, four to a cinder block room, to mend the mental and physical wounds from their last failed trip and wonder what to do next.
Even as the Mexican government chides the U.S. for tightening its southern border against migrants, Mexican authorities appear to be doing some squeezing of their own near their frontier with Guatemala. And Tecun Uman teems with deported migrants whose dreams have collided with the harsh reality of how Mexico treats unwanted visitors.
Mexico expelled to Guatemala about 200 illegal migrants a day last month, up from 150 a day in January 1995. Mexican officials deny employing new measures to stop the flow, but migrants, journalists and other observers report more military and immigration roadblocks in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, a continuation of a two-year trend.
Moreover, the abuses that Central Americans long have suffered in Mexico persist.
In the early 1980s, tens of thousands of Guatemalans seeking refuge from their bloody civil war fled into southern Mexico. Before the Mexican government officially promised to provide sanctuary, some of those refugees were forcibly turned back into the waiting gun sights of the Guatemalan army. Others made it to refugee camps only to suffer crimes and indignities at the hands of Mexican officials and citizens alike.
Now at a time when many of those war-weary Guatemalans are returning home, fellow Central Americans who consider themselves economic refugees are encountering similar trials.
Miguel Angel Tovar, 29, made it from El Salvador to within sight of the Texas border at El Paso before being arrested in Ciudad Juarez this month. He said police took what money he had and then threw him in jail for three days. They fed him once, he said.
When Tovar tried to tell the Mexican police of his rights, such as the right to eat, they swore at him, he said.
"You have no rights," Tovar said they screamed, "You have no right to talk. You are a violator of the law."
Other migrants, the luckier ones, complain of similar abuses. The unlucky, such as Orlando Chochon of Guatemala, said they were assaulted by police.
Chochon, 19, said he was pistol-whipped by an immigration officer recently after bandits robbed him of about $400 and all his clothes. He and six Salvadoran traveling companions were left in Oaxaca with only their underwear.
Mexico's federal judicial police are widely considered the worst rights violators. According to reports, they take what they can from migrants before turning them over to immigration authorities, and punish those who carry nothing of value.
"If you can't pay with money, then you'll have to pay in another way," said Rev. Ademar Barilli, a Brazilian known as the "priest of the immigrants" in Tecun Uman. "And so the police beat them."
"Many of the illegal migrants in Tecun Uman have been deported more than once, and those in transition outnumber the town's 20,000 permanent residents." Rarely do victims even consider filing a complaint. They say, as do human-rights activists who monitor the situation, that the Mexican judicial system is ill-suited to address their concerns. "The abuses are committed by state agents as well as by criminal gangs," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "But we are not aware of any ... serious efforts on the part of the Mexican government to either stop these abuses or investigate them aggressively enough to punish those responsible."
Many of the illegal migrants in Tecun Uman have been deported more than once, and those in transition outnumber the town's 20,000 permanent residents.
Tecun Uman is a sordid place of dirt roads and money changers, 500 government-registered prostitutes and supposedly the highest per-capita thirst for beer in Guatemala.
Exploited for money on the Guatemalan side, the migrants often are brutalized on the other. They tell of shakedowns by Mexican police and holdups by armed groups working with impunity. Women and girls are raped. Laborers flush with money sent from family in the U.S. pay $1,000 to $3,000 each to guides who sell them out to authorities or just abandon them along the way.
Last month, Mexican officials in Campeche state found 129 Central Americans, 50 of them women or children, who had been left by their guide and spent two weeks wandering in the jungle. They suffered from malnutrition, dehydration and respiratory infections.
Rev. Barilli, 30, who spent several years working with migrants in Tijuana, observed that getting into Mexico is a lot easier than getting into the United States - it requires only a quick trip on a homemade raft across the Suchiate River. But once past the border zone, Central Americans find the going more difficult and more dangerous in Mexico.
"The government of Mexico was always complaining about the treatment of Mexicans in the U.S.," Rev. Barilli said. "But they don't look here. There are more human-rights violations here in one day than there are in a year in the United States."
The Mexicans bristle at criticism over what they do, and do not do, at the Guatemala border.
"In no way have we been making this military circle that you mention," said Col. Hector Arvizu, a spokesman for Mexico's Defense Ministry. "It's not true that we want to do on the southern border what the U.S. has done." □