Journey to the end of Title 42: The dangerous trip across Mexico’s southern border

EL PAÍS accompanies three Venezuelan migrants as they cross mountains, banana plantations and private properties to get to Tapachula, the epicenter of migration in Mexico’s far south

Title 42 US border
A group of migrants walk along the Tapachula-Suchiate highway, on May 9, 2023 in the State of Chiapas.Damián Sánchez Jesús (Cuartoscuro)

Genesis, Justyn and Elvis, three Venezuelan migrants, cross the Suchiate River on the border between Guatemala and Mexico on a raft for 50 quetzales — a little over $6 — on Wednesday afternoon. When they land on the Mexican side of the river in broad daylight, they run with their backpacks towards a cement ramp and vanish down the warren of narrow alleys that lead to the center of Ciudad Hidalgo. Before they disappear though, Justyn, 22, takes a selfie in front of a sign that reads, “Welcome to Mexico. El Palenque Pass.” A few meters away, six National Guard officers are resting from the heat with the help of a fan.

“It is very busy,” says a street vendor. “Thousands of people are entering every day. Anyone can come through here.” In recent weeks, prior to the imminent end of Title 42 — the U.S. immigration policy implemented in March 2020 that denies entry to undocumented immigrants to the U.S. on health grounds — the flow at the border has increased exponentially, according to the local population.

As the U.S. deploys 24,000 border officers to contain the influx of migrants moving north, Mexico’s southern border remains porous. The Suchiate River, which connects the Guatemalan community of Tecún Umán with Ciudad Hidalgo on the Mexican side, is one of the most popular crossing points for migrants. This border is guarded by a small group of officers from the National Guard. In practice, however, there is nothing to prevent people and goods moving freely from one side to the other at any time of the day or night.

Title 42 border
Migrants cross the Suchiate River aboard rafts on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.BRYAN AVELAR

Although crossing this border is still relatively easy, the road is extremely dangerous for migrants seeking to reach Tapachula, the epicenter of migration in Mexico’s far south, and the destination of the three Venezuelans. It is a sort of trap-city where 40,000 to 50,000 migrants are temporarily stuck due to the harsh policies imposed by the Mexican government. The Remain in Mexico program, which links to U.S. containment policies, prevents migrants from leaving this city and continuing their journey, subjecting them to a long bureaucratic process to obtain legal permits that can take months.

However, in recent weeks, in the run-up to the end of Title 42, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) has been issuing temporary “express” permits for 45 days that allow migrants to continue north. The demand is so high that thousands of migrants are coming every day to the INM’s temporary facilities in the city’s Ecological Park, pushing the system to breaking point. But before they even get there, before Tapachula, migrants must go through three immigration checkpoints involving a route through mountains, banana plantations and private properties, often depending on ad hoc lifts through unfamiliar places. Such is the journey of Genesis, Justyn and Elvis, who allowed EL PAÍS to accompany them as they made their way to Tapachula.

To get around the first immigration checkpoint located at the exit of Ciudad Hidalgo, a few meters from the checkpoint between Mexico and Guatemala, the three Venezuelans ask a lady who has been watching them out of the corner of her eye for directions. She simply points to the checkpoint and continues on her way. A minute later, a 14-year-old boy on a bicycle approaches them “I’ll help you cross for 100 pesos,” he says. The Venezuelans look at each other and reject the boy’s offer and start walking instead towards open countryside that opens up on the side of the road.

Further inland, the three Venezuelans come across a rancher driving a tractor. They are clearly scared. “He might be armed,” says one. As they are trespassing on his property, they fear the rancher might shoot them. One of them dares to whistle at him and ask for permission to pass. The rancher nods his head. One of the rancher’s workers steps out to give them directions. “Keep going straight until you come to an open field. Then you go left until you come to a gas station. By then, you are already past the immigration point.”

Title 42 US border
The three Venezuelans, Genesis, Justyn and Elvis, cross the freshly plowed field.BRYAN AVELAR

Genesis, Justyn and Elvis recall their ordeal crossing the Darién Gap just a week ago, on the border between Colombia and Panama. “Brother, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” says Elvis. “This is ugly, but the Darién is hell. I saw dead people there who didn’t make it.” Justyn, Genesis’ nephew, agrees. “I’d rather die than go through there again,” he says. Of all the places in the five countries they have had to cross in the last 20 days, that jungle was the scariest. “In Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, we were only robbed,” says Genesis.

The migrants continue their journey through a banana plantation. They walk through an open field of freshly plowed loose soil, their feet sinking up to their ankles. It’s about 4 p.m. and it’s still light, but they know it’s going to start getting dark soon. “This way!” says Genesis, looking at the GPS on her phone. The three of them start looking for the main road.

After 20 minutes, still in the middle of the banana plantation, they come across two young men repairing a pipe in the irrigation system. The Venezuelans observe the men warily and wave. “We want to get out of here,” Elvis tells them. “Keep going straight here and you’ll reach a wall and the road,” one of the workers tells them. After almost an hour of walking through the bush and the banana plantation, Genesis finally sees the brick wall and hears the sound of traffic. “There’s the gas station!” she says cheerfully. Now there are only two more checkpoints to go.

On the side of the road, the Venezuelans wait for a combi, as they call minibuses in this region. When one comes along and they get in, the driver tells them it will be 25 Mexican pesos each — a little over a dollar — when the normal fare for passengers is less than a third of that. Genesis asks the driver to drop them off just before the next immigration checkpoint. The driver nods.

About 7 miles (11 kilometers) on, they are back on the road. It is almost 5 p.m. and the sun is beginning to set. They start walking towards a field on the side of the road to avoid the next checkpoint when a skinny, dark-haired young man in threadbare clothes approaches them. “I wouldn’t go a step further if I were you,” he says. “This is private property and if you go in, you’re not coming out.”

Title 42 US border
Genesis, Justyn, Elvis and two others wait for a combi.BRYAN AVELAR

But for every problem, there is a solution. “I can take you by motorbike to the other side,” says the ill-dressed man. “I charge 30 pesos per head, but don’t go that way. I’m only warning you because I’m a good person.” Thanking him for his kindness, Elvis turns down the offer. “We have been ripped off all the way,” he tells the man. “We have no more money to give you, you better go.” But the man insists. “If I wanted your money, I would let you go across there and mug you. But I want to help.”

Genesis frowns. She negotiates with the man and they settle on 25 pesos a head — a dollar. We cross the street and get on two motorbikes. On one are Genesis, Elvis and a driver. On the other, Justyn, the driver and me, the EL PAÍS journalist. “Pay me when we get there so you can see there’s trust,” the man says. But there is little trust in the air.

We turn to the left to avoid the immigration post, which is less than 500 meters away. Suddenly, the motorbike Justyn is riding on swerves and leaves the road. Justyn starts yelling at the driver and asking him where we are going. The driver simply replies that the other driver is heading for the authorities. Nervous, we ask him to please rejoin the other bike. We have no idea where he is taking us. The guy slows down. He thinks about it for a while. He stops. He thinks some more. “Come on, then,” he says.

Returning to the road, Justyn sees the immigration checkpoint ahead. “Where is your backpack?” the driver asks without turning. “Here, stuck to your back,” Justyn replies. “Hide it,” the man says. And Justyn presses the bag tightly to his chest.

The motorbike is about 15 meters from the immigration checkpoint and the driver accelerates. But then the vehicle starts stalling. We think it’s a trap. “Shit, we’re out of gas,” says the driver. More fear. More distrust. We lose sight of the other motorbike. Suddenly a red car appears. The driver is wearing dark glasses and is playing loud norteño regional Mexican music. “What a coincidence,” he says. More fear. More distrust. “Will you take them for 25 pesos each?” the motorbike driver asks the man in the car. We refuse. “You take us, brother. We made the deal with you,” Justyn insists. But the guy in the car stays put, like a vulture stalking its prey. Finally, the motorbike driver tells him to leave and restarts his engine.

Title 42 US border
Genesis, Justyn and Elvis on the side of the road at nightfall.BRYAN AVELAR

A couple of miles ahead, Genesis and Elvis are dropped at the mouth of an alleyway. It begins to get dark and it is hard to make out their faces. At the end of the trip, they each paid the 25 pesos they had originally agreed on.

As night begins to fall, the migrants wait for another bus. It is almost 7 p.m. and they begin to doubt whether they are going to make it or not. Just as they start to give up hope, a van comes that will take them to El Manguito, where the third immigration checkpoint lies, just a few meters from the entrance to Tapachula.

In the combi, Justyn’s nerves get the better of him. “What about the third checkpoint? Aren’t we going into the bush again to get around it?” he asks. No one answers. A Mexican man turns around and kindly begins to explain to Genesis where they should get off. “You have to walk up the street the wrong way and grab an exit. You have to go quickly because there is migration ahead.”

After hearing the directions, Justyn leans back. A song in English is playing in the van. Easy on Me by Adele. Justyn and Genesis hum it together, although neither of them knows what the lyrics mean. Finally, they get off at the bus stop, as instructed. They walk down the road facing the traffic. But suddenly, a white van pulls up beside them. Inside are immigration officers.

Genesis becomes terribly nervous and walks faster. Justyn and Elvis also speed up and ignore the officers who are shouting: “Wait! Wait! Have you filled out your immigration forms?” The three run and dart across the street, cross an overpass and come out on the other side. “Are they coming?” asks Genesis without looking back. None of them want to turn around. Eventually, they do and realize no one is following them. They meander along the roads surrounding the immigration post, walking until they reach a park where they stop to rest, their hearts racing.

“That was close,” Genesis says, putting her hand to her chest. But 10 seconds later, the white immigration van pulls up next to them again. They are trapped. Four immigration officers get out and surround them. Justyn looks as if he’s about to make a run for it, but he can’t leave his aunt. There is no point. They think of everything they have been through, of the Darién, of the money they have spent, of the 20 days of non-stop travel. Is this how it will end?

Video: Bryan Avelar

The migration officers approach them and tell them not to be afraid. “We can take you to a shelter where they will give you your immigration form so you can go through,” a female officer tells them. Genesis looks ready to cry. “We don’t want to go with you, please,” she says in a pleading tone. “Thank you, but we don’t want your help. We are going to stay in a hotel.” The officers observe the filming of the scene. “It’s just an option,” the female officer says. “You can take it or leave it.” The Venezuelans thank her and insist that they do not want to take it, and the officers walk away.

“My God, I thought that was it,” says Genesis. “I thought they were going to take us away.” Justyn and Elvis say the same thing, over and over. They hold their chests, trying to calm down. It was a close call. As close as it has got so far.

Around 8:30 p.m., the three Venezuelans manage to get through the last of the three immigration checkpoints that have separated them from Tapachula. They have made it. A van stops in front of them. This time, it’s a bus that will take them to Tapachula, where they will process a temporary permit to go up to the border with the U.S. in the next few days. Tonight, they can relax. There is no more uncertainty. At least, not for now.

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