MEXICO CITY -- Mexican authorities over the weekend reinforced efforts to secure the country's north and south borders, despite concerns that the show of force will devastate an already impoverished area around the Mexico-Guatemala border.
"The soldiers came with their M-16s and told us that they didn't want us to work," said a 31-year-old in the region who goes by the nickname Rooster. He has been making a living with his raft on the Suchiate River between the countries for more than a decade, carrying food and supplies from Mexico, and carrying people from Guatemala on their way to the United States.
Rooster is a camarero -- Spanish for "tuber," after the rafts made of plywood lashed to inner tubes, though the word can also mean "waiter" or "steward." He can earn as much as $39 a day, decent money in Ciudad Hidalgo, a town of about 15,000 that spreads out from the river.
All of the camareros' crossings, technically speaking, are illegal. But customs and immigration officials on the international bridge never paid much mind until earlier this month, with the arrival of a few of the thousands of troops Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is sending to the border.
The soldiers are meant to stem the stream of migrants escaping violence and poverty in Central America, and to appease U.S. President Donald Trump after he threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports to punish the country for failing to halt the masses trying to make their way to the U.S.
But Rooster said the policymakers in Mexico City might not comprehend what a diligently patrolled border with Guatemala would really mean.
"[Ciudad Hidalgo] and Tapachula would be bankrupt," said Rooster, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal. "The majority of the people who buy here are Guatemalans."
Tapachula, Mexico, is the largest city near the southern border, home to more than 300,000 people. Its stores include Walmart, Sam's Club and the grocery chain Chedraui, all popular with Guatemalans who can afford to raft over to stock up. The 5-minute trip usually costs about $2.
A network of suppliers and couriers pedaling tricked-out tricycles on the Mexican side keeps the camareros stocked with products that are either unavailable or prohibitively expensive in Guatemala -- Ace detergent, Nivea skin cream, Nescafe instant coffee, mayonnaise, PediaSure nutrition drinks, toilet paper, McCormick spices and so on. Rafts have even been known to ferry washing machines across.
Tapachula is in the Mexican state of Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico. Chiapas is across the river from the administrative district of San Marcos in southwestern Guatemala, where almost two-thirds of people live in poverty.
While the river trade has existed for generations, it exploded over the past five years as the Mexican peso lost one-third of its value against the Guatemalan quetzal. There are no official statistics on the value of the commerce, but according to locals it's the biggest, and almost only, business around.
"This industry maintains the tricycles, the raft operators, the taxis, buses, everyone lives off of this. What happens if it's gone?" said Bertha Alicia Fuentes, 71, who has been running a supply store in Ciudad Hidalgo for four decades, selling mostly yogurt and milk for river-export to Guatemala. "Forget it. Everyone would be poor."
She shook her head and lifted her hands in exasperation. "The merchandise needs to continue to flow."
Lopez Obrador has acknowledged that there are 68 points on Mexico's 700-mile frontier with Guatemala and Belize that aren't well policed, and he has promised to secure them. Maximiliano Reyes, undersecretary of foreign relations for Latin America and the Caribbean, said on a recent trip to the area that the Suchiate rafts "are one of the primary points of irregular immigration" and that they are "something we'll need to be looking at."
Francisco Garduno, the new head of the national migration agency, went further and said the raft traffic would be stopped.
Rooster said he understands what the Mexican president and troops are up against.
"The soldiers are workers, just like us, and they need to do their duty," he said, leaning against a crate of beer in the shade of a tarp. And the Mexican president "did what he had to do" under pressure from Trump, Rooster added.
In Arriaga, another town in the state of Chiapas, The Associated Press saw about 100 migrants bused to detention Sunday. Milenio TV reported that 146 more were pulled from a private home in the central state of Queretaro, and more than 100 were taken away from a hotel in the Gulf state of Veracruz.
Residents of Arriaga expressed a mixture of concern for the migrants they have grown accustomed to hosting and relief that officials are looking to get a better handle on migrant flows.
"As a resident, sometimes you have distrust because with the necessity that they have, they could try to rob or do something to you," said Rogelio Perez, an accountant. "They're human beings and they need help, but Mexico can barely employ Mexicans."
Migrants have long congregated in Arriaga to hop on a freight train known as "The Beast." Migrants would pile onto train cars, sometimes being maimed or killed when they fell off. Authorities started pulling migrants off the train in mid-2014, under pressure to reduce flows to the U.S.
Still, Arriaga remains a strategic point on the migrant trail. Over the weekend, there were no migrants riding atop the trains that pulled in and out of town.
Since January, Mexico has detained more than 74,000 migrants and deported over 53,000, according to the latest figures available. Those numbers are expected to rise when June figures are released.
Mexico is also stationing soldiers in its national guard along the Rio Grande in the north. In Ciudad Juarez, just south of El Paso, Texas, troops turned back migrants trying to cross the border over the weekend. The guardsmen patrolled along the Rio Grande with assault rifles.
"The function of these brigades is to try to educate and inhibit people who are at risk," said Luis Mario Dena Torres, representative of the Chihuahua state governor in Ciudad Juarez.
Many of the guardsmen are soldiers and police officers who now wear black armbands indicating that they are part of the national guard.
Some Mexicans worry that the increased enforcement is an overreach.
"The national guard, in theory, shouldn't be repressing those who want to cross to the United States," said Isabel Sanchez, coordinator for a Ciudad Juarez civic group concerned with security and justice.
Significant numbers of migrants appear to still be crossing into Mexico, but they are traveling in smaller groups and under the radar.
Elias Camacho, coordinator of the 84-bed Hogar de la Misericordia migrant shelter in Arriaga, said that on average at least 15 migrants show up each day at his shelter. He said private homes in the town also take in migrants.
Honduran migrant Edwin Cruz, 22, said violence, gang threats and poverty in his country will continue to propel Hondurans north.
Cruz said he spotted at least nine checkpoints on his way north from Mexico's border with Guatemala. To avoid detection, he crossed through mountains and swamp rather than more visible highways. He also said he traveled by taxi and train.
"It has become more complicated, but the necessities of the countries are increasing as well," said Cruz, who hoped to make it to Tennessee. "So we prefer to take the risk than to stay there."
Information for this article was contributed by Eric Martin and Michael McDonald of Bloomberg News; and by Oliver de Ros, Amy Guthrie and Salvador Gomez of The Associated Press.
A Section on 06/24/2019
Print Headline: Mexico's south hit as border tightened