Special Reports

The point where a perilous journey begins

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala | This is the first frontier for many migrants — some of them future human trafficking victims — in joining an estimated 12 million other illegal workers already living in the United States.

After they are warned of the dangers that lie ahead in their journey to America, most of the migrants at a shelter in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, head out the door and walk a block to the well-trodden banks of the Suchiate River.

The crossing into Mexico on a makeshift raft costs ten Guatemalan quetzals (about $1.20). There’s no extra charge for the raft boy’s exquisite timing in avoiding Mexican police who sometimes stand on the opposite bank to exact a bribe.

“We try to tell the migrants that sometimes it is better to eat a tortilla with your family than to die on the way up,” says the Rev. Ademar Barilli, the straight-talking, gun-toting Brazilian priest who runs the shelter, Casa del Migrante.

“But most of them stay here just one night and keep going because if they go back and don’t pay back their loans, the coyotes will kill them.”

The shelter offers a free night’s sleep to about 180 migrants a week. It also offers sanctuary from the kidnappers, thieves and narco traffickers who roam with impunity through this squalid, violent border town.

After breakfast, the migrants clean up the courtyard, listen to the warnings about the increasing number of kidnappings and rapes in Mexico, and are given information on routes, clothing, medicine, food and their rights if arrested.

A bricklayer and concrete mason, Jose Gomez hops on the raft on the next leg of his journey to Los Angeles. “If I am willing to work for less than a U.S. worker, then I will get a job,” says Gomez, who is fleeing the coup in Honduras.

Some migrants acknowledge that even in a recession, the life of a human trafficking victim in America is better than life back home.

“For the poor there is no economic crisis,” Barilli says. “Whatever you make is a gain.”