Special Reports

Poverty in Central America pushes residents to risk the trip north

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala | The Rev. Ademar Barilli, the gun-toting, straight-talking Brazilian priest who runs a way station for migrants here, has a message for America.

Nothing, he says, will stop the flow of poor workers to higher-paying jobs in America. Not a wall, not the Border Patrol, not electronic sensors, not even the recession.

“Control of the border is a political facade,” Barilli says, a facade that criminalizes migration and feeds a vast criminal network of smugglers and human traffickers.

Pushed by poverty and pulled by employers who profit from easily abused illegal workers, all migrants are trafficking victims, Barilli maintains.

While Barilli’s definition of human trafficking is vastly broader than the one accepted by U.S. officials, his finer point is more subtle. Whenever illegal immigrants take out huge loans to pay smugglers and traffickers for the increasingly difficult illegal passage to the U.S., they are ripe for abuse from the moment they leave home.

And that’s not likely to change, says Barilli, because “legalizing migration does not serve capitalism.”

Casa del Migrante, the shelter Barilli runs on the northern edge of Tecun Uman with help from U.S. grants, 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 and attend briefings on the dangers of crossing Mexico. They are warned about the increasing number of kidnappings and rapes and are given information on routes, clothing, medicine, food and their rights if arrested.

“We try to tell them that sometimes it is better to eat a tortilla with your family than to die on the way up,” Barilli said. “But most of them stay here just one night and keep going because if they go back and don’t pay back their loans to the coyotes, they will be killed.”

After the briefings, most of the migrants head out the back door and take their first step in joining an estimated 12 million other illegal workers already living in the United States. They walk a block to the well-trodden mud banks of the Suchiate River that divides Guatemala from Mexico.

They cross on a makeshift raft that costs 10 Guatemalan quetzals (about $1.20). The passengers hail from throughout central America.

“The guy with the raft knows when the Mexican police are waiting on the other side to demand a bribe,” says Jose Gomez, who is fleeing the coup in Honduras.

“Many people are leaving because it is too tense there,” Gomez, 33, says in perfect English.

A bricklayer and concrete mason, Gomez is heading for Los Angeles to avoid being drafted into the Honduran Army. “If I am willing to work for less than a U.S. worker, then I will get a job.”

Some migrants acknowledge that even the life of a human trafficking victim in the United States is better than life back home.

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

Light years separate Barilli’s political philosophy from that of Aaron McKnight, a U.S. citizen and evangelical missionary working in Guatemala. But their immigration philosophies are not that far apart.

“Politically, I line up with the anti-immigration movement in the U.S.,” McKnight said. “But after living here, my view has changed. I don’t blame them for trying.

“After you see the poverty, see the kids that are so thin, the kids that have sores all over because they don’t eat … if I were in their parents’ shoes, I would do the same thing.”

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