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Forward or back

“Hey, get up!”

There was just enough light to see. Three men. Black bandannas on their faces.

“Walk this way.”

By force, the two migrants were hustled to the gate of the cemetery. Into a black SUV. It sped toward the edge of town.

The men in black bandannas began their lecture.

“Look, the thing is that you both need to know how things run around here.”

“Here, you have to pay a fee to be able to cross.”

The two migrants had no money, no possessions. They had already decided they were never going south, back to Honduras.

Now, they were not sure they would live to go north.

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Two Honduran nationals, biding their time to cross, say nothing will stop their dreams of reaching the U.S. A USA TODAY NETWORK video production.

NOGALES, Sonora — The two men did not know each other in Tegucigalpa, but they left home under the same cloud.

Norlan Yadier Garcia Castro had gone to the U.S. from Honduras to look for work. After two years, he hit a pedestrian in a traffic accident. He was arrested and deported.

Nelson Gabriel Valladares Funes was forced to join a gang before he was a teenager.

For both, the future was bleak. Honduras has one of the lowest family incomes of any country in Latin America. It has the world’s highest homicide rate.

So they left. Not together, not at the same time, but for the same destination.

They walked back roads, took buses when they could, and rode the freight train known as la bestia — the beast.

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It’s the fastest route north, but also the most dangerous. Migrants go without food as they ride the train. They face mutilation if they fall off and extortion from criminal gangs that charge to be on board. 

As they went, they joined a river of migrants making the journey.

Since early this decade, record numbers of Central Americans have headed to the U.S., fleeing violence and poverty at home. Swelled by women and children, their numbers peaked in 2014.

In spite of the United States' tough talk about enforcement and a border wall, the number of people fleeing the so-called Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has remained steady since then. But fewer reach the U.S. border. 

As Central Americans rushed across the Rio Grande in 2014, they triggered a new round of backlash in the United States.

Mexico, under heavy pressure from the U.S. government, responded to the surge in Central American migration with a secretive plan, Programa Frontera Sur, or the Southern Border Program. Mexico’s government has released few details about the program other than it empowers authorities to crack down on migrants.

In addition to a greater number of apprehensions in that country, Programa Frontera Sur has led to a dramatic increase in abuse at the hands of Mexican officials, advocates say.

“There has been a large investment in resources for Mexican immigration and Mexican military and police,” says Joanna Williams, director of advocacy and education with migrant-rights group Kino Border Initiative in the twin cities of Nogales. “But these are forces that are unaccountable.”

Williams says the change has made migration through Mexico to the U.S. border more dangerous.

The first few months of 2017 produced some of the lowest numbers of migrant apprehensions at the southwestern border in recent years. Apprehensions in May were down 71 percent from the peak in May 2014, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it detained nearly 69,000 people.

“Often times Central Americans like Nelson and Norlan will have a mix of different ways that they’ve journeyed,” attempting to sidestep immigration officials, Williams says. “In the process they are becoming more and more separated from the network and support of (migrant) shelters, and so they’re exposed to a robbery, assault, and then we hear far too frequently … kidnapping.”

The route to Nogales, Sonora, took Norlan a month.

Along the way, he tried to dodge Mexican officials and bribed them when he had to. He endured extortion attempts and regular beatings at the hands of drug gangs because he didn’t have cash to give them.

As he rode la bestia, he saw others, who had no money, thrown from the moving train. 

Nelson took even longer. He left home on Christmas Day and had run out of cash by the time he reached Mexico’s southern border. He begged and did odd jobs to feed himself.

When he arrived in Nogales, in late May, he attempted to cross into the U.S., but was caught by the Border Patrol. Because he had no criminal record in the U.S., agents sent him back to Mexico, warning that if they caught him again he’d be sent to jail.

After meeting each other for the first time in Nogales, Norlan, 20, and Nelson, 21, decided to stick together.

Countless people in the same situation — penniless and without a clear plan to get across the border — hunker down in this border city, hoping to raise enough cash to buy food and water to get them through the desert.

Instead of staying at a shelter, Norlan and Nelson opt to sleep at the municipal cemetery — remaining closer to the border and the migrant services they use on a daily basis — where city workers turn a blind eye to the small groups of migrants and deportees staying there until it's their time to move on. 

Norlan says nothing will stop people from pursuing a better life in the U.S.: not a more dangerous route north, not being kidnapped by a cartel and certainly not a border wall.

The two were waiting only on the weather. June is too hot to risk a Sonoran Desert crossing. The late-summer monsoon, they hoped, with its rain and cloud cover, would bring the time for them to jump the fence.

But in the night came three men wearing black bandannas, and Norlan and Nelson were stuffed into the black SUV, headed away from the border.

What happened that night in June cannot be verified through investigative reports or official records. Immigrants with no legal right to be in Mexico do not call police, who may be no more aid to them than the cartels that may already control their fate.

So Norlan and Nelson’s story can only be told through the accounts both men later gave the USA TODAY NETWORK. 

At a cartel safe house outside Nogales, the kidnappers placed them in separate, cell-like rooms.

Who are your friends and relatives in the United States, the men wanted to know. They demanded names, phone numbers, looking for someone they might call and demand money in exchange for the two migrants' freedom. They searched wallets and bags but turned up nothing.

Along the section of the U.S.-Mexico border where the men hoped to cross, the Sinaloa cartel dominates the lucrative drug- and human-smuggling corridors.

Nelson told the kidnappers his mother was ill and he was headed north because he needed money to buy her medicine. The men didn’t believe him and warned him to wait until their boss arrived. 

But when they left, Nelson noticed the door wasn’t locked. He slipped out, made his way to Norlan’s cell and unlocked the door.

They spotted an open window.

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Nelson told Norlan to squeeze through first and start running. Nelson was about to follow when the kidnappers spotted them.

“Hey, where are you going? Stop there,” they yelled.

The Hondurans sprinted toward the lights of Nogales with their kidnappers chasing them.

Out of breath, they reached a parking lot. Norlan crawled under a car, seeking cover. Nelson climbed a tree.

Minutes passed. When they sensed no one was coming, they continued into town, where they hoped to blend into the crowds.

They met a man and told him they were fleeing kidnappers. He gave them a change of clothes and told them to get rid of what they were wearing: better to disguise themselves.

The migrant shelter across from the cemetery was closed. The two huddled in a church doorway nearby, waiting for daylight. 

In August 2010, the Mexican military uncovered a mass grave containing the blindfolded and handcuffed bodies of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, about 90 miles south of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. 

The Zetas drug cartel had executed the men and women, mostly Central American migrants on their way to the U.S., because they refused to work for them.

Seven years later, and despite the arrests of more than 80 alleged Zetas members in connection with the massacre, no one has gone to prison for the deaths. And forensic workers have complained about obstacles to identifying the bodies.

The violence against migrants in Mexico is now endemic, say human-rights and migrant advocates, and the case has highlighted authorities’ inability or unwillingness to protect migrants. Mexican authorities are too often dismissive of, and at times complicit in, the abuse, advocates say.

“Those who commit crimes ... know that migrants don’t have much infrastructure to defend them,” says Williams of the Kino Border Initiative. “They’re very easy targets.”

Williams’ organization took part in a study of such violence compiled by the Washington Office for Latin America, a group advocating for human rights in the region. The study, released in July, found high rates of impunity for reported crimes against migrants in high-transit states like Sonora. Of the 5,824 crimes documented in the report, only 49 reached a verdict and sentence.

The report also found migrant-aid groups such as Kino are exposed to harassment and abuse.

“We feel an enormous responsibility to step in this situation of violence, of oppression, and stand with them,” Williams says.

U.S. officials see the same risks in another light. In an op-ed column for USA TODAY in August, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke wrote that fencing built under the Secure Fence Act of 2006 — she called it a border wall — made American communities such as Yuma, Arizona,safer. She said strict enforcement of immigration laws should help dissuade migrants from trying to cross.

Speaking directly to Central American migrants, she wrote: “Smugglers do not care about you. They do not care about your dreams. They do not care about your family. They do not care about your safety. Do not believe the smuggler’s lies. We are enforcing the law.”

It’s a few days after the escape from the kidnappers. Nelson and Norlan are back at the cemetery sleeping among the graves, a short walk from the nearest U.S. port of entry.

They tried staying at a migrant shelter, but it was crawling with bugs, Nelson says, and at another shelter, people were looking to fight.

Even though the masked men might return, the two feel safer among the tombs.

“You feel that they’re watching over you,” he says of those who lie beneath them. “It makes you feel more at ease.”

The Hondurans haven't reported their kidnapping to the authorities. They don’t think officials would do anything about the crime.

Norlan says he thinks he knows why they were targeted. On a recent morning they had walked to the border fence near the Mariposa international crossing.

But cartels say they — not the migrants — decide who gets to the fence.

“Supposedly … you can’t get close to the border … and since we didn’t know that, they came for us,” he says. “And now they think that’s where we will cross, and for that you have to pay.”

The fee is $500 per person. But Norlan and Nelson have no money.

Both men say they’re determined to attempt a crossing. Norlan could not make a living in Honduras. Nelson fears the gang he fled would kill him if he returned. There is no going back. Only a wait until the time they will try to go forward.

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“Thousands have died in the desert,” Norlan says, contemplating their timing. “And if death doesn’t stop us, will a wall? I don’t think so, right? I don’t think so.”

As night approaches, clouds gather on the horizon. The first storm of the monsoon is on its way.

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