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How to Lose Your Life Navigating the Mexico–Guatemala Border

I nearly lost my life on a trip crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border.

I wanted to see Guatemala, and since I was in southern Mexico anyway, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border at the beginning of November 2021. What I experienced opened my eyes to the difficulties and dangers of that area, for anyone, and in particular our migrant friends. Here is the story of the time I crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala, then back again. Understanding the language was a huge advantage. Being Mexican was sometimes a disadvantage, and sometimes an advantage, as you will see. I was always in a better situation than our migrant friends.

Crossing from Mexico to Guatemala

From Tapachula, Mexico, there are at least two points to cross legally by foot or vehicle to Guatemala: Talisman—El Carmen to the northeast and Ciudad Hidalgo—Tecún Umán to the southeast. 

“Don’t go to Ciudad Hidalgo,” says a local in Tapachula, “it’s too dangerous!” I follow his recommendation, and on a hot, cloudy day I take a taxi from Tapachula to Talismán. When I arrive, I find a road surrounded by colorful and humble houses, mango trees, and green grass. 

The taxi parks near the migration checkpoints, at least six men surround the car. 

“Quetzales!” they shout, offering the local currency in Guatemala. 

“Pesos!” They offer Mexican currency too.

“I can help you to cross…”

“Exchange your money here; it will be expensive on the other side.”

I try to change some pesos, and a man puts my bag inside his “tricycle” (a bike for three people) and claims, “It’s 50 to cross the bridge to Guatemala.” I get on the bike and continue to the migration points. “It’s 50… 50 quetzales (around $6 USD),” he says. Man! I thought it was 50 pesos (around $2 USD). 

“You lied to me,” I say to the man “you didn’t tell me it was quetzales.” He replies that he never lied, and I ask to stop the bike and take my bag. I walk to the checkpoint. 

Dozens of couples cross by foot or bike without showing their documents to the officers. A man looks at me after seeing me approaching the office. “Do you really want to cross legally?” Two guys nearby ask me. “We can help you to cross without talking with the officers.” I immediately reply, “Yes, I want to cross legally. I will cross legally.”

I finally find the Mexican Migration checkpoint. A female officer checks my passport and makes me fill out a form. I leave the office and cross the bridge over the Suchiate River to Guatemala. A Guatemalan officer comes to me and introduces me to a child—imagine a boy, three feet high with enormous eyes and brown skin. “He will help you with your bag and guide you to the border,” says the officer. 

I don’t know what to do. I agree to follow him, but I don’t want him to carry my bag. He takes it anyway, with his tiny, firm hands. We arrive at the Guatemala migration checkpoint. A male officer checks my passport and asks me for my PCR test or proof that I am vaccinated against COVID-19. I show him a certificate on my cell phone. No, that doesn’t work. Another officer agrees with two soldiers to allow me to print a document on the other side of the street, so I print it and hand it to the officer. Okay, that works! I can now enter Guatemala legally. 

I walk with this tiny boy to the border zone, trying to figure out how to leave and go to a nearby city or town. Grey buildings rest amongst green mountains. The air is hot and humid. Couples and men on their own continue their journeys by bike or foot without stopping. I don’t know where to go. 

“You have to leave the border. It’s too dangerous to be here. You have to leave—go to Malacatán,” says the tiny boy. One by one, a dozen men approach me, shouting.

“Quetzales!”

“Pesos!”

“I can bring you to Malacatán.”

“Taxi.”

The men touch my bag, come closer to me. They take my bag which the tiny boy had been holding. They continue to shout and come closer. “Stop! Leave my bags! Leave me!” I say.

The tiny boy suddenly appears in a black van, with two men already inside. I join them. “It will be 70 quetzales to Malacatán,” says the driver and a man in the back of the vehicle. Man! 

“But someone told me it would be 10 quetzales,” I stated. 

“No. No!” I leave the van.

“Okay! Okay!” the driver replies. “It will be 10 quetzales.” I see the boy and his enormous eyes. I don’t know what to do—is it safe? How do I know? 

“This van is safe,” the little child says. “I can go with you.” I agree with a nod. I stay in the van, and the van leaves. 

Soon we leave the border chaos—the men surrounding us, the migration checkpoints, and the grey buildings.

“Pay us now,” says the man behind me. And I agree. The driver continues along this road through the green mountains of Guatemala, intersected by small streets. I show them 10 quetzales.

“No, it’s 70 quetzales,” says the man. 

“But, but… you told me it would be 10.”

“No. It is not.”

“I don’t have any more money.”

“Give us pesos… it will be 500 pesos (more than twice the price than paying in local currency).”

“No, I don’t have that. I won’t pay.”

The driver accelerates towards the top of the mountains. The man who is with him—and behind me—opens the door. “Pay! If you disappear here, no one will notice. It’s very dangerous.”

Close to the open door, I feel the fresh air and see the trees on the mountain, the rocks. I look at the child, who lowers his gaze this time. I take 70 quetzales—almost everything I have—and give it to the man behind me. 

“You only said 70 in the beginning,” I say. The driver answers, “Yes, 70. I said 70.” The tiny boy asks for his payment too. It’s 10 quetzales for his ride back to El Carmen but he asks for more compensation since he has remained with me. I ask him not to leave me. I don’t want to be alone with those two men. With my hands shaking, I give him 15 quetzales. The van stops and the child jumps outside. I continue with the two men. 

What will happen? Where am I going? Soon after, two women in the street ask the driver for a ride. He hesitates for a while and finally decides to stop the van. “See,” says the driver. The man behind me opens the door and the two women enter. 

I am not alone… I am not alone. I sigh in relief.

The driver continues and I finally see houses along with 2- and 3-story buildings. I see more roads, more vans, more bikes. The van stops, and the driver asks me to get out. They won’t continue until I leave the vehicle. I leave. I’m in a village. I’m in Malacatán, I would later learn.

Rafters on the Suchiate River, a natural border between Mexico and Guatemala, have ferried goods across the river for generations. Now they ferry migrants, many running for their lives. Photo by Chad Clendinen / Preemptive Love

Finding a Way Back to Mexico

I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to take a van or a taxi, or any other vehicle on the Guatemala border. I don’t want to be stolen from or threatened. I need to find a direct, safe route back to the border. I have to find transportation to a safe place, so I decide to take a bus nearly an hour south, to the border crossing I was warned away from at the beginning of my journey. 

When the bus leaves, I see the green landscapes and the innumerable mountains of Guatemala and hope there is still sunlight at the end of the drive to better see everything while I try to cross the border. That doesn’t happen though. I arrive at the bus station at 7 pm, and it’s already dark. Some lights from nearby houses and tiny stores shine and guided by that light, I walk with my bag along the dusty roads to the migration checkpoints. Men on bikes approach me one by one.

“I can bring you to the park… to migration.”

“Where do you want me to bring you?”

“I can help you.”

I give everyone the same reply, “Thank you, but I’ll continue alone.” And so I continue along this road for around 20 more minutes.

I finally see the Guatemala migration checkpoint. I wait there alone for an officer to appear. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. A female officer finally appears, looks at my passport, and allows me to cross. I leave the office and walk alone on the bridge over the river that forms the border between Guatemala and Mexico. 

It is dark—very dark. A few lights come on in the houses I’ve left behind in Guatemala. I can barely see the waves of the river below. My ears fill with the sound of mosquitos. It is humid and warm. I’m dripping in sweat. A man on a motorcycle crosses the road. A couple of men follow. I finally see an ad with the word “Mexico,” and I feel electricity in my chest. I am close to Ciudad Hidalgo—to Mexico.

I go to the Mexico migration checkpoint. The officers ask me if I am Mexican. I reply “Yes!” and show them my passport. They smile. I leave the office in minutes. It’s almost 8:30 pm, and there is no light, nor anyone in the street. A taxi suddenly appears and asks me if I want a ride. I don’t want to, but he stays on the other side of the street, looking at me. I decide to stay close to the migration office, where I stand in the pool of light and hear the voices of the security officers. I try to call a taxi from Tapachula (one that locals from Tapachula have recommended), but my cell phone doesn’t work here.

“Ciudad Hidalgo is dangerous,” people have told me. “You don’t want to be in Ciudad Hidalgo,” people have said. But I can’t ask for a “safe” taxi. I can’t hang around the migration office either—a couple of officers tell me they will close soon.

I text a contact in Tapachula and ask her for a taxi to take me from Ciudad Hidalgo to Tapachula. She tries, but no taxis are going that way at this time of night. And besides, it’s a very dangerous route for taxis carrying few passengers. There are often reports of kidnappings, disappearances, and thefts.

My contact offers another suggestion. “It’s a measure of security,” she says. Measure of security? She continues after a second, “there are vans that can bring you to Tapachula.” The last one leaves in less than an hour. “Take a van,” she says. “Ask a migration officer, not a person in the street. Take a van.”

I run to the office again. “Please, I want to see a Migration officer,” I say. A man who is talking with two security officers comes over and asks me what am I doing back there. He says I should have left a long time ago. I ask him for help. I want to go to Tapachula—I don’t want to stay in Ciudad Hidalgo. I ask him to bring me to the van that goes to Tapachula. 

The officer asks me a few questions. “Where are you from?”

“The State of Mexico.”

“Okay, which municipality? What are you doing here?”

After I answer all his questions, he agrees to come with me to show me a van—the last one of the day and it’s almost ready to leave. 

We walk together in the dark from the Migration Office to a bright street that connects Mexico with Guatemala. He leaves me there after showing me a white van that could bring me to Tapachula. I approach it and ask a man with a white shirt how much it costs for a ride to Tapachula. He asks me if I am Mexican, and after figuring that I am, he murmurs “50 pesos.” I agree and step inside the van. 

Inside I find at least six migrants talking in French, with dark skin and colorful shorts and tops. Are they from Haiti or Côte d’Ivoire? I don’t know. I would like to talk to them but I can’t. They all look at another migrant who is debating two slim brown guys.

“You told us it would be 20 dollars for everything. You only helped us cross the bridge.”

“No! No!”

“We won’t pay you any more.” Some of the migrants leave the van. The van driver jumps into the conversation. “If you don’t want to pay, then I won’t bring you to Tapachula. I won’t bring you, the other van will bring you.” The rest of the migrants leave the van. The van is nearly empty now, except for a brown girl, a brown guy, and me. The driver climbs into the van, turns on the car, and we leave. 

The driver accelerates as we leave the city. He only stops once at a bright gas station to fill the gas tank. After that, he continues on the dark road. I can barely see the landscape around us. Sometimes, the moonlight helps me see the tall grass and trees lining the road. I feel the gust of wind through the open windows, onto my face. 

The man accelerates again and goes fast—very fast, until he notices something behind the van in the mirrors. “They’ve caught us… They’ve caught us!” he screams, his voice full of terror. He doesn’t know what to do—should he accelerate or stop? He finally decides the latter and stops. My body is stiff, and my hands sweat. Who is stopping us? What will I see on the other side of the open window? Is it the police? Migration officers? The National Guard? Or a cartel? What are they going to do with us? Are they going to steal from us, rape us, kidnap us… make us disappear? Kill us? We are silent as we wait. The door of the van suddenly opens. A man with a cap bearing a Mexican eagle appears. He looks somewhat official, but never identifies himself. He looks inside the van and asks me “Are you Mexican?”

“Yes, I am,” I reply. He closes the door and allows us to continue. The driver softly sighs in relief, turns on the car, and continues on the road.

I feel the fresh air again as the driver speeds down the road. I see the dark surroundings, and sometimes the shy lights of small houses. I take a deep breath, but my body is still stiff. The driver continues talking with his colleagues on his radio. “They stopped us… they stopped us after the gas station.”

Soon after, his radio sounds. “They’ve stopped us too.”

“Where? What happened?”

The second van carrying the migrants was detained. The same migrants I had seen just a  short time earlier. Who detained them?

The driver increases his speed. He talks to the man sitting near me “They have detained him. I don’t know what will happen to them. I don’t know if they will ask him for money or bring him to another place.” The driver continues, “That’s why I prefer to bring fewer people and Mexicans. I don’t want to bring migrants!”

The driver continues accelerating. What will happen with them, with the migrants? Will they be okay? I try to ask the driver about them, but I can’t. He is focused on the road, on slowing down to find a migration checkpoint. Bright lights flood the checkpoint, and a Migration officer opens the door and looks at me.

“Where are you from?” he says.

“Mexico,” I reply.

The officer allows the driver to continue on the road, and the driver doesn’t hesitate. He goes.

The man is accelerating again when his radio sounds. “I was robbed!” The driver can’t believe it. He almost laughs. He doesn’t believe it.

“No, you’re lying.” 

“No! No!” the man on the other end of the radio continues. “They have stolen everything—at the gas station.” 

“The gas station?”

“Yes! The gas station!” The same gas station where our driver filled his tank. Our driver moves his head from side to side keeping one hand on the steering wheel and another on the radio. He tries to understand what happened. Who was following us, watching us? He is still murmuring, trying to make connections, as we finally see the lights of the city ahead. Taller buildings. Restaurants filled with people. Tapachula. We can see Tapachula. We are finally in Tapachula.

This is the sixth and final post in a series that explores why our Haitian friends in Mexico, struggling to find a secure place to call home, are in the situation they are today. The borderlands are dangerous for citizens crossing legally, with passports. So much more danger is faced by those more vulnerable.