The afternoon swelter had yet to abate, the swollen skies had yet to release their regenerative downpour, when an ancient vision sporting a tattered poncho ambled up the dirt track beneath the canopy of broad ceiba trees.
“We are all here at the crossroads of life,” declared Delfino Giron Meza, a Cachikel-speaking Indian from Guatemala’s El Quiche province.
Catching his breath along the miry shore of the Rio Suchiate, he explained in broken Spanish that he was a water-diviner.
He said he has long possessed the gift of being able to detect underground water sources. His hope was that there was need of such a skill across the river--in Mexico, or, perhaps, farther north, in the United States.
“I hear one earns well there,” the old man noted, as he, like so many others, sought a lift across the river from the enterprising corps of shirt-less boatmen who ply their trade on hand-crafted rafts of wood and inner tubes.
That he should come to Tecun Uman, a city named after one of the last great Mayan warriors, was unsurprising: The bustling settlement on the Rio Suchiate has become one of the world’s great migratory way stations in the past decade. It is a principal stop for legions of Central Americans and others fleeing to the north, often to the United States, via Mexico.
At Tecun Uman, the broad, muddy river, born in the majestic Mayan highlands to the east separates Mexico and mainland North America from the isthmus of Central America.
As this “Little Tijuana” has grown, rapidly doubling its population to perhaps 30,000, Tecun Uman has earned an image as a bawdy, vice-filled haven for smugglers, con men and hustlers of every sort, all eager to make a buck on the vast traffic of human and other contraband.
In the town square the other day, Indian women outfitted in brilliant huipiles hawked fresh tamales among groups of fast-moving men in wrap-around sunglasses and designer jeans. These men offered less traditional services, from “documents,” to the “best price” for the U.S. dollar to safe passage to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
In unmarked storefronts or anonymous “export-import” offices, groups of men sat beneath ceiling fans counting money and smoking cigarettes, sweat dripping from their foreheads, oblivious to the hubbub on the city’s crammed streets. Photocopy machines were as prevalent as flophouse hotels and lively cantinas.
But most local entrepreneurs, like the men who work the Rio Suchiate, are honest and poor, trying only to eke out a living in hard times on the margins of the unbroken international commerce.
“I’m trying to save enough money to buy a pair of shoes by the time that I’m 15,” explained Samuel Elmer Vargas, a barefoot, shy 8-year-old who was among the many youngsters offering their services, carrying suitcases and packs for travelers.
In much of Central America, the mere mention of Tecun Uman has come to invoke knowing nods about the hazardous passage to the north, a ritual now familiar to many.
In western San Salvador, tearful farewells are the norm as passengers board the daily, direct bus across Guatemala to Tecun Uman. Uncertainty is an unspoken leitmotif of each despedida (leave-taking) between grieving parents and departing children, between distraught wives and their northbound husbands.
For those passing through, Tecun Uman can be intimidating: a place to get robbed along the shaded riverfront, waylaid in the warren of back streets--or, more commonly, stuck in a cramped, stifling boarding-house, unable to push on to the north, lacking cash for food or shelter.
In the past year, heightened immigration enforcement in Mexico has converted the never-easy but manageable trek through Mexico into a sometimes horrific odyssey that ends for many Central Americans in a long stay in Mexican jails--and, ultimately, deportation.
Almost all deportees and other veterans of the trip speak of extortion, beatings and other abuses by Mexican authorities. They bemoan their failure to “pass” as Mexicans, despite sometimes extensive rehearsals of the cadences of Mexican speech and elementary civics facts about Mexico.
“All I want to do is go directly to Los Angeles . . . and bring my family,” said Enoc Moran, despair evident in his eyes as he recounted his time as a policeman and a merchant in war-ravaged El Salvador. He spoke in the shadeless cement patio of a small boardinghouse known as “El Quetzal,” after Guatemala’s majestic but rarely seen national bird.
Why did he leave his homeland? “I don’t want my children to become orphans,” he explained, showing snapshots of a son, 3, and a daughter, 8 months.
Nearby, Jose Silva, 39, a former boxer from Nicaragua who now resides in Mexico City, lamented what he said was the now-diminished possibilities of simply paying one’s way out of custody in Mexico. “You can’t even bribe the Mexicans anymore and expect to be let go,” he said.
While the illicit traffic and its many tentacles have given this frontier its image for intrigue, the area is also host to a vast legal movement of people and merchandise. Between September and December, wealthy Mexican coffee-growers legally contract to bring in more than 40,000 Guatemalan braceros-- mostly highland Indians--for harvest work.
“The Mexican doesn’t want to work, so we have to bring in the Guatemalans,” explained Jose de Valle, supervisor of a finca of about 50,000 acres in Mexico’s neighboring Chiapas state.
As De Valle spoke on a side-street in Mexico’s Ciudad Hidalgo, across the Rio Suchiate from Tecun Uman, he calmly oversaw a spectacle of desperation: Almost 100 frantic Guatemalan Indians--machete-bearing men (macheteros), women with infants wrapped in sashes around their breasts and backs, young boys and girls attempting to cling to their parents--jammed themselves into the bed of the finca’s weathered crew truck, clawing their way aboard. All feared that missing the ride would mean losing the chance to earn perhaps $4 a day for the arduous task of picking coffee for export.
“We have to be careful about whom we bring with us,” De Valle said. “We only want Guatemalans,” he added, asserting that other nationalities don’t work as hard but still try to sneak aboard.
But the border zone’s most striking characteristic remains its prodigious illegal traffic, exemplified by the scores of raft-guiding boatmen.
Up to 300 river men--known as camareros-- ply their trade, ferrying passengers, belongings and goods. The river traffic is absolutely illegal. But it is tolerated, even abetted, by authorities of the two nations.
“I could arrest these people, but why?” asked jovial Jose Pineda Escobar, who has been with the Mexican customs service for three decades. He was at his usual post, seated on a fold-up chair in the shade of a ceiba tree on the Rio Suchiate’s north bank. “Here, we try to do la cosa humana, the human thing. . . . This illegal immigration will always continue, as long as Central America continues to have economic difficulties and problems of warfare.”
Among the brigades of ferrymen who work the river are border-jumpers from throughout Central America and Mexico, all well-versed in the logistics of emigration.
“I’d like to go back to the north, but the trip is so difficult now,” said Jose Augusto Aguilar, 26, a Guatemalan raft pilot and sometime fisherman who put on a cotton shirt to reduce his chills after his 12th or so voyage across the channel. Five years ago, he said, he was deported from the United States after immigration authorities arrested him in Santa Fe, N.M., where he worked in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant.
Aguilar and the other ferrymen are deceptively well-organized: They keep shifts and divide the main crossing zones among groups to avoid unbridled competition. They charge the equivalent of 25 cents per trip--a bargain compared with the inflationary $1 toll on the international bridge above.
On a good day, the boatmen say they might earn about $6, although as much as 20% of that may go to the rafts’ owners. Some ferrymen hope to save enough to buy a tricycle and join the swollen ranks of rickshaw cabbies, the next step up in the border hierarchy.
The boating job is taxing, requiring the strength to pull a raft carrying as many as eight people--with luggage--across a fast-moving river that was recently about 100 yards wide and as deep as six feet. (During the rainy season, tropical downpours swell the waterway, doubling the cost of a lift.)
Pilots, walking and swimming, pull their boats across with tattered ropes--sometimes held in their teeth. They suffer infections, chills and other ailments from fetid waters that incubate a textbook of insect-borne diseases, including malaria, dengue, yellow fever and river blindness.
“It’s not an easy life,” said Aguilar, as he took a break in a riverside thatched shelter, where his wife had brought lunch.
His daughter, Ana, has been reared listening to the tales of travelers en route north. She is fascinated by those distant destinations.
“Sometimes she tells me, ‘Mommy, let’s all go to Tecate, Calif., where everyone can find work!’ ” said Aguilar’s wife, Concepcion Faviel, laughing at her daughter’s comment. “I don’t know where she picked that up!”