Arriaga, Mexico – Guadalupe Aguirre is preparing lunch for about 20 migrants napping in front of the television, trying to recuperate before continuing their quest to reach the United States.
Aguirre, 33, from western El Salvador, is a migrant herself. Aguirre, an admin worker and her boyfriend Juan Soriano, 26, a bus driver, were forced to flee after receiving death threats that they believed to be genuine and imminent. They left behind three children.
The couple arrived at the hostel in Arriaga, a dusty town in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, after a gruelling 11-day journey by land and sea from the Guatemalan border.
The first leg of their passage through Guatemala was relatively uneventful. The trouble started as soon as they crossed the picturesque River Suchiate into Mexico. The country’s authorities detained and deported almost 170,000 Central American migrants from July 2014 to July 2015 – double the number from the previous year.
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Mexico’s clampdown on undocumented migrants was launched amid pressure from the United States, as it struggled to cope with a surge of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador seeking refuge at its border.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto announced measures known as the Southern Border Plan – or Plan Frontera Sur in Spanish – shortly after his US counterpart Barack Obama declared the surge in migration to be a humanitarian crisis in July 2014.
Pena Nieto pledged to curtail illegal migration in order to protect people from predatory criminal gangs and the dangerous freight trains that thousands of men, women and children were boarding in Arriaga.
Since then, about 5,000 Mexican federal police, army, and navy officers have been deployed to help stem the flow of northward-bound migrants.
Along the 290-kilometre stretch between the Suchiate and Arriaga Rivers, there are now 11 checkpoints and mobile anti-immigration teams are operating across the country. The US State Department has provided $86m to train the security forces and modernise inspection and communication equipment.
For the US, the policy has been a success as the number of unaccompanied children and families at its border has dropped by half. Its migrant crisis is ostensibly over and rarely makes headlines anymore.
‘Couldn’t find water’
But the deadly mix of grinding poverty, extreme violence, and corruption in Central America’s northern triangle means desperate people continue to do desperate things to escape.
More than 24,000 Salvadorans were deported from Mexico and the US in the first six months of 2015, according to official Salvadoran figures obtained by Al Jazeera.
There are currently an average of 20 murders each day in El Salvador, making this the country’s most violent period since the end of its civil war in 1992. As a result, many keep trying to migrate despite the risk of gangs, cartels and authorities in Mexico. No one knows how many of those deported end up dead.
Aguirre and her partner decided to walk instead of taking buses in order to avoid the immigration checkpoints. Some drivers hand over migrants to immigration officials, Al Jazeera was told.
“We walked from 7am until dark following the old railway line so not to get lost. It was hard – the sun was boiling during the day, and heavy storms most evenings. We survived off beans and tortillas, sleeping in abandoned houses and churches. Some days we couldn’t find water,” Aguirre said.
The couple was twice chased by immigration officers as they searched for food in villages, but they avoided capture by running into the surrounding dense jungle.
Halfway to Arriaga, their journey took an unexpected twist towards the stormy Pacific Ocean, which lies a few kilometres west of the disused railway. Drug traffickers have long exploited this vast, isolated coastline, and now migrants are turning to the ocean in hopes of avoiding trouble on dry land.
“A fisherman warned us about a village up ahead where migrants have supposedly been killed by criminals. He took a group of us in his small boat. The sea was rough but we were lucky: He was kind and only wanted 100 pesos ($6) for the 45-minute journey,” said Aguirre.
But their ordeal was not yet over. They were walking deep in the jungle, on the final stretch towards Arriaga, when two men armed with pistols jumped out at them.
“They threatened to kill us and took everything we had: cell phones, clothes, and cash. They made me take off my clothes to make sure I wasn’t hiding anything.”
During the summer months, the Arriaga hostel is usually chock-a-block with those brave and desperate enough to board the freight train known as The Beast, which departs about one-and-a-half kilometres down the road.
Now, the train has been virtually abandoned and the hostel is half-empty as people search for new routes to avoid immigration patrols.
Carlos Bartolo Solis, director of the Arriaga hostel, told Al Jazeera: “Plan Frontera Sur has not stopped the flow of migrants, it has just made them invisible and more vulnerable than ever before. We hear stories about dangerously overcrowded fishing boats in areas where drug traffickers operate. Only those who take the most risks have a hope of making it now.”
‘Undeclared war against migrants’
From Arriaga, it is a gruelling 12-hour walk through more dense jungle and hectares of mango groves to a small town called Chahuites in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Irineo Mujica, the director of NGO Pueblos Sin Fronteras (Towns without Borders), came to Chahuites a year ago with reports of injured and desperate migrants sleeping rough in parks and churches.
“We found mattresses alongside the railway tracks where women were being raped by men from the surrounding area. We started documenting violations, and then set up this hostel because more and more injured and assaulted migrants kept turning up – we couldn’t cope,” said Mujica.
Between 25 and 50 people arrive here each day looking for shelter. Eighty percent have suffered violence en route, most commonly as part of armed robberies. The hostel has also documented numerous rapes, of both men and women, and disappearances.
“Plan Frontera Sur has put human rights back by 10 years in Mexico,” Mujica said. “It’s an undeclared war against migrants who are being pursued across mountains and through jungles by federal forces. It is hell for them, and this brutality is funded by the US.”
The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has condemned the use of force in immigration operations and the rise in violent attacks against migrants and their defenders. Meanwhile, Amnesty International recently declared Mexico to be a “death trap” for migrants.
But the Mexican government has declared the plan a success, claiming the number of serious crimes against migrants and train accidents have fallen.
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Victims of crime in Mexico, such as Guadalupe Aguirre, are now eligible for a humanitarian visa that allows them to work legally in Mexico, initially for one year.
It is dusk in Chahuites and a few dozen weary-looking migrants are scrambling to rescue their personal belongings from the makeshift dining area outdoors as lightning and distant thunder signal an impending rainstorm. Out back there is a huge pot of soup, made from bones and vegetables donated by sympathetic market traders, simmering on an open wood fire.
Six scrawny young men, who arrived three hours earlier and asked not to be named for their own safety, said they were robbed by two men armed with a pistol and a machete just south of here near the mango orchards.
They are okay, even though it was the second robbery they’d survived in the past week, but they expressed worry about five women who were walking not far behind them.
A week later, the hostel confirmed the women never arrived. “We hope they were picked up by immigration and nothing worse,” said Mujica. “But in truth, we’ll never know.”