HA 002: Southern Border

Documenting migration through Mexico

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The inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States took place on Friday, January 20, 2017. Of his many proposals, one of the most polarising1 was the planned construction of a "Great Wall" along the United States-Mexico border supposedly to protect the US from all kinds of scourges coming from down South. During the four years of his presidency, violence in the countries of the northern triangle of Central America (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) continued to drive people to flee their homes, yet Trumpian policies made fleeing that much harder.

The pressure exerted through policies such as the threat of hiking up taxes on US imports from Mexico forced the Mexican government to take a stronger stance against migrant caravans, starting at their southern border shared with Guatemala.

"The border of the United States begins in the South of Mexico.” This is how Central American, Cuban, Haitian and African migrants tell the story of their journey to reach the fabled United States. It’s at the border between Mexico and Guatemala that makeshift rafts are regularly launched on the Rio Suchiate, part of the natural Southern border…

A member of the Mexican National Guard monitors migrants arriving on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Guatemala border, the banks of the Suchiate River. In March 2019 Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican President, reached an agreement with Donald Trump and deployed the national guard to prevent migrants crossing Mexico’s southern border. This continues post-Trump. Chiapas, 2021

Once in Mexico, the journey begins. Walking in groups or hitching a ride on “La Bestia”, the name given to the famous freight train network that crosses the country from South to North, are the two most common modes of travel and a mix of the two is usually required to get all the way. The Mexican police are active along the route, chaperoning or obstructing the caravans on their Northern trudge and regularly inspecting the trains.

Central American migrants observe the freight train for signs of an imminent departure. After more than 250 km travelled on foot, the caravan members hope to be able to continue their journey aboard “La Bestia”. Chiapas, 2018.
Norma (left) founded Las Patronas, a charity providing food to migrants travelling on “La Bestia”. Las Patronas started on February 14th, 1995 after Norma and her mother came across migrants on a passing freight train asking for food. Now around ten women prepare bags of food daily while waiting for the train to pass through their village. Veracruz, 2017.
Two migrants on top of “La Bestia” wake after their second night. The train, which carries corn, cement or minerals, is regularly stopped and inspected by the Mexican migration authorities (INM). Beyond arrest, risks of riding the train include armed robbery and potential loss of limbs. Some use a rope or belt to secure themselves through the nights. Tabasco, 2017.
Carlos, 21, lost his leg in Mexicali, at the border with the US, when he fell off “La Bestia”. He is determined to take the road north again with his disability. Tabasco, 2017.
After a 4 hour trip on “La Bestia,” these men disembarked only to face INM police. That same day, Donald Trump made another speech about the caravan forcing Mexico to harden its migration policy. Oaxaca, 2018
Members of the migrant caravan rest on a freight train they expect to start moving soon. In the end, the train remains stationary leaving the migrants to continue their journey on foot the next morning. Chiapas, 2018.
Along the route, people offer shelter to migrants. Paula fled Honduras and Luis, El Salvador, both driven away by violence. They arrived at a migrant shelter in Mapastepec. Here they pray before dinner at their host’s house. The residents of Mapastepec are very involved in supporting those travelling through. 2017, Chiapas.
Others find further help like this bus from the municipality of Ixtepec, put on to take the migrants further north, to the small village of Matias Romero about 70km away. Oaxaca, 2018.

If they make it across the buffer zone of Mexico yet another obstacle appears in their way. For some, it’s one obstacle too many…

Border wall under construction. The first formal fence on the border was approved by George H.W. Bush. Joe Biden has said he’ll not continue the construction of the wall. Baja California, 2020.

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Edit 04/03/2021: Replaced the word notorious for polarising for impartiality reasons.