Migrants queue up outside the National Institute of Migration office in Tapachula, Mexico, in mid-March. Migrants and asylum seekers can’t leave the city without documentation from the Mexican government – a process that can take months. (Photo by Salma Reyes/Cronkite Borderlands Project)
TAPACHULA, Mexico – Mu’taz hoped to be holding his 13-year-old nephew’s hand as they took their first steps into Mexico, marking the end of their long, arduous journey from Jordan. Instead, Mu’taz crossed alone; his nephew is buried back in Panama.
Tens of thousands of migrants, desperate to leave behind the violence and economic turmoil of their home countries, are crossing into southern Mexico by any means necessary for the slightest chance of rebuilding their lives, preferably in the United States.
Tapachula is the first stop in Mexico for this stream of humanity. The city of 350,000 people, in impoverished Chiapas state near the border with Guatemala, is struggling to accommodate the flood while also benefiting from it.
No matter what route brought them to Tapachula, migrants say their journeys have been marked by fear, danger, uncertainty and even death.
“We came (on this journey) to save the life of the child,” said Mu’taz, who did not want his photo taken or his last name published for fear of reprisals. “We leave the country. We lost our home, everything, for the life of this child. And now we have lost him.”
Tapachula has long been a way station for migrants headed to the United States because it’s Mexico’s southernmost city with offices for the Mexican Commission of Refugee Assistance (COMAR) and the National Institute of Migration (INM). Only at these offices can migrants begin the paperwork that allows them to work in or leave the state. For many, this process has taken weeks, months, even years. Understaffed and inundated, these offices struggle to process applications as more migrants arrive each day.
“The most difficult part was crossing the jungle. It was very dangerous,” said Juana Brito Bautista, sitting outside the INM office, shading her three children with a folder of paperwork.
“The jungle” is the Darién Gap, a horrific touchstone in many migrant journeys. Considered the most dangerous jungle in the world, the Darién is a lawless, 60-mile wide stretch between Colombia and Panama rife with wild animals, human smugglers and members of drug cartels. But many migrants traveling north from South America are left with no choice but to traverse this harrowing passage.
Bautista and her children walked the mountainous Darién Gap as part of a group of migrants guided by a smuggler. Her three were among about 20 children in the group. For a week, they walked from sunrise to sunset with little to no food or water and slept on the jungle floor at night.
Altitude sickness coupled with exhaustion got the best of several in the group. Many times, she said, she watched as people walking ahead of her suddenly dropped to the ground unconscious.
“You get a rapid heartbeat from having to keep pausing because it’s way too high,” Bautista said. “So you had to stop, breathe, and keep walking so you don’t choke.”
People claiming to be police set up makeshift toll stations along routes migrants commonly take through the jungle, she said, demanding payment to proceed, sometimes as much as $100 per person.
“The police at all the checkpoints kept asking for more and more money,” Bautista said.
Now in Tapachula with the little money she has left, Bautista intends to keep moving forward so her kids can begin a life in the United States.
“What we want is to keep going. We don’t want to stay here, we truly don’t,” she said. “I believe that there we will have opportunities. I want them to get an education there. There is no cause if it’s not for them.”
When Mu’taz and his family stepped foot in the Darién, they couldn’t have imagined the pain that awaited them inside.
Mu’taz, a Palestinian refugee living in Jordan, fled with his sister and nephew, Aziz, to save the 13-year-old from an uncaring, negligent household.
Aziz’s father died when he was 2, leaving Mu’taz’s sister and her son alone. Mu’taz opened his home to them, but under Jordanian law, if a child’s father dies, the mother is bound to surrender full custody to the father’s family once the child turns 14.
Since Aziz’s father died, Mu’taz said, the father’s family has paid little to no attention to him.
“The family of the dad, they never even ask about him or if he needs something for school, or clothes. We always look after him,” Mu’taz said. But as Aziz’s 14th birthday drew closer, the boy’s paternal family began to threaten to take him by force if the mother did not give full custody.
In 2020, the three made the decision to flee and apply for refugee status in Latin America. They wound up in Ecuador, a country often chosen by migrants because of relatively easy visa requirements. But before they could begin the application process to stay, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all government services were shut down.
Unable to leave, they were forced to find a small apartment. But life in Ecuador was difficult, Mu’taz said. Living expenses only grew and since neither he or his sister could apply for a job, they struggled to buy food.
One day, a group of migrants talking about Mexico asked whether he and his family wanted to join.
Two months later, on Jan. 21, they boarded a small raft buckling under the weight of 15 people and headed for Colombia. The night they arrived, Mu’taz remembers the smuggler telling the group to sleep in a nearby field and be ready to start walking at 5 in the morning.
The journey through the Darién Gap began with days of cutting through dense jungle to reach the summit of the aptly named Mountain of Death.
Climbing was only part of the journey, though; the descent was just as brutal.
“Going down was harder than going up,” Mu’taz said. “We start walking down, down, down, down. It was at this time, my nephew fell.”
Aziz had slipped trying to descend a slope of large boulders.
“The rain is falling. It’s like when stairs are wet, and he fell like 3 meters (10 feet) down,” Mu’taz said.
Group members helped Aziz get to his feet and they continued. They reached the river two hours later, when Aziz took another fall, but one much worse.
“My nephew was covered in blood,” Mu’taz said, gesturing toward his ribs. “So we put him in the river and we cleaned him.”
Aziz never revealed how much pain he was in.
“He never told us, I think because he felt guilty for falling,” Mu’taz said.
Aziz now was limping and struggling to keep up with the rest of the group.
His injury slowed the group, and stretches that should have taken an hour to cross took four hours, and the jungle canopy made sunlight scarce. Eventually, the trio was separated from the main group. A few hours later, a member of the group came back and apologized but said the group would continue without them. He promised, however, to send help from the first village they came to.
“‘Better to wait until sunshine, when you can see the road well,’ they told us,” Mu’taz recalled, adding that the three pitched their tent for the night.
“Each time my nephew woke up, he felt thirsty,” Mu’taz said. “He kept looking at me and saying, ‘I can’t. I can’t.’”
At 2 p.m. the next day, a group of migrants following the same path came upon Mu’taz and his family. He told them Aziz was injured and needed help.
“‘You are lucky,’ they said, ‘We are all medics from Cuba,’” Mu’taz said.
The Cubans said a doctor was part of a migrant group just behind them, but they offered to check Aziz and prepare him for the doctor.
When the doctor arrives, he said, “She had one medicine and put it in his mouth. After like 50 seconds, he start vomiting blood. His mouth, everything. Blood.
“She said to me, ‘This child could die if we don’t find a way.’”
Later that day, another group of migrants approached them.
“One of them walking was from China, and he had packed an air mattress,” Mu’taz said. “‘Take it by the river,’ he told me. ‘If he can’t walk, lift him and float him on the river.’”
The rushing waters tossed Mu’taz and his nephew around and nearly pulled them under.
“I stand on everything. The stone, on everything. The river become more deep. I couldn’t control,” Mu’taz said. “I try to push his body with the mattress to one area, I can’t.”
“I’m close to his head. I try when he needs something – to put some water in his mouth, everything, until we arrive,” he said. “I look at him and my sister and the others, I said to them, ‘I can’t.’”
They decided to stop for the day and pitched their tent along the swampy river bank.
“We stay one night there, we sleep without food without anything; we drink the water from the mountain,” Mu’taz said.
The next day, they came upon a nearby military post and were told the nearest hospital was three hours away, but a nearby village had a clinic. The family got there in 30 minutes, but it was too late.
“Before we arrive, all the blood in his body, he took it out,” Mu’taz said.
“We tried to save his life. The doctor came and he checked, he said, ‘No. Nothing.’”
Mu’taz was devastated.
“I asked if I could put my heart in his body,” he said.
Mu’taz remembers a procession of police, medics and court officials passing in and out of the room to confirm the death and fill out paperwork.
“We left the 21st of January. My nephew died the first of February,” he said.
The local Arab community offered to help with the burial in the village cemetery. They laid Aziz to rest in an unmarked grave, next to rows of crosses.
Aziz’s mother was numb with shock.
“My sister, she don’t want to continue,” Mu’taz said. “‘I will stay close to where he is,’ she said.”
Mu’taz hugged his sister for what could be the last time, and continued the journey.
He boarded bus after bus and faced dozens of toll stations on the way.
“Because all the bus was migrants, they stop us,” he said. “And they ask ‘Which came from Cuba? You have to pay 50. Which people from Venezuela? 40. From Haiti? What you have.”
“The people on both sides of the border, it’s their business, the immigrants, it’s their business.”
“It was in Guatemala where they took the last dollar I had,” said Carolina Del Valle, sitting with her husband, Pedro, and their two young children on the floor of an outdoor chapel.
This chapel has been home for more than a month. It’s in the center of the Belén shelter for migrants, one of the few in Tapachula. They’re forced to stay there because of overcrowding at the shelter.
Toys and blankets lay strewn about the chapel’s pews as rain battered the tin ceiling. A weathered portrait of the Virgin Mary watches from a wooden frame.
Pedro, Carolina and their children, Ángel and Nicole, share a single quilt to sleep on at night. All their belongings are stored in a plastic grocery bag stashed under the edge of the quilt.
The family fled Venezuela in recent months to escape President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship, which they said had shuttered all businesses and slashed salaries and services.
For example, Pedro said, electricity was available only two days a month. Families were assigned numbers that corresponded to the day of the week they were permitted to buy groceries. The Del Valles were in group 6, which could only shop on Wednesdays. They survived on rations of rice, oil and sugar.
They left Venezuela with the little money they had, but the journey eventually took every penny. Corrupt law enforcement officials stopped them repeatedly, demanding payment to continue.
“From Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala to Mexico, they asked for money in all of them. All of them,” Pedro said.
“The police kept asking for money, money, money, money. As you can see, by the time we arrived here to Tapachula, we arrived without a single dollar. We didn’t even have enough to buy a slice of bread.
“It was truly terrible because many times we were left without any money. We didn’t have food to give to the kids.”
Discrimination against migrants was a constant in the countries they passed through. The majority of their journey was by bus, with tickets being more expensive for migrants.
“At the terminal leaving Honduras, they told us, ‘Only 10 foreigners can board, and the rest must be Hondurans,’” Pedro said.
Many times after paying for passage at a makeshift checkpoint, their bus was met by police just down the road demanding more money. To cross into Nicaragua, Pedro paid $150 per person.
“In Guatemala, it was especially terrible because we didn’t have a way to cross the border into Mexico,” Pedro said.
Then they were approached by a coyote, who offered to take the family over the border for $540 – which the Del Valles obviously didn’t have. The coyote threatened to kill them all if they couldn’t come up with the money the next day. Pedro and Carolina hid the family and began sending messages to family members begging for help, and after a few days they had enough money for the coyote.
In Mexico, they were admitted to the Belén shelter to wait for an appointment with COMAR to request a humanitarian visa. Because shelter rules don’t let residents leave unless they have an appointment regarding their visa, the Del Valles were in a tight spot.
“We need to work. We need to shower. Look, we are sleeping on the floor,” Pedro said. “It is not humane, the way that we’re here just thrown on the floor.”
The shelter only serves lunch. Sometimes a passerby will slide a plate of rice or a banana under the gate, but that’s rare, he said.
The family, who received a humanitarian visa April 4, intends to continue north toward the United States, hoping to find a refugee shelter once they reach Texas.
Despite the horrors of the journey to Tapachula, thousands of migrants face additional months – perhaps years – impoverished and trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare. It’s an untenable situation that won’t change until Mexico’s immigration officials address the problem of documentation.