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How One Guatemalan Town Has Changed With The Flow Of Migrants Passing Through


The migrant trail that ends in places like Calexico, Calif., begins in Central America and winds along well-established smuggling routes through Mexico. U.S. officials say those routes are getting faster and safer, which encourages even more illegal immigration. NPR's John Burnett reports from a thriving smuggler's town on the Guatemala-Mexico border.


JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: On warm nights in plazas like this one in southern Mexico, mariachis sing sad songs of exodus, of their countrymen who went to El Norte, to United States, for work.



BURNETT: But all that has changed. A historic shift in immigration is happening. The Border Patrol now apprehends more Central American families than Mexican men crossing into the U.S. Today some of those migrants start their journey through Mexico, at the Guatemalan border town of Gracias a Dios - thanks to God. This hilly village of 750 souls has become a traffickers' boomtown.


BURNETT: A short distance from the international boundary, Mario Garcia watches from the doorway of his tire shop. He says up to a thousand migrants cross here every day.

MARIO GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "This is an open border," he says. "There's no immigration control on this side or the other side. Anyone can go across freely." Before crossing, migrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and especially Guatemala assemble at a run-own, aqua-colored stash house. On a recent afternoon, about 150 adults and kids were waiting around for their trip northward. They scattered when I walked up, and then a heavyset scowling man who runs the stash house bolted into the yard, waved his arms and yelled at me to get lost.

Underground human trafficking networks are hard to uncover. I pieced together how this one works through two dozen interviews with migrants and observers on both Mexican borders north and south. Migrants who cross at Gracias a Dios typically pay coyotes, human smugglers, to arrange transport all the way to the U.S. border, 1,800 miles distant. The going price - $5,000 to $7,000 for a parent and child. First they ride in passenger vans to the city of Comitan an hour inside Mexico.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: The tire shop owner and other local sources say the migrants breeze through a federal checkpoint because the coyote pays off Mexican immigration officials. In Comitan, the migrants board tourist buses to Mexico City. There they transfer to express buses that race to the U.S. border to places like Ciudad Juarez, where they wade across the shallow Rio Grande and surrender to the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas. If there are no delays, the trip can take as little as three days. Smugglers are offering the express bus route as a faster and less dangerous alternative to the big, highly publicized caravans. Derek Benner is executive associate director of Homeland Security Investigations.

DEREK BENNER: There's some opportunity to provide a smoother, faster, more well-planned movement than just starting out walking and taking a 30- to 45-day journey through all the different countries and across all the different borders.

BURNETT: Julio travelled from San Salvador to Gracias a Dios precisely to avoid the caravans.

JULIO: (Through interpreter) Along with the caravan comes lots of crime and lots of problems. I'll cross with two or three people, and we'll get where we're going and try not to attract any attention.

BURNETT: Julio knows he needs to sneak into the U.S. undetected, or he risks being quickly deported. Migrants who bring a child with them know they won't be detained, a policy that infuriates President Trump. If they ask for asylum, they'll usually be released into the U.S. with a notice to appear in immigration court; that's Javier's plan. He's also from San Salvador, headed to the States with his wife and three kids. He and Julio declined to give their last names.

JAVIER: (Through interpreter) President Trump has to defend his nation, but the United States for us is like a mother, a mother who looks out for these small countries that we come from.

BURNETT: But why now? Why the current surge of migrants? U.S. officials estimate they apprehended more than a hundred thousand crossers last month, the most in more than a decade. I put this question to Olinto Laparra. He's a prominent businessman in the region of Gracias a Dios. He says he knows lots of people lately who've gone north.

OLINTO LAPARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Lapara says, "people hear through social media that Trump is cracking down and if they don't go to the U.S. now, they might not be able to go tomorrow." While he's talking, he steers his pickup to avoid the giant potholes on the highway along the rugged Guatemalan border.

LAPARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "How do you like our roads? Look at our sad reality," he says. Laparra blames state leaders for stealing money they're supposed to use to maintain the highways and bring services to remote villages. He says it's all part of a corrupt system that perpetuates poverty and allows rampant gang violence, and that's what's driving Guatemalans out of their homeland.

LAPARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "Mr. Trump can close the border whenever he wants to," Olinto Laparra concludes, "but the people will keep crossing. They have a lot of desire to overcome and get ahead." John Burnett, NPR News, Gracias a Dios, Guatemala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.