National Geographic : 2003 Sep
coffee industry and leaving 600,000 workers unemployed. In Guatemala more than half a million coffee workers face starvation. Many economists argue that the North Amer ican Free Trade Agreement has made its own contribution to the flood of people trying to move north, maintaining that cheap U.S. corn imported into Mexico has effectively driven mil lions of Mexican peasant corn farmers out of business and off the land. They suggest that for every ton of corn imported into Mexico, two Mexicans migrate to the U.S. The tiny Guatemalan town of Tectn Umin lies on the bank of the Suchiate River. Here migrants from Central America gather to cross into Mexico on their way north. Those with valid travel documents for Mexico cross the bridge over the river; those without them pay a few cents to be ferried across on rafts made from tractor inner tubes. No matter where they come from, a great majority of migrants arrive in Tecun Umin penniless, easy prey for the local hoteliers, bar owners, and people smugglers-known as coyotes-who live off the flow of humanity. It is a town where, in the words of one former res ident, "everything and everyone is for sale." Some of the luckier migrants find a tempo rary safe haven at Casa del Migrante, a walled compound just a few yards from the muddy riv erbank. "Every day, morning and night, I give a speech here," says the Casa's director, Father Ade mar Barilli, a Brazilian Jesuit who remains sur prisingly buoyant despite the surrounding misery. "I talk about the dangers of the trip north and urge them to go back. It's a bad choice to go home, but a worse one to try to go on to the U.S." Barilli warns migrants about the bosses in Mexico who may take their precious documents and force them into slavery on remote planta tions. He tells them about the brothels in Tapa chula, the Mexican town across the river, where girls are forced into prostitution. Most, remem bering the misery they have left behind, disregard his warnings. As Adriana, a 14-year-old prosti tute in a Tapachula bar, exclaimed when asked if she would consider going home to Honduras: "No, there you die of hunger!" Despite Barilli and Casa del Migrante, Tecin Uman itself is hardly safe. The week before I arrived, a dead coyote had been dumped just outside the gates of the compound with a hundred bullets in his body. "People are killed here because of the traffic in people and babies. There are many mafias involved in the business of this town. Aqui uno no sale en la noche-Here you don't go out at night," Barilli said. As I calculated the amount of daylight left, Barilli explained what local bar owners say to girls from the buses that roll in every day from the south. "They talk about a job working in a restaurant. But the job is in a bar. After the girl has worked for a while just serving drinks, the owner denounces her to the police and gets her arrested because she has no documents. She is jailed; he bails her out. Then he tells her she is in his debt and must work as a prostitute. The debt never ends, so the girl is a slave." Barilli cited a recent case involving a bar named La Taverna on the highway out of town. The owner, a woman, had duped six girls in this fashion. "Some of them got pregnant, and she sold the babies," he said. Thanks partly to the efforts of a Casa del Migrante lay worker (who afterward went into hiding in response to a flood of very credible death threats), the bar owner was finally arrested and jailed. has made the major obstacle on the road from the south, the border between Mex ico and the U.S., more difficult than ever to clear. With heightened control has come a commensurate increase in the price charged by smuggling gangs to take people across: up from an average of about (Continuedon page 18) "The slaves in Lake Placid were invisible.... People were playing golf at the retirement community, and right behind them was aslave camp."