EL NARANJO, Guatemala (Reuters) - Tighter border security and a broken-down rail line on Mexico’s southern frontier are prompting thousands of U.S.-bound illegal immigrants to head north through thick jungles controlled by violent drug gangs.
Packed into trucks, hundreds of migrants move from northern Guatemala every day, braving heat exhaustion, kidnapping gangs and corrupt, violent cops in the hope of eventually finding work in the United States.
The perilous crossing around the tiny Guatemalan town of El Naranjo has been favoured since 2005’s Hurricane Stan knocked out a stretch of railroad where migrants used to jump onto freight trains and ride them through Mexico toward the United States.
Now, they travel a longer route through Guatemala’s Peten jungle, where heavily armed drug smugglers seek to steal the little money they have.
“It is much more violent now. There are more weapons, there is more drug trafficking and the risks to migrants are increasing,” said priest Ademar Barilli, who runs a shelter from migrants in the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman.
Drug gangs, which have long trafficked cocaine through the same jungle area, are muscling into the human smuggling business. They charge fees for passage or run kidnapping rings to extort money from migrants’ families.
“We were robbed ... I don’t know where the rest of the people I was travelling with are. I’ve missed the train three times. I’m going back to Honduras, I’m going home,” said Hector, a 28-year-old Honduran stranded in Tenosique, Mexico.
Another Honduran, taking a break from the hours-long truck ride though the Guatemalan jungle, told of an earlier failed attempt to reach the United States.
Over a bowl of stew at a makeshift family-run restaurant along the route, the 23-year-old said one woman in his group was seized, taken to a hotel room and raped by a half-dozen Mexican police.
A recent study by a human rights group found 80 percent of women who cross illegally from Guatemala into Mexico are sexually abused, beaten or robbed.
The Mexican and Guatemalan interior ministers pledged during a visit to the border this month to seal the more than 30 illegal crossings. Guatemala said last month it was sending hundreds of elite soldiers and police to stem increasing violence.
But as border security increases, migrants — some who have already undergone long journeys from South America, the Middle East or China — move deeper into the jungle and into danger.
“The more resources that Mexicans put on their southern border, the more people lose their lives. When you apply more controls ... people move to more dangerous parts of the border,” U.S.-based migration expert Demetrios Papademetriou said.
Hundreds of illegal immigrants die every year trying to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, but no one has figures for the number who die crossing through Central America and Mexico.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Mauricio Farah from Mexico’s human rights commission.
Additional reporting and writing by Mica Rosenberg, editing by Patricia Zengerle