Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico
The smell of burning wood and plastic invades us as soon as we get out of the van. Smoke from campfires meets the cloud of dirt kicked up by our tires, stinging our eyes and leaving a scratch in our throat. In the distance, you can hear children splashing and playing in the Suchiate River, which separates Mexico – where we are – from Guatemala.
We head towards the murky brown water, walking under tall, thick trees that protect us from the brutal sun of the day. We are careful about where we step, avoiding pieces of cardboard used for beds and ducking under clothes hung to dry, careful not to encroach on anyone’s personal space or modest belongings. ‘A. Strangely, it looks more like a community rooted here for centuries than a migrant campsite.
And after the assault on the senses, comes the assault on the mind and the heart.
Stories abound of the people here, mostly from Venezuela, explaining why they left their homes and what they have experienced so far on their journey to Ciudad Hidalgo. The adults sometimes get emotional, but the children’s calm, matter-of-fact account is more shocking.
They had seen many deaths in the dangerous, muddy Darién Gap jungle passage from Colombia to Panama, a group of young cousins told me.
“I saw a woman, she had yellow hair and that part of her face was covered in blood,” says Mathias, 9, pointing to his right cheek.
I catch myself mid-interpretation from Spanish into English, realizing that I’m talking to children ages 6 to 12 as they describe in great detail what they experienced along the way.
“In the jungle, we despair, we believe that we are going to die in there,” says Mathias.
Her cousin Sofia, 12, adds: “We ran out of food. We were starving for one night. …We all lost weight. Her little brother Joandry lifts his shirt to show us his stomach, as if to corroborate the stories of his sister and cousin.
“It was hell,” Sofia said. “And every time we saw the end of the road, there was more to go and we saw dead people… lying on the ground. »
“It was hell,” Joandry, 6, confirms again, looking at me with eyes that have seen more than most adults.
Bonded by experience, where they’ve been and their hopes
The trauma of the journey that they have already endured, mixed with the common dream of reaching the United States, binds many people on the banks of the Suchiate, especially children.
Sofia was the first to catch our attention as she confidently and curiously asked us what we were doing here. We tell him that we are journalists. Her attention turns to the water and she excitedly points out the river and one of the many rafts. “This is my father!” she told us proudly. “It helps others stand out.”
A few meters away, sitting on the ground and leaning against a tree, is Susana, Sofia’s mother. She holds her 2-year-old son in her arms while Sofia’s other younger siblings play nearby. At first, Susana is more reserved – she gestures to Sofia to answer our questions for her. But little by little, she begins to open up, seeming to want to share their story.
Still in conversation with Sofia and Susana, I sit on a concrete step beneath an open-air structure used to store goods that cross the river illegally from Mexico to Guatemala. Sofia sits next to me as we watch the armada of rafts coming and going, with dozens more chained together and ready to deploy. They consist of two large black inner tubes, tied together with rope and wooden planks to support goods and people.
Sofia’s father, Jeandry, is one of those men who, like a gondolier on the canals of Venice, stands on his back with a long piece of wood steering the raft. At any given time, you can see across the river to Guatemala as up to two dozen migrants pile on board and make the roughly 8-minute journey, crossing illegally into Mexico. The police are stationed a few hundred meters away and the official crossing is within sight down the river, but there is no control along the border, just a near constant free flow back and forth .
Video shows what migrants experience as they cross the Mexican border in pursuit of the United States
Sofia and her family say they took one of the rafts five days earlier. They stayed on the shore instead of immediately continuing north to save money, with Sofia’s father working on the rafts and the family soliciting donations in the nearby town.
As I pull out a microphone and my crew begins recording with their cameras, Sofia’s siblings, aunt, uncle and cousins – who made the trip with them – crowd around. Little Joandry doesn’t want to miss this opportunity and rushes in with the shampoo still in her hair, giggling while her older sister tries to clean it.
“We are thinking of Philadelphia (or) Chicago,” Sofia replies when I ask her where in the United States they would like to go. His cousin Mathias, 9 years old, intervenes: “I’m thinking of New York or Florida. » Their parents look at them smiling, because they had told me moments earlier that they had no idea where they would end up; they just want to apply for asylum and enter the United States legally.
The children also smile when talking about their dream of going to school. Sofia and Mathias want to become doctors, but Mathias might also want to become a lawyer, he tells me. When I ask them what it was like traveling as a family, their faces remain expressionless for a moment. Empty and solemn looks.
The families have been on the road for almost two months, after leaving Colombia where they had lived for six years.
“We had to leave,” says Sofia. “We couldn’t stay poor there, because we do the same thing every day. “There were times when we couldn’t eat at all because there was no money. »
Before Colombia, families fled Venezuela to escape corruption and crime. “And a bad economy,” Joandry explains, taking the microphone out of my hands as if to resume the interview.
As we speak and film, my team and I recognize a subtle difference in the tone of migrants here in southern Mexico compared to those we have encountered on several trips to U.S. border towns, hundreds thousands further north.
“The journey was like hell”: migrants emerge in southern Mexico
Despite all they have been through, Southerners have yet to experience the extortion and threats of cartel-backed smugglers, nor the perilous journeys atop freight trains. Looking into the parents’ eyes, I feel that they have heard whispers of what awaits them. Their relatives and friends got ahead of them and warned of the horrors.
But they manage to strike a hopeful tone. “It’s better than what’s behind us,” Mathias’ mother told us. “We are not going back; “we move forward with the blessings of God. »
As we thank the children and their parents for their time, Sofia and Mathias excitedly ask us if we want to swim with them. “I have to stay dry to work,” I told them. “ALL RIGHT!” they shout, running toward the water like any other rambunctious child, their trauma buried, for now. Each echoes the other as we part: “See you soon!” See you!”