A determined clutch of Haitians and Africans have set up an impromptu village outside the Century XXI migrant detention center in southern Mexico, hoping to defy the worsening odds and reach the United States.
Sleeping on the ground or in dirt-cheap hotel rooms, selling manicures, metalwork and home-made food to get by, these several dozen migrants — once a tiny drop in the sea of mostly Central American travelers trekking north — suddenly stand out in the border town of Tapachula.
Under pressure from US President Donald Trump, Mexico has deployed thousands of National Guardsmen to reinforce its southern border, and launched a crack down on undocumented migration.
That has caused Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran migrants — who swarmed this town in massive caravans just months ago — to virtually disappear from sight, hiding out on remote routes or biding their time south of the border.
But that is not an option for the Haitians and Africans, who crossed an ocean to get here and who typically speak too little Spanish to strike out on their own through the countryside.
Still, they are not giving up on their American dream.
“The United States is helping the Congo, they know the Congo is at war,” said Moises Bumba, 33, explaining his dogged hope of reaching the US and requesting asylum from the conflict racking his country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He arrived here in March with his wife and son, after a six-month journey overland from Brazil. With little money and no sign they will get visas soon, they are sleeping on the street.
He said they do not want to be a burden on Mexico.
“The only help we are asking from the Mexican government is documents to let us through. We don’t want anything else,” he said.
But for many, Tapachula is the end of the road.
Inside the detention center, hundreds of migrants are waiting to be deported.
There have been numerous riots both here and at another detention center nearby called the Mesoamerican Fair. There, hundreds of Haitian, African and Asian migrants staged a massive protest Tuesday, demanding to be let out.
“Freedom! Freedom!” they shouted.
One woman fell to the ground and begged hysterically through the gap at the bottom of the detention center’s fence to be released to get medical help for her son.
“Help my son, he’s sick, many days. I’m begging you, there’s no water to drink, no food. Help, help,” she screamed in broken Spanish, tears and saliva dripping from her face.
Authorities have not allowed journalists access to the detention centers, but reports abound of squalid conditions, overcrowding and abuse.
Indications are that the authorities are about to start sending even more migrants there.
The head of the Mexican migration authority, Francisco Garduno, said this week the government would end its policy of giving African migrants “regional visas” that allowed them to remain temporarily in southern Mexico.
Too many migrants were violating the visas and traveling north to the US-Mexican border, he said.
“It’s causing us problems, so it is not going to be possible to continue that policy,” he told AFP.
Putting down roots
Outside the detention centers, others simply wait, sorting through the red tape of the Mexican migration system in hopes of getting papers that allow them to continue their journey.
The muddy, trash-lined streets of this impromptu neighborhood appear on no map, but for the foreigners and impoverished Mexicans living alongside them, it’s become something like home.
The community’s roots have grown deep enough that Ismael Gonzalez decided to set up an internet cafe and hotel.
Gonzalez, 26, charges 18 pesos (just under a dollar) per night for a room, and most of his renters are families.
He sympathizes with the migrants’ plight, he says in American-accented Spanish: he himself was deported from the United States in November after living there 23 years.
But he draws the line at using his scanners and printers to help them forge documents.
“They’re nice, they’re all good people. But some of them have a temper,” he said of his clients.
Some migrants have set up small businesses of their own.
Pamela Agendia Tazi, a Cameroonian national, arrived here two weeks ago with her mother after crossing Central America.
She had a miscarriage and massive infection along the way, putting her in the hospital for several days.
Arriving in Tapachula with almost no money, she asked the owner of the lodgings they were renting for utensils and supplies to start a mini-restaurant.
Now she sells Cameroonian-style stewed pork and plantains from giant pots, saving money in the hope of reaching Indiana, where her sister lives.
“I’ve been a single mother for 11 years, so I know how to work hard,” said the 39-year-old woman, who left behind three children and plans to send for them when she can.
Haitian migrant Joseph Luckner says he previously tried his luck living in Chile and Ecuador, but found only racism and bad pay.
“I want to make it to Tijuana and then the United States,” he said.
“When I get there, I’ll be able to work, just like I want.”