MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) — René, a 35-year-old man from Guatemala, stretched and paced inside a Tijuana warehouse as he awaited word that it was time for a three-day hike into California through the nearby mountains.
It would be his second attempt to cross the border illegally in a little over a month. Nearly $20,000 in debt to a series of “coyotes,” or smugglers, he figured if he made it, it would take two years to pay off. If caught and deported, it could take 15 years — if the gangs back home don’t kill him first.
Responding to a wave of Central American migrants and asylum seekers reaching the U.S. border in recent months, the United States and Mexico have tried to stem the flow, slow the pace at which people are allowed to request asylum and discourage others from coming. But tens of thousands are still heading north fleeing violence and poverty.
In the 40 days since he left home, René stayed at cramped safe houses, walked miles of treacherous terrain and rode in a minivan as soldiers gave chase. He paid bribes at checkpoints, watched smugglers deal with crooked cops and huddled fearfully under armed guard in the heart of cartel country.
René is the man’s middle name. The Associated Press is withholding his full identity for his safety because he is still en route and because his story details what is big business for smuggling networks, gangs that run the territory in which they operate and authorities who are often on the take.
René’s trek of more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) so far is just one of many possible routes and outcomes. But all have elements in common: fear, corruption and cartel involvement. Increasingly too, children are making the treacherous journey.
René and his wife told their daughter, 7, and son, 11, that they were going on a fun trip when they left Guatemala City June 20. But problems began straightaway when a smuggler they paid $1,300 never showed up.
A second one in Malacatan, near Mexico, seemed more trustworthy. He had taken a cousin previously and charged them $5,000 for each adult-child “package,” standard these days for parents who travel with minors and plan to turn themselves in in the U.S. It’s about double that to cross clandestinely.
They began with four others on an eight-hour walk around the Tacana volcano, crossing into Mexico at one of what the country says are over 350 “blind spots” on its 750-mile (1,200-kilometer) southern border, a jungle and mountain region difficult or impossible to secure.
In Chiapas state, a waiting minibus took them a few miles (kilometers) up the road, where they met another minibus. The latter drove ahead to detect checkpoints, since Mexico has boosted police, military and national guard in the area to crack down on migration.
They were stopped twice, but no matter: The smuggler handed each person 2,000 pesos (about $100) to fork over and reminded them what to say to the agents.
“You have to beg them and tell them you’re traveling alone” without a coyote, René said. “More than anything, they like it if you humiliate yourself.”
They continued that way to the Gulf coast state of Veracruz. Rather than making a beeline north in the most direct route to Texas, they turned west. Just before Puebla, to skirt checkpoints, they got out for a six-hour walk across countryside muddied by the rainy season, falling down frequently.
“I threw myself and the kids down where it was sort of like a slide and told them it was an adventure, and they laughed,” René said. “Only my wife and I bore the difficulty and the fear.”
In Mexico City, they spent four nights in a 13-by-13-foot (4-by-4-meter) safe house with a single door, no windows and dozens of other people.
They were now being handled by new smugglers who had planned to bus them to the northern city of Monterrey. But a new law bars bus companies from selling tickets without proper IDs. So the group of eight was sent by taxi to the city’s outskirts, where the coyotes stopped a bus and they got on.
“They paid the driver,” René said. “It seemed like they knew him, because here everybody is in the same racket. Everyone asks for money.”
Bus terminals in the north are full of cartel lookouts. Sometimes they just keep an eye on comings and goings. But other times they will brazenly ask migrants where they’re from and whether they have relatives in the United States, demanding to review social media profiles to see whether they’d be worth kidnapping for ransom — an ordeal René’s family was spared.
In those northern bus terminals, those who’ve hired smugglers are given codes to identify themselves to the coyote at the next handover point — numbers or phrases like “I brought the black pearls” or “portion of tacos” that change each week.
In Monterrey the family also began to see armed men among the smuggling operation, though at the safe house where they stayed with about 200 others, half children, things weren’t scary.
“They gave you breakfast, lunch and dinner,” René said. “We were just resting, and they put the TV on with cartoons for the children.”
After three days they were taken to a shopping center where the safe house boss talked with some police officers. Five vehicles carrying 12 people each left in a caravan, escorted by a patrol car at the front and another at the rear. After a while, armed cartel members replaced the police.
That was the scariest stretch. Kids were told to keep low because of the danger of gunfire.
“Rifles everywhere, all of them high on drugs,” René said. “The children and everyone got scared.”
Military vehicles appeared and gave chase until the smugglers managed to hide on a private ranch.
The final destination in Mexico was the border city of Ciudad Miguel Aleman in Tamaulipas, a state where government officials say half the country’s human smuggling passes through.
They were held with 148 people in a three-bedroom home. René knows the exact number because handlers did a headcount and scribbled it in a notebook. Outside temperatures were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). They had to sleep sitting up and were forbidden to make noise.
René tried to cheer up the children by saying they were going to meet their grandmother, who lives in the United States.
Eight days later, a radio message said the coast was clear. A relative back home deposited the final payment to the smugglers and they were rowed across the Rio Grande in 10 minutes and turned themselves in on Texas soil. They thought they’d made it.
But they didn’t know about the policy known colloquially as “remain in Mexico,” under which the United States has sent back at least 20,000 asylum seekers to wait south of the border while their cases creep through backlogged immigration courts.
René said they were given a Sept. 20 court date and promised that Mexico would provide housing, work and schooling. But once back in Mexico, they were bused two hours south to Monterrey without explanation or support, and left to fend for themselves just like more than 1,000 others. It was there that AP journalists met him.
At first they planned to wait. But soon that seemed pointless. Although René said he can document the asylum claim — he has photos of him beaten up by gang members who tried to extort money — he worried that in September they’d simply be told their case would take longer and they’d be sent back to Mexico again.
“What are we going to do stuck here for months?” he said, adding, “It’s all a trick to play for time so people get desperate.”
Monterrey didn’t feel safe, so René’s wife and kids went home, like many others who had been bused there.
René found a new smuggler who would take him to Tijuana and across for $7,000. After days in yet another warehouse in Monterrey, he boarded a bus to the Pacific Coast city across from San Diego.
His mother was waiting in California and can help him land work, he said. He was told they might go as soon as Tuesday night.
“They gave me the opportunity, and I have to run the risk,” René said by phone. “There’s no other option.”