Beyond the postcard of Central America, another reality

Central America is a big playground for travelers: stunning and varied landscapes, rich ancient history, beautiful ruins, good food, kind people, and often more affordable than western countries. The other side of the coin is the recent history of most countries, between political instabilities, civil wars, military coups, revolutions, corruption, drug trafficking, gangs, and refugees.


About 31 people a day arrive in the refuge La 72 in Tenosique, Mexico, a 65-kilometer walk past the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Every month, it is anywhere between 1000 and 2000 migrants mostly from El Salvador and Honduras. When some years ago they used to cross borders undocumented in quest for a better living, the situation today is different: entire families, women, children, and elderlies flee their home countries as they fear for their lives. Their stories are horrific: threats, tortures, rapes, and murders are the common traits. The violent organized crime gangs of Los Angeles (its major representative being the mara salvatrucha) that were sent back to their home countries by the US authorities reformed, and they are ruling in Central America now.

To escape these gangs, fleeing seems to be the only option for many. Making their way North, every border is a risk: human smugglers are on the look out to make everyone pay for the passage, and border officials seem to take their shares as well. Getting into Mexico is becoming harder and harder and involves days of walking through the jungle, or river routes. Once in Tenosique, Mexico, refugee camps take over: documenting their stories, applying for documents, supporting them while they wait for a governmental response. It usually takes 2 to 3 months, sometimes much longer.

An approval comes in the form of a political or a humanitarian reason, meaning that they were so badly treated while on Mexican soil (torture, kidnapping, rape…) that Mexico grants them a visa. Only it is quite hard to prove, and this visa doesn’t allow working in the country. It is just a way to be documented in order to go up North.


There is no turning back: a refusal means they will try by any mean to make it North to the USA. There is only one solution bearing the scary nickname of la bestia (“the beast”). This is what are called cargo trains undocumented refugees jump on. They go to Mexico City first, then further North. The trip can last for many days. Many times, human smugglers hop on as well: either refugees pay or they are shot dead and pushed off the train.

If they make it anywhere close to the US border, they will need to pay again: the current rate is anywhere from USD3,500 to USD11,000 per person according to the people we met and who took the trip. Given the wages in their home countries, this is an astronomical amount.

If the refugee or one of his or her family members living in the USA can pay, half is paid before the border crossing (swimming at night across the river, walking for hours through the desert…). He or she will be retained in a “safe house” in atrocious conditions by the smugglers on US soil until the other half is paid.

If the refugee cannot afford his passage to the States, he will still have to pay for the border crossing, but by smuggling drugs to be smuggled to the USA. They are actually used as decoys by human traffickers while serious amounts of drugs are smuggled somewhere else at the same moment. Death often awaits.


If illegal border crossing into the USA often makes the news, we were shocked to discuss with a refugee camp worker from Tenosique, Mexico and listen to these horrific stories that are hardly ever heard of and that have been going on for years. And Tenosique is not the only town with refugee camps…

This article may be a bit far from our general theme of travel inspiration. Traveling means being faced with local realities. We thought we had to share this story.


Links and notes:

  • More information about La 72 the refuge for undocumented people in Tenosique.
  • I would like to thank Nathalie Gramer for her testimony and pictures that are featured in this article.

5 thoughts on “Beyond the postcard of Central America, another reality

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