The smell of burning wood and plastic hits us as we step 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 throats. In the near distance, you can hear children splashing and playing in the Suchiate River, which separates Mexico – where we are – from Guatemala.
We head toward the murky brown water, walking under tall, thick trees shielding us from the day’s brutal sun. We’re mindful of where we step, dodging scraps of cardboard used for beds and ducking under clothes hanging out to dry, careful not to intrude on someone’s personal space or modest belongings. It strangely feels more like a community rooted here for centuries, rather than a migrants’ campground.
And after the assault on the senses, comes the assault on the mind and the heart.
Stories abound from the people here, most originally from Venezuela, of why they left their homes and what they’ve gone through so far on their journeys to Ciudad Hidalgo. The adults sometimes become emotional but more shocking is the calm, matter-of-fact, narration from the children.
They had seen many dead people in the treacherous muddy jungle passage of the Darién Gap from Colombia to Panama, a group of young cousins tells me.
“I saw a woman, she had yellow hair and this part of her face was covered in blood,” says 9-year-old Mathias, gesturing to his right cheek.
I catch myself mid-interpretation from Spanish to English, realizing I am talking to children between the ages of 6 and 12 as they describe in vivid detail what they’ve experienced along the way.
“You get desperate in the jungle, you think you’re going to die in there,” Mathias says.
His 12-year-old cousin Sofia adds: “We ran out of food. We were starving for a night. … We all lost weight.” Her little brother Joandry lifts his shirt to show us his belly, as if to corroborate his sister and cousin’s accounts.
“It was hell,” Sofia says. “And every time you saw the end of the road, there was more to walk and we saw some dead people … lying on the ground.”
“It was hell,” 6-year-old Joandry corroborates again, looking at me with eyes that have seen far more than most adults.
Bonded by experience, where they’ve been and their hopes
The trauma from the trek they’ve endured already, mixed with the shared dreams of making it to the United States, bond many of the people on the banks of the Suchiate, especially the kids.
Sofia was the first to get our attention as she asks confidently and curiously what we’re doing here. We tell her we’re journalists. Her attention shifts to the water, and she excitedly points out to the river and one of the many rafts. “That’s my dad!” she tells us proudly. “He’s helping others come across.”
A few feet away, sitting on the ground and leaning up against a tree is Sofia’s mom, Susana. She’s holding her 2-year-old son as Sofia’s other younger siblings play close by. At first, Susana is more reserved – nodding for Sofia to answer our questions instead of her. But slowly she starts to open up, seemingly wanting to share their story.
Still in conversation with Sofia and Susana, I sit down on a concrete step under an open-air structure used for storing goods that are illegally moved across the river from Mexico to Guatemala. Sofia sits next to me as we look out to the armada of rafts going back and forth, with dozens more chained up and ready to deploy. They’re made of two large black inner tubes, tied together with rope and planks of wood across them to support goods and people.
Sofia’s dad, Jeandry, is one of the men who – like a gondolier on the canals of Venice – stands on the 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 a couple dozen migrants pile onboard and make the roughly 8-minute trip, illegally crossing into Mexico. Police are stationed a few hundred feet away, and the official crossing is within eyesight down river, but there’s no enforcement along the border just a near-constant free flow back and forth.