The Buses (and Bribes) of a Migrant’s Journey Through Mexico

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Faced with the risks that infamous cargo train “the Beast” represents, many migrants have opted for other routes to the United States. They travel in minibuses, in taxis, or in a “Tijuanero” bus, making stopovers, but always with one requirement: they must have money to pay bribes. This is the story of one of those trips.

One, two, three, four… until 15. Pedro counts the number of police checkpoints they’ve passed and how many are left before he gets off of the “Tijuanero” — the bus he is travelling in with his brother, a 19-year-old Salvadoran. At each checkpoint Pedro gives nearly 1,000 pesos (about $67) in bribes. That way he’s sure he won’t have problems.

Pedro has Central American features, dresses like a mestizo “gringo” and, despite speaking like a Mexican, has a clearly Salvadoran accent. His passport, on the other hand, claims he is Mexican and that he was born in Tonala, Chiapas.

Nobody calls Pedro by his real name, and just like his brother, he is from El Salvador. However, his ID was legally issued in the Mexican consulate in Washington DC, some 50 kilometers from Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, where he lives. His falsified birth certificate cost him around $1,690 to process several years ago.  

This article originally appeared in Animal Politico and was translated and reproduced with permission. See Spanish original here.

With these documents, he can pass through Mexico with no problems. His brother cannot.

Throughout the 3,200 kilometers between Arriaga, Chiapas, and Sonora, Pedro must pay some $2,700 in bribes, and he calculates that “by the time we’ve crossed into the United States, [my brother] is going to owe me some $6,000 or $7,000.”

Pedro and his brother left El Salvador in a bus and traveled to the Guatemalan city of Tecun Uman. From there, they went to Ciudad Hidalgo, in Mexico. To get there, Pedro crossed the Rodolfo Robles international bridge, after showing his Mexican passport at the migration post, while his brother, who we will call Miguel in order to protect his identity, crossed the water on a flimsy raft made from a pair of tires and a board for less than $2.

Once they were in Mexico, the two brothers climbed aboard a collective minibus headed to Tapachula, Chiapas, where Mexico’s biggest migrant holding center is located. Since July, when the so-called Southern Border Plan went into effect, the center has considerably increased its personnel.

The plan is another attempt by the Mexican government to control the flood of people coming from the south. Among other things, it limits access to the cargo train known as “the Beast.” However, the measure has not halted the influx of Central Americans.

“For some time we have been noticing the use of other modes of transport, such as large trucks, minivans or stakebed trucks, but they were a minority, according to surveys,” explained Alejandra Castañeda, a researcher from the College of the Northern Border (Colef), who specializes in migration. “Now the number of migrants using these [modes of transport] is increasing. They are traveling along the same routes, but on alternative transport.”

This is Pedro’s strategy. He has already crossed Mexico four times. 

“I got on the train for the first time 11 years ago, but at that time it was relaxed; it was like traveling by car. You got off at one point and then got on another,” he said. The last time he got on the Beast, a couple of years ago, he had to pay the Zetas an extortion fee and he saw them kill a fellow traveler, so now he doesn’t want to expose his younger brother. His brother already tried to cross Tamaulipas with a migrant smuggler, known as a “pollero,” but the police raided the safe house he was being held in and deported him.

Migracion3

Photo by Majo Siscar. 

After arriving in Tapachula, Pedro decided to pay for private transport to Arriaga in order to avoid the various migration police checkpoints in the region.

An old friend charged them $677 to take them 250 kilometers by car. “If you’re in a car, you don’t get stopped by migration,” said Pedro.

When they reached Arriaga, Pedro and Miguel climbed on board the Tijuanero, as the buses traveling from southern Mexico to Tijuana are known in Chiapas. They are third-rate companies, lacking the permits of a regular bus line, despite traveling regularly and having offices. The Tijuanero that Pedro and Miguel boarded should have been taken out of service some time ago, since it was a ramshackle contraption without a functioning bathroom, air conditioning, or TVs, but instead it continues to travel nearly 4,000 kilometers to the northern border and back again every week.

For many Mexicans, and particularly the Central Americans, the Tijuanero is practically the only direct option for those looking to travel south to north. And the service is offered for a modest price — slightly over $100 in exchange for surviving four days on board, during which time you are exposed to six different climate zones, the only ventilation coming from two air vents in the roof. Traveling on a conventional bus line is more comfortable, but it costs twice as much, and more importantly, you have to have your immigration documents in order to do so. That’s not the case with the Tijuaneros, where the Central American migrants pay up to $340, according to the drivers, who know that this surcharge is just the beginning.

***

The bus is forced to stop at a military checkpoint. Three soldiers get on and order the passengers to get off. Panting and dull groans are heard.

“Form two lines: men there and women on this side,” shouts one of the soldiers. The 50 passengers organize themselves. The nine boys and girls stay with the 10 adult women. One woman had her travel permit approved by migration; others prepare their voting documents. Upon seeing my passport, from Spain, the soldier grins. I take off my sunglasses so he can see it is me, with a little more makeup. He doesn’t ask to see my legal residence permit.

One youth stays on the same side as the women, trying to remain unnoticed. They put him on the other side with the men. He has some kind of photocopy of his voter’s registration. They leave him for last, along with Pedro and his brother. They make the rest of us get back on the bus.

There, on the corner, Pedro makes an arrangement with one of the soldiers. He gives him $67 so his brother can continue his journey.


“If I get stubborn, things will only go badly for me, so look, I give them what they want and I get to go quietly.”


The scene is repeated time and time again. The only thing that changes is the scenery and the type of officials — army, migration agents, or federal police. It happens everywhere, from the jungle regions of Chiapas, Tabasco, and southern Veracruz, to the deserts of Sonora. It happens early morning, sunrise, midday, midnight.

The National Migration Institute (INM) is the only government body authorized to check the immigration status of foreigners in Mexican territory. The National Secretary of Defense (SEDENA) or the federal police can only do so with the express authorization of the INM. However, the security forces act like predators when it comes to migrants from the south, demanding a bribe if they don’t have traveling permits.  

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion

“Did you know that the soldiers and the federal [police] can’t demand your brother’s permit?” I ask Pedro.

“Yeah, but if I get stubborn, things will only go badly for me, so look, I give them what they want and I get to go quietly,” he says unashamedly.

Since 2006, the National Human Rights Commission has been reminding the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), the SEDENA, and state and municipal police that they are not authorized to request migratory documents from foreigners in Mexico.

But this hasn’t done much. Civil society organizations document cases of extortion and abuse against undocumented migrants by authorities on a daily basis. They act like a corrupt customs office that can only be won over with money.

According to a survey on migration risk, carried out by the College of the Northern Border, 20 percent of authorities participate in migrant smuggling, but, according to researcher Castañeda, there is “another 20 percent whose participation is underestimated.” Veterans of the journey, like Pedro, already know this.

Migracion2

Photo by Majo Siscar. 

***

“It’s over,” says the youth carrying the laminated photocopy. The light of the checkpoint cuts through the darkness along Federal Highway 15, which runs from Mexico State to Nogales. It is 4 a.m. and the halting of the bus awakes the passengers as they doze during the second night of their trip.

Two migration officials get on the bus and review the documents one by one. They make the passengers get off again, as the children cry from exhaustion.

“Are all of these Central Americans with you, or are they just passengers?” a migration agent asks the bus driver. Next to his checkpoint is another one belonging to the ministerial police, the now-disbanded federal criminal investigative agency. The cold of the Sinaloan morning is intense outside, but on board the bus the heat is suffocating.

“Just passengers,” Ernesto, the person in charge of the bus, responds sharply. His perfectly shaved, bald head reflects the light of the policeman’s flashlight as the officer shines it from side to side over the mass of passengers and the driver, who all stand against the highway’s guardrail.

In Mexico, transporting undocumented migrants is classified under the crime of human smuggling, in both its primary law dealing with migration, known as the General Law of Population, and in the federal law dealing with organized crime. Human smuggling is defined as “facilitating the illegal entry of a person to a state in which said person is not a national or a permanent resident, with the objective of obtaining, directly or indirectly, a financial benefit or another material benefit.” The penalties vary, but it is a serious offense that is not bailable. 

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Ernesto and Jose, the bus driver, are used to dealing with this threat. They have spent years working on the Tijuaneros. They charge about $680 for each round-trip ticket.

Ernesto, the mustachioed bald man, a flabbier version of a character associated with a famous cleaning product, was once a councilman in the municipality of Tlaxcala. Because of this, he knows how to deal with the authorities and he is the one who calls the shots. On the other hand, Jose, a member of the Tzotzil indigenous group and a former Zapatista, plays the role of the good cop. That’s how they get by.

While the migration officials hurry to finish checking the documents, the federal police review every inch of the bus in search of drugs. The stops become more common and more tedious the further north one gets.

***

“They already yelled at me a thousand times to go back home, because I don’t belong here, but I want to remind the gringos: I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me. America was born free, but men divided it. They painted the line so I’d have to jump over it and now they call me an invader…” the accordion accentuates the song lyrics of musical group Los Tigres del Norte and slightly breaks the tedium of so many hours of travel. A smile escapes from the tightly pressed together lips of more than one passenger.

At this point in the journey, some couples have formed. Giving a few kisses “pays the expenses for nearly four days of travel,” says one woman who is travelling with two children who are 12 and 11 years old. Pedro acquired a girlfriend who got off in Guadalajara.

Among the fifty or so passengers, there is a little bit of everything. Some Chiapan families plan to try their luck in Tijuana (since 2005, Baja California has been Mexico’s main destination for internal migrants from Chiapas), with their eyes fixed on the United States as soon as they pull together the money. Some Mexicans will try to cross the Sonoran desert.. The Central Americans pay bribes or bring false documents, such as a Honduran with a Spanish passport, who enters legally twice a year to transport second-hand cars to his country.

There is also a Guatemalan woman with US citizenship, who didn’t have money for plane fare; a 19-year-old girl who has been working since she was 14 in the kitchens of a Tijuana factory; and an indigenous Chiapan woman who is barely a legal adult and is already carrying a seven-month-old baby and is accompanied by her 12-year-old sister-in-law. A human smuggler is waiting for this last trio in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora. The trip has already been paid: the girl’s husband gave the trafficker $25,000 to get the three of them across the border.

Altar, a Sonoran desert town that has discovered that migrants are a financial goldmine, marks the last leg of the journey. From here, the stops become frequent. Pedro disappears at some lonesome point in the desert, after crossing through customs in Sonoyta, Sonora.  

It is early morning on a Tuesday, and the bus has gotten a flat tire, slowing the journey to a snail’s crawl for five hours until, as the sun rises, we find a tire shop near the wall dividing the border. There are still eight hours and another three checkpoints left until we reach Tijuana, although the bus is already half empty, and the ever-more arid heat of the desert resembles a sandy hell that the northern-bound migrants will still have to cross.

*This article originally appeared in Animal Politico and was translated and reproduced with permission. See Spanish original here. This text was written as part of the project “En el Camino” (Along the Route), carried out by the Red de Periodistas de a Pie (Network of Journalists on Foot) with the support of Open Society Foundations.

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