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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Friday, January 4, 2019

Being a migrant guide in Zeta territory

Translated by El Profe for Borderland Beat from El Barrio Antiguo
Central American immigrants sit atop the so-called La Bestia (The Beast) cargo train, in an attempt to reach the Mexico-US border, in Arriaga, Chiapas state, Mexico on July 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ELIZABETH RUIZELIZABETH RUIZ/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/ Getty Images
By Oziel Gómez
From that year on, Said only keeps a memory and the certainty that he'll never get involved in the business again.
At twenty-two, Said has traveled so many times on La Bestia that he does not even make an attempt to remember how many. It is not worth the effort, he knows that even if he does he could not reach an approximate number. As if the scenes of that year of hours and hours on board the train has formed in his memory a single fusion now impossible to separate and quantify.
He talks with ease, with confidence, while keeping eye on the Mexican candy stand located in downtown Monterrey where he works. In his smiling face and carefree attitude, you can not guess the two thousand and five hundred kilometers that separate him from his home and from his family, from his native Honduras. His face as a teenager makes it difficult to imagine that until six months ago he was still crossing some points of the Gulf Route, guiding other Central American migrants through the territory controlled by Los Zetas.
He entered the business without intending to, by chance. He was then nineteen years old and traveled half the distance between his country and his dream: the United States. He was being housed in the migrant house, "La Sagrada Familia" in the city of Apizaco. Although he had left his home a short time ago, he wished to take a break before continuing with the trip.

In those days a Mexican was also passing through the site. One who did not dream of life on the other side of the Rio Grande, who could afford a more than decent hotel room, but who had decided to stay at the hostel as part of a business trip.
Their stays overlapped and it did not take long for Said to gain the confidence of that man. In this way he learned about the profitable family business that he and his wife, Mrs. R, also Mexican, operated. It gave them money, a lot. And it was much easier than in that distant land where relatives and acquaintances adorned the walls of their homes with sterile university degrees. And better yet: there was a place for him.
Perhaps it was the confidence with which he spoke that convinced the man to offer work to a young foreigner just graduated from high school. In addition was the fact that Said also was a migrant, compatriot of so many other travelers. Trust could be more easily won in a way where distrust is the basic rule of survival.
The labor dynamics seemed simple: he would travel at least once a week to some obligatory step on the journey for Central American migrants in southern Mexico (a shelter, train tracks, or La Bestia) and would mingle with them. Then he would leave on the trip as another traveler. He would feign fear, worry, until he found the right moment to offer, with discretion, his services as a guide and that of his boss as a coyote.
Once the deal was closed, he would write down the names, the telephone numbers, make the corresponding calls and wait for the payment in three parts. Reaching the city of Houston, Texas would be three thousand 300 dollars. The fragile security of crossing the Mexican territory undamaged cost around 40 thousand Mexican pesos per person in those days. Just over 37 thousand for the pocket of Mrs. R and the rest for the other "company", which really controls the route: Los Zetas. If the latter appeared on the road, he would phone R or her husband to confirm that the quotas and agreements for carrying "pollos" were fulfilled. And like that, continue the trip. Said accepted.
A year and hundreds of kilometers of roads, highways, and migrants passed by and Said did not know anything again. Money came into his hands like never before. Up to 50 thousand pesos in a single week. A figure that he would not have earned even in a month of hard and legal work in his country. But he arrived that December and that night in the center of the state of Veracruz, territory of Zetas.
It was early morning and Said had several "pollos" on board the train. When he reached Medias Aguas, as he always did, the engineer slowed down until he stopped. Then everything happened fast. The lights of several lanterns break the darkness and hit his pupils. There are shouts, voices that order them to get down immediately. Abuse. Again the light against his face. They are surrounded. There are threats and a lump in his throat. The breathing accelerates.
It must be a misunderstanding: the boss complies, R always pays. The night seems darker when the pistols look into his eyes, his chest. And it is a look that can penetrate the skin and life at any time. But Said manages to speak with the head of the area. The truth is that it costs nothing to get rid of that migrant guide in the middle of that nothingness, although, on the other hand, Mrs. R has fulfilled the deals. Then the leader says something like "let him go". And those words normalize the breathing and undo the knot in Said's throat. The weapons avert their look.
Even so, a cigarette is needed. And another, and another. A whole pack to calm the tense nerves, the trembling legs. However, they are not enough for Said to return to his liking for that job that gives all that money. And that was the last time he traveled on the train and guided undocumented migrants in Zeta territory. Several days later he arrived in the Veracruz city of Tuxpan, on the north coast of the state. Away from Medias Aguas, from La Bestia, and doña R. For a month he worked as a car washer and enjoyed the orange sunsets from the riverbank. Then he decided to continue his way north.
Six months later, sitting in front of the sweets stand in the heart of Monterrey, while remembering those trips along the Gulf Route, he says that he never saw coyotaje as human trafficking. And although the government of the United States protests, for him it is nothing other than "an aid" offered to undocumented Central American travelers. Of course, an aid that left him gains of up to 50 thousand pesos a week. Not to mention Mrs. R. Not to mention Los Zetas.
Anyway, there is no doubt in saying that he was on the side of the good coyotes-when such a distinction was possible- whose employees, unlike others, did not invent or exaggerate the risks of the road or order the killing of some migrants to scare the rest and win customers. He was limited, according to his account, to recommending the coyote and his guides, among which was him.
However, after three years in Mexico and so many guided trips and migrants, he has neither managed to reach the United States nor has a peso left in his pocket. Only a still fresh memory of those days and the assurance that he would never get involved in the business again, although there is money and a position for him.
Because he still dreams of arriving to the United States with a job and a salary that will allow him to build the life for which he left his country. With the Mexican lady who promised to pay his services as a coyote to help him cross the Rio Grande, keep his word and do it soon. Because she tells him that it is not long, that it will be another month and then Said counts the weeks, the days and finally the hours. His face lights up when he says "I'm leaving" and every time he imagines himself north of the border. But something goes wrong - it is always that "something" - and again to cross out the days that pass at the foot of a traditional candy stand in a country that is not his. From a place where he no longer wants to be.
Hopefully this time it is done, he thinks. Because going back to Honduras is not an option. I would not do it even if I was crazy. And in Said's eyes there is finally a trace of seriousness, of sorrow. "No, not crazy."


  1. Life's perils and choices are often questioned.

  2. Good story. Thanks prof

  3. What a glamorous job, indeed. I know a man has to put food on the table but being a guide in Zeta territory is not worth all the tea in China (or coke in Colombia). Things may or may not work out for a while but one thing is without doubt, you will meet a very nasty end sooner rather than later and you will be living on your wits and consumed by nerves before the inevitable happens. I'd rather go hungry than risk being decapitated and disemboweled with a half full stomach.

  4. Great story. Good to have you back Prof



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