Last week, more than 55 migrants from Central America (mostly Guatemalans) who had been piled in the back of a tractor trailer died tragically in a wreck in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas. Dozens more were injured. The question is: what were migrants doing in Tuxtla Gutierrez? The answer lies in understanding the collateral consequences of Mexican immigration policy over the last decade.
Chiapas borders Guatemala, and many towns in Chiapas have long been part of migration routes through the state. But Tuxtla Gutierrez has never played a major role; the capital of the state is situated near the center of the state, far from the border, far from the railways that migrants often use to move, and between the two typical migrant routes that run through the extreme north and south of the sate (see image below). However, since 2014, when Mexico began aggressively setting up immigration checkpoints along traditional migrant routes in Southern Mexico, smugglers have been seeking new options. The lack of checkpoints along the roads to and from Tuxtla Gutierrez put the city on migrants’ and smugglers’ maps.
And with migrants comes opportunity for profit. Back in 2019, while doing fieldwork in the Tuxtla area, I took a taxi from Chiapa de Corzo to Tuxtla Gutierrez—the same road where the tractor trailer turned over last week. When I mentioned my research to the taxi driver, he told me that he charges the 500 pesos per person (around 30 USD at the time) to transport Central American migrants from one side of Tuxtla to the other. “You can make a lot of money because there are more and more migrants passing through here,” he told me. In Chiapas—the poorest state in Mexico—truck drivers and others in the transportation sector are also aware of the lucrative business of transporting migrants.
The trailer that turned over last week was is said to be transporting at least 152 migrants, an astonishing number of people that included many women and children who had likely been in the trailer for hours as the driver took alternative routes across the state seeking to avoid checkpoints. This volume is a testament to how Mexico’s increased effort to deter the movement of migrants has also met an ever-growing number of Central Americans trying to reach the United States. These detention efforts have not lead migrants and smugglers to give up—instead, they have sought new routes aimed at avoiding detention. These routes are not the fastest routes, nor are they the cheapest. But, they do aim to avoid authorities and road blocks and surveillance by authorities, in an effort to achieve the ultimate goal—avoiding deportation. And Tuxtla, a major city that is not traditionally part of the migrant route, has ample transportation options and that is busy enough to allow migrants to go undetected. Thus, it finds itself suddenly in the fold.
Though smugglers may be assisting migrants in avoiding deportation (after all, that is their business), the horrendous conditions in which migrants are smuggled are not to be downplayed. In addition to the risks of crashes and accidents, we must consider many other risks, like asphyxiation, dehydration, spending long hours in containers without food or bathroom, separation from family members, and the list goes on. And migrants are paying exorbitant prices to migrate in these conditions. In 2019, migrants told me that the cost of hiring a smuggler to reach the U.S. was between the eight and thirteen thousand dollars, meaning that, from the smugglers’ perspective, that trailer was carrying almost two million dollars in profits.In other words, poor migrants pay thousands of dollars to criminal groups to move in these conditions, because of the pressure of the risk of detention and deportation.
While the U.S. has managed to elude any responsibility for the conditions in Central America that generate migration, it should not be able to elude responsibility for the conditions in which these migrants are forced to move. Central Americans and migrants from other parts of the world place their lives (and those of their families) in the hands of traffickers, they ride on top of trains and walk thousands of miles in caravans, because of U.S. pressure on Mexico to keep them from ever reaching the U.S. border. Last week’s accident is a direct effect of that. But, as the last five years have shown, making the migrant journey more dangerous does not change migrants’ minds; instead, it creates a scenario where 153 people are crammed into the back of a tractor trailer and forced to move in precarious conditions. Last week, 55 people from Central American who were spouses, siblings, sons, daughters, cousins, and friends died unnecessarily in Mexico in a truck accident on a road bound for nowhere, while being cruelly smuggled to avoid Mexico’s detention and deportation apparatus being implemented at the behest (and on the dollar) of the United States.