Influx of would-be migrants corrupts small Guatemalan town

July 05, 1993|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,Contributing Writer

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala -- They call this place on the border with Mexico a "Little Tijuana" because it's where thousands of Latin Americans try to make their way illegally to the United States.

But so many of them are caught and sent back here that it has turned the once-small fishing and farming community into a hotbed of crime and corruption.

Guatemalan officials in Tecun Uman estimate that every day between between 1,000 and 2,000 Central and South Americans try to cross the 930-mile Guatemalan border en route to the United States via Mexico.

But stronger U.S. immigration laws coupled with a clampdown by Mexican authorities in the past five years has resulted in an estimated 200 immigrants being deported back to Guatemala every day.

They tend to remain in places like Tecun Uman waiting for another opportunity to make the trip to the United States, and RTC many of them resort to vice and crime to earn enough to make the journey.

Local residents fear for the breakdown of their community.

"We used to hear marimba [music] here, now we hear bullets," said Hernan Rafael Escobar Barrios, a 75-year-old shop owner whose family has lived in Tecun Uman for five generations.

The director of Tecun Uman's funeral home, Enrique Hernandez, said that deaths here have multiplied both from people drowning in the river trying to cross into Mexico and being shot in the town.

Many blame the "coyotes," the notoriously corrupt guides who charge up to $2,000 to lead people to the United States.

"All the money they make they spend on booze, women and fast cars. Before the town was quiet, and you could leave your door unlocked. Not any more," lamented shopkeeper Mario Choel in Ciudad Hidalgo, the town on the opposite end of the bridge from Tecun Uman.

Townspeople half-jokingly refer to the town as Sodom and Gomorrah because of corruption. Police and other officials can be bought off easily, and the town has become lawless, they say.

Cheap hotels and flophouses that have sprung up all over town now number about 40 as opposed to five less than 10 years ago. Brothels and bars provide work for those anxious to earn cash and solace for those who keep getting turned back.

"To be able to eat, they [the migrants] have to commit sins," said local innkeeper Celeste Marilu Coatepeque, who fears for the future of her three children in this town.

Roxana Yamilet, a 27-year-old Salvadoran woman, began working as a prostitute in the nearby town of Malacatan after she failed three times to make it to the United States.

Averting her heavily mascaraed eyes, she said, "I don't like this kind of work, but since we are stuck here, we have to do it to earn money. I have three children in El Salvador that I have to support.

"But when I get there [to the United States], there is no way I am doing this. I want to be a cook," she said.

Despite the clear risks, hopeful Central and South Americans continue to arrive at the border in droves impelled by increasing poverty in their own countries.

"The last thing these people lose is hope," says the Rev. Jesus Rodriguez, a local Catholic priest.

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