MEXICO CITY – “We’re screwed, here come the piranhas!” yelled the man at the wheel of the motorboat, as he quickly veered it away from the Mexican Marines and toward a stretch of sand near the Chiapas coastline, just a few miles off the Guatemala border.
The “pollero” or human trafficker was carrying a load of 20 that time: 17 Salvadorians, two Hondurans and one Colombian, all trying to skip the tighter border controls between Guatemala and Mexico put in place as part of 2014’s Southern Border Plan.
One of those on board that night was Magdalena, who recounted the experience to Fox News from her home in Motocintla, Chiapas.
The skilled boatman eventually lost the Marines, she recalled, but it came so close that he made everyone throw their possessions overboard to make the boat lighter and faster.
“Drop everything, your bags, the cylinders of gas, get ready ‘cause we might get killed,” he screeched.
After her traumatic experience, Magdalena became an advocate against the risky 80-nautic-mile voyage, which an increasing number of migrants is taking to reach Mexican soil and then continue uninterrupted all the way up to the U.S. border.
“I warn them about the dangers [of traveling by boat], but there is so much violence and hunger in Guatemala that they take the risk,” she said.
Some call it the “Sea Beast,” alluding to “The Beast” cargo train that famously connects both ends of Mexico and is widely used by migrants who board it unauthorized.
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The stretch covered by sea starts in Guatemala’s Ocós Port and ends in Oaxaca, where migrants hop on one of the three "beast" routes whose cost varies according to their danger level.
Three years after the Mexican government implemented its Southern Border Plan, many are now taking the cheaper yet riskier option up the Pacific Ocean.
If they choose to ride the “sea beast,” the total fare from Guatemala to the U.S. border comes to $2,500 — $3,000 with a life jacket. If they cross over Mexico on foot, the cost of the total trip goes to $4,000 or more.
Magdalena paid more because she didn’t know how to swim, but she said that during the frantic chase by the Marines she felt just as vulnerable.
Between 1993 and 2013, approximately 9,000 people have died trying to get across Mexico, according to Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
Traveling alone, in those panic moments Magdalena said she remembered her two kids back in Tegucigalpa she had left with their grandmother. She said she only stopped crying when a woman tapped her:
“Could you carry my baby? I don’t have a life jacket. Will you take care of him if I die?”
Magdalena said she gathered the child against her chest, closed her eyes, and felt the bumpy ride reverberate through her body.
The Southern Border Plan launched three year ago by President Enrique Peña Nieto looked to alleviate the severe migration crisis that saw an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors from Central America pouring into the United States through Mexico: according to Unicef, 21,537 minors entered in 2013, up from 4,059 the year before.
Father José Luis González, an immigrant rights’ advocate in the border town of Comalapa, in southern Mexico, says the ocean route is not new but is definitely more popular after the Southern Border Plan, which also increased the "beast" train speed to 37 mph (from 18 mph) and increased the number of patrols along the Guatemala border.
“We think about three or four boats come across every day, with about 20 migrants,” González told Fox News. “[This way] they can avoid the first few miles of Chiapas, which is where they get stopped the most,” he added.
The clandestine vessels leave from the port of Ocós, Guatemala, and make stops in the coastal towns of Mazatán, Acapetahua, and Tonalá, on the Mexican side. From there they go on to the Gulf of Tehuantepec, hugging the shoreline, until they reach Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, where the migrants get off and continue by land.
Magdalena remembers the trek on land perfectly. After her boat shattered into pieces and everyone onboard miraculously managed to survive, the “pollero” gathered everyone back together and guided them to an area of abandoned houses.
But the Marines had asked for backup and they eventually caught up with them.
“I locked myself in a bathroom and started praying, and when one of the agents saw me like that, he said to his partner, ‘No, there’s nobody in here,’” she recalls.
“When they left, I escaped, and finally made it to the U.S., and there I married a Mexican who wanted to come back to Chiapas, where I still see migrants risking their lives, like I once did.”
Gardenia Mendoza is a freelance reporter in Mexico City.