CHAHUITES, Mexico – The largest crackdown by Mexican authorities on illegal migration in decades has decreased the flow of Central American migrants trying to reach the United States, and has dramatically cut the number of child migrants and families, according to officials and eyewitness accounts along the perilous route.
Convoys of Mexican federal police and immigration service employees in southern Mexico have begun scouring the tracks of the infamous freight train known as "La Bestia," or The Beast, hauling migrants from the rail cars and sending them to deportation centers. They have also set up moving roadblocks, checking the documents of passengers on interstate buses.
Associated Press journalists who followed the train one night this week as it left the southern state of Chiapas and entered neighboring Oaxaca noticed the drop-off, with just a few dozen mostly adult males perched atop the rumbling cars instead of the hundreds of men, women and children who were there not long ago. The men said they were the only ones able to evade capture. There were only two women and no children on the train.
"They took almost everyone" said Jorge Ruiz Williams, a 20-year-old Honduran migrant who avoided detention and was seated atop La Bestia on Tuesday night. "We escaped because we're young and agile."
When the authorities come, the migrants who once circulated openly in shelters and boarded the cars as they were being attached to the locomotive are forced to hide in the woods, where criminals lurk.
Some of the Central American men say that instead of trying to cross into the United States they'll now stay and look for work in Mexico. Many families have apparently decided not to attempt the journey through Mexico at all since news of the raids and checkpoints, — combined with stepped up efforts in the U.S. and among Central American governments — reached their communities, said Carlos Solis, the manager of a shelter in Arriaga. He said the city, once bustling with migrants waiting to board the train, emptied out almost overnight.
"The word spreads, one person tells another, and it goes down the line," Solis said.
"They're also going after the coyotes, so it is increasing the cost of the trip and making them move through less visible areas," he said, referring to the smugglers paid to get migrants through to the U.S. border.
American and Mexican officials say they are noticing the same drop-off all along the route.
The roundups follow U.S. requests for help from Mexico, as well as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
On Aug. 7, the Department of Homeland Security released data showing the number of unaccompanied children and children traveling with a parent arrested along the Southwest border of the United States in July was roughly 13,000, half what it had been in June. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said the trend appeared to be continuing during the first week of August, and President Barack Obama said Thursday that numbers for the whole month will show a further decline.
"We're seeing a significant downward trend in terms of these unaccompanied children," Obama said in a news conference.
It is a far cry from the wave of migration that pressed toward the U.S. earlier this year, spurred on by a surge in violence in several Central American countries and news that women and children who reached the United States were being let go inside the country with orders to return for immigration hearings because family shelter space had filled up.
From October to July, about 63,000 unaccompanied children were detained after entering the U.S. illegally, double the number from the same period a year earlier. Another 63,000 families — mothers or fathers with young children — were picked up during that period.
There were no Central American children in the government shelter in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, coordinator Jose Guadalupe Villegas Garcia said Thursday. During the surge, at any one time the shelter housed about 15 Central American kids who had been apprehended or rescued by Mexican authorities before crossing the Rio Grande. Officials say the children are being caught long before they get to the border.
"There are very few foreigners," said Carlos Jimenez, a spokesman with the Mexican family services agency in Reynosa. "We received three or four children" in August.
Omar Zamora, a Border Patrol spokesman in the Rio Grande Valley, where most of the unaccompanied children have entered the U.S., said Thursday that the agency was seeing about 30 to 40 of the children in custody each day in recent weeks. That is down from a peak when 300 or more were arrested in a day earlier this summer.
How long Mexico can or will sustain such a massive operation is unclear. Sealing off the notoriously porous border with Guatemala is neither physically possible nor politically popular, and strict enforcement further inland is already drawing criticism, because it so closely mirrors the deadly cat-and-mouse game that U.S. border patrol agents have long played with Mexican migrants farther north.
But for now, the effort shows no sign of abating.
Williams, the Honduran migrant, said dozens of Mexican federal police and immigration agents boarded La Bestia this week at a remote, unscheduled stop and hauled off all but a handful of the most fleet-footed migrants. To escape capture, Williams had to speed across cars and swing down on a steel-run ladder, injuring his hand in the process, before climbing back aboard when the danger had passed.
Criminal gangs who used to prey on migrants on the train, threatening to throw them off unless they cooperated, are hiding in the woods near the highway checkpoints where immigration officials search passing buses, said Aliver Leon Lopez, 29, of Ahuachapan, El Salvador. He was shot in the neck by a band of thieves because he tried to hide his money from them.
"Before each checkpoint you have to get off and walk through the woods," said Leon Lopez, who still wears a bloody bandage on his neck. "They (criminals) have located the points where migrants get off to walk."
Faced with the nearly overwhelming obstacles in reaching the United States, Leon Lopez and others say they are giving up, at least for now. He plans to apply for a humanitarian visa available in Mexico to those who have been crime victims. Other migrants talked about finding work in Mexico, rather than the United States.
"Before you could get through more easily," said Abner Ramirez, 30, a coffee picker from Coatepeque, Guatemala, who was sleeping on the side of the railway tracks in Chahuites after fleeing another raid on the train over the weekend.
"If I can get a steady job, a steady paycheck, I'd stay ... to send money back home," he said.
Juan Antonio Salmeron, a 48-year old construction worker from La Union, El Salvador, said he wants to work in the northern Mexico state of Sinaloa, picking fruit or vegetables. "You can earn good money there," Salmeron said.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman contributed to this report from McAllen, Texas.