A man who helped board the migrants for the five-minute boat ride Sunday from Guatemala across the Usumacinta River knew the count because each one received a ticket.
Mexico wants to again appear cooperative, as in 2019 when, faced with tariffs from then-President Donald Trump, it deployed its newly created National Guard to slow the flow of migrants from Central America.
But the reality is it’s business as usual, with entire communities making a living off the passing migrants.
Their reasons for heading north are familiar: violence, an inability to support their families, the devastation wrought by two major hurricanes in November and egged on by rampant misinformation.
Among those crossing Sunday was Yuri Gabriela Ponce, a 30-year-old mother from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, along with her husband and three children, ages 2, 5 and 9.
Now, having reached Mexico, they were uncertain how to proceed. As she rested Wednesday in the shade at a crossroads just north of the border, she worried about what would come next.
“They told us that farther ahead there is a checkpoint and we don’t know what to do,” Ponce said. “I hope that with the children they help us.”
The family left Honduras after Ponce’s husband lost his construction job and was unable to find another. They left two older children with relatives.
Initially they planned to cross into Mexico much farther south, but heard a rumor that criminals were stealing children and killing parents there. So they reversed course and came to this remote jungle outpost instead.
In the riverside Guatemalan community of La Tecnica, across from the frontier Mexican town of Frontera Corozal, a steady stream of vans arrived Wednesday. From each a dozen migrants exited, ate something, made calls to relatives.
“We’re almost there,” one young woman said into her cellphone as she ate breakfast on a street lined with restaurants, bathrooms and convenience stores near the river.
Within an hour there were more than 100 migrants at the river’s edge. They were mostly from Honduras, many women with children barely old enough to walk.
They were led onto boats with outboard motors, everything organized and out in the open. When they reached the other side, only Mexico lay between them and the U.S. border.
More than two dozen taxis awaited, packed cabs leaving and empty ones returning. Those with guides got into cabs and disappeared into the Mexican countryside. Those without guides or money, like Ponce, walked up the road.
As in 2019, Mexico relies heavily on highway checkpoints transiting its narrow southern isthmus to prevent migrants heading north. It stepped up those efforts this week, as well as at airports in the region.
The more than 31,000 migrants the government has tallied so far this year roughly mirror the numbers from early 2019, before Trump forced Mexico to act. But Mexico’s migrant detention numbers are more a sign of the government’s effort than a reliable representation of the overall migration flow.
Much of that traffic becomes clandestine in Mexico as smugglers pack migrants into semi-trailers and vans or put them on buses or airplanes with fake documents. Often they only reappear at the U.S. border.
“The migrants are visible on the Guatemala side, but become invisible crossing into Mexico,” said the Rev. René Sop Xivir of Jesuit Immigrant Services at the southern border.
On Sunday, even as more than 1,200 migrants crossed at the remote jungle outpost, dozens of Mexican immigration officials waited on the banks of the Suchiate River 300 miles away, facing news cameras as they turned back mostly Guatemalan shoppers with no intention of migrating.
That show of purpose came days before a visit Tuesday by U.S. President Joe Biden’s top immigration advisers, seeking to address the growing problem at the U.S. border.
“They want to pretend they are doing operations, for the press,” Sop Xivir said. “In practice there isn’t much control.”
During a nearly 400-mile trip along the Mexico-Guatemala border, Associated Press journalists saw two National Guard patrols and seven military outposts — ranging from unmanned highway checkpoints to army bases, mainly holdovers from the 1994 Zapatista rebel uprising, that look for weapons and drugs, not migrants.
Sop Xivir said one of the crossings most used by families is called Gracias a Dios — “Thanks to God” — on the Guatemalan side.
“The whole town lives from crossing migrants — the smugglers, the restaurants, the hotels, everything,” said a Gracias a Dios resident, who requested anonymity to avoid reprisals. “Look how much construction there is and the wads of cash that you see.”
The traffic had slowed significantly in 2020 due to the pandemic, but now it’s like early 2019 all over again, she said. “A few days ago, in a half-hour … we saw hundreds walking along a mountain path.”
Uncontrolled crossings dot Mexico’s southern border. In some, like La Mesilla, residents set up a street market on both sides of the border three days a week. In others, there is just a customs booth surrounded by dirt roads crisscrossing the jungle.
At El Ceibo, where the head of Mexico’s immigration agency was photographed this week reviewing operations, there is just a highway. Four days before he visited, two migrants paid $5 to cross there on a motorcycle without anyone asking them for documents.
Among the most vexing issues for the Biden administration, as it was for Trump in 2019 and President Barack Obama in 2014, is the sheer number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border.
According to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, authorities encountered 9,457 children without a parent in February, a 61% increase from January.
About 100 miles up the road from Frontera Corozal, 16-year-old Evinson rested at a migrant shelter in Tenosique. He had walked for two days through jungle-covered hills to get around the official crossing at El Ceibo.
The lanky Honduran teen said he was trying to reach a cousin in New York. Someone at the Texas-Mexico border awaited him to help make that reunion possible, he said.
“I came because the gangsters chased me out, because they extort people and they gave me 48 hours to leave,” Evinson said, asking to not use his surname because he feared for his safety.
A false rumor gave him hope it would all work out, he said, repeating what he’d heard: The U.S. government “was giving 90 days for unaccompanied minors to pass.”