When Elias López decided to leave his home in the western highlands of Guatemala for the United States, in 2014, the going rate to hire a smuggler was ninety thousand quetzales, or about twelve thousand dollars. López, who was eighteen, worked two jobs at the time, one in construction and the other as a day laborer harvesting vegetables, and the combined pay was barely enough to cover his living expenses. A lending coöperative, essentially a small local bank, offered loans at a low interest rate, but with one condition: López would need to offer collateral. In exchange for a loan of fifty-five thousand quetzales, he opted to mortgage the plot of land where his family grew their food. “I would pay off the loan once I made it to the United States,” he recalls thinking.
In recent years, the rise of criminal cartels in Mexico and the newly aggressive posture of state authorities have made it much more difficult to reach the U.S. Beginning in 2014, at the urging of the Obama Administration, Mexican authorities increased their apprehension rate of Central Americans by eighty-five per cent. Even before Donald Trump took office, the U.S. government developed a new battery of measures—termed the “Consequence Delivery System,” which included prolonged detention, criminal charges, and deliberate deportation of migrants to remote locations in their home countries—to make crossing the border so gruelling that people would decide to abandon the trip altogether. Nevertheless, the number of Central Americans coming to the U.S. has continued to rise, as has the pace of apprehensions: of the more than three hundred Guatemalans who leave for the U.S. each day, two-thirds are arrested and deported by Mexican and American immigration agents. One outgrowth of increased enforcement at the border is that the price many migrants are forced to pay smugglers has surged.
López set out for the U.S. with a friend, and they advanced through southern Mexico without incident. As they neared the U.S. border, though, their smuggler began acting strangely. López noticed him snorting drugs; on a few occasions, apparently high, he threatened to kill them. One afternoon, in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, their smuggler disappeared. “We were walking, and then he just left us,” López said. He and his friend got lost, wandering in circles for eleven days without food or water. His friend, who’d begun to feel sick from dehydration, grew weak and lost weight, his skin turning a pallid gray. One morning, when they were about fifty miles from the U.S., his friend said he couldn’t go any farther. He died in López’s arms. López walked the rest of the day and night without stopping, and reached the border early the next morning. He turned himself in to U.S. Border Patrol, and, a month and a half later, was deported. [Continue reading…]