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Migrants Pass Through Many Unpatrolled Parts Of Mexico-Guatemala Border

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The saying holds, you don't understand somebody until you walk a mile in their shoes. So NPR's Carrie Kahn did. She traveled with migrants and refugees on one leg of their journey toward the United States. They're starting in Central America, in Guatemala. And for many, the first big step is to cross the border into southern Mexico and find shelter. Carrie found them as they started.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE TURNING OVER)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: A long wooden boat takes off from the shores of the Usumacinta River in Guatemala. I'm packed in with single men and women with children. The quick ride costs about $2 a person. Everyone is quiet and tense, thinking about the arduous journey that awaits them once they step into Mexico.

JOSUE DEL CERRO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's tough," Josue Del Cerro from Honduras tells me, as the boat picks up speed. In Mexico, migrants face all sorts of dangers - robberies, extortion from corrupt officials and, of course, getting caught. Del Cerro himself was sent back to Honduras earlier this year and is back trying again.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE TURNING OFF)

KAHN: The boat arrives at Mexico's rocky shore. Everyone scrambles off. No Mexican agents are in sight, no National Guard troops, none of the more than 8,000 federal forces Mexico says it has sent to patrol its borders. The women and children are quickly whisked up by paid guides, smugglers, who take them into waiting taxis. For the single men, though, like Del Cerro, who has almost no money, the hardest part is about to start - a 100-mile trek through this corner of Mexico's southernmost jungle.

DEL CERRO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: It takes four to five days just to get to the closest city, where there's a shelter for migrants and buses they can take to go further north. But Del Cerro says, by the time you limp into that town, Palenque, you can barely stand. This trek has become the route for the poorest of the poor and is dominated by Hondurans. Along the highway, you see groups of 10, 15, up to 30 people walking. Jose Vanegra is at the back of a single line of six guys. Vanegra's struggling to keep up as he nurses a nasty blister.

JOSE VANEGRA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: While most of the media attention focuses on the unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S., 60% of migrants caught last month at the U.S. border were single adults. Vanegra's skinny, with a gaunt face that makes him look much older than 21. He says he couldn't find any work in Honduras, the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its economy has been battered even further with the pandemic and two back-to-back hurricanes last year.

VANEGRA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I'm going to the U.S. to work. I like working. I don't like sitting around doing nothing," Vanegra says. He picks up his pace, and I watch the men disappear, swept up in the lush landscape of the jungle's tall trees and thick grass in every hue of green.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGHWAY AMBIENCE)

KAHN: There are no shoulders on the highway, nothing between the migrants and the racing vehicles and long-haul trucks on the road. Signs warn of jaguars, temperatures top 100 degrees, and the humidity makes it feel hotter.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIGLET OINKING)

KAHN: A piglet is tied to a tall tree shading the small wooden shack where State Police officer Angel Antonio Villareal sits. He mans one of only three checkpoints on the highway.

ANGEL ANTONIO VILLAREAL: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But he's quick to say it's not the State Police's job to stop migrants. He's actually there to respond to a rash of robberies on the road. He even hands out water to the passing migrants. And Christian Martinez is more than willing to take a break here. He's 27 and from northern Honduras.

CHRISTIAN MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) There is no work, so much violence. We have a corrupt government that does nothing for us.

KAHN: Migrants up and down the highway tack off the same list of reasons for leaving Honduras now. Jesus Diaz is traveling with Martinez and her brother. She's one of a few women I see on the road. Those two are all her reasons for leaving. But she talks about how she's lost hope and breaks down telling me her story. She's 21 and has been working since she was 7.

JESUS DIAZ: (Through interpreter) And you get to be my age, an adult, and you just realize you've done nothing and have nothing. That's the saddest part.

KAHN: She doesn't want to get married or have children. She doesn't want to bring them into this world.

DIAZ: (Through interpreter) They suffer, and you suffer. You can't give them anything - no education, nothing.

KAHN: She has three nieces in the U.S., and they've told her she can get a job and go to school there. Diaz says the group has been walking for three days, and they walk until the sun sets and sleep wherever the darkness catches them on the side of the highway.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIGHTTIME AMBIENCE)

KAHN: Nightfall in the jungle is loud. It also gives cover to those who keep walking and hope to sneak past the last checkpoint on the highway, just 4 miles short of Palenque. This one is manned by Mexican immigration agents. Officials this year say they've sent back more than 10,000 Central Americans, most back to Honduras.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

KAHN: One night at the checkpoint, I see immigration agents order four Hondurans they just caught into a van to be deported. But clearly, hundreds managed to get by and into the city of Palenque. I see that once I arrive at a local migrant shelter. It's filled to capacity. The exhausted travelers spill out onto the hillside streets surrounding the shelter. The magnitude of just how many people, especially young men, are fleeing Honduras these days is staggering.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: A volunteer worker shouts to the migrants outside - only those who haven't been here the night before can come inside, he says; the rest will have to spend another night on the street, like 25-year-old Angel Correa Perez.

ANGEL CORREA PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says he's Honduran and quips he's come in search of the American dream. He's just finished the 100-mile grueling trek. But to get to the U.S. border, he has at least a thousand more to go.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Palenque, Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWRENCE BLATT'S "MOVE UM OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.