Photo: Bienvenido Velasco/EPA
“Report to migration,” says a rusty sign surrounded by leafy vines hanging on the door outside the Nicaraguan migration and customs office. But instead of coming through the gate, a steady stream of migrants clings to the left, on a short path to Honduras.
There, a fleet of motorbike taxis zip in and out of an open field, shuttling newcomers to the center of Trojes, where once-quiet streets are now bustling with so many migrants that the scene rivals those who are usual in border towns. from Mexico.
Central America has long been a source of migrants. But since 2021, smuggling rings have gradually ramped up their operations through the once nearly impassable jungle of the Darién Gap along Panama’s southern border with Colombia, opening a route north that – while still treacherous – has changed. the calculation of risk for many desperate. flee poverty, persecution and violence.
This, along with the elimination in 2021 of the visa requirement for Cubans to enter Nicaragua, has led to record numbers of migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti and other countries. faraway people traveling to the United States. And as they travel through Central America, they change political and economic dynamics along the way.
In few places is this phenomenon more evident than in Trojes, a small farming community in Honduras, where Cubans arriving by bus directly from Managua airport converge with migrants from around the world who have passed through the Darién Gap. .
In October, migration officials registered more than 30,000 irregular entries into Honduras, nearly surpassing the previous annual record set in 2019. As of November 16, more than 154,000 had been registered, with the vast majority of these migrants passing through Trojes.
These numbers, however, only tell part of the story. For fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Border Patrol recorded nearly half a million encounters with migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti at the Mexican border, most of whom crossed at least part of Central America.
For Trojes, this has been an economic boon. Moto-taxi drivers’ wallets are brimming with greenbacks, signs are stuck in homes across the community for bathroom and bathroom rentals or currency exchange, and vendors of all kinds are doing good business .
“Almost everyone is enjoying it, it’s a blessing,” said Osman Salinas, 45, a street vendor since the age of 13 who – with a smile that stretched across his sunburned cheeks – has remarked that it was his best year.
With so much cash at hand, there has been no shortage of opportunists trying to capitalize as well. “In every city or place there are people looking to see how they can double the price of things that migrants need, because they are migrants we will never see again and they have no way to speak out against the situation. injustice they suffer,” said Ana Ramírez, coordinator of a migrant shelter in Esquipulas, Guatemala.
Near Trojes Central Park, buses line several blocks that charge migrants $9 per person – nearly three times the cost to locals – to transport them to their next stop in nearby Danlí. Once there, the migrants split into different buses: to get to the capital, Tegucigalpa, there was a separate line for foreigners with an advertised price that was double that of the line for Hondurans. Those with sufficient resources opt instead for a bus that takes them to the Guatemalan border – a service that did not exist a few months ago but now sends up to nine buses a day with 50 or more passengers each. .
Facilitating travel through Honduras is an amnesty put in place by the government in August that exempts migrants from having to pay around $230 per person for a transit pass and allows them five days to travel through the country. without fear of expulsion.
It’s a stark contrast to the approach taken by Guatemala, which clamped down when migrant numbers peaked this fall, setting up checkpoints and deporting nearly 10,000 migrants – mostly Venezuelans and Cubans – to Honduras in just over two months. However, the increased enforcement seems to have mainly affected migrants with fewer resources.
“It’s a company that they would have created to detain migrants, but the migrant who pays the police is released,” Ramírez said. The Guardian spoke to several migrants who had traveled to the capital, Guatemala City, in the heart of the country. All said they had to pay the police several times to avoid eviction.
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It is also a boon for smugglers. In the past, relatively few migrants needed to hire a smuggler to cross into Guatemala, as most came from neighboring countries whose citizens can enter without a visa. Today, however, a large number of migrants need help. A Haitian migrant in Trojes, for example, said he had already arranged for a smuggler to take him through Guatemala, a trip that can be done in a day, for $250.
At the Agua Caliente border crossing between Honduras and Guatemala, security forces in riot gear stood ready on the northern side. Not far away, however, people with walkie-talkies could be seen leading groups of migrants into the woods, presumably to smuggle them through the checkpoint. Migrants who spoke to the Guardian said they paid up to $50 per person for the same service at Central America’s borders.
While in most cases migrants try to transit countries as quickly as possible, many of those who spoke with the Guardian said they had sought temporary work in Costa Rica to save funds.
Related: Venezuelans who braved a gruesome jungle trek may have to repeat it
The large number of Venezuelan migrants whose journey came to a halt following the announcement on October 12 that Venezuelans arriving at the U.S. border would be deported to Mexico under Title 42, a public health law invoked during the pandemic that allows the US border patrol to immediately deport migrants from certain countries without the possibility of seeking asylum.
This has made migration through the region more visible, but has also drastically reduced the number of new arrivals to the region, with the flow of Venezuelans through the Darien Gap stopping almost entirely in November, decreasing the total number by 72% compared to the previous month.
With Title 42 set to expire on December 21, camping Venezuelans may soon move on. But many more could follow. Smugglers will likely use it in their sales pitch, potentially even to migrants from countries that have not been affected, a common form of misinformation whenever there is a change in US immigration policy.
If migrant flows through Central America increase even further in 2023, tensions with some local governments could follow. However, many of those benefiting from the new economy that has sprung up along the route are betting on the continued passage of migrants.
In Trojes, a man was pasting cement to the walls of a pair of rooms which, when completed, would fit little more than a bunk bed. “For migrants,” he said.