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LAS AMERICAS Mexicanizing the Mara BY JOHN ROSS Angel and William had set out the week before from the slums of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and gotten as far as the Guatemalan-Mexican border on thumb and hoof. “One night, we had to walk until it was light out. We were too scared to stop,” confesses William, who claims to be 18 but looks four years younger. Now the boys were determined to reach Houston, where Angel’s cousin has promised them jobs. From Tecun Uman, Guatemala, the U.S.A. is a kind of dreamland basking in the golden sunlight with a fortune to be made at the end of the red, white, and blue rainbowor at least that’s the way it’s depicted in the mural painted inside the Casa de Los Migrantes. The Catholicrun Casa, a run-down hacienda fronting a rutted jungle path that leads to a bend in the slow-moving Suchiate River, is an obligatory pit stop for tired travelers heading north. It’s also an invaluable trading post for news of the dangers that lie ahead and the two boys’ eyes grew wide as they considered the advice of a grizzled border vagabond: “Watch out for your partnersdon’t even trust your cuate otes will take your money and then sell you to the Migra. They’ll take you to where the train leaves, but watch out! The Mara Salvatrucha owns that train and if they catch you up there without paying, they’ll throw you right off.” Then he explained how every week migrants are found dead and dying along the track, separated from their limbs, having lost their grip on a handrail or else been tossed bodily from the east-bound freight, the “Mayeb,” by the dread Salvatruchas for not anteing up the cuotas fast enough. Angel and William seemed to shudder in the tropical heat at the mere mention of the much feared Salvador-based gang that rules in this no-man’s land between Mexico and Guatemala. Yet, despite the lurid warnings, they were among 50 or so very young men and women who lined up at the Casa’s big doors by 6 p.m., itching to get on the road north. First, they would wade or swim the Suchiate \(more affluent travelers coast across on a beeline for the railroad tracks to catch the evening freight running east out of Ciudad Hidalgo and Tapachula through Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz up to the south Texas border, a route their fathers and mothers and big brothers had followed during the wars in Central America and after the calamitous 1999 Hurricane Mitch, from which the region has not yet recovered. But in between here and there, as the Casa mural so graphically illustrates, there would be many obstaclesboth the Mexican and Gringo Migras, border walls and fences, death in the desert not to mention the Salvatruchas. At dusk, the indocumentados are strung out all along the train track near threadbare settlements, darting figures camped in the hobo jungles along the right-of-way, ready to leap aboard when “El Gusano de Hierro” \(“The Steel a panicked cry goes up. It’s hard to tell whether people are yelling “Migra!” or “Mara!” Dull thuds can be heard in the thick underbrush from which tall men with clubs emerge, but their identities are indistinguishable in the moonless dark and my taxi driver wants to leave at once. Maybe they are the Maras beating up on the migrants for chump change, he conjectures. More likely they are agents of Mexico’s immigration police. Mexican immigration authorities deport 100,000-plus undocumented migrants back across the Suchiate to Tecun Uman each year \(in 2003, the deposited across the bridge in Guatemala regardless of where they actually came from. Last year, half of the complaints Mexico’s National Human from Central American migrant workers and their advocacy groups along the southern border accused the National ity, extortion, and other crimes against the travelers. The Mexican Migra has such a bad rap that the government has had to invent a second police agency, the Beta-Sur units, to provide some security for the workers. Jose Andres almost made it to Texas. He and his road mates had gotten all the way to Monterrey, a hundred miles from the border, but the hotel owners turned them in when they tried to beat the bill. Now he was borrowing money to call his people back in Honduras. Despite his bruises, he would start out again tonight. “If the police catch me again, I’ll only get a beating,” he said. “But the Maras could kill me:’ Yet he appeared undaunted; he had his chimba \(lead pipe, the Salvatrucha jungle beyond the Casa walls and was prepared to use it. “They will think I am one of them,” he laughed, flashing a small tattoo on his inner lip as he walked off. Salvatrucha psychosis is thriving along Mexico’s southern border. Tabloid headlines tout the gang’s notoriety in big black letters. The Tapachula hotel where I stayed had 24 hour-a-day video cameras in the hallways to keep the Maras out of my room. The Chiapas state police has formed an inter-agency taskforce code-named “Operation Steel” to keep the gangbangers in check. Last year nearly 700 suspected Maras were caught. Immigration authorities tend to be 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 6/18 /04