Carlos was working in the field a few weeks ago, planting corn and beans under the scorching Honduran sun, when he suddenly knew what he would do.
Amidst poverty and recent natural disasters – and with a friendlier face these days in the White House – the time had come to emigrate to the US.
“I told my brother, if you want to go, let’s go,” said the 19-year-old, who asked CNN to withhold his last name.
His brother, Wilfredo, is only 14 but was game. The journey would be at least 1,500 miles on foot from their rural home in western Honduras to the southern-most tip of the US-Mexico border.
They filled two backpacks with a set of clothes and a toothbrush, each. Carlos packed a razor. Wilfredo doesn’t shave yet.
With 2,000 Mexican pesos (about $100) between them, they broke the news to their mom.
“She was crying,” said Carlos. “She asked us not to go because she would miss us. It was really sad to leave the house, not knowing whether you’re going to die or where you’ll end up.”
The trip to the US from Central America is an infamously dangerous one. Less than a week after he left – talking to CNN and wincing as he tried to keep blood running down his forehead and dripping into his right eye – Carlos’ fears would be confirmed.
Migrant numbers on the rise
CNN first met the two brothers in Mexico. Guatemalan immigration authorities had already taken all the money they had on the way, they said. Still, when they joined dozens of other migrants at La 72 migrant shelter, just over the border in the small town of Tenosique, they were in good spirits.
Wilfredo watched from the sidelines as Carlos peeled off a sticky shirt to join a shirts vs. skins soccer match, migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua all putting their journeys aside for a moment, a brief respite for the beautiful game.
Carlos’ team won, and he was all smiles as he spoke to us. “There’s a lot of people besides us who decided to leave and migrate, to look for a better life,” he said.
Each night a line forms in front of the shelter’s main entrance. On one recent night, dozens patiently waited to have their temperatures taken and wash their hands, mandates for entry during an ongoing pandemic.
“This year we’ve seen a huge surge in the flow during the first two months of the year,” said Father Gabriel Romero, the shelter’s director. “The people aren’t afraid anymore to leave their countries due to Covid-19 because they’d prefer not to die from hunger, violence, or a lack of work.”
The shelter registered some 5,500 people in January and February, according to Romero. They only registered 3,000 in all of 2020.
“I think it’s a moment of a humanitarian emergency,” said Romero.
Most are heading for the US. And the number of apprehensions at the southern US border has jumped as well – more people were apprehended in January 2021 than the same month in any of the past three years.
Romero says if the pace continues – and he expects that it will – he could see more migrants at his shelter this year than ever before.
Over five days reporting on the ground near the Mexico-Guatemala border, CNN spoke to dozens of migrants. They said the reasons for the increase were myriad, but all agreed poverty was at its center.
Struggling economies in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala before the pandemic have been further decimated by Covid-19. Finding work has never been easy, they say, but never harder than during a generational health crisis.
As if that weren’t bad enough, back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes devastated broad swathes of Central America when they made landfall within two weeks of one another in November. Hurricanes Eta and Iota unleashed record-setting amounts of wind and rain, and wiped out entire communities thoroughly unequipped to handle one storm like that, let alone two.
Tens of thousands of people were displaced. With nowhere else to go, a large majority of migrants told CNN the hurricanes and their aftermath played a big part in their decision to head north.
A third reason has emerged as well—there isn’t a Trump White House anymore.
“It’s no longer a racist president,” said José Alduvas Moncada Salinas, who spoke to CNN as he rested along the set of railroad tracks he was walking on. “He looked at us like we’re animals.”
Trump, who made anti-immigrant rhetoric a central part of his political appeal going back to the first days of his 2015 campaign, pursued a number of policies to curb immigration.
The Biden administration is trying to ease Trump’s more restrictive immigration policies. It also says it will admit more asylum seekers but will take time to do so. Citing a pandemic and hoping to avoid a surge at the border, US officials have publicly said now is not the time for migrants to come.
That did not dissuade any of the migrants CNN spoke with. Most said they believed a Biden presidency would give them a better chance of getting in and said they weren’t going to wait around for the pandemic to ease.
“That’s the difference, that suddenly the new president is noble with a good heart,” said Moncada Salinas.
Mexico has stepped up its immigration enforcement in recent years, initially prompted by economic threats from the Trump administration. It has continued the presence of its National Guard along the southern board and has refused migrants free passage to transit to the United States. But thousands are still finding ways through.
‘One of the most dangerous trips in the world’
Carlos and Wilfredo set off with a group from La 72 shelter at dawn the next day, their pace brisk and upbeat, trying to make up as many miles as possible before the midday heat closed in.
They didn’t leave for any one specific reason — poverty, hurricanes, and Biden were all a part of it, they said. “If you have nothing to live with back at home, you come this way to look for work,” said Carlos, matter-of-factly.
They took a route along a set of unused railroad tracks. A train nicknamed “The Beast” used to run here and migrants would climb aboard, hitching a ride north. A construction project has halted the train for now, but migrants still follow its tracks.
Walking through dense, isolated forest, they are extremely vulnerable to crime and exploitation – the proverbial fish amidst sharks. A Médecins Sans Frontières report in February of 2020 found that nearly 60% of migrants reported experiencing violence traveling through Mexico.
“It’s one of the most dangerous trips in the world,” said Rubén Figueroa, an activist with migrant advocacy group Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano. “The migrant route is plagued by cartels and local criminal groups that see migrants as commodities, so they’re victims of assault, extortion, sexual assault, kidnapping, and murder.”
A few hours later, Carlos and Wilfredo emerged from their route. It was clear they’d been attacked. Multiple members of the group, including the two brothers, were bleeding.
“We had lagged behind the front of our group a bit and when we caught up to them, we saw the robbers holding them at gunpoint,” said Carlos, telling CNN four armed men and a woman assaulted them.
Carlos and Wilfredo tried to run but didn’t have time. A gunman struck out at Wilfredo first.
“One of them was carrying a little gun in his hand and I said, ‘I’m not afraid of you,’ and that’s when he hit [Wilfredo] and so I went after him. I don’t know how he hit me,” said Carlos.
Carlos, Wilfredo, and another man were all pistol whipped. Wilfredo had a severe gash on his head. Shown a photo of the wound, a former surgeon told CNN he’d expect it would need more than a half dozen stitches or staples.
Carlos and the other man both were bleeding from swollen wounds, each on the right side of the head.
Their attackers took what little money the group had and scattered.
Not long after Carlos recounted this story to CNN, a white van sped down the dusty road. It was from the Mexican National Migration Institute, the agency responsible for enforcing immigration law.
The group shouted and ran, scattering into the woods.
Better days lie ahead … maybe
That night, the brothers and the group walked more than 12 hours, making it about a half-mile away from the next commonly used migrant shelter on the route.
Their group took a break in the morning, sipping on instant coffee given to them by a woman who owns a small bodega along the train tracks.
Migrants pass by “day and night,” she told CNN. “This group just came right now, this afternoon more will come. I’d give them more but I haven’t even cooked for myself today.”
The brothers sat in front of her store, exhausted. The trip was still worth it, Carlos insisted. Eventually, they would make it to the United States and he would find work – even though he has no actual plan for how to do that or which state he will work in.
Wilfredo, dazed and quiet, was not so sure.
“I don’t know if it’s worth it,” he said. “But wherever my brother goes, I’ll always be there.”