Migrants spend tens of thousands of dollars, travels tens of thousands of kilometers to reach the US
Sitting in a small cafe in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, Gorjit recalled the harrowing experiences that led him there.
The young man with chiseled features said he left his home in northern India after political strife took the life of his father and uncle. He sold his house and escaped first to Qatar, then to Brazil and on to Argentina where he worked for six months. Then he headed north with one destination in mind.
"Some guys told me there is a better life in the United States," he said in broken Spanish. "And that's where I'm going."
Photo by Conrad Fox. Gorjit fled northern India because of violence.
The cafe where Gorjit sat, that bears a sign in Bengali, lies across the street from the Hotel Palafox which is one of the main places where migrants from Africa and Asia who have made it to Mexico hang out, swapping stories from their odysseys and listening to music on mobile phones.
One of them, a Somali refugee called Ismael, said he was living in South Africa when a wave of xenophobic attacks swept the country last year.
"Every day they threatened us," he recalled. Going back to his war-torn homeland, he added, would have been tantamount to "just go and kill yourself."
Ismael paid a man in Kenya $5,000 dollars for a fake passport, a plane ticket to Brazil and introductions to a spidery network of human smugglers that eventually got him to Tapachula and the Hotel Palafox.
'I thought: Wow, this is the American continent.'
A few blocks away in the city's central plaza George smiled as he made a video on a tablet of a traditional Mexican dance troupe — all brassy music and swirling colors. He said he left his native Cameroon without a passport on board a cargo ship. He traveled from port to port until the ship docked in Colombia.
"I thought: Wow, this is the American continent. I used to think you could get a bus to America."
He slipped ashore and was immediately mugged. With what little he had left he began asking directions to the US. He laughs a little at his own naivete.
Tapachula has long been a temporary resting place for Central American migrants heading through Mexico on an effort to get to the United States. In recent years the small, sleepy and hot city has also become a hub for migrants from further afield, many of whom plan to seek asylum if they reach US soil.
Mexican migration authorities detained 1,300 African and Asian migrants in 2014, three times more than the previous year. The numbers were on track to at least double again in 2015.
Honduras, Guatemala, Panama and Colombia have all reported similarly dramatic increases in migrants from countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, China, India, Pakistan, Tibet, Cameroon, Somalia, Eritrea, Ghana, and Sudan.
The rise of African and Asian migrants in Latin America reflects both the tightening of border restrictions in Europe and their loosening in some Latin American countries, such as Ecuador.
Migrants who would never be granted a visa to fly directly to the US, find Latin America an easier point of entry into the continent. And even where visas are required, corruption has made borders porous. In Tapachula, migrants reported that bribery is almost standard procedure along the route.
The journey is not only long and arduous. At some points it is outright dangerous as well.
In the grimy port town of Turbo, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, migrants mill about the wharves looking for clandestine boat operators to take them to Panama. The port is a bottleneck on the route north, and all migrants pass through here at some point.
"I couldn't sleep that night," George said of his first day in Turbo. The only way the Cameroonian made it out of the town was by handing over about $750 dollars in exchange for a night-long ride in a skiff packed to double capacity through waters controlled by paramilitary groups and the feared Clan Usaga drug trafficking gang.
With no life jackets, dozens of migrants have drowned on this leg of the route every year since 2013. According to locals, the smugglers robbed and then threw the migrants into the water.
"Two weeks ago we found 15 migrants just drifting alone in a boat," Rear Admiral Ricardo Hurtado of the Colombian Navy told VICE News in November. Hurtado's anti-drug patrols also interdict migrant traffic. "When the engine died, the smugglers just swam away and left them there."
Hurtado said that in the first 10 months of 2015 his patrols detained 538 migrants compared to 138 in the same period of the year before. "We're overwhelmed," he said.
'There are a lot of dead bodies in the jungle, you see their skeletons.'
For those who can't afford to take a boat all the way to Panama, the cheaper option is to get off on the Colombian coast and then hike through the famously inhospital jungle of the Darien Gap that separates both countries, and through which no road has ever been built.
Some in Tapachula shuddered as they recalled the journey.
"If I had known there was jungle, I would never have left the ship," George, the Cameroonian said. "There are a lot of dead bodies in the jungle, you see their skeletons."
With his own strength waning, and food and water running out, he spent much of the journey assisting a pregnant woman who was traveling with him as they climbed muddy slopes and crossed fetid swampland. It took them two days to get out.
"I was seven days without food," says Gorjit, the young Indian whose feet were so badly damaged he still has difficulty walking. "I thought I was going to die."
Once they get to Panama the Asian and African migrants often turn themselves into the authorities looking for help, and hoping to get a visa that will enable them to travel legally through the country. They are held in military camps while their identity is checked by authorities.
"In the first camp, we sleep like dogs, outside on the stone. The food is the same, two times a day. For twenty-five days, dry rice. That is all they can afford to give us," said Ismael, the Somali. "But we say thank you. If we are still alive until now, we just say thank you to God."
Ismael, like most migrants on this route, was eventually granted a temporary exit visa and released. This is a pattern that becomes routine as the migrants move from country to country through Central America. For most governments in the region, establishing the nationality of undocumented migrants from half the world away — let alone deporting them home — is simply too slow and costly.
And then there are the smuggling rings that help move the migrants through the region in ways that avoid the authorities altogether — at a price.
When Guatemala's recently created human trafficking unit raided a small hotel in downtown Guatemala City in June of 2015, they found a diverse collection of foreign currency, as well as false passports, lists of flights and arrival times, and signs with people's names on them for picking up clients at the airport. They also found a parrot that Asian asylum seekers at the US border had told Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents that their Guatemalan smugglers kept in an office upstairs.
"These guys are so organized. They've got contacts in Africa... in South America," said Mynor Pinto, the Guatemalan officer who led the raid triggered by an ICE tip. "We're talking about a kind of confederation of criminal structures all working towards the same goal. Everyone has their fee and no one moves the migrants until they get their cut."
After Guatemala comes Mexico. They typically cross the border over the Suchiate river on the small flotilla of rafts made of inner tubes that are punted leisurely from bank to bank. They carry goods and livestock in a thriving cross border trade, as well as migrants nearing the end of their odyssey.
Wilson, one of the raftsmen at a popular crossing point, said he ferries about ten African and Asian migrants per week.
"Like four days ago there was a big group of them," he recalled. "And when we get to the other side, one of them says, 'Where am I?' I said 'you're in Mexico, man.' He said 'I don't believe it.' He jumped so high and so happy, like a kangaroo."
Photo by Conrad Fox. George left Cameroon on a cargo ship.
Tapachula in Mexico's southern border may not be their final destination, but it is the next best thing for many. After the trip throughout South and Central America they can finally easily find facilities for wire transfers and long-distance calls.
'At night sometimes I start crying thinking about my life...All I've got is my life.'
Migrants go relatively unmolested by police and gangs. Transit visas are relatively easy to get and are generous at 21 days. Even the migration detention center — notorious for abuse and extortion of Latin American migrants — is considered relatively cushy.
When migrants are released from the immigration center and with their visa in hand, many hang around waiting for money to be sent by friends and family back home. A thriving business has built up around them here: the Hotel Palafox offers credit in exchange for exit visas.
For some, however, the road ahead is still daunting.
Having crossed the world to get to Mexico from northern India Gorjit had no money for a flight, or even to take the long-haul busses that trundle up to the US border. He said he was planning to continue his journey via the clandestine routes taken by Central American migrants but was worried about Mexico's drug cartels. In 2010, an Indian was found dead among 72 migrants massacred by the Zetas drug gang in Tamaulipas state.
"I'm afraid, really afraid," he said. "At night sometimes I start crying thinking about my life. I have heard there are gangs up ahead that kill. All I've got is my life."
This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media. Manuel Ureste and Francisco Rodríguez contributed to the reporting.