Central America sees economic boon as migrants flow through on way to US
“Report to migration,” says a rusty sign shrouded by leafy vines hanging on the gate outside the Nicaraguan migration and customs office. But instead of passing through the gate, a steady flow of migrants hang a left , down a short path to Honduras.
There, a fleet of moto-taxis file in and out of an open field, shuttling new arrivals to the center of Trojes, where the formerly quiet streets are now bustling with so many migrants that the scene rivals ones that are customary in the border towns of Mexico.
Central America has long been a source of migrants. But since 2021, smuggling networks have gradually stepped up their operations through the once almost impassable jungle of the Darién Gap along Panama’s southern border with Colombia, opening a path to the north that – although still treacherous – changed the risk calculation for many who are desperate to flee poverty, persecution and violence.
This, along with the 2021 elimination of a visa requirement for Cubans to enter Nicaragua, has led to record numbers of migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti and other far-off places taking on the journey to the US. And as they travel through Central America, they are shifting political and economic dynamics along the way.
In few places is this phenomenon more evident than in Trojes, a small agricultural community in Honduras, where Cubans arriving on buses directly from the airport in Managua converge with migrants from around the world who have come through the Darién Gap.
In October, migration officials recorded over 30,000 irregular entries into Honduras, nearly surpassing the previous annual record set in 2019. Through 16 November, more than 154,000 had been recorded, with the vast majority of those migrants passing through Trojes.
Those figures, however, tell only part of the story. For fiscal year 2022, the US border patrol recorded nearly half a million encounters with migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti at the Mexico border, most of whom traveled through at least part of Central America.
For Trojes, it’s been an economic boon. The wallets of moto-taxi drivers bulge with greenbacks, signs are pasted to homes across the community advertising room and bathroom rental or currency exchange, and vendors of all kinds are doing brisk business.
“Almost everyone benefits, 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 – remarked that this has been his best year ever.
With so much money at hand, there has been no shortage of opportunists attempting to capitalize as well. “In every town or place there are people looking to see how they can double the price on the things the migrants need, because they are migrants that we will not see again and they have no way to denounce the injustice that they are going through,” said Ana Ramírez, coordinator of a migrant shelter in Esquipulas, Guatemala.
Near the central park in Trojes, buses line several blocks that charge the migrants $9 per person – almost three times the cost for locals – to transport them to their next stop in nearby Danlí. Once there, the migrants divide into different buses: to get to the capital, Tegucigalpa, there was a separate line for foreigners with an advertised price that was double that charged in the line for Hondurans. Those with sufficient resources, though, opt instead for a bus that takes them all the way to the Guatemalan border – a service that didn’t exist just months ago but now sends up to nine buses per day with 50 or more passengers each.
Facilitating travel through Honduras is an amnesty implemented by the government in August that absolves migrants from having to pay roughly $230 per person for a transit pass and allows them five days to travel through the country without fear of deportation.
It’s a stark contrast to the approach taken by Guatemala, which cracked down as the number of migrants peaked this fall, setting up checkpoints and deporting nearly 10,000 migrants – mostly Venezuelans and Cubans – back to Honduras in just over two months. The increased enforcement, however, appears to have mostly affected the migrants with the least resources.
“It is a business that they supposedly created to detain migrants, but the migrant who pays the police is let go,” said Ramírez. The Guardian spoke with multiple migrants who had made it to the capital, Guatemala City, in the heart of the country. All of them said that they had been forced to pay off the police several times in order to avoid deportation.
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It’s a boon for smugglers too. In the past, relatively few migrants needed to hire a smuggler to get through Guatemala, as most were coming from neighboring countries whose citizens can enter without a visa. Today, however, there are large numbers of migrants who require assistance. A Haitian migrant in Trojes, for example, said that he had already arranged for a smuggler to get him through Guatemala, a trip that can be made in a day, for $250.
At the Agua Caliente border crossing between Honduras and Guatemala, security forces decked out in riot gear stood at the 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 past the checkpoint. Migrants who spoke with the Guardian said they paid up to $50 per person for the same service at borders throughout Central America.
While in most cases migrants attempt to transit countries as swiftly as possible, many who spoke with the Guardian said they had sought out temporary work in Costa Rica to save up funds.
Related: Venezuelans who braved horrific jungle trek may now have to repeat it
Further exacerbating tensions is the large number of Venezuelan migrants whose journey ground to a halt following an announcement on 12 October that Venezuelans arriving at the US border would be expelled back to Mexico under Title 42, a public health law invoked during the pandemic that permits the US border patrol to immediately expel migrants from certain countries without a chance to apply for asylum.
This made migration through the region more visible, but also drastically cut the number of new arrivals in the region, with the flow of Venezuelans passing through the Darién Gap stopping almost entirely in November, decreasing overall numbers by 72% from the month before.
With Title 42 set to expire on 21 December, the Venezuelans who are camped out could soon move on. But many more could follow. Smugglers will likely use it in their sales pitch, potentially even to migrants from countries that were not affected, a form of disinformation that is common whenever there is any change to US immigration policy.
If migrant flows through Central America increase even more in 2023, tensions with some local governments could follow suit. Many who are profiting off the new economy that has sprouted along the route, however, are banking on the migrants continuing to pass through.
In Trojes, a man was plastering cement on the walls of a pair of rooms that, once finished, wouldn’t fit much more than a bunkbed. “For the migrants,” he said.