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Documentary : Guatemalan Town Is Dangerous Stop on the Road North : Ciudad Tecun Uman on the Mexican border is a key transit point for many headed to America. But they must survive the intrigues of the settlement itself.


CIUDAD TECUN UMAN, Guatemala — The afternoon swelter had yet to abate, the swollen skies had yet to release their regenerative downpour, when an ancient vision sporting a tattered poncho ambled up the dirt track beneath the canopy of broad ceiba trees.

"We are all here at the crossroads of life," declared Delfino Giron Meza, a Cachikel-speaking Indian from Guatemala's El Quiche province.

Catching his breath along the miry shore of the Rio Suchiate, he explained in broken Spanish that he was a water-diviner.

He said he has long possessed the gift of being able to detect underground water sources. His hope was that there was need of such a skill across the river--in Mexico, or, perhaps, farther north, in the United States.

"I hear one earns well there," the old man noted, as he, like so many others, sought a lift across the river from the enterprising corps of shirt-less boatmen who ply their trade on hand-crafted rafts of wood and inner tubes.

That he should come to Tecun Uman, a city named after one of the last great Mayan warriors, was unsurprising: The bustling settlement on the Rio Suchiate has become one of the world's great migratory way stations in the past decade. It is a principal stop for legions of Central Americans and others fleeing to the north, often to the United States, via Mexico.

At Tecun Uman, the broad, muddy river, born in the majestic Mayan highlands to the east separates Mexico and mainland North America from the isthmus of Central America.

As this "Little Tijuana" has grown, rapidly doubling its population to perhaps 30,000, Tecun Uman has earned an image as a bawdy, vice-filled haven for smugglers, con men and hustlers of every sort, all eager to make a buck on the vast traffic of human and other contraband.

In the town square the other day, Indian women outfitted in brilliant huipiles hawked fresh tamales among groups of fast-moving men in wrap-around sunglasses and designer jeans. These men offered less traditional services, from "documents," to the "best price" for the U.S. dollar to safe passage to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

In unmarked storefronts or anonymous "export-import" offices, groups of men sat beneath ceiling fans counting money and smoking cigarettes, sweat dripping from their foreheads, oblivious to the hubbub on the city's crammed streets. Photocopy machines were as prevalent as flophouse hotels and lively cantinas.

But most local entrepreneurs, like the men who work the Rio Suchiate, are honest and poor, trying only to eke out a living in hard times on the margins of the unbroken international commerce.

"I'm trying to save enough money to buy a pair of shoes by the time that I'm 15," explained Samuel Elmer Vargas, a barefoot, shy 8-year-old who was among the many youngsters offering their services, carrying suitcases and packs for travelers.

In much of Central America, the mere mention of Tecun Uman has come to invoke knowing nods about the hazardous passage to the north, a ritual now familiar to many.

In western San Salvador, tearful farewells are the norm as passengers board the daily, direct bus across Guatemala to Tecun Uman. Uncertainty is an unspoken leitmotif of each despedida (leave-taking) between grieving parents and departing children, between distraught wives and their northbound husbands.

For those passing through, Tecun Uman can be intimidating: a place to get robbed along the shaded riverfront, waylaid in the warren of back streets--or, more commonly, stuck in a cramped, stifling boarding-house, unable to push on to the north, lacking cash for food or shelter.

In the past year, heightened immigration enforcement in Mexico has converted the never-easy but manageable trek through Mexico into a sometimes horrific odyssey that ends for many Central Americans in a long stay in Mexican jails--and, ultimately, deportation.

Almost all deportees and other veterans of the trip speak of extortion, beatings and other abuses by Mexican authorities. They bemoan their failure to "pass" as Mexicans, despite sometimes extensive rehearsals of the cadences of Mexican speech and elementary civics facts about Mexico.

"All I want to do is go directly to Los Angeles . . . and bring my family," said Enoc Moran, despair evident in his eyes as he recounted his time as a policeman and a merchant in war-ravaged El Salvador. He spoke in the shadeless cement patio of a small boardinghouse known as "El Quetzal," after Guatemala's majestic but rarely seen national bird.

Why did he leave his homeland? "I don't want my children to become orphans," he explained, showing snapshots of a son, 3, and a daughter, 8 months.

Nearby, Jose Silva, 39, a former boxer from Nicaragua who now resides in Mexico City, lamented what he said was the now-diminished possibilities of simply paying one's way out of custody in Mexico. "You can't even bribe the Mexicans anymore and expect to be let go," he said.

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