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Rafting a River to Make a Living and a Better Life

CIUDAD TECÚN UMÁN, Guatemala — Traffic on the international bridge that spans the Suchiate River and links the Guatemalan town of Ciudad Tecún Umán with Mexico is often light. For the immigration and customs agents posted at each end of the bridge, things are quiet, even sleepy.

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Rafting a River to Make a Living and a Better Life
Kirk Semple
, New York Times

CIUDAD TECÚN UMÁN, Guatemala — Traffic on the international bridge that spans the Suchiate River and links the Guatemalan town of Ciudad Tecún Umán with Mexico is often light. For the immigration and customs agents posted at each end of the bridge, things are quiet, even sleepy.

But from the bridge, you can see a flurry of activity on the river throughout the day, everyday, with scores of crude rafts crisscrossing the waterway, carrying people and cargo from one side to the other.

The bridge is the legal route; down below is the illegal way.

While Mexico’s northern border with the United States is fortified with elaborate barriers and patrols, the Guatemala-Mexico border is comparatively porous, and that condition is no more evident than along the stretch of the Suchiate that separates Ciudad Tecún Umán from the Mexican town of Ciudad Hidalgo.

Most people — perhaps thousands a day — sidestep the official border crossing between the two towns and instead travel by way of the river. Some are migrants heading north, where they will enter the country illegally. Others are day laborers. Most, though, are people looking to buy or sell merchandise — mostly food, clothes and household supplies — without having to run the customs and immigration gauntlet.

Here are some of the people who cross the river to make a living — and to remake their lives.

— The Raftsman

Marvin Garcia, 39, has been a raftsman on the Suchiate since he was 18. His raft, like all the others along this stretch of the river, is made from wood planks lashed to the inner tubes of tractor tires, and he pilots it using a long pole hewed from a mangrove tree.

When the river is high, Guatemalan raftsmen may charge about $1.30 to cross. When it’s low, and the work is easier, the fare may drop to half that. Either way, it’s quicker than the official border crossing, and more scenic.

The most unusual cargo Garcia can remember taking were some pigs.

“Chickens are normal,” he said.

The people who work the river allow for the possibility that in addition to legal merchandise moving illegally across the river, there is illegal merchandise moving along, too — drugs, for instance. But this isn’t a subject people like to talk about.

“It’s not to get rich,” Garcia said about the smuggling of legal products. “It’s just to get by.”

Garcia is one of the 42 raft pilots who make up a rafting collective known as El Paso del Palenque, or Palenque Pass, which works the river at a spot several hundred yards north of the bridge.

He and his collective are part of an elaborate ecosystem that has sprung up along this reach of the Suchiate, which demarcates the southern end of the border between the two nations.

There are at least seven rafting groups, like Palenque Pass, that shuttle between Ciudad Tecún Umán and Ciudad Hidalgo. There are also the syndicates of bicycle taxis that move people and goods to and from the river’s edge and the local markets and transportation depots on each side. And there are the porters who load and unload the rafts. On a recent day, there were 21 rafts in the water at the Palenque Pass, helmed by Guatemalan pilots who were taking turns carrying passengers and cargo from one side to the other. The Guatemalan raftsmen work one day on, one day off, alternating with the collective’s Mexican raftsmen.

There are accidents from time to time, but nothing serious, the raftsmen say. Occasionally someone loses their balance and falls into the river. Or one of the rafts’ two giant inner tubes ruptures.

“This is more secure than the Titanic,” said Garcia as he leaned into his pole. “If one tire bursts, we have another.”

“The Titanic completely sunk,” he pointed out.

— The Merchant

Oswaldo, 30, owns a small store in the Guatemalan state of Suchitepéquez. About twice a month, he drives his pickup truck to Ciudad Tecún Umán, a three-hour trip. He then hops a raft, crosses to Mexico, goes shopping to fill his store’s shelves and heads back home on a raft piled high with purchases.

Acknowledging that he was breaking the law by evading customs duty, he asked that his surname not be used.

On a recent evening, Oswaldo and a team of hired hands unloaded his day’s haul from a raft into his pickup truck: boxes of toilet paper, toothpaste, yogurt, pasta, cooking oil and milk, all products he can sell for a profit in Guatemala.

In the end, his savings won’t be enormous, but they are enough to make a difference in his life. If he were to cross by way of the bridge, he said, he would have to pay a 12 percent tax in Guatemala on all his Mexican purchases. On the banks of the Suchiate, there is a high level of suspicion toward strangers asking questions. People are on guard against undercover officials. About once a week, the raftsmen say, Guatemalan police and tax officials swoop down on the riverbank demanding identification, seizing goods and extracting tax payments, which may or may not go into their own pockets.

Oswaldo does not start calculating his potential profits until he is safely back in Suchitepéquez. The route home leads him through as many as 10 police checkpoints, which can mean paying as many as 10 bribes.

A payment of several dollars each time will ensure a smooth trip.

— The Migrant

It was late in the day when the Salvadoran migrant appeared on the riverbank, a backpack on his shoulders.

He asked me if I was from the United States and shifted from Spanish to English. He said he had been deported two months ago.

Suddenly, he started sobbing.

He had lived in California for 13 years without immigration papers but had married a U.S. citizen, had three U.S.-born children and had worked as a security guard. He had always wanted to be a cop.

His mistake, he said, was to get behind the wheel of a car after he had been drinking. It was his friend’s car, and he had just started it up when the police appeared at the driver’s window. The car was still parked.

“I said, ‘Yes, I’m drunk,'” he recalled. He wasn’t making excuses, not then, not now.

He was convicted of driving while intoxicated and spent more than a year in immigration detention before being deported to El Salvador. It was his first trip back since he had migrated. He saw his mother for the first time in all those years.

But he missed his wife and children in Los Angeles. So he boarded a bus in El Salvador before dawn that morning, and a half a day later found himself stepping onto a raft on the Suchiate.

He gave only his last name, Quintanilla, and said he was 33 years old. His plan was to head to Tijuana, and his wife and children could drive down from Los Angeles and visit him there. Quintanilla’s brother-in-law was waiting for him on the other side of the Suchiate and would show him how to get north safely: He knew the area and how to avoid the Mexican immigration officials.

“It’s a new journey, it’s a new possibility,” Quintanilla said as the raft bobbed under his feet. “I’m looking for a new life, a new everything.”

The boat bumped up against the Mexican riverbank and Quintanilla stepped off. He paid the raftsman and then disappeared into the marketplace of Ciudad Hidalgo where shopkeepers were rolling down their security gates, marking the end of another day at Palenque Pass.

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