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By Barbara Alexandra Zavala Pinto

To recap my previous article, bureaucracy was bureau-crazy. I returned to my home country of Honduras to finalize my application for citizenship in the United States. This application was rejected on a technicality, and if I had stayed in Honduras waiting for an I-35—my ticket for re-entry into the U.S.—to be approved, it would’ve taken at least 7-8 months, likely longer due to COVID. On our very first night in my Honduran childhood home, gang members broke in, pointed a gun at me, and demanded my mom give them the deed to the house. That night, we knew that the safest thing we could do was to be completely and totally gone from the situation. If we called 911, the phone would ring to both places: the police station and the cellphone of the drug lord who monitors these spots, ensuring that the global drug trafficking trade never stops. It would’ve been me, in the middle of the night (madrugada), against the world’s number one organized crime industry. All my life I thought that safety was only 3 phone taps away: 9,1,1. Now, I realize there is no true safety anywhere unless the cop is standing right next to you (and isn’t corrupt themselves). 

So, at 6 am, we finished calling our dad. He was hell-bent on getting his daughter home. We grabbed our backpacks after collecting the tossed pieces of clothing, and the pieces of hearts, and waited for my aunt to pick us up. She got us, we went to her house, and we waited until 9 am to leave the city, blending in with the traffic. (The gangs keep an eye on who goes in and out.) 

I remember feeling emotionally dead during the 3-hour drive out of San Pedro Sula. All of a sudden we arrived at a gas station, where my mom and I would officially be suspended from everything we ever knew, and implicitly trust these now-hired “coyotes”—border smugglers—with our lives. The truck we were getting into was white, and the back row was a tight fit. A tall person would’ve easily broken a knee and a shoulder just getting in. The clothes I packed for two weeks in America were now my only clothing on this trip. It was a gray day, I was wearing fake Converse from Costco. The last thing my aunt told me was, “try to take it like a vacation! Just a very exotic, wild excavation!” I just looked at the ground and hoped the trip would only take two weeks (like the coyote promised), and I was already imagining my home. The plan was to drive up the sides of Honduras’ mountains until we reached the Guatemalan border, and so we did. 

The terrain was muddy and it was all dirt road. There were shallow rivers that we traversed frequently. There was a small patch where the mud was too loose, and someone’s car didn’t have the capacity to pull through. These coyotes knew the risk that the truck would get stuck, too, but plowed ahead. We got lucky. 

Picture of my Coyote, whose name is Henry Paz. He was well-humored generally, but stern while he was working. The coyotes would communicate through WhatsApp, constantly sending each other voice messages that expired after one play. Never skipping any beats. Never stuttering, nobody was allowed to make a mistake.

Figure 2. Side road of the mountains of Honduras. 

Figure 3. Another view off the side of the Mountain 

Figure 4. Picture of Honduran soldiers, only carrying their weapons. 

We were halfway there when we saw the soldiers on the pick-up truck. When we crossed the actual border from Honduras into Guatemala, I remember being absolutely shocked that there were no American soldiers (who would have sent us back immediately). It made me realize that nothing is stopping the soldiers from letting as many of these caravans go as they want. These soldiers looked like a few young men wearing all black. They accepted a bribe from my coyote, which was probably around 200 lempiras, or 10 USD. Driving on the side of the mountain kind of felt like driving up Bear Mountain, and the car feels like it might fall off the side of the road; the wheels felt as if they hung off the edge. After we crossed the border, the terrain suddenly shifted to low valley. The roads were so rural that shallow rivers one-to-three inches deep were fairly frequent. The road was not smooth. When we’d hit bumps, my head would almost hit the top of the car, and the seat was a hard rubber-like suede. 

The terrain made the trip physically exhausting, despite us sitting the whole time. Still, next thing I knew, we were in Guatemala, where we arrived at a hotel above a restaurant. Guatemala had a colorful palette, full of the most naturalistic primary colors. The mountains were green and tall. The advertisements were in Spanish, and saturated. Seeing the police on the streets riding in the backs of trucks was very common, with their guns in their hands. The coyotes were friends with the owners of a bed and breakfast type restaurant, thus allowing our stay. When I saw where I was staying, I noticed the room was an L-shape, with the bathroom in a corner; maybe the whole square footage was no more than a hundred, and two beds. There was a small A/C, but no hot water. There were small brown ants on my bed, and the walls were a bright gaudy green. 

Figure 5. The bed was a tight fit: wall to wall. I felt cozy, but the ants were a deterrent. 

I slept with my red iPhone 8 by my side—the only thing that made my life feel normal. Henry Paz’s part of the job was done when we got to Guatemala. He drove back to Honduras, switching us off to a new coyote. When I woke up, my mom was already up and at it. I went outside, and I found her and the coyote talking about our next moves. Today we were going to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border. There was some worry about that border closing due to COVID, and the police were presumably extra cautious and predatory. For breakfast, I had a small packaged loaf of bread, and coffee with white sugar in a styrofoam cup. While I was eating, I took pictures from the balcony. I took pictures of the cops, I felt like I was testing them—they didn’t know my situation from the balcony.

Figure 6. The police’s presence emitted the feeling of prevailing violence, they seemed to be ready for action to arise at any time. I was tired when I woke up. March 11, 2020 7:25 AM. Los Amates, Guatemala

Figure 7. View of the left side of the balcony. Depicted: a small-time slum, with markets and potential houses made of tarps and scrap wood. Tigo, which is a cell phone carrier company that sells minutes, and data of wi-fi. The general population can’t afford unlimited, so they have to buy each gB of data individually. The only thing in my mind: Americans would be outraged if we had to pay for each gB of data consumed. 

Figure 8. The bus ticket for the bus through Guatemala. March 11, 2020 8:43AM. Los Amates, Guatemala

Nobody ever told me any real details. Sure, I knew we were going to take a bus to traverse Guatemala, but where, when, and how much the ticket cost was never shared with me. The bus ticket was a mere piece of paper with confusing numbers and labels. Still, my mom and I got on the bus, which was definitely no Greyhound-comfort vehicle. The glass panes did not fully close, leaving us with no AC, only fresh air (and it was still quite hot). For curtains, two ropes ran along the length of the bus, with pieces of blue fabric running through them, some of those pieces tattered and dancing in the wind. The seats were blue and cushioned as well, with some of their foam exposed, of course. There were electrical plugs by the seats, but to be honest, I forgot if it had a USB port for charging, and if it did, it probably wouldn’t have worked. I absorbed the display of Guatemala before me. I couldn’t have my phone out or it might draw the wrong kind of attention and get stolen. I wanted to take pictures but I could only do so sparingly. It was hot and there were people getting on and off. The dust from outside was breezing through the bus. It smelled like linen and dry petrichor.

Figure 9. The interior of the bus. Guatemala, 8:33 AM. Nobody had an iPhone. 

We were on the bus from 9 am to 2:30 PM, when we switched from that to a white combi. 

Figure 10. Picture from inside the combi. The products sold in the street are seen. Cheap goods and bright colors. March 11, 2020, 2:28 PM. Flores, Guatemala. 

Figure 11. A barbershop is visible. A child is freely sticking his head out the window. One thing about the third world, which everybody should get to see, is how unrestricted the intake of life is. Same time and date. 

A woman selling food and candles came up to the side of the combi, making a living for herself. She was humble and kind. I didn’t purchase any because I wasn’t hungry. She had a woven basket that she pulled up to the window outside of the combi while it was stuck in traffic going 2 mph. A man bought peanuts. They looked delicious, but I had only one bottle of water with me, and I didn’t want to dry my mouth by eating sugary sweets. 

Figure 11. Guatemalan vendor woman, wearing a hat for sun protection. 2:31 PM, Flores, Guatemala. 

Figure 12. Man with good walking posture. 2:32 PM. 

Figure 13. Figure 14. We were driving at probably 25mph, not fast but catching a light breeze. I put my hand out the window to capture this picture of the Guatemalan road. No curb, dense urbanism, cars and people traffic freely mixing, and street vending are all hallmarks of the beauty of the Latin American third world. Honestly, I think Guatemala had the bluest sky.

The combi barely had any functioning A/C, but I was able to stretch my legs and lay down on the seat next to me. When the scenery of the city and the mountains was over, we reached the plains of farmland and trees. At that point, I was on my phone the entire time. Also, all the temporary passengers got off, and the bus now only carried my mom and me, and other immigrants like us.

We drove the entire day, I was tired. It was only the beginning. At 5:28 PM I decided to take a few more pictures.  

Figure 15. Farmhouse. Natural fence. 

Figure 16. Typical farmland. 

Figure 17. Advertisement. 

Figure 18. Long Road.

Figure 19. 5:53 PM in Guatemala. My phone could not read the location of the city. 

Figure 20. Guatemala sky during sunset. 5:58 PM. March 11, 2020. 

After many hours, we stopped at a deli where I took a picture of 5 quetzales. It was 6:13 PM. It was my first time seeing this money. I daydreamed about my favorite songs. I read 1984 a little more. We were riding in a fried-out combi, but this track was almost all dirt road and we drove beside a plethora of farms. Many signs in Spanish. I took pictures of views, my favorite things to see because they could be memorialized. 

Figure 21. 5 Quetzales. 6:13 PM. I used it to buy chips. 

I don’t remember how many I.D. checks there were on the Guatemala bus before we got off, but definitely more than zero. They were so awful and so routine, I must’ve suppressed the memory of the first one because I don’t remember how it went other than how they always go: an immigration officer gets on the bus, yells for everyone to demonstrate ID. If you don’t have one, you will be asked to step off the bus—it is an unspoken walk of shame. Those were the worst. More on those later…

Finally, we arrived at the border of Mexico, and the longest leg of our journey began…

One Reply to “Part 2 of Crossing the Border: Calling the Coyotes ”

  1. You have inspired me to leave my first ever comment. Great job! Your down to earth tone and inclusion of photos makes it feel like I am there with you. I can’t wait to read the next installment. Keep up the good work.

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