We sat in the full minivan, all of us holding our collective breath as the smartly dressed official shone his torch through the tinted window. Was this the moment it would all be over for our six new friends?
He waved the van on and I could actually hear everyone start to breath again, the sense of relief was overwhelming.
Yesterday we decided to head for Mexico in a series of local buses rather than the lovely air conditioned tourist shuttle. After all we had far more time than money and the aptly named ‘chicken buses’ (because your squashed in like chickens) always provide for an interesting experience. About two hours in a piercing headache started clawing through my brain and that was to set the tone for the next ten hours.
Through my sleepy pain ridden haze I noticed some tense looking guys sitting in the back of our first four hour bus from Flores. They looked young, nervous and a little guilty. My immediate thought was that they were planning a heist and the good luck I had experienced in Central America so far was about to end.
We reached Guatemalan customs around two hours later. A tired looking woman reluctantly got up from her seat to perform the formalities. I could hear the novellas playing in the background while stray dogs slept in the hot sun. It felt like I was entering someone’s house not an official immigration office.
I looked around and realised that we two gringos were the only ones to enter the office at all. The others followed one man (who we were later to learn was Charlie) to the side of the old building. It was there that the transactions were made for an illegal exit of Guatemala.
Our scared six companions were on their way to illegally enter the United States. And my what a long and dangerous journey it is.
They had left their home country of El Salvador many days earlier. Whether they make it or not it costs each one up to US$6000, even more for children.
And the most dangerous part of the journey was still ahead of them.
Charlie was their Guatemalan guide, for a charge he would take them smoothly through into Mexico.
He organised the bribe money for the border officials (only 50Q or US$7 per person) as well as any armed officers along the roads.
We watched as they all had to pay more than triple what we did for the next bus from Las Cruces to Pellenque in Mexico as the driver was not comfortable transporting illegal immigrants (except of course for a price).
The eldest and most confident looking guy informed us that, if successful, this would be his fifth entrance into the United States via the Mexican border.
He had been caught and imprisoned four times previously for stints from six to eighteen months. He seemed quite positive as he told us and his fellow travellers of the seven day walk through the desert that awaited them.
“You have to be careful of the lights” he told us in accented spanish. “There is much more security these days. But it’s ok, the guide knows where to go and will climb the trees to check for the border patrol”. The younger boys looked around nervously they were obviously not feeling quite so confident.
Charlie said goodbye to them and wished them luck as we all departed in Pallenque.
We ran into Charlie this morning, he is waiting here for the call to see if they make it. For some, it is their life savings spent, for others a last hope for a desperate family. For others still, a way of life, earning money in the States, imprisonment, return home and then do it all over again.
I wonder if we will ever see them again. Maybe one day we will catch a glimpse of one of them walking the streets in Los Angeles or New York. Or maybe it will be on another similar bus as they stoically make their way back north after months of imprisonment.