Sep 10 2007

The young and passionate Matt Slaby is a photojournalist in the mold of Sebastian Junger – his stories are deeply affecting and bring a raw truth to the fore. He is also a former forest fire jumper and a current law school student. He completed an internship with U.S. News and World Report late last year.

Matt intends to use his experience and passion in the field of journalism. Slaby went to Guatemala and, in an astounding act of raw courage, followed, with his camera, the immigrant trail from there to Mexico. I’m proud to print Matt’s first interview about this extraordinary journey.

Due to the interview’s length, I will post it in two parts, with the second part appearing on Wednesday.

When did you do this trip?

Matt_slabyI left for Guatemala in December of 2006 following an internship at U.S. News & World Report. After spending about five weeks in Guatemala researching different story ideas, I decided to head for the country's northern border to cover Central American immigration in Mexico.

Where did the trip start and where did it end?

This story starts in the small, dirty, Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman -- a town that is essentially controlled by various human and drug trafficking interests -- and ends in Ixtepec, Mexico. That's the first leg of the trek which, for many immigrants, continues for several months and covers the entire length of Mexico. Ixtepec is the first stop on the rail part of the trip where immigrants switch trains heading to the Gulf coast before continuing north into Mexico City.

Were you by yourself?

I spent most of the trip in the company of people that I felt I could trust. Journalists, knowledgeable locals, immigrant advocates, clergy, and the immigrants themselves. Contrary to stereotype, the danger does not really come from the immigrants; it is external. Street gangs, organized crime, drug cartels, and their various manifestations in Mexican law enforcement literally wage the equivalent of a low-level war against immigrants. Rape, murder, assault, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, and a parade of lesser horrors are perpetrated against immigrants. Nearly everyone on the route has a story.

How long did it last?

Three weeks.

When did this journey take place?

January, 2007.

How did you figure out where to go to begin this journey?

05Stories about the Mexican/Guatemalan border are pretty common in circles of Central American immigrants here in the United States. I picked up talk of the train almost four years ago while working as a student-attorney at a Denver day labor center. At the time I had been thinking about making a crossing in the Arizona desert with a group of immigrants and was intrigued by the Central American story since the hurdle is exponentially greater than a walk through the desert. Central Americans must cross more than 1500 miles of Mexico. The train itself poses another threat: dismembering and electrocution kills hundreds of immigrants annually. Figuring out where to begin was really pretty easy. Aside from existing information in the press, there are only a few border crossings between Mexico and Guatemala. Guatemala's infrastructure is archaic and really doesn't make crossing practicable in areas where there is no official link between countries because there is literally no road to get anywhere close to the border. Immigrants with money or property to mortgage to a coyote [smuggler] generally take routes in the interior of the country. The poorest, DIY immigrants, who cannot afford a coyote, end up at the rougher crossings where proximity to Mexico's railroad facilitate their northbound journey.

Exactly where did you travel over the 21 days?

Map My route started in the human/labor/prostitution market in the central plaza of Tecún Umán, crossing the river separating Mexico from Guatemala on a raft made of tires into Ciudad Hidalgo, stopping through the economic hub of southern Mexico in Tapachula, Chiapas, continuing for about 150 miles to the southern terminal for the freight train in Arriaga, then on the freight train north to Ixtepec. I stopped my story in Ixtepec, although immigrants continuing on the route head east from there through the narrowest part of Mexico to the Gulf side of the country before continuing north into Mexico City. From Mexico City, the railroad branches in three different directions, heading north towards three different points along the U.S. border where most of the immigrants who have been able to make it that far will face the final hurdle through the Rio Grande, along the seawall of Tijuana, or through the deserts of the southwest.

How did you explain yourself to the others?

Honestly. And in a lot of situations, I had help from whoever I was with at the time, be it a priest, a journalist, or immigrants that I had run into at other points along the route. This is somewhat speculative, though I don't think that it is a stretch to say that the U.S. passport was incredibly valuable in dealing with Mexican officials in the sense that most of the organized crime that takes place along the route takes place with a de facto blessing from the U.S. We fund, arm, and train many of the agencies along the southern border of Mexico as a second door to the U.S. Messing with Americans in this context triggers involvement from the U.S. consulate which would only serve to expose and undo the network of Mexican officials perpetrating crimes against immigrants. Make no mistake about it, extortion and robbery are the rule and not the exception. Even without drug money, the cash taken from immigrants at the hands of these officials is a boon.

What were conditions like on the trip?

It's the Grapes of Wrath with the addition of armed gangs and corrupt officials. If you were to describe the conditions without any back-story --rape, robbery, assault, and murder, massive displacement of people, etc. --you really hit the symptoms of a low-level war.

How did you travel? By foot? Train?

I crossed the river separating Mexico from Guatemala on a raft made of tires. The rafts run over the river and cost a little less than one U.S. dollar to get a space on the rickety, plywood deck. They are completely outside the law, though they operate in broad daylight just a few hundred yards from the official bridge connecting the countries. The rafts dock on the Mexican bank where Mexican soldiers wait in U.S. supplied Humvees to extort money from immigrants as they disembark. The cartels control this crossing and nighttime marks an increase in violence and the movement of drugs over the same few feet of water. I drove along several of the routes where immigrants walk to make efficient use of my time and to avoid the most unpredictable threat posed by armed gangs who wait for passing immigrants. In Arriaga, I spent nearly 72 hours awake on top of a freight train waiting for its departure before it finally rolled north for the final 150 miles of my leg of the journey into Ixtepec. An estimated 1000-1500 immigrants were aboard the same train.

Did you fear for your life at any time? Tell us about it.

08 There are really two different kinds of fear that you experience along this route: the Hollywood type of fear where your life or physical integrity are threatened -- and that happened to me at a couple of points -- and the other kind, which is a fear that sets in like a fog and keeps you on edge even in quiet moments. In my young and relatively inexperienced opinion, I think the latter is worse. After seeing immigrants who had been dismembered by the trains, hacked with machetes by the gangs, robbed, kidnapped, and raped by corrupt officials, you begin to expect that your fate may well lie at one of those ends -- and for the overwhelming majority of immigrants, it does. When fear becomes pervasive in the manner that it does on that route, you start to explore the darker corners of your psyche, planning out how you will deal with these situations when you're presented with them. At some point, it became very clear to me that I was very capable of killing if I felt like my life was threatened. I have never been a complete pacifist, though I've always thought killing to be below me, something that good behavior and self-control could prevent. I don't think this way anymore.