Every day, enormous handmade rafts cross the Suchiate river, located in the municipality of Ayutla in Guatemala's San Marcos province, carrying tons of goods from Mexico to Guatemala and vice versa. The Tecun Uman customs office is close to one of the most colorful "blind spots" along the border, but few bother with the paperwork required by the Guatemalan trade authority (SAT), waiting for authorization to cross, or paying taxes to move a product from one place to another. The river flows and the clocks tick. Neither ever stops, and nor does the contraband.
"It's true that we are living off contraband, but you have to realize that in this town it's part of the culture, it's the only source of work one can get in Ayutla." Guadalupe Polanco is 48 years old. She's divided 23 of those years between Mexico and Guatemala, thanks to her job as a "camarera" on the Suchiate river. Her job is to row, to beat back the currents, and move products or people (it doesn't make any difference to her) from one country to the other.
Guadalupe said that fewer people are arriving at the Suchiate because they are intimidated and afraid. What intimidates them? "The authorities don't allow us to continue working because they say this is a contraband route and that we are working illegally."
Based on observations made during the third week of July, every hour approximately six rafts cross from one riverbank to the other, loaded with products like eggs, milk, cereal, toilet paper, napkins, coffee, beans, rice, and many others. The Guatemalan army said they had detected 20 blind spots along Guatemala's northern frontier with Mexico in February 2012, but in December 2013 that number went up to 65.
"Hardly anything goes from the Guatemalan side to Mexico, only vegetables," said one raftsman, who has worked there for over a decade. The majority of those interviewed admitted that they were transporting illegal or contraband goods. Are they afraid of going to prison for this? "Yes," they all answered, but they are more afraid of letting their children go hungry.
The smugglers discuss the topic calmly, and they go about their routine as if it were any other job. However, in the government offices and businesses just kilometers from the border, tensions run high when the subject of contraband is brought up. Studies by the Foundation for Development in Guatemala (Fundesa) and the Association of Agriculture, Commerce, Industry, and Finances Committee (CACIF) estimate that contraband could cause up to $755 million in annual losses. This represents roughly 1.6 percent of GDP, and is greater than the budget of each of the three largest sectors in the government: Health ($651 million), the Interior ($564 million) and Defense ($259 million).
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Nevertheless, the Executive Secretary of the National Commission for the Prevention of Customs and Contraband Fraud (Conacon), Manuel Chocano, calculates that the losses from contraband are no less than $1.6 billion a year. A third opinion from the Finance Ministry calculates that losses from customs fraud range from $780 million to $1 billion each year.
Three Wheels, One Job
Luis Valladares is a "triciclero." He is the next link in the chain of "contraband ants", as this activity is known in Suchiate, for, like ants, those involved carry tiny loads from one place to another. When the rafts arrive on the Guatemalan shore, he offers to carry products in his three-wheeled vehicle, a mix between a bicycle and a cart. He moves the products, pedaling away, to the bus terminal, the market, or to whatever small business in Ayutla. He's been doing this for 28 years now.
It isn't difficult for Luis to do the calculations, since his mother sold food on the banks of the Suchiate when he was a boy, money which paid for his studies. He graduated at 19, and started working in a bank in Ayutla, where he only earned 1,800 quetzales ($234) per month. The money wasn't enough to live on, so he returned to the river and went back to working as a triciclero. Every day he moves tons of merchandise, pedaling under the unrelenting San Marcos sun.
"I have three children and I need to give them an education. I can offer them that, thank God, through this work, since we charge 10 quetzales (about $1.30) to transport people to the terminal, 5 quetzales (about $0.65) to the park, and sometimes we take tourists around and earn a little more. So thanks to that, we earn some 3,000 or 3,100 quetzales per month (about $390-$400), although there are bad days."
Tax evasion and customs fraud are crimes under Guatemalan law. However, the study "The Efficiency of Tax Collection through the Courts," by the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi) found that the criminal prosecution of tax offenses has a effectiveness rate of no more than 10 percent (understood as cases where there is a conviction, or where there is an alternative procedure such as a conditional suspension of prosecution). This means that 90 percent of tax crimes reported to the Public Ministry are never resolved. The same study found that the sums recovered through criminal proceedings come to 2.7 percent of the total sought in all cases.
"A Necessary Evil"
For a large number of people living near the Suchiate, contraband is routine, a source of daily subsistence. But what does the mayor of Ayutla, Erick Zuñiga, have to say about these type of activities that are punishable by time in prison under Guatemalan law?
"Contraband has its roots," the mayor said. "We are talking about something that had already been ingrained in our town and our municipality 70 years ago. People inherit these jobs. A camarero or a triciclero earns between $9 and $13 per day. No one is getting rich off this work. As mayor, I am not the right person to interfere with this. I am not going to stop in one year something that has existed for 70."
In addition to presiding over Ayutla for two terms and believing that contraband is a "culture" in his town, Zuñiga is a man currently facing his own problems. On August 1, 2013, Guatemala's asset seizure court seized eight properties from a frontman for Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias "Chamale," who was extradited to the United States in May for allegedly trafficking cocaine to the country since 1998. The court also ordered money laundering investigations against five men who had had dealings with Chamale -- including the mayor of Ayutla.
On June 13 of this year, the Public Ministry money laundering office raided Ayulta town hall, looking for information on the municipal taxes paid by five money-changers, who were working on the Suchiate shore changing Mexican pesos for quetzales. They were arrested on December 3, 2013, along with 18 others. According to the investigations, this criminal group has laundered $48 million in Mexico and Guatemala. Among those arrested were Emilio Meoño Barrios, a member of the Ayutla local council and treasurer of the municipal football team, and Erika Eugenia Villagran Agustin, the mayor's sister-in-law.
The mayor had also installed a tollbooth where tricicleros were forced to pay a 4 cent community tax each time they transported goods. According to Zuñiga, the tax was only collected for a few months and the money was used to improve the road, allowing the transporters to travel with greater ease. "We have never tried to make it easier for them to do their job," he said. "What we have tried to do is offer security to visitors to our municipality, so we have tried to clear up places that are uncomfortable."
Do you believe that the transfer of unregulated goods is a necessary evil?
"For me, yes. As mayor, I am telling you that it is a necessary evil. It won't stop being a necessary evil until they are presented with a better option, until then it will be an evil that feeds many children."
On November 28, 2013, the police stopped an car that was transporting contraband goods. The workers from Suchiate became angry and attacked members of police and army, as well as burning a police car and reclaiming the seized goods.
"The municipality cannot contain the fervor of the people," the mayor said when asked about that incident. "There is no mayor that can stop a town when it is enraged. There are 10,000 people, and I am supposed to put myself in front of them as if I were Superman? They would have destroyed me, I cannot do it."
Are you afraid the authorities will investigate you for failure to report the contraband trade?
"In politics anything could happen. Politics is one of the scariest things, I had never entered such a dark world before. If they bring charges against me, I am ready for whatever follows. I am not consenting to contraband activity, I am simply the mayor of this border town. I am the mayor but I am also an Ayutlan, I am not going to turn against my own people. These are my people and they need a chance. They have no other option."
The Poisoned Fruit Tree
Very close to the Suchiate shore is a police patrol car. The officers never leave their vehicle, despite the town's intense heat. They watch for a few minutes before driving on. The river doesn't stop, nor does the merchandise. Hundreds of boxes of goods continue passing from Mexico to Guatemala. Mynor del Cid is also watching and waiting on this shore. He is not interested in the small shipments, he came for the rafts that carry products by the ton. He is a "fletero."
There's a legal expression known as "the doctrine of the poisoned fruit tree," which establishes that any evidence illegally obtained is inadmissible in court. The illegal evidence is akin to the poisoned fruit. Therefore, if the source of the evidence (the tree) is corrupt, anything else the tree produces will also be corrupt. In Ayutla, the tree appears to be pretty poisoned...
One day in June 2014, Mynor was driving his vehicle, loaded with goods that had just crossed the Suchiate. He was driving towards an area known in Ayutla as El Alamo ranch, when he was stopped by a police car with the initials "DINC" (the police criminal investigation division). "They pulled me over and were pretty respectful, but the moment they asked for my documents, they grabbed my license and they threw it into their pockets without reading it. They told me that if I had $650 they would let me go on working, and if not they were going to charge me."
Mynor charges between $13 and $39, depending on the weight and destination of the goods. On that unfortunate day he didn't have $650 in his pockets, so he refused to pay. One of the officers pulled out his gun and put it close to Mynor's head. "I told them to stop extorting me. If you do not pay an extortionist, they kill you, but if you don't pay the police, they put you in jail."
After two hours in custody, Mynor was freed. He admitted that he paid the officers a bribe, although he didn't want to say how much. "They let me go but I had to give them money," Mynor said, while waiting for his contraband products to arrive so he could transport them in his truck. "This happens frequently to fleteros, police patrols come in from elsewhere and you don't know who is the criminal and who is the authority because they are on the same level."
Return to the River
Guadalupe Polanco, Luis Valladares, Mynor del Cid and more than a dozen other raftsmen, tricicleros, fleteros, and money changers who chose not to identify themselves have one thing in common: the contraband trade allows them and their families to eat, and like any other right they are willing to defend it, no matter the cost.
"We'd agree with the government taking away our source of income, so long as they give us another option. But if they only want to take away our means to support our children and leave us unemployed, of course we will not remain silent, we're going to fight for our rights..." So said Guadalupe decisively, perhaps aware that, at more than 65 blind spots located along the Mexico-Guatemala frontier, that is precisely what is happening.
* This report was written by Gerson Ortiz for Guatemalan newspaper elPeriodico, as part of the Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas, a program run by the International Center for Journalists in partnership with CONNECTAS.