Central American migrants continue to use the route up the Gulf Coast side of Mexico and through Tamaulipas because it's the shortest to the U.S., said Rodolfo Casillas Ramirez, a professor at Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales in Mexico City. The smugglers choose the route, and even if immigrants have heard about the violence in Tamaulipas, "they trust that the premium they've paid includes the right of passage," he said.
They continue to leave their home countries for economic reasons. Although the U.S. economy has provided fewer jobs for immigrants during the Great Recession and a long, slow recovery, opportunities south of the border have been even more limited, Casillas said.
That's why the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, a Roman Catholic priest who founded a shelter for immigrants in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, said the answer is in regional development, not increased border security.
"This situation has grown because ultimately the migrants are merchandise and organized crime profits in volume," he said during a recent visit to Matamoros.
Rep. Filemon Vela, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee whose district includes Brownsville, said the immigration-reform debate has so far left out discussion of the security and economic development in Mexico.
"The incentive for people to cross over illegally from Mexico will never subside until these individuals feel safe and until they are able to feed themselves and their families," Vela said.
At the 150-bed shelter, more than half of the immigrants have just been deported from the U.S., Gallardo said. The others are immigrants preparing to cross. He said shelter workers constantly chase out infiltrators who are paid by smugglers to recruit inside.
At Solalinde's shelter in southern Mexico, threats from organized crime forced them to bring in four state police officers and four federal ones, who have lived at his shelter for the past year as protection. Solalinde now travels with bodyguards after having fled Mexico for a couple of months last year following threats.
One immigrant at the Matamoros shelter was a 48-year-old man who would only give his name as "Gordo" because he feared for his safety. He said he had arrived two days earlier after traveling from Copan, Honduras. Gordo said he had lived in Los Angeles for 10 years but had been in Honduras for the past four. He was trying to make it back to California, where he has a 15-year-old daughter.
Asked about his prospects for successfully crossing the river, he said: "It's difficult, not so much for the Border Patrol" but for the cartels.
Associated Press Writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.
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