The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Forced Criminal Activities along Mexico's Eastern Migration Routes and Central America Department of Public Affairs and Security Studies


The city of Tapachula, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, is one of the most important cities along the migrant route. It is the first Mexican city where Central American migrants en route to the United States stop once they enter Mexico. It is located about 23 miles from the city of Ciudad Hidalgo, which is directly across the border from the Guatemalan city of Tecún Umán. Before Hurricane Stan inflicted major structural damage to Mexico’s southern railroad system in 2005, it was easier for migrants to transit from Tapachula to Arriaga, Chiapas. Since 2008, the city of Tapachula has attracted more migrants, especially Guatemalan women. The increased concentration of migrants has facilitated migrant exploitation and human trafficking in the city.

Interviews with different migration activists and human rights activists shed light on the dynamics of labor and sexual exploitation occurring in the city. Central American female migrants are the main victims of trafficking. Tapachula’s downtown plaza is locally known as an area where migrants gather and offer their labor for money. Locals often offer migrant women domestic and waitress jobs. In the plaza, well-dressed men are usually present; experts claim that these men recruit women to exploitative places, usually bars.   

Local bars, known as botaneros, are the city’s most notorious hubs of migrant labor. Concentrated in downtown and mostly frequented by men, these bars are one of the main sources of employment for Central American women in Tapachula. The employment conditions are dire and abusive, and bar owners allow customers to treat waitresses as they please, as long as they pay a certain fee. A Guatemalan migrant who worked at several botaneros said that bar owners would force waitresses to go out with clients who paid the bar. She also said that waitresses would be pressured by the owner, or by the person in charge of the bar that night, to have as many drinks as possible with customers.

Another form of exploitation present in the downtown plaza is labor exploitation of minors. In multiple occasions, we witnessed children selling candy on the streets. Experts said these minors are called “canguritos.” Some experts believe these children are being “rented” by their parents to people who exploit minors for financial gain. Other experts believe these children are Central American migrants who reside in a local shelter. According to them, these children are exploited during the day and return to the shelter at night

Experts and migrants identified local business owners as human traffickers. Presumably, TCOs are not present in the state of Chiapas. Migration experts, human right activists and law enforcement reported no organized crime activity since 2006.

During our stay in Tapachula, we visited a female incarceration facility and interviewed women charged with human trafficking. The age range of these women surprised us; they were either young adults or elderly women. Most of them were from Guatemala, were illiterate, and had low socioeconomic backgrounds. Experts in Tapachula reported that bar owners and managers knew in advance if authorities would raid their establishments. Prior to raids, bar owners would assign management responsibilities to low level employees, often migrant women, and leave before police officers appeared. Authorities usually charge the person responsible for the bar at the time of the raid with human trafficking charges. We assess that the people charged with human trafficking offenses we interviewed were likely victims instead of perpetrators. The women we interviewed in the prison reported abuses at the time of their arrest, widespread legal rights violations, and poor medical attention.