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In a town called 'Thank God,' Central Americans' pursuit of the promised land fades

Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

GRACIAS A DIOS, Guatemala -- Just a few months ago, buses from across Guatemala would arrive each day in this border town and deposit families with their bags and backpacks, all planning to cross the nearby border into Mexico on their way to the United States.

Hotels and discreet safe houses were packed. The small plaza outside the ochre-colored Roman Catholic church was a major gathering point for the newcomers.

These days, however, Gracias a Dios -- whose name translates to "Thank God" -- feels like a ghost town.

"Business is way down for everyone," said Marvin Hernandez Jorge, the mayor and owner of the Azteca restaurant, which once bustled with customers but now is usually near empty. "The migrants used to help the economy a lot.

"Everyone ate here after they arrived. But they are no longer coming," he said. "That has hurt the hotels, the restaurants, the shops. Everyone has lost out." The steady flow of migrant families has been replaced by a trickle of young men accompanied by coyotes, or smugglers, who guide them on what has become an increasingly difficult passage north.

Just a few blocks away in the Mexican town of Carmen Xhan, a Mexican national guard detachment makes its rounds. The patrols began in June, after President Donald Trump used threats of tariffs to compel Mexico to crack down on Central Americans trying to reach the U.S.


There is no formal border crossing here, no river or fence or wall separating Guatemala and Mexico, just a line of white stone obelisks marking the boundary.

Fields of corn and beans in Guatemala merge with hillsides where cattle graze in Mexico. People drive from one country to another without passing any immigration or customs inspection.

That fact has long made Gracias a Dios a notorious smuggling hub. Cars and trucks full of migrants would head north into Mexico on an almost daily basis.

No more. National guard units, accompanied by police and Mexican immigration agents, now staff checkpoints along the main highway to the city of Comitan, about 30 miles north of the border.


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