Zipping Over the Border? Guatemalan Smugglers Find Novel Way into Mexico

Smugglers have taken to riding zip lines across the Suchiate River to carry contraband into Mexico, an alternative method to using rafts that are estimated to transport around 180 tons of merchandise per day

Located near El Carmen, in Tecún Umán, San Marcos, Guatemala, the zip line is used to transport people and goods across the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico.
October 19, 2022 | 07:15 PM

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Guatemala City — On rafts, by foot or vehicle have traditionally been the methods used to smuggle people and merchandise from Guatemala into Mexico for decades, but smugglers’ creativity has no bounds and an investigative team from the Central American country’s contraband monitoring agency (Observatorio Contra el Contrabando, OCC) has discovered the use of zip lines to illegally cross the Suchiate River that marks the northwestern border between the two countries.

This method does not have any security measures, and is one of the various ways in which smugglers and migrants cross the Guatemala-Mexico border.

The OCC investigative team traveled to Ciudad Tecún Umán, in the municipality of Ayutla in Guatemala’s San Marcos department, located 251km from Guatemala City, and which is the busiest border crossing between the two countries.

The Rodolfo Robles Bridge, over the Suchiate River, connects Tecún Umán, Guatemala with Ciudad Hidalgo, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and where the movement of goods and migrants takes place 365 days a year.


The four methods of crossing the border

The smuggling of goods causes tax losses to Guatemala of up to an estimated 30 million quetzals ($3.84 million) per year.

1. Zip lines

One of the most recently documented forms is the zip line, with adults and children constantly passing back and forth over the border, and without any security measures.

The zip line is located under the El Carmen Border Bridge, in Tecún Umán, San Marcos, and can be observed by both Mexican and Guatemalan authorities on a daily basis, and over which no customs or immigration control is exercised, according to the OCC team.

Adults and children cross the border on zip lines.dfd

2. Pedestrian crossings

There are several crosswalks in the shallower stretches of the Suchiate River, which allow people to cross from one country to the other on foot, and which in some cases cross private property where landowners charge fees for people to cross.

All these crossings lack any institutional controls by either the government of Mexico and Guatemala, and which are notorious areas for crime and infringements of national sovereignty, according to the OCC researchers.

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3. Vehicular crossings

There are also vehicle crossings that are not controlled by the authorities, through which pick-up trucks and vans travel back and forth every day of the year carrying contraband merchandise and migrants, both during the night and the daytime, in view of Mexican and Guatemalan authorities, the OCC says.

Vehicular crossings in the shallower stretches of the Suchiate River are used to cross people and mecrhandise. dfd

4. Crossings by raft

Smugglers and migrants also use rafts fashioned from tire inner tubes, and which is the most well-known means of crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Each raft can carry around 1,200 pounds of cargo.dfd

Crossings by the numbers:

  • People: Rafts have the capacity to transport up to 10 people per trip, and a fleet of 30 rafts is estimated to make around 10 trips per day, which potentially results in the transportation of around 3,000 people per day, and 90,000 people per month, and which could translate into more than one million people per year.
  • Merchandise: Each raft has the capacity to transport up to 12 quintals of merchandise, with one quintal the equivalent of around 100 pounds, and there are at least 30 rafts circulating on the river, meaning that one day’s trips by a flotilla of 30 rafts could potentially transport 360,000 pounds, or 180 tons, of merchandise, across the border. That could mean around 5,580 tons per month, and almost 67,000 tons per year.
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Translated from the Spanish by Adam Critchley