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All that separates them are the muddy waters of the River Suchiate, and the International Bridge that spans it. A few cars, some European missionaries and a handful of pedestrians slowly cross the concrete span. A Mexican immigration officer, his shirt unbuttoned to expose a large golden cross, diligently scrutinizes passports.
But the Army soldiers stationed at this crossing are idle. One of them, sitting on the edge of the bridge with a cigarette, his rifle slung over his shoulder, peers down at the river. There, in the shadows of the International Bridge and for miles in either direction, an unending stream of people—some in makeshift rafts, others wading on foot—move between the countries with the nonchalance of jaywalkers.
Mexico's 2,mile-long border with the United States is a heavily guarded focal point of the global argument about immigration. But Mexico's southern boundary gets little attention, and has now become a major problem. Hundreds of thousands of poor Central Americans cross into Mexico each year on a desperate quest for a more prosperous life. Some are lucky and wend their way, illegally, to the United States. But many of the migrants get waylaid long before, often in Mexico's Chiapas state just inside the border.
They are robbed or attacked by Central American gangs, known as maras , or by Mexican police whose job is to protect them. Many of the Central Americans have unprotected sex in border towns. Some are rape victims; others sleep with truckers in exchange for a ride north; still others are sold into sex slavery.
Rampant crime and corruption, combined with drug use and the thriving sex trade, have turned the area into a lawless hinterland where the threat of HIV looms large. The crisis has sparked criticism of Mexico's lax health, human-rights and immigration policies. The situation is so dire that Chiapas Public Security Secretary Horacio Schroeder last week called the rise of gang activity and the attacks on migrants on the southern border an issue of "national security," and announced a stepped-up military presence.