Last October I was in Mexico, near the border with Guatemala, investigating new migrant routes from Central America to the US. Donald Trump had been putting pressure on the Mexican government to secure its southern border and choke the flow of people heading up through the country: the newly created Mexican National Guard were duly deployed in their thousands along the frontier, and migrants were travelling by boat up the Pacific coast to avoid them. I had just arrived in the town of Tapachula in the southern state of Chiapas, not far from the Guatemalan border, when I heard that a boat had capsized. On the morning of 11 October, a fisherman had spotted clothing scattered on the sand and called in local rescuers. They followed a trail of footprints, which led them to a body, poorly concealed under clumps of grass torn from the sand dunes. The Mexican navy and the Chiapas prosecutor’s office arrived shortly afterwards. They found a Costa Rican transit document which identified the dead man as Emmanuel Cheo Ngu, aged 39, from Bamenda in Cameroon. Eight castaways emerged from the dunes, seven men and a woman, dehydrated and suffering from shock, and gave themselves up to the Mexican officers: all were from Cameroon. They were taken to hospital. One of the rescuers later told me that the woman was pregnant. On the same afternoon, fishermen found another body washed up on a sandbank. It was identified as that of Atabong Michael Atembe, aged 32, also from Cameroon.
The boat had sunk about 250 kilometres up the coast, near the state border with Oaxaca. I went there on a quad bike driven by a local teenager. The sand was littered with clothing. I made an inventory: a pair of women’s trousers; two dresses; a brown sock; a bar of soap; a plastic sandal; a pair of trousers for a small boy beside a black T-shirt the same size; a packet of tampons; a plastic bag containing white granules like coarse salt, with instructions in French; a liquid soap dispenser; three pairs of women’s pants; a bag of cotton-wool balls; a pink sock; two child-sized pairs of jeans; a pink top next to trousers and a towel in the same colour; a bedspread with red and yellow hearts on it; a green plastic bottle; a grey girls’ top; a black T-shirt with a white Eiffel Tower motif; a child’s thermal vest. The Mexican authorities said all the survivors were adults. The next day a third body, belonging to another male, was discovered by fishermen on a beach just across the state border in Oaxaca.
Emmanuel Cheo Ngu left his home in Bamenda on 30 July 2019, with his wife, Antoinette, and their four children. They drove south for seven hours, to Douala airport. There they said goodbye and he boarded the first of several flights that would take him to Quito in Ecuador. Ngu was a teacher at a secondary school in the Anglophone north-western region of Cameroon, where there has been fighting since 2017 between separatists and troops loyal to the Francophone government of Paul Biya, who has run the country since 1982. The conflict has claimed around three thousand lives and displaced half a million people in Anglophone areas of the country. Antoinette Ngu told me on the phone from Cameroon that her husband fled because he thought he was going to be killed. His best friend, a fellow schoolteacher called Oliver, was beheaded in May 2019. Ngu had enemies on both sides: he’d received death threats from the Anglophone separatist movement, and Biya’s soldiers had beaten him so badly that his body could be identified months later in Mexico by the scars.
Siglo XXI, an overcrowded migrant detention centre in Tapachula, houses thousands of Africans fleeing dictatorships and corrupt regimes. I was shown horrifying video footage of scenes from home: a woman being decapitated, adolescents executed by uniformed men, public lynchings, indiscriminate shooting of civilians. Europe has closed its doors to African migrants and very few can now cross the Mediterranean, so more are trying to enter the US instead. Ngu wanted to request asylum there – his mother and two of his sisters live in the US – but migrant journeys seldom work out straightforwardly.
He made the journey with his 19-year-old cousin, Forché Takwi. Their first flight took them from Douala, in south-west Cameroon, to Istanbul, where they changed planes. Their destination was Panama, but they couldn’t enter the country because they didn’t have visas. So they flew on to Ecuador, knowing they would have to return to Panama the hard way: overland. They arrived in Quito on 2 August and headed north by bus, travelling more than 1500 kilometres to Turbo, a small port on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. From there they went by boat to Capurganá, the last beach in Colombia before the border with Panama. It’s a remote place, inaccessible by land, surviving mostly on trade from adventure tourism. Capurganá is also the gateway to the Darién Gap, a sparsely populated area of rainforest, rivers and swamps that has to be crossed on foot. It is the only place in the Americas where the Pan-American highway is interrupted, but it’s a thoroughfare for organised crime.
Much later, when I managed to contact Takwi, he described their journey through the Darién Gap. ‘We knew the route because some friends told us. All the Cameroonians come this way. In Capurganá we paid money to a person to take us. Four nights and five days walking through jungle. On the fourth day we were attacked by robbers. They came out of nowhere, surrounded us and took all our money. Two thousand dollars. A thousand of Emmanuel’s, a thousand of mine. One boy didn’t want to pay so they shot him dead, just like that. He was from Cameroon, and we’d only just met him.’ When they reached Panama City, Emmanuel called his wife. He didn’t mention the robbery or the dead boy: he just wanted to let her know that the most dangerous part of the journey was behind him. He sent her some photos, which she forwarded to me. He is wearing a Barcelona FC shirt, a pair of shorts over leggings and Crocs: not really appropriate gear for hiking through one of the most inhospitable regions on the American continent.
Ngu and his cousin had to borrow money from other Cameroonians to fund the rest of their journey across Panama and on through Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras. When they eventually arrived in Guatemala, they made their way towards the Pacific coast and on 16 September – six weeks after leaving Bamenda – they crossed the Suchiate River, which marks the border with Mexico, on a raft.
They made their way to the migrant holding camp in Tapachula and applied for papers to continue their journey. Migrants from countries with no diplomatic representation in Mexico, such as Cameroon, are treated as stateless persons by the authorities. Like those whose countries do have embassies and consulates in Mexico, they received a temporary residence permit, but they were forbidden to work or leave the state of Chiapas. In 2018 the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador was preaching solidarity with Central Americans and freely handing out work permits allowing free movement. Now, however, the same government has turned Mexico’s southern border into a forward position of Trump’s wall and charged its new National Guard with stopping migrants. All roads out of Tapachula, except the one to Guatemala, have checkpoints manned by the National Guard and the police.
The migrant camp itself is overcrowded and prone to flooding; those forced to live there have to walk two kilometres to a river in order to wash and relieve themselves. They depend on NGOs for food and clothing, and are exposed to constant abuse from the local population. After weeks of sleeping in a tent outside the camp, Takwi made a break for the north, with a group led by coyotes – people smugglers. Ngu didn’t go with him. Antoinette remembers a phone call with her husband around that time which alarmed her: he told her that the Mexican police were corrupt and unwilling to protect migrants. After almost a month in Mexico, with severe restrictions on their movements, he and his comrades felt ‘like hostages’; it wasn’t a safe country. ‘He was going to go north,’ she told me. ‘He didn’t tell me how.’
‘He was going to Puerto Madero, that’s where they take the boat,’ one of his compatriots reported. Travelling by boat allowed migrants confined to the state of Chiapas to avoid checkpoints and reach the state of Oaxaca, perhaps as far north as Salina Cruz – a journey of more than four hundred kilometres. In Puerto Madero, thirty kilometres from Tapachula, I visited two local fishing co-operatives. In one, hundreds of shark fins were drying in the sun on black plastic sheets. The fishermen were cagey; they said they hadn’t heard about a boat sinking, even though it was the only thing anyone was talking about on that stretch of coastline. No, they had never seen any Africans in Puerto Madero or anywhere else. No, they had definitely never set eyes on a black person. There were no police, prosecutors, migration officers or National Guard anywhere in the town.
On 10 October, hours before he got on the boat, Emmanuel recorded a WhatsApp message for Antoinette. It was their tenth wedding anniversary; they had been apart for seventy days. ‘Ten years of ups and downs. Ten years of loving, of showing commitment to each other. We’ve shown the world that I had every good reason to marry you. Thank you for being a good wife, a fantastic mother. For standing by me throughout … Now we must make it. I know with that commitment, that focus, that faith, we shall do all the things we planned to do.’ Then he announced their anniversary on Facebook and posted some family photos. There were 42 responses – congratulations, blessings, wishes. The 43rd interrupts the thread with the words: ‘He is no more.’ The next says simply: ‘RIP.’ Another wonders why his name has cropped up in the Mexican press. That was how Antoinette and Emmanuel’s sister Cecilia, a 25-year-old police officer in Minneapolis, learned of his death.
I got in touch with Cecilia, who was about to fly to Mexico accompanied by her brother-in-law, Walters Fey, and we agreed to meet in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Before she hung up, she said: ‘You mustn’t believe the Mexican papers. I’ve seen the photos. I’m telling you this dead man is not Emmanuel Cheo Ngu. He’s not my brother.’ But by the time she arrived in Chiapas, she had seen pictures in an Oaxacan paper of the third body that had been found and was in no doubt that this was Emmanuel. ‘He never told me he’d left the country,’ she said. ‘For the last few months we were talking on WhatsApp, but he never said a thing. Now I know he was planning to join us in Minneapolis. If I’d realised, I’d never have let him get on that boat. We are mountain people, we’ve nothing to do with water. Emmanuel didn’t know how to swim.’ Cecilia was hoping to observe a Cameroonian tradition: to bury her brother in the land of his birth, with a handful of earth from the place of his death. This meant visiting Cachimbo beach, where his body had washed up. On our way over, a fierce storm came in and we were forced to turn back; Cecilia had to settle for a handful of wet earth from a nearby village.
We found out that Ngu’s body had been moved to the Reysant funeral home, forty minutes’ drive out of Ixtepec, a Oaxacan town on the overland migrant route. It looked like a location from a David Lynch movie. The entrance was festooned with orange and black ribbons, pumpkins, plastic gnomes, scarecrows and witch effigies. By the door, a raccoon scrabbled desperately on a metre-long chain. In the reception area a wooden rocking chair and a pair of plastic ones stood facing two rows of coffins. A cage of parrots taunted a spider monkey with a broken hip as it dragged itself beneath the chair legs. Living in a transit area has made the undertaker, Araceli Valdivieso, a migrant specialist. When a Central American dies in the vicinity, she often takes the remains back to the person’s country of origin. She was leaving for Nicaragua the following day with the body of a migrant murdered in a lovers’ dispute.
Cecilia and Walters entered the room where Emmanuel’s body was laid out. She identified the groove on his left ankle, and the toenail that never grew back – marks of the violence in Bamenda that had driven him to the other side of the world. They explained that they needed time to collect the money to pay for the body to be sent back to Cameroon. Valdivieso offered to cremate it: sending an urn was cheaper and there was far less paperwork. But if there’s no body, Cecilia explained, there’s no dead man. ‘No one in Bamenda will believe that a heap of ashes is what’s left of my brother.’
I spoke to Cecilia after she got back to Minneapolis. Her brother’s body was still in the funeral home. I wondered whether she’d found out any more about the accident. ‘I asked the Mexican authorities to let me speak to the survivors,’ she said. ‘Only they know what happened. But they wouldn’t let me.’ By now the sea route was being closed down. Migrant routes were shifting yet again and new obstacles were appearing. And not just in Mexico: ten days after Ngu and Takwi landed in Quito, the Ecuadorean government announced that people from Cameroon and five other African countries now needed visas. Takwi, meanwhile, was now near the US border. He had made part of the journey in the boot of a car with several other migrants. He was clearly afraid and asked me not to publish his exact location. After that we lost touch. I don’t know what became of him.
On 22 October, several newspapers reported that Francisco Garduño, the director of the National Migration Institute of Mexico, had opened an exhibition of photographs celebrating the contribution of migrants to the country over the last hundred years. At the press conference he was asked about the refugees from Africa stranded in Tapachula. ‘I don’t care if they’re from Mars,’ he replied. ‘They’ll be deported! We’ll send them back to India, to Cameroon, anywhere in Africa!’ Two judges in Chiapas put a damper on his threats. After considering six of the requests for legal protection lodged by 350 African migrants, they ruled that Mexico had broken the law by prohibiting the applicants from travelling unimpeded beyond Chiapas; they also held that, if the migrants were stateless, the Mexican authorities had a statutory duty to protect them.
Within three days, Mexico had handed out two thousand permanent residency permits. I saw the list of petitioners who took the Mexican state to court. The 112th name is Atabon Michael Atembe, who signed the petition six weeks before drowning with Emmanuel Ngu. Ngu’s name is not on the list. Had the Mexican authorities observed their own laws, the three men would probably still be alive. Earlier this year I heard from Cecilia that Ngu’s body had arrived home at the end of January. The burial took place the following day.