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The peasant rebels took up arms in 1994, and now number 300,000 in centres with their own doctors, teachers and currency, but rarely answer questions until now

Mexicos Zapatista rebels, 24 years on and defiant in mountain strongholds

The peasant rebels took up arms in 1994, and now number 300,000 in centres with their own doctors, teachers and currency, but rarely answer questions until now

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11 years since the government launched a crackdown on cartels, violence continues, rule of law is elusive and accusations of human rights abuses abound

Sofa, a medical assistant in Reynosa, a scruffy border city in northern Mexico, has a regular morning routine.

She wakes at 6am and readies her son for preschool; then she reviews her social media feeds for news of the latest murders.

Updates come via WhatsApp messages from friends and family: There was a gun battle on X street, They found a body in Y neighbourhood, Avoid Z.

In Mexico today, choosing your route to work can be a matter of life or death, but Sofa compares the daily drill to checking the weather on the way out the door. It doesnt rain water here, she said. It rains lead.

It is 11 years since the then president Felipe Caldern launched a militarised crackdown on drug cartels deploying thousands of soldiers and promising an end to the violence and impunity. But the bloodletting continues, the rule of law remains elusive and accusations of human rights abuses by state security forces abound.

All the while, Mexico continues to race past a series a grim milestones: more than 200,000 dead and an estimated 30,000 missing, more than 850 clandestine graves unearthed. This year is set to be the countrys bloodiest since the government started releasing crime figures in 1997, with about 27,000 murders in the past 12 months.

Quick guide

Mexico’s war on drugs

Why did Mexico launch its war on drugs?

On 10 December 2006, president Felipe Caldern, launched Mexicos war on drugs by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacn, where rival cartels were engaged in tit-for-tat massacres.

Caldern declared war eight days after taking power a move widely seen as an attempt to boost his own legitimacy after a bitterly contested election victory. Within two months, around 20,000 troops were involved in operations across the country.

What has the war cost so far?

The US has donated at least $1.5bn through the Merida Initiative since 2008, while Mexico has spent at least $54bn on security and defence since 2007. Critics say that this influx of cash has helped create an opaque security industry open to corruption at every level.

But the biggest costs have been human: since 2007, around 200,000 people have been murdered and more than 28,000 reported as disappeared. Human rights groups have also detailed a vast rise in human rights abuses by security forces.

As the cartels have fractured and diversified, other violent crimes such as kidnapping and extortion have also surged. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by violence.

What has been achieved?

Improved collaboration between the US and Mexico has resulted in numerous high-profile arrests and drug busts. Officials say 25 of the 37 drug traffickers on Calderns most-wanted list have been jailed, extradited to the US or killed, although not all of these actions have been independently corroborated.

The biggest victory and most embarrassing blunder under Pea Nietos leadership was the recapture, escape and another recapture of Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn, leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

While the crackdown and capture of kingpins has won praise from the media and US, it has done little to reduce the violence.

How is the US involved?

Mexicos decade-long war on drugs would never have been possible without the huge injection of American cash and military cooperation under the Merida Initiative. The funds have continued to flow despite growing evidence of serious human rights violations.

Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP

Some of the worst violence in recent years has struck Reynosa and the surrounding state of Tamaulipas, which sits squeezed against the Gulf coast and the US border.

Tamaulipas state

Once in a while, a particularly terrible incident here will make news around the world, such as the murder of Miriam Rodrguez, an activist for families of missing people, who was shot dead in her home on Mothers Day.

But mostcrimes are not even reported in the local papers: journalists censor themselves to stay alive and drug cartels dictate press coverage.

We dont publish cartel and crime news in order to protect our journalists, said one local news director, whose media outlet has been attacked by cartel gunmen. Eight journalists were murdered in Mexico in 2017, making it the most dangerous country for the press after Syria.

The information vacuum is filled by social media where bloody photographs of crime scenes and breaking news alerts on cartel shootouts are shared on anonymous accounts.

In Reynosa, violence has become a constant strand in everyday life. Morning commutes are held up by gun battles; movie theatres lock the doors if a shootout erupts during a screening. More than 90% of residents feel unsafe in the city, according to a September survey by the state statistics service.

Signs of the drug war are everywhere: trees and walls along the main boulevard are pockmarked with bullet holes. Drug dealers can be seen loafing on abandoned lots; every so often, rival convoys of gunmen battle on the streets.

Video cameras look down from rooftops; spies are all around. They have eyes everywhere, said one woman. It could be the government or the cartels.

The violence here first erupted around 2010 when the the Gulf cartels armed wing a group of former soldiers known as Los Zetas turned on their masters.

Since then, wave after wave of conflict has scorched through the state as rival factions emerge and collapse.

Fighting erupts over trafficking routes and the growing local drug markets, but state forces are also implicated: earlier this month, soldiers killed seven people, including two women, in what was described as a confrontation.

Relatives and friends of four people killed in a clash with soldiers participate in a funeral mass in Palmarito Tochapan, Puebla, on 7 May 2017. Photograph: Jose Castanares/AFP/Getty Images

Crime hit such alarming levels this year that the local maquiladora industry which pulls thousands to Reynosa every year to work in its export factories warned that companies might be forced to relocate.

Amid the mayhem, ordinary life continues: shopping malls fill with families trying to escape the oppressive heat. Cars full of young people cruise the streets at night, banda music blaring from open windows.

Life cant stop. We have to get out and enjoy ourselves a little, said Alonso de Len, a local caterer. But he added: The problem affecting us in Tamaulipas is the shootouts, this violence in any other country this would be called terrorism.

The government bristles at any suggestion that the country is at war. When the International Institute for Strategic Studies ranked Mexico as second-deadliest country in the world ahead of warzones such as Afghanistan and Yemen the foreign ministry responded angrily, pointing to higher murder rates in Brazil and Venezuela.

War or not, the bodycount keeps climbing.

And the violence is spreading: tourist areas have seen shootouts and decapitations, and even the capital has seen confrontations with armed groups. Earlier this month, the bodies of six men were found hanging from bridges in the resort city of Los Cabos.

All of which has been disastrous for the image of President Enrique Pea Nieto who took office in 2012 with an ambitious agenda to push through structural reforms and promote Mexico as an emerging economy.

Fighting crime seemed an afterthought.

He thought that security issues in Mexico were a problem of perception so he embraced a policy of silence, said Viridiana Ros, scholar at the Wilson Centre in Washington.

Pea Nietos government maintained the military focus of the drug war, and continued to target cartel kingpins. But analysts question the strategy, saying that it shatters larger criminal empires but leaves smaller often more violent factions fighting for the spoils.

Breaking up the cartels also has the perverse effect of encouraging crime groups to diversify, said Brian J Phillips, professor at the Centre for Teaching and Research in Economics.

The new groups are more likely to raise money by kidnapping or extortion since that doesnt require the logistics of drug trafficking, he said. And as long as demand exists in the USA, and supply is in or passing through Mexico, new criminal organisations will appear.

When the countrys most-wanted crime boss Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn was recaptured last year, Pea Nieto tweeted Mission accomplished but even that success has not caused any measurable reduction in crime: Guzmns extradition to the United States in January triggered a fresh wave of violence in his home state of Sinaloa.

Meanwhile rivals such as the Jalisco New Generation cartel a fast-growing organisation specialising in methamphetamines and excessive violence moved in on Sinaloa trafficking territories along the Pacific coast.

And the liberalisation of marijuana laws in some US states has prompted some farmers to switch to opium poppies, prompting fresh conflict around the heroin trade.

But despite the worsening violence, there has been little serious consideration of any fresh approaches. Earlier this month, Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador the frontrunner in the 2018 presidential election was widely condemned for floating a possible amnesty for criminals.

The proposal drew comparisons with the pax mafiosa before more than 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) ended in 2000, in which politicians turned a blind eye to drug-dealing in return for peace.

A woman cries over the corpse of her murdered family member while forensic personnel work at the scene of the crime at a shopping center in Acapulco, Guerrero, on 4 January 2017. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

But analysts say even that would not work nowadays as the drug cartels have splintered.

Its a useless endeavour, given the broken criminal landscape, said security analyst Jorge Kawas. Theres no group of leaders who can be summoned to discuss stopping the violence.

Politicians are nonetheless still perceived as allying themselves with criminals especially during costly election campaigns.

Mexico cannot stop dirty money going into the political system, said Edgardo Buscaglia, an organised crime expert at Columbia University. Thats the key to understanding why violence has increased in Mexico.

Such accusations are all too familiar in Tamaulipas, where two of the past three governors have been indicted in US courts on drug and organised crime charges.

Meanwhile, police departments are dilapidated, dispirited, corrupt and underfunded as state and national politicians pass on security responsibilities on the armed forces.

Earlier this month, congress rammed through a controversial security law cementing the role of the military in the drug war despite mounting accusations of human rights abuses committed by troops and marines.

In Tamaulipas, residents express exasperation with the flailing government response. But few ask too many questions about the violence around them: they just want the killing to end.

I dont care about organised crime, said one woman, known online as Loba, or She-wolf. They can traffic all the drugs they want so long as they dont mess with ordinary people.

Loba is one of the social media activists who report on cartel violence via Twitter and Facebook. Its a perilous undertaking: at least two citizen journalists in Tamaulipas have been killed, and Loba herself was kidnapped by the Zetas in 2011 and held for 12 days before her family paid a 10,000 ($13,500) ransom.

When asked why she runs such risks, Loba answered: Perhaps this can save someone from being shot.

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Venezuelan president Hugo Chvez took one look at the Guardians correspondent and yelled out: Hey, Gringo! But if he could never quite fit in, Jonathan Watts has come to love the continent he is now leaving after five years

It was the merest of glimpses, but no less thrilling for that. A dark, sleek body, roughly the size of a person, arched elegantly out of the Tapajs river as we approached the So Luis rapids deep in the Amazon. A fraction of a second later, it plunged back below the swirling waters, leaving me wondering if my imagination or the morning mist were playing tricks. But no, it was real. It had been close enough to the boat to be sure of that. But what was it?

Hugo Chvez took one look at Jonathan Watts (above) and yelled out: Hey, Gringo!

Perhaps a pirarucu (AKA arapaima), the giant of the Amazon, which can grow up to 10ft in length. But the lack of scales suggested it was more likely to be a dolphin. There were two species in these waters: the pink boto and the darker tucuxi. I concluded it was the latter.

The thought filled me with both hope and dread. Eleven years earlier during my previous post as China correspondent I had joined an international team of scientists on an expedition along the Yangtze river looking for the baiji freshwater dolphin. It was too late. Not one could be found. The animal was declared functionally extinct a victim of industrial pollution, river traffic, overfishing and hydroelectric dams. After 20m years of existence, it was an alarming indication of a dying river. Yet here in Brazil on the Tapajs, the freshwater dolphins albeit of a different genus could be found without searching. There was still time to save them. It felt like a second chance.

One of the reasons I moved from China to Brazil to become Latin America correspondent in 2012 was to look for a more sustainable development model. Back then, Brazil seemed to be doing a lot of things right. Its booming economy had just overtaken that of the UK; the popular leftwing government was reducing inequality; deforestation of the Amazon was slowing; Brazilian negotiators had played a positive role in climate and biodiversity negotiations; and my new home of Rio de Janeiro was about to host the 2012 Rio +20 Earth Summit, the 2014 World Cup final and the 2016 Olympic Games. Besides, I told my teenage daughters, who were doubtful about leaving Beijing, there would be less smog, more blue skies and a warm and friendly vibe. We were all in for a shock.

Adjustment was tougher than I expected. The differences were so vast. On the plus side, I grinned just to walk along the street and take in the views of what is surely among the most beautiful cities on the planet. My daily jog around the Lagoa took in the sights of the Christ the Redeemer statue, forested hillsides, the Rocinha favela, the peaks of Pedra da Gavea, Pedra Bonita and Dois Irmos. I also saw more species of trees, birds, insects and mammals on those 7.4km (4.6-mile) runs than I would see in a whole year in Beijing. Similarly, I heard more good live music in my first week in Rio than perhaps my entire nine years in China.

After the communist states of east Asia, the openness and accessibility of democratic Latin American leaders was also a welcome shock. Having spent years in usually fruitless applications to interview ministers and heads of state in China and North Korea, I came to my new post in Brazil with a target list of three prominent politicians that I would like to meet during my first year Dilma Rousseff, Marina Silva and Alfredo Sirkis. Within a week, I had seen all of them either in press conferences or for lunch. As I was later to learn, getting politicians in this part of the world to talk is often less of a problem than getting them to stop.

Dilma Rousseff: one of the great leaders of South America, before she was toppled. Photograph: Brazil Photo Press/CON/LatinContent/Getty Images

Other initial comparisons were less favourable. Cariocas (as residents of Rio call themselves) seemed far less focussed on education, culture, history, science and work than Beijingers. If they had spare time and money, many preferred to spend it on their body (tattoos, gyms or cosmetic surgery) so they could look good on the beach. And, contrary to the happy-go-lucky party-people image, they could be extremely conservative. One time, I was denied entry to a press conference I was supposed to be moderating because I failed to meet the dress code (although admittedly flower-patterned shorts and flip-flops werent the ideal match for my dress shirt). They also voted repeatedly for several of the countrys most rightwing politicians and some took to the streets calling for a return to the 1964-85 military dictatorship.

In those early days, however, I was mainly frustrated. Everything felt unambitious, slow and unreliable compared with China. Was it necessary to have three different types of plug socket? Why on earth did I have to keep providing my mothers birth name for the most routine applications? The grotesque bureaucracy was not my only grumble. The notorious inequality was quickly evident, as was the enduring social legacy of what had been the worlds biggest slave-trading nation. Apart from music, cultural life seemed poor and the food was bland compared with Asia. Property rental was absurdly complicated and the apartments were horrendously overpriced due to the countrys then super-strong currency (Brazil was infamous at the time for selling the worlds most expensive iPhones). I spent much of the first year sleeping in a mouldy shed that leaked in tropical rainstorms, obliging me to have a bucket by the pillow to catch the drops.

More importantly, it became apparent that I had been sold an overhyped image of Brazil. Far from being a new model, the past five years have proved a case study in how not to run a country.

This has been a spectacularly tumultuous period, encompassing the impeachment of a president, the worst economic contraction in 100 years, the biggest corruption scandal in the countrys history, millions taking to the streets in protest, an unimaginable 1-7 defeat in the World Cup, a pre-Olympic Zika epidemic and a resurgence of violent crime and environmental destruction. My Brazilian journalist friends are not sure whether to feel grateful for the abundance of work or horrified at the flood of miserable stories. Weve had 40 years of news packed into the last four years, observed one. Its surreal. We seem to be reporting on the collapse of the republic, lamented another. It is impossible not to feel sorry for the country.

Brazil has slipped into reverse gear on just about every front. Since 2012, the economy has shrunk by 9% and unemployment has almost doubled. Last year, deforestation of the Amazon accelerated by 29% and violent killings in Rio de Janeiro increased by almost 30%. Not surprisingly, the public has never been more frustrated with the government. Five years ago, the then-president Dilma Rousseff enjoyed approval ratings of 64%. That had fallen to 10% when she was politically lynched by her former allies last year. Her successor, Michel Temer, is even more unpopular. The most recent poll could find only 2% of voters who thought he was doing a good job.

A country in turmoil: protesters during a nationwide general strike in Rio de Janeiro on 30 June. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

In some ways, the story of Brazil from 2012 to 2017 has been the inverse of China from 2003 to 2012. In Asias biggest country, I observed sometimes brutal stability and spectacular economic growth. In Latin Americas, I have witnessed turmoil and contraction. I have certainly inhaled a lot more teargas, particularly since the mass protests ahead of the 2013 Confederations Cup, which were a turning point.

Regionally, the broad political trend has been a weakening of populist, leftwing power. In the past five years, the two great figureheads of the Latin left Fidel Castro and Hugo Chvez have died. The Brazilian Workers party founder Luiz Incio Lula da Silva has been put on trial and his party usurped from office by centre-right parties that have proved at least as corrupt. In Argentina, the formerly Pernist government of Cristina Fernndez de Kirchner has been replaced by the more conservative Mauricio Macri. In Bolivia, Evo Morales lost a referendum that would have allowed him to stand again for re-election. Venezuela, meanwhile, plunges ever deeper into crisis under Nicols Maduro. But Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Mexico are all exceptions in different ways. Latin American politics are too heterogenous for perfect generalisations.

A clearer pattern and one perhaps that underlines the tumult both here and elsewhere in the world is the increasing evidence of climate change across the region. Patagonian lakes are drying up and glaciers retreating; Rios beaches have been battered by record storm surges; Chiles forests were devastated earlier this year by unprecedentedly high temperatures and wildfires; and then Lima was hit by freak floods. Perhaps the most alarming story, however, was So Paulo the biggest city in Latin America suffering the most prolonged drought in its history. I recall a dystopian moment when I was told there was no coffee at a Starbucks on Avenida Paulista the citys main thoroughfare because the taps had run dry. We only have beer or Coke, the cashier said.

The destruction of the rainforest is making matters worse in ways that are only slowly being understood. But it often appears to be a bigger story overseas than in the media of Brazil and other Amazonian nations. As well as being a major source of carbon emissions and a threat to biodiversity, the loss of foliage is also eroding the forests role as a climate regulator. Recent studies have shown that the Amazon acts as a giant water pump, channelling moisture inland via aerial rivers and rainclouds that form over the forest more dramatically than over the sea. As trees are felled, this function is weakened, which leads to more severe droughts and more extreme weather events.

The Xingu river near the area where the Belo Monte dam complex is under construction in the Amazon basin. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Yet, even as scientists grow more alarmed, politicians are becoming less willing to act. In response to demands from the agribusiness lobby (which has become more powerful due to demand from China), Rousseff relaxed the Forest Code, Brazils main law against illegal logging and land clearance. The current administration of Michel Temer has slashed the environment ministry budget, diluted licensing regulations, and is moving to reduce the size of conservation parks and indigenous territories. In Brazil and elsewhere in the region, activists who stand up against the loggers, farmers, miners and dam builders run the risk of beatings and murder as I saw on an unforgettable trip to Lbrea. More often than not, those in the frontline are indigenous communities who are trying to protect their territory, such as the Juruna, the Kaapor and the Mundruku and the Kichwa and Shuar. These days, the tribes wear T-shirts, ride motorbikes and use laptops, but they still often suffer the same fate as their ancestors when the first European settlers arrived either driven off their land or murdered for resisting. Most prominent among them in this period was Berta Cceres, an indigenous rights and environment activist in Honduras who won the Goldman prize in 2015 for her campaigns against deforestation and hydropower dams. In an email exchange at the time, she told me environmental protection was a cause worth fighting for. We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action, she said. A year later she was assassinated by a gunman.

This is the worlds most murderous continent. In Central America, violence is the main driver for perilous child migration to the US, though it remains to be seen how this might be affected by the wall on the Mexican border being planned by the new caudilho in the White House.

Reporting here has its risks, though local journalists are far more exposed than foreign correspondents. The only time I saw a gang member fire a gun up close was after a visit to a crack den in the town of Lins, when I asked him why he had chosen his weapon. On a street in broad daylight, he squeezed a dozen or so rounds into the air that made me instantly regret my question. A few weeks later, police pushed his gang out of Lins in a pacification operation. I imagine they are back now. Thanks to a series of scandals and cuts in the police budget, the sound of gunfire is sadly becoming common again in Rio. Recently, I went to sleep three nights in a row listening to protracted shootouts echoing across the valley.

Apart from that, there were few hairy moments. The only crimes I experienced were having my credit card cloned three times and being pickpocketed. I was generally more worried about flying over the Andes (which often comes with gut-wrenching turbulence), the interruption of a dinner in Maranho in north-eastern Brazil by an uninvited tarantula, and the possibility of diseases such as malaria, dengue and chikungunya. Zika was added to the list in 2016. Although my head told me the risks were mainly only to pregnant women, I could not help but feel a little unease as well as irony at being bitten by a mosquito during a press conference in which the head of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, explained why the Zika epidemic had just been declared a global emergency. The concerns were genuine, though the imminent Olympics meant the risks were overhyped. When the Brazilian government subsequently launched its biggest ever military operation against the tiny insect, it felt a little like something out of a science-fiction film.

In this continent of magical realism, the weird and wonderful were never far away. Evangelicals in a heavy-metal church in the Mar favela described visits by an angel in the form of a head-banger who would dance among them, shirtless with long hair, army boots, black trousers and chains. In the Andean mountains, I witnessed what looked at first like something out of an ancient myth: a beast with wings and horns charging down a matador. It was, in fact, a cruel and dangerous sport that involved stitching the talons of an endangered condor into the hide of a traumatised bull for the entertainment of a chicha-sodden crowd at a Yawar festival bullfight. Then there was a mass in the countryside of Rio by rebel anti-Vatican priests who insisted the pope was not Catholic enough. They preferred Vladimir Putin.

There have also been inspiring, uplifting stories: the end of the worlds oldest civil war in Colombia, the overcoming of cold war hostilities between Cuba and the United States and the subsequent visits to Havana by Pope Francis, Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones.

But when it comes to liberal, well-run countries, Uruguay led the way by legalising marijuana, ramping up renewable energy and boasting a former president, Jos Mujica, who lived his anti-consumerist values by eschewing a palace home for his charmingly ramshackle farmhouse.

Despite Brazils many woes, there was cause for hope in the success of Brazils bolsa familia poverty relief programme (though it is now threatened by austerity cuts), the courage and canninness of indigenous groups fighting against loggers, the idealism of activists and prosecutors fighting illegal deforestation and exposing timber laundering , and the courage and talent of community journalists who provided a diary of life in Rios favelas ahead of the Olympics.

A vibrant culture: a dancer takes part in carnival. Photograph: PeopleImages/Getty Images

I will miss this continent. It has been an immense privilege to visit stunningly beautiful places such as Patagonia, Alter do Cho, Machu Picchu, Yasuni and Havana, and I am grateful to collaborators and editors who have worked with me on stories ranging from guerrilla graffiti pedants in Quito and the worlds greatest vinyl collector in So Paulo, to the source-to-sewer journey of a drop of water in Mexico City and a retracing of part of a journey taken by the Edwardian explorer Percy Fawcett.

Although I could never claim to blend in (Chvez took one look at me and yelled out: Hey, Gringo!), I now think of Latin America as home (particularly since I moved out of the shed and into a forest apartment). I still dont appreciate the three-plug electrical system or Brazils bureaucracy, but I have come to love the geniality of the people, the vibrancy of the markets and much of the food especially aai, caldo de cana, tapioca wraps and Amazonian fish.

I leave at a difficult time. Troubles lie ahead for Rio, Brazil and the world. This is not just because of a poor Olympic legacy (though homelessness has surged alarmingly in the host city since the Games) or woeful national leadership (Temer is the first sitting president to be charged with corruption and eight of his cabinet are implicated in bribery scandals).

In China, I came to believe environmental crises underlie much of the economic and political tension in the world. In Latin America, I found reason to hope it is not too late to do something about that. For sure, the trends are bad. But there is much here worth fighting for. Latin America may not offer a model of sustainable development, but compared with Asia it is relatively unscarred in terms of overpopulation and pollution, and compared with the US and Europe, average consumption is modest and biodiversity is rich. River dolphins in the Amazon are only a part of that wealth. The value of this natural heritage is easier to feel than to measure

I will leave Brazil healthier and happier than I arrived. As I write this, the sun is streaming through the papaya and mango trees from a gloriously clear blue sky. It is midwinter, but the temperature is a balmy 25C. This morning, I cycled through the forest up to the Vista Chinesa viewpoint. Marmosets were waiting in the garden for food when I returned a couple of hours later. A hummingbird just flew into the living room looking for the nectar water that I forgot to leave at its usual spot by the window. Before I go, maybe Ill catch a final glimpse of a toucan, a jacu or a porcupine. Perhaps the gang of capuchin will invade the kitchen in search of an egg or a banana. There will be at least one possum. Then after 21 years on the road it will be time to return to London, to a new job, to an office, to a flat, and to pigeons, sparrows and, who knows, perhaps a squirrel. Im curious whether my old home will feel like a foreign country.

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Undocumented immigrants with any type of criminal charges, such as Juan Carlos Fomperosa Garca, are now a priority for deportation under Trumps order

Juan Carlos Fomperosa Garca planned to celebrate his sons 17th birthday on Thursday. But first, he had to go in for a meeting around 9am with immigration officials in Phoenix for what he believed was to discuss his request for asylum.

He walked in. An hour later, they brought me a bag with his stuff and that was it, said Yennifer Sanchez, Fomperosa Garcas 23-year-old daughter.

The single father of three US citizens, who entered the country 20 years ago, was detained after meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, but never came out, his daughter said, adding that she thought he was safe because he had a work permit.

By Friday morning, Fomperosa Garca had called his children to let them know he had been deported to Mexico.

Now, Sanchez has become the sole guardian of her 17-year-old brother and 14-year-old sister. She said she plans to continue working as a caregiver and, with the moral support of her father, care for her siblings.

They are going to keep going to school, Sanchez said of her siblings. Im going to work. Were going to try to get through this.

To help the family financially, a local organization started fundraising money online. They raised more than $1,300 in less than three hours.

Ayensa Millan, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney who was contacted by Fomperosa Garcas family on Thursday, said she wasnt sure why Fomperosa Garca had the check-in with Ice officials. She said his asylum request had already been denied so there was no reason for them to interview him for an asylum claim.

It sounds to me like they literally just called him to remove him because of his prior removal order, Millan said.

In a statement, Ice confirmed Fomperosa Garca had been deported and that he had been previously repatriated to Mexico three times, including a formal deportation in 2014. Last year, he was again ordered removed by an immigration judge and in 2015 was convicted of a federal misdemeanor charge, according to Ice.

Ice will continue to focus on identifying and removing individuals with criminal convictions who have final orders of removal issued by the nations immigration courts, the statement said.

Fomperosa Garcas deportation comes a few weeks after the deportation of Guadalupe Garca de Rayos, a mother of two US citizens who lived in Arizona for more than two decades. She was also deported after she went in for a check-in with Ice.

But under a new executive order that Donald Trump signed on 25 January, Garca de Rayos became a priority for deportation. The order states that undocumented immigrants should be deported if they have been charged with any criminal offense. The president said the order was needed to ensure the public safety of the American people.

Millan said her advice to undocumented immigrants, especially those with no serious criminal records, is to not be fearful and to pay close attention to whats going on. She noted that most undocumented immigrants whove been deported recently had prior orders of removal or had already been found by an immigration judge to not have strong enough merits to be granted a stay in the US.

For undocumented immigrants whove become a priority for deportation under Trumps new executive order and have pending check-ins with Ice, Millan said she advises them to be prepared and get an immigration attorney. Another option is to seek sanctuary at a church.

I always leave it up my clients discretion and tell them these are the immigration consequences, Millan said. I tell them, If you are going to stay there and go for the long haul, by all means, do it. But its up to them because, when people go into sanctuary places, you never know how long theyre going to be there.

With tears in her eyes, Sanchez said on Friday that her father was nothing like the type of people Trump alludes to when he talks about deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

When you image people breaking the law, you imagine a scary person, she said. You imagine someone who doesnt care for anyone else. When I hear those words being said about my dad and seeing what type of person he is, it hurts. Criminal would never be a way that I would describe my father.

Instead, Sanchez said she would use words like goofball and caring to describe her father, adding that he liked to watch movies, listen to zumba music, dance and make people laugh.

I know that if he was sitting right here right now, he would be making everyone crack up, she said.

  • This article was amended on 4 March 2017 to show Yennifer Sanchez is caring for her two siblings, not daughter and son as previously stated.

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A historian travels to the divided cities of Ambos Nogales for a concrete example of a complicated relationship

But for the tall, copper-coloured fence, it would not be obvious to the casual visitor that there are two Nogales. The Arizona version, population about 20,000, sits next to its Mexican namesake in Sonora, which is 10 times larger. Many of the shops on the main street blast banda music, and the shoppers converse in Spanish. Although the cities are divided, they are still referred to together as Ambos Nogales (both Nogales).

The fence, which stretches along 650 miles of the nearly 2,000-mile long border between the US and Mexico, has become far more than a physical barrier. To some it is a symbol of unjust division; to others an ineffectual barrier to stop unwanted immigration.

President-elect Donald Trumps pledge to build a big, beautiful wall and make Mexico pay for it struck a nerve. He has continued to reiterate the promise, telling a press conference last week, I dont feel like waiting a year Im going to start building.

For three years, I have been working on a history of Hispanics in the US, and I wanted to return to the border, the centre of this debate. Cities such as Nogales remind us that it will take more than a wall to cut through the tangled history of these two countries.

Around 6 million of the 11 million undocumented people in the US are from Mexico, and Mexican is often used as shorthand for all Spanish-speaking migrants. While the idea of the wall may represent a halt to all immigration, at the heart of this discussion is the complex relationship between the US and Mexico.

One family straddling both worlds is that of 18-year-old Angelica, who asked that her surname not be used. She and her three siblings were born in the US to undocumented Mexican parents.

When she was 12, her family had a serious deportation scare in Arizona. They were on their way to a nearby lake when they were pulled over by police. Arizona had recently passed the controversial SB 1070 legislation, which allows law enforcement officers to ask people for immigration papers on routine stops, such as a traffic violation.

Isabelle Rodrigues speaks with a relative through the US-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Mexico Photograph: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Angelicas family was allowed to proceed after her fathers licence was checked, but the incident left them shaken. Fear was running through our veins every single day, she said. So, we decided to exit voluntarily.

They returned to Jalisco, Mexico. It was really difficult, she recalled. The children were mean just because I didnt know the language very well.

She decided to return to the US for high school, and is finishing her final year. At first, Angelica lived with relatives, but her immediate family soon followed her back. Her parents were granted temporary US visas but at the moment they are in a legal limbo. When I was in Mexico I didnt feel like I fit in, Angelica said. This is where I belong and where I want to be.

Although the border, and the immigration laws that underpin it, profoundly affects the lives of people like Angelica, it is a relatively recent development. Much of todays south-west United States was Native American land that was claimed by the Spanish in the early 16th century, until Mexico started its fight for independence in 1810. Indeed, the first immigration problems between America and Mexico concerned US settlers in the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. They staged a rebellion that led, in 1836, to the independence of Texas, which later joined the US as a state.

The Mexican-American war followed, after which 51% of Mexicos land was ceded to the United States. This territory now makes up Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado.

Then, in 1853, the US negotiated the Gadsden Purchase, paying $10m ($270m today) for a strip of land in southern Arizona and New Mexico that was ideal for railways. Mexicans living in the region either had to move south to Mexico or become US citizens. As the saying goes, they did not cross the border, the border crossed them.

Lydia Otero, associate professor in the department of Mexican American studies at the University of Arizona, lives this history. There are Mexican-Americans, like her, who dont have a migration story. Her familys roots are in Tubac, Arizona, about 25 miles from the border. The Oteros were granted land there by the Spanish in the late 18th century, and she also has Native American Apache ancestry. But such longevity is losing its social currency.

Two years ago I was walking downtown [in Tucson] and somebody rolled down their window and said go back to where you came from, she said. So, those kinds of assumptions based on the way I look are very real here.

Mexicans first began to cross the border in significant numbers during the upheaval of the Mexican revolution (1910-20). However, the initial concern of the US Border Patrol, which was established in 1924, was Chinese people trying to find a way around the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882.

When the Great Depression hit, Mexicans in the US bore the brunt. Hundreds of thousands were deported or frightened into leaving. Yet when the second world war began there was, once again, a need for more workers. The result was the bracero programme named for the Spanish term meaning labourer which started in 1942 and allowed the issue of guest-worker visas to Mexicans. It brought some 4.5 million people to the US.

By the 1950s there was public concern that too many braceros, as well as undocumented people, had entered. So, in 1954, Operation Wetback deported around 1 million supposedly undocumented Mexicans. Trump alluded to the success of this programme during the presidential campaign, but it has been dismissed by others as inhumane and ineffectual. While it was happening, the bracero programme was still in place it would not end until 1964.

Mexican immigrants were joined in the 1970s and 80s by central Americans fleeing instability and violence. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act allowed amnesty for some 3 million people. Thirty years on, the backlog for immigration cases stretches for years.

US Border Patrol agent Nicole Ballistrea watches over the US-Mexico border fence. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Margo Cowan, an immigration attorney in Tucson, says Trumps plan for deporting even 1 or 2 million people is impossible because of this. There is nothing about immigration that is simple, she said. So, when you talk about Im going to deport everybody, you have no idea what youre saying. As for the wall, Cowan thinks it is equally unlikely: There wont be a wall. We all know there wont be a wall.

A couple of hours drive east of Nogales is John Ladds ranch, which runs up to the border fence. His family has raised cattle for 120 years, and he has seen big changes, not least the building of the current fence after the Secure Fence Act 2006 and the installation of cameras. But, he says, it is no deterrent to the drug cartels. Since 2012, weve had 54 pickups full of marijuana cut the wire down, go through the ranch, get to the highway, he said. Thats how well the wall works.

For Ladd, a legal work-visa scheme would go a long way to help, although he also thinks anyone caught crossing illegally should be jailed. Im not cold-blooded enough to say I dont care about those people, he said, but that isnt our problem, and we have laws. And if you break the law you go to jail.

Standing on Ladds land, peering though the steel mesh fence, a white pillar is visible. These were placed on the border by US and Mexican authorities in the late 1800s to give permanence to what were only lines on a map. Looking at the brown earth stretching to the mountains in the horizon, it is hard to see which side is which.

Carrie Gibson is the author of Empires Crossroads. Her history of Hispanics in the US will be published by Grove Atlantic in 2018, and she presents La Frontera on Radio 4 at 8pm on Monday 16 January

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Local man was among thousands who attended Rubi Ibarras quinceaera following fathers online invitation

A man was killed and another injured at a birthday party for a 15-year-old Mexican girl that become an internet sensation after more than a million people accepted her fathers invitation to attend.

In December, Cresencio Ibarra, from the central Mexican state of San Luis Potos, inadvertently invited everybody to his daughter Rubis coming of age, or quinceaera, party.

There will be a [horse race] with 10,000 pesos (400), as for second and third places, well work that out, he said in a video that a local photographer posted on Facebook. Ibarra then added: Everyone is cordially invited.

Despite dozens of mocking internet memes and hundreds of thousands of gleeful acceptances, the party went ahead on Monday, with thousands of people turning up.

Although state police and Red Cross workers kept an eye on proceedings, a local man died after being trampled by his own horse, which was taking part in the traditional amateur race, or chiva.

Police had warned the crowds to stay clear of the race as there were no fences to protect them, but the man appears to have stepped out in front of his horse and died soon afterwards. Another man was reported to have been injured.

Several hundred guests had arrived by Monday morning for an outdoor mass, but the number swelled as the day progressed so that by evening there were thousands and the event resembled a rock concert.

Family members had to open a path for the girl through dozens of reporters and photographers snapping her picture so she could reach the mass. A large billboard saying, Welcome to my 15th birthday party, with Rubis picture towered over the tents and tables filled with food.

People attending the 15th birthday party celebrations. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

People had travelled from far and wide to attend the party and to sample their hosts generosity.

I came to see if they would give me a dress for my granddaughter for her 15th birthday in May, said Victoriano Obregn, who had come all the way from the northern state of Coahuila.

After the video emerged three weeks ago, Rubis mother explained that her husband had only been referring to everyone in the neighbouring communities, not the world, but by then the video had been picked up dozens of times on YouTube and had been seen by millions, sparking tributes by music stars, jokes and offers of sponsorship by companies.

Mexican airline Interjet published a promotion offering 30% discounts on flights to San Luis Potosi, under the slogan: Are you going to Rubis party?

Internet users published mocked-up photos of troops of turkeys, diggers stirring giant cauldrons of soup and massive crowds heading for Rubis party.

The actor Gael Garca Bernal made a parody video of the invitation, while the Mexican singer Luis Antonio Lpez El Mimoso composed a song for Rubi. She even received an offer to appear on the soap opera The Rose of Guadalupe.

Sergio Octavio Contreras, a communications professor at La Salle-Bajo University in Mexico, said the saga was an example of how the internet amplifies and makes hyper-transparent peoples personal lives and how traditional media look for stories on social networks to bring in new audiences.

The Ibarras neighbours, meanwhile, hope the fascination with the quinceaera will endure beyond the festivities and bring money and improvements to the poor community, where there is a mescal distillery but people are pleading for mobile phone coverage.

More than anything, this can bring attention to us so people can see the unemployment, said Rutilio Ibarra, a local resident.

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Movies, zombie TV shows, Halloween and even politics are influencing Mexicos celebrations which traditionally consist of quiet family gatherings

Mexico City held its first Day of the Dead parade on Saturday, complete with floats, giant skeleton marionettes and more than 1,000 actors, dancers and acrobats in costumes.

The impressive spectacle has never been a part of traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, however. Instead, it was born out of the imagination of a scriptwriter for last years James Bond movie, Spectre.

In the film, whose opening scenes were shot in Mexico City, Bond chases a villain through crowds of revelers.

Lourdes Berho, CEO of Mexicos tourism board, said 135,000 people were expected to attend the real-life parade.

Movies, zombie TV shows, Halloween and even politics are fast changing Mexicos Day of the Dead celebrations, which traditionally consist of quiet family gatherings at graves of loved ones, bringing them music, drink and conversation.

When [Spectre] hit the big screen and was seen by millions and millions of people in 67 countries, that started to create expectations that we would have something, Berho said.

We knew that this was going to generate a desire on the part of people here, in Mexicans and among tourists, to come and participate in a celebration, a big parade.

Mexico City authorities even promised that some of the props used in the movie would appear in the parade. The government board sponsoring the march called it part of a new, multi-faceted campaign to bring tourists to Mexico during the annual Day of the Dead holiday.

Women wear skeleton masks during a procession organized by sex workers to remember their deceased colleagues ahead of the Day of the Dead parade. Photograph: Ginnette Riquelme/Reuters

Some see a fundamental change in the traditional Mexican holiday. Johanna Angel, an arts and communication professor at Ibero-American University, said the influences flow both north and south.

She noted that US Halloween celebrations are now including more Mexican-inspired candy skull costumes and people dressed up as Catrinas, modeled on a satirical 19th-century Mexican engraving of a skeleton in a fancy dress and a big hat.

I think there has been a change, influenced by Hollywood, Angel said. The foreign imports are what most influence the ways we celebrate the Day of the Dead here.

Traditionally, on the 1-2 November holiday, Mexicans set up altars with photographs of the dead and plates of their favorite foods in their homes. They gather at their loved ones gravesides to drink, sing and talk to the dead.

In some towns, families leave a trail of orange marigold petals in a path to their doorway so spirits can find their way home. Some light bonfires, sitting around the fire and warming themselves with cups of boiled-fruit punch to ward off the autumn chill.

Many cities set up massive, flower-strewn altars to the dead and hold public events like parades, mass bicycle events and fashion shows in which people dress up in Catrina disguises.

Some say the changes do not conflict with the roots of the holiday, which they say will continue. On a recent Zombie Walk in which hundreds paraded through Mexico City in corpse disguises one week before the Day of the Dead most participants said it was just good, clean fun.

We are not fighting against our cultural traditions, said Jesus Rodriguez, one of the organizers, as he waved a fake plastic arm he was gnawing on. On the contrary, if you take off the zombie*s flesh, there are skeletons, there are Catrinas.

Mexicos traditional view of the dead is not ghoulish or frightful. The dead are seen as the dear departed, people who remain close even after death. Could outside influences threaten that?

I dont think that will change, Angel said. I think Mexico maintains the sense of remembering the dead with closeness, not fright.

Any opportunity for a festival is welcome and with any influences from at home or abroad, and in all possible combinations.

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The Republican candidate wants to deport immigrants and build a wall to keep Mexicans out. So what drives los Trumpistas?

Trump is our wakeup call

Raul Rodriguez, 74, Apple Valley, California

I always carry a bullhorn with me to rallies and campaign events. Into it I shout: America, wake up! Americans have been asleep for way too long. We need to realise that the future of our country is at stake.

If we dont elect Donald Trump, well get another four years of Barack Obama and frankly, I dont know what would happen to this wonderful country of ours. Obama has already done so much to destroy our way of life and Hillary Clinton is promising to carry on where he left off. Like Obama, she wants to change our fundamental values the ones people like my father fought to defend.

My father was born in Durango, Mexico. When he came to the US he joined the military and served as a medic during the second world war. He was a very proud American he truly loved this country. I think I got my sense of patriotism from him.

Obama and Hillary Clinton want to have open borders. They let illegal immigrants cross our borders and now they want to accept thousands of Syrians. We dont know who these people are. If they want to come to this country, they have to do it the right way, like my father did it.

Im tired of politicians telling voters what they want to hear and then returning to Washington and doing whatever their party tells them to do. Politicians are supposed to represent the people not their parties or their donors.

Part of the reason I like Donald Trump is because he isnt an established politician. Sometimes that hurts him and people get offended. But the truth hurts. Even if he doesnt say it well, hes not wrong. Trump is our wakeup call.

Democrats treat Latinos as if were all one big group

Ximena Barreto, 31, San Diego, California

Ximena Barreto Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

I was in primary school in my native Colombia when my father was murdered. I was six just one year older than my daughter is now. My father was an officer in the Colombian army at a time when wearing a uniform made you a target for narcoterrorists, Farc fighters and guerrilla groups.

What I remember clearly from those early years is the bombing and the terror. I was so afraid, especially after my dad died. At night, I would curl up in my mothers bed while she held me close. She could not promise me that everything was going to be all right, because it wasnt true. I dont want my daughter to grow up like that.

But when I turn on my TV, I see terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and in Orlando. There are dangerous people coming across our borders. Trump was right. Some are rapists and criminals, but some are good people, too. But how do we know who is who, when you come here illegally?

I moved to the US in 2006 on a work permit. It took nearly five years and thousands of dollars to become a US citizen. I know the process is not perfect, but its the law. Why would I want illegals coming in when I had to go through this? Its not fair that theyre allowed to jump the line and take advantage of so many benefits, ones that I pay for with my tax dollars.

People assume that because Im a woman, I should vote for the woman; or that because Im Latina, I should vote for the Democrat. The Democrats have been pandering to minorities and women for the last 50 years. They treat Latinos as if were all one big group. Im Colombian I dont like Mariachi music. Donald Trump is not just saying what he thinks people want to hear, hes saying what theyre afraid to say. I believe that hes the only candidate who can make America strong and safe again.

Trump beat the system: whats more American than that?

Bertran Usher, 20, Inglewood, California

Bertran Usher, centre. Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

Donald Trump is the candidate America deserves. For decades, Americans have bemoaned politicians and Washington insiders. We despise political speak and crave fresh, new ideas. When you ask for someone with no experience, this is what you get. Its like saying you dont want a doctor to operate on you.

But Trump is a big FU to America. He beat the system and proved everyone wrong. Whats more American than that?

As a political science student who one day hopes to go into politics, I am studying this election closely. Both candidates are deeply unpopular and people of my generation are not happy with their choices. I believe we can learn what not to do from this election. I see how divided the country is, and its the clearest sign that politicians will have to learn to work together to make a difference. Its not always easy, but Ive seen this work.

I was raised in a multicultural household. My mother, a Democrat, is Latino and African American, raised in the inner city of Los Angeles. My father, a Republican, is an immigrant from Belize. My parents and I dont always see eye to eye on everything, but our spirited debates have helped add nuance to my politics.

Im in favour of small government, but I support gay rights. I believe welfare is an important service for Americans who need it, but I think our current programme needs to be scaled back. I think we need to have stricter enforcement of people who come to the country illegally, but I dont think we should deport the DREAMers [children of immigrants who were brought to the country illegally, named after the 2001 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act].

Trump can be a nut, but I think hes the best candidate in this election. Though there are issues of his I disagree with, at least he says whats on his mind, as opposed to Hillary Clinton, who hides what shes thinking behind her smile.

Its up to my generation to fix the political mess were in. I plan to be a part of the solution.

Trumps The Art Of The Deal inspired me to be a businessman

Omar Navarro, 27, Torrance, California

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

When I was a kid, people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would tell them: I want to be president of the United States. If that doesnt work out, I want to be a billionaire like Trump.

In a way, I supported him long before he announced he was running for president. He was my childhood hero. I read The Art Of The Deal as a student; it inspired me to become a businessman. Now I own a small business and am running for Congress in Californias 43rd district.

Trump built an empire and a strong brand thats recognisable all around the world; hes a household name and a world-class businessman. Almost anywhere you go, you can see the mark of Donald Trump on a building or property. When I see that, I see the American Dream.

Some people ask me how I can support Donald Trump as the son of a Mexican and Cuban immigrants. They are categorising me. In this country we label people: Hispanic, African American, Asian, Caucasian. We separate and divide people into social categories based on race, ethnicity, gender and creed. To me, this is a form of racism. Im proud of my Hispanic heritage but Im an American, full stop.

Like all immigrants, my parents came to this country for a better opportunity. But they did it legally. They didnt cut the line. They assimilated to the American way of life, learned English and opened small businesses.

Why should we allow people to skirt the law? Imagine making a dinner reservation and arriving at the restaurant to find out that another family has been seated at your table. How is that fair?

We have to have laws and as a country we must enforce those laws. A society without laws is just anarchy. If someone invited you to their house and asked you to remove your shoes would you keep them on? If we dont enforce the rules, why would anyone respect them? I believe Donald Trump will enforce the rules.

He has taken a strong stand against abortion

Jimena Rivera, 20, student at the University of Texas at Brownsville

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

Im Mexican, so I dont have a vote, but I support Donald Trump because he is the one candidate who opposes abortion. He may have wavered in the beginning, but since becoming the nominee he has taken a strong stand against abortion.

Hillary Clinton is running as the leader of a party that has pushed a very pro-choice platform. Even Democrats like her running mate, Tim Kaine, who is a devout Catholic, compromise their faith to support abortion.

I dont always agree with his positions on immigration. I see the border wall every day. Im not convinced that its effective. The people who want to cross will find a way. I dont think its right that they do, but most of them are looking for a better way of life. A wall wont stop them.

Lower taxes and less regulation will create more jobs

Marissa Desilets, 22, Palm Springs, California

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

I am a proud Hispanic conservative Republican woman. I became politically engaged as a political science and economics major at university. By my junior year, I was a member of the campus Republicans club. As a student of economics, I am very impressed with Trumps economic agenda. I believe we must cut taxes for everyone and eliminate the death tax. Lowering taxes and reeling back regulations will create more jobs meaning more tax-paying Americans. This in turn will generate more revenue for the Treasury.

I also support Trump because he favours strong leadership and promised to preserve the constitution of the United States. We must have a rule of law in this country. We must close our open borders. Like Trump says: a nation without borders is not a nation. This doesnt mean we should not allow any immigrants. We should welcome new immigrants who choose to legally enter our beautiful country.

This wont be the case if Hillary Clinton becomes president. I would expect the poor to become poorer and our country to become divided. I believe that liberals reckless domestic spending will bankrupt our future generations. I refuse to support a party that desires to expand the government and take away my civil liberties.

He has gone through so many divorces, yet raised such a close-knit family

Dr Alexander Villicana, 80, Pasadena, California

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

I am an example of the opportunities this country has to offer. My parents came from Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. They were not educated but they worked hard to make a better life for us and it paid off.

I went to school and studied cosmetic surgery. Now I work as a plastic surgeon and have been in practice for the last 40 years. I have a beautiful family and my health. I am Hispanic but I am a citizen of the United States and I feel very patriotic for this country that has given me so much.

Im supporting Trump because I agree with his vision for our economy. He has experience at the negotiating table, so he knows what to do to create jobs and increase workers salaries. In Trumps America people would be rewarded for their hard work rather than penalised with hefty taxes.

The security of our nation is a top priority for me. I think it would be impossible to deport 11 million people who are here illegally, but we have to do a better job of understanding who is in our country and who is trying to come into our country.

A lot of what Trump says, especially about security and immigration, is twisted by the media. What he said about Mexicans, for example, that wasnt negative it was the truth. There are Mexicans bringing over drugs and perpetrating rapes. But what he also said and the media completely ignored is that many Mexicans are good people coming over for a better quality of life.

He may be blunt and occasionally offensive but I find him likable. I was so impressed by Trump and his family at the Republican National Convention. Its hard for me to imagine that someone who has gone through so many divorces has managed to raise such a close-knit family. None of his children had to work and yet they spoke with eloquence and integrity about their father.

When Trump is harsh about Mexicans, he is right

Francisco Rivera, 43, Huntington Park, California

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

People ask me how I can support Donald Trump. I say, let me tell you a story. I was in line at the movie theatre recently when I saw a young woman toss her cupcake into a nearby planter as if it were a trash can. I walked over to her and said, Honey, excuse me, does that look like a garbage can to you? And you know what she told me? Theres already trash in the planter, so what does it matter?

I asked her what part of Mexico she was from. She seemed surprised and asked how I knew she was from Mexico. Look at what you just did, I told her. Donald Trump may sound harsh when he speaks about Mexicans, but he is right. Its people like you that make everyone look bad.

I moved from Mexico with my family when I was seven. I still carry a photo of my brother and I near our home, to remind people how beautiful the city once was. Now I spend my time erasing graffiti from the walls and picking up trash. Sixty years ago, we accepted immigrants into our country who valued the laws, rules and regulations that made America the land of opportunity. Back in those days, people worked hard to improve themselves and their communities.

Im tired of living in a lawless country. Its like we put a security guard at the front door, but the Obama administration unlocked the back door. And I have seen what my own people have done to this country. They want to convert America into the country they left behind. This country has given me so many opportunities I wouldnt have had if my mom had raised her family in Mexico. I want America to be great again, and thats why in November I am going to vote for Donald Trump.

I voted for Obama twice, but Hillary gets a free pass

Teresa Mendoza, 44, Mesa, Arizona

Photograph: Edoardo Delille and Giulia Piermartiri/Institute

In my day job I am a real estate agent but every now and then I dabble in standup comedy. Comedy used to be a safe space. You could say whatever you wanted to and it was understood that it was meant to make people laugh. Now everything has to be politically correct. You cant say Hand me the black crayon without someone snapping back at you: What do you mean by that? Donald Trump offended a lot of people when he gave the speech calling [Mexicans] rapists and criminals but he didnt offend me.

I was a liberal Democrat all my life. Before this I voted for Obama twice. I wanted to be a part of history. If it wasnt for Obamacare and the ridiculous growth of our federal government, Id probably still be a Democrat, asleep at the wheel. But I woke up and realised Im actually much more in line with Republicans on major policy points.

I like to joke that Im an original anchor baby. My parents came from Mexico in the 1970s under the Bracero work programme making me a California-born Chicana. We later became US citizens. But now that Im a Republican, Hillary Clinton is trying to tell me Im alt-right. Its strange isnt it? All of a sudden Im a white nationalist.

My sons and I go back and forth. They dont like Trump. But its what theyre hearing in school, from their friends and teachers, who are all getting their news from the same biased news outlets.

Im very concerned about the role the media is taking in this election. The networks sensationalise and vilify Trump while they give Hillary Clinton a free pass. It amazes me. I dont care if Trump likes to eat his fried chicken with a fork and a knife. I do care that Clinton has not been held responsible for the Benghazi attacks.

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While waiting in Tapachula for US exit permits, African and Asian migrants recount the treacherous journeys they took to get one step closer to a new home

Global development is supported by

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The sun has barely risen and already hundreds of migrants are gathered outside the vast white and green immigration detention centre, hoping to get through its gates.

Most have travelled thousands of miles on foot, by boat and bus from South America, but few here speak Spanish. In front of the locked gates near Mexicos southern border, its an eclectic mix of French, English, Creole, Urdu, Lingala and Somali.

This eclectic crowd is part of a huge surge in African and Asian migrants traversing the Americas in hope of a better life in the US. The circuitous passage means paying thousands of dollars to coyotes or people smugglers to cross 10 countries, where overcrowded fishing boats, mosquito-infested jungles, armed bandits and immigration agents await.

A child waits in front of the immigration center in Tapachula for an exit permit to the US. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

Despite the dangers, about 7,882 Africans and Asians presented themselves at Mexican immigration in the first seven months of this year 86% higher than in the whole of 2015 and more than four times the number registered in 2014. At the end of August, Tapachulas immigration registered 424 Africans in just two days.

Over the past decade, Latin America has become an increasingly popular route of entry to the US for Asian and African migrants, but the current surge in numbers is unprecedented.

The numbers are still tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty, but the treacherous route crossing Latin America is becoming increasingly popular as people from across the world seek new ways to reach the US.

The vast majority arrive in the city of Tapachula near the Guatemalan border, without a visa or even a passport. But unlike Central Americans, these migrants can obtain a temporary travel document which allows them to continue unimpeded to the US border since Mexico has no deportation agreements with their countries.

We saw a dead man without head or hands

By 8am, its already fiercely hot outside the immigration center and there are too few shady trees for the growing crowd. To kill time, people listen to music on their phones or discuss the best ways to travel north. Those with money will fly to the Mexican cities of Tijuana, Matamoros or Mexicali, others will risk several days on buses through states plagued by organised crime, where Central American migrants are routinely targeted by traffickers and kidnappers.

Habte Michael, 28, from Asmara, Eritrea, just arrived three months after setting off from So Paulo, Brazil. After a punishing journey hes exhausted, but optimistic hell soon be in America where he will seek refuge.

Michael left Uganda for Rio Branco in northern Brazil in September 2015. He spent a few months learning Portuguese and planning his route, before crossing into Peru in May 2016. Next, he travelled overland on buses with the help of connectors an organised network of individuals who help migrants buy bus tickets and find cheap hotels through Ecuador and Colombia. In Turbo on Colombias west coast, he took a boat to Panama where he walked with Africans, Bangladeshis and Haitians for five exhausting days through acres of mountainous jungle with a coyote.

African and Haitian migrants cross the Suchiate river at the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Local rafters charge them eight times the normal rate. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

In June, after walking for three days, his group found the washed-up body of a west African man. The river took him as he was walking in a group without a coyote, so he didnt know where it was safe to cross. In Panama we saw another dead man, also black, without head or hands.

Entering Costa Rica is fine, but leaving ithas been much tougher since Nicaragua decided to close its border last year to stop the flow of Cubans migrating to the US. There are about 2,000 migrants from across the world currently trapped in dire conditions on the border with Nicaragua, at a camp in Peas Blancas. In August, 10 migrants mostly Haitians drowned crossing Lake Nicaragua.

Michael was caught three times by Nicaraguan immigration agents and sent back to the camp. Like at least two dozen other migrants interviewed by the Guardian, he was robbed at gunpoint while walking through the Nicaraguan jungle. Desperate, he paid $1,000 to a truck driver to take him to Honduras, but the driver never showed up.

Each time a coyote takes your money or you get robbed, you must wait for family to send you something to carry on, Michael said. Its the only way I cant go back.

Michael eventually made it to Honduras six weeks after arriving at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Many migrants described Honduras as the easiest country to cross, as irregular migrants those not from Central America are given travel permits.

In contrast, Panama and Nicaragua are the most dangerous.

Abdua Kareema, 38, from Ghana, was robbed by four gunmen in the jungle near Managua.

They stripped the women and searched them intimately to see if they were hiding anything, Kareema said. One woman had her time of the month, but the robber thought the feminine pad was something hidden, so he slapped her face.

Similar reports of sexual violence against women are common.

We just looked up a route on Google

By mid-morning, immigration officers have let through about 200 people who will spend a few days or weeks locked in, while their travel permits which give them 21 days to leave Mexico are processed. Most are economic migrants and will be given safe passage by Mexico. Meanwhile, busloads of detained Central Americans enter the gates; with most deported home the next day, to face the violence and threats they fled.

The rest, including Michael, are given dates to return later in the week. Disappointed, they sit around eating lychees and cheap biscuits, deciding what to do next.

But still, more people arrive. About 15 young men from the Punjab region of India arrive with their rucksacks, straight from the Guatemalan border which they had crossed by raft.

Some flew from Delhi to Ecuador via Istanbul, others came via Indonesia and Dubai.

Indian migrants travelled for several months through Latin America before arriving at the immigration offices in Tapachula. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

We didnt pay guides, we just looked up the route on Google, said Herdeep Ghotra, 26, a truck engineer. Also my cousin came the same way two years before.

Ghotra walked six days through the Panama jungle where he saw seven dead migrants six men and one woman, all black. Its not clearly how or when they died, or if their bodies have since been recovered. Ghotra was also robbed at gunpoint in Nicaragua: They took $200 and my love, my HTC phone.

The Indians talk mostly about wanting to make a better a life for themselves. Some are trying to reunite with family members in the US, while Ghotra says a violent family conflict forced him to leave.

An immigration officer emerges to tell them to come back in two days and prepare to be inside the center for a week. After that, theyll wait for money to be wired by relatives to fly to Tijuana where thousands of Africans, Asians and Haitians have descended this year.

No one here seems to be aware that US border control agents are now working here amid growing American concerns about security risks following recent terrorist attacks in the west.

I welcome them with love

Tapachulas main square is jam-packed with people enjoying noisy fair rides and junk food stalls.

On an avenue just off the main square, lie the cheap hotels where most African and Asian migrants choose to stay; where a new curry house run by a Mexican cook who was taught to make dhal and fish curry by a Bangladeshi migrant is the most popular food joint.

Just off the main drag is Mama Africas what everyone calls Concepcin Gonzlez, 56, who runs the $3a-night, no-frills Imperial Hotel. Here, there are people from across Africa: Burundi, South Africa, Nigeria, Somalia, Mozambique, Ghana, Congo and many Haitians pretending to be Congolese in order to avoid deportation.

Migrants gather in a hotel known as Mama Africa in downtown Tapachula, which is almost exclusively African. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

They tell me how they want to make a better life for their families, I can understand and welcome them with love, Gonzlez told the Guardian.

There are 70 beds squeezed into 15 rooms, but tonight its packed, so there are couples and mothers with infants resting on wafer-thin mattresses in the internal patio.

Fedolina, 39, from Angola, has a ghostly look of pain and fatigue marked across her face. She fell while running from armed robbers in Nicaragua two weeks ago. Her right arm hangs limp, her shoulder looks dislocated, and theres a nasty gash on her forehead. She has yet to see a doctor.

Gonzlez moves her into a quiet room and promises to take her to hospital in the morning.

As the plight of Syrians fleeing war continues to yield untold horrors in Europe, in this region, emerging crises also provoke new routes and new dangers.

Last year, Mama Africa was Mama Cuba as almost 10,000 Cubans entered Mexico amid rumours that the US visa waiver programme could end with the thawing of diplomatic ties. The numbers have plunged amid tighter travel restrictions in Latin America, but those determined to leave Cuba have found new routes.

Pig farmers Ernesto Prez, 46 and Onel Martn, 44, left their hometown Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast last July on a handmade boat. Powered by a car engine, they sailed with 25 others, including nurses, a mechanic, and an economist. It took seven days and 1,000km to reach the Honduran Bay Island of Guanaja Bay, a risky but increasingly common route used by Cubans.

Our reason for leaving is purely economic, increased tourism has made no difference to our lives. I sold my few valuable things, my pigs, television and fan, to make this journey. But now what? said Martin, contemplating his next move outside the Beln migrant hostel.

After a temporary reprieve, immigration raids in Mexico are once again targeting Cubans.

Ernesto Prez, left, and Onel Martn sailed seven days on a handcrafted boat in Mexico. Junior Bordon flew to Guyana and travelled on foot, bus and boat to Mexico. Photograph: Encarni Pindado for the Guardian

In a surprise visit to Mexico earlier this week, Republican candidate Donald Trump reiterated his intent to build a wall along the US-Mexican border in order to end all migration from the Americas.

But wall or no wall, desperate people do desperate things.

In Tapachula airport Lejma, 21 and husband Ahmed, 22, from Mogadishu, Somalia, comfort their hysterical little girl, who thinks the immigration officers in white uniforms are doctors.

She was very sick in the boats and got bitten by many mosquitoes when we walked seven days in the jungle, said Ahmed. She was then in hospital in Costa Rica for nearly one week and had many injections.

Somaya, just 22 months, is covered in bite scars.

The family left Somalia to escape a police officer who was harassing Lejma, a waitress, demanding she be his wife. When she refused, the family was threatened by the officers colleagues and clan.

Their plan is to fly to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and then claim asylum at the Brownsville border crossing in Texas.

There is no justice in my country, we had to leave, Ahmed said. I hope we can work and one day bring our families to America.

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Mexico reels from the loss of Juanga, whose lyrics about love and loss struck a common chord as he overcame the gender stereotypes of a chauvinist society

Mexican media went to work on Monday morning with a burning question: where were the remains of singer Juan Gabriel?

Reporters staked out an airport near Mexico City, where his remains were to arrive and be taken to the Bellas Artes cultural centre for a funeral, while officials in the singers adopted hometown of Ciudad Jurez and his birth state of Michoacn made their cases for where Juanga as Juan Gabriel was affectionately known should be returned to. The location of his burial will certainly become Mexicos Graceland.

Despite fevered speculation, his legal representative called for calm, saying the singers children want to be alone with the body of their father.

Residents participate in a rally around a statue of Juan Gabriel in Paracuaro, Michoacan state, Mexico on Monday. Photograph: Enrique Castro/AFP/Getty Images

People sometimes forget that in addition to being an idol that belonged to Mexico, Juan Gabriel had a family, his attorney Silvia Urquidi told Televisa. Children who have not processed the pain they feel.

Mexico is still reeling from the loss of an icon, whose music struck a common chord, serving as the soundtrack to countless lives. His showmanship, effeminate appearance and fondness for sequins and shiny shirts overcame the gender stereotypes of a chauvinist society, while his lyrics about love and loss spoke to all.

That Juanga overcame hardships in early life he was orphaned at a young age along with his nine siblings, and later served 18 months in prison on robbery charges to hit the big time, only added to the appeal of a performer with whom the often oppressed masses could easily identify.

There was definitely this transcendence from high-brow to low-brow with Juan Gabriel. He straddled all the social classes, says Esteban Illades, editor of Nexos, a high-brow Mexican magazine. He didnt write about social problems, he didnt write about the economy. He wrote about what every Mexican could feel, even if you were rich or you were poor.

Mexicans have mourned Juanga in the streets and online since his death, aged 66, on Sunday.

Many told of his importance in their lives, while others spoke of his significance to the nation and to his hometown of Ciudad Jurez, a city plagued by intense drug-related violence.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of his career is vindicating an aesthetic that belonged at the start [of his career] on the margins, Vctor Santana wrote in the online publication Horizontal. For entire generations of Mexicans, Juan Gabriels music meant an authentic sentimental education.

Juan Gabriel performs at Viejas Arena on 6 February 2015 in San Diego, California. Photograph: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

Others posted unexpected anecdotes.

When I met Juan Gabriel, he told me that he often read Seneca. He was a stoic romantic, tweeted musician Julieta Venegas.

From the first time I saw him in the early 80s, in the nightclub El Patio, he seduced me, like he did that night to everyone listening with a true fervour, wrote columnist Guadalupe Loaeza in Reforma. What most fascinated me was the response of the men. I saw how they looked at him. They did it with curiosity, but above all with a certain fascination.

Gabriel was believed to be gay, but he never publicly confirmed this, despite attracting hoardes of male fans in a country with a heavy culture of machismo. He once told a television presenter pushing the issue: They say you dont ask about whats obvious.

Juan Gabriel was a true punk, tweeted writer Yuri Herrera. In a country of machos, he danced as he damn well pleased.

Despite widespread adoration, Juanga was known to court controversy, occasionally entering the political fray. In 2000, he propped up the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary party, penning a song for its 2000 election campaign as the country was preparing to cast aside its one-party rule.

His views are expected to become better known in his death. His lawyer told the media that Juanga wrote a letter for her to deliver to the president, telling for the first time how he sees the country.

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