By Gabriel Stargardter
ARRIAGA Mexico (Reuters) - When 26-year-old unemployed Honduran Javier Soto tried to sneak into the United States earlier this year, he breezed all the way through to northern Mexico before he was finally caught.
Soto was not deterred. He made another attempt last week but this time he made it only as far as Arriaga, a wild-west railroad town, in southern Mexico. He was stopped in his tracks by immigration officials fanning out to deter migrants from clambering onto 'La Bestia', or "The Beast", a network of cargo trains bound north.
Pickups carrying immigration agents and police took Soto and fellow migrants by surprise as they tried to hitch a ride on the train in Arriaga, sending them running off into the night.
Locals said it was the Mexican authorities' second raid there in under a week as part of Mexico's strategy to stem a flood of migrants that poses a headache for U.S. President Barack Obama and has overwhelmed U.S. border resources.
The White House said last week the number of Central American child migrants crossing the U.S. border has fallen sharply, but the big unanswered question remains why.
The U.S. government has pointed to the summer heat, but Reuters reporting in southern Mexico and Central America shows it is due to a combination of factors.
They include tighter border policing, raids on the famously dangerous Bestia like the one that almost ensnared Soto, road checkpoints, horror tales told by deportees who grappled with drug gangs on the way north, a U.S.-funded advertising blitz on the dangers of the journey, and the high-profile arrests of several human smugglers, or coyotes.
DEBUNKING MYTH OF US AMNESTY
The sight of several planeloads of Central American migrants being deported, including mothers and children, has helped drive home Obama's tough message that most of those who enter the country illegally will be ejected and has gone some way toward debunking the coyote-spread myth of a U.S. amnesty.
"I'm starting to think it's just not worth it," Soto said, dragging on a cigarette outside a migrant shelter in Arriaga, the main jumping-on point for Central American Bestia-riders.
"It's harder, surveillance by Mexican immigration has risen. Before you could just arrive and board the train ... Now you rarely see kids," he said as he waited for his sister to send him $50 so he can take the bus north instead.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto last month announced a plan to make his country's porous southern border with Guatemala more "orderly", citing improved border crossing facilities and regional cooperation but offering few specifics.
Mexican officials say they have not asked for anything in return from the United States, which gives Mexico aid via the Merida Initiative to fight organized crime.
Some $86 million of that funding is being spent on equipment like speedboats and 4x4s to patrol Mexico's southern border and stem the flow of migrants, said a U.S. State Department official, who like many interviewed for this article asked not to be named to be able to speak freely.
Another U.S. official said Pena Nieto was angling, behind the scenes, for his efforts to be recognized with a state visit hosted by Obama.
Carlos Solis, who runs a shelter in Arriaga, said Central American mothers, many of whom braved the trek north with suckling infants in their arms, are increasingly wary of risking the gauntlet and no longer believe rumors of a U.S. amnesty.
"Now that they realize that it was a lie, (the flow) has diminished," Solis said.
There was a 10 to 15 percent drop in the number of migrants crossing into southern Mexico without papers in July from a month earlier, Sergio Alcocer, Mexico's deputy foreign minister responsible for the United States and Canada, told Reuters in an interview.
Plans were afoot to step up immigration checks and tackle the thousands of migrants riding atop the Bestia, he said.
"The idea is to refurbish the railway and to make investments ... so that also the speed of the train can be increased and then the likelihood of people climbing (on or off) the train will be largely diminished," he said.
He gave no timeline, but a previously announced revamp of Mexico's southern railroads is due for completion in 2018.
Other nations in the region have also been discussing the migrant issue with the United States both publicly and behind the scenes.
A top Honduran official said his government had discussed military aid with the United States during a visit to Washington in July in exchange for help with halting Central American migrants at their origin. He did not specify what kind of aid.
In private, U.S. officials said the transfer of U.S. military technology and hardware to Honduras was a non-starter.
In Tecun Uman, a seedy Guatemalan border town, Colonel Albin Dubois said an anti-drug smuggling task-force he leads and which the United States is helping to train and equip, has recently started going after coyote networks.
His team has seen a sharp fall in child migrant numbers.
"I think people are understanding (the risks)," he told Reuters, citing the impact of reports of arrests such as the capture of seven coyotes in the area last week.
Charisse Phillips, the No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Guatemala, said there were ongoing discussions with the Guatemalans to expand U.S. military assistance in fighting drug and people smuggling networks along the country's northern and southern borders.
Armed U.S. soldiers in plain clothes were at the Honduran border and State Department officials were at the Guatemalan frontier when Reuters visited both checkpoints this month.
The two U.S. Army rangers were observing the work of the Honduran elite police unit assigned to the border, while Dubois said the State Department officials were there to see how U.S. money was being spent by his task force.
BORDER STILL POROUS
The number of unaccompanied children caught along the southwest U.S. border almost halved in July from a month earlier to 5,508, or around 177 a day, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The numbers still remain high versus previous years.
And while the Obama administration was quick to highlight that it was closing some migrant detention facilities due to the fall, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said several others have been opened, and U.S. officials across Central America are wary of declaring an end to the crisis.
Retired Tucson, Arizona border patrol chief Victor Manjarrez attributed the fall in migration to people realizing that the smugglers were spreading misinformation about how easy it would be to stay in the United States. He said he had seen similar situations on his watch in 1994 and 2003.
"And I'm sure next time the smugglers sense an opportunity, we'll see another (surge)," Manjarrez said.
Mexico's southern border plan includes improving infrastructure at rudimentary border crossings, encouraging the use of visitor permits and beefing up the presence of police and the navy alongside customs and immigration officials.
Yet stretches of the wild, tropical and largely uninhabited border are as porous as ever.
Along the Suchiate River that marks the frontier between Guatemala and Mexico, 22-year-old Wilmer Perez punts customers across on a raft made from black inflatable inner tubes for less than $1 per passenger.
The number of kids crossing the river is down sharply, at around 100 a day versus a daily peak of 500, Perez said.
"Before, there were just too many. Now, it's minimal, barely any children are crossing," he said. "There are a lot of thieves who kill people on the way, and then there's the Zetas (drug cartel). God help them."
(Additional reporting by Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein and Michael O'Boyle and Dave Graham in Mexico City, Patricia Zengerle, Caren Bohan and Julia Edwards, Doina Chiacu and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Simon Gardner and Ross Colvin)