Last year’s wave of unaccompanied children migrating to the US helped spark a crackdown in Mexico, forcing people to take alternative routes north as they face armed robbers, corrupt officials and sexual violence.
A former member of the Barrio 18 street gang, she spent two years as a protected witness, testifying against her former associates. When the trials came to an end, she was released from protective custody to the mercy of the streets.
Even the judge told her to run.
Ramírez, now 24, was adopted into the gang as an eight-year-old orphan, but said that she decided to testify against her former associates when she became pregnant.
“Now I just want to find a safe place where I can work and send money home for my daughter so she can have a different life than me,” she said.
Last year, Ramírez made it to the United States twice, only to be caught and deported each time. When she set out again this year, she discovered that it has now become as hard to enter Mexico as it is to cross the heavily policed US border.
On her previous attempts, she said, it took three days to reach the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, about 150 miles into Mexico. This time she had spent nearly a month, walking most of the way, sleeping rough most nights – and one occasion only just escaping Mexican immigration officials who shot her with a Taser.
“It has got really difficult to move even a few kilometers,” Ramirez said.
Across southern Mexico, Central American migrants fleeing violence, poverty and institutional collapse have over recent months found that well-trodden – if risky – routes north have been blocked by a government crackdown.
This has forced travelers to divert their journey through more remote and more perilous regions, where they face a heightened risk of robbery, rape, abduction and death.
Migrants interviewed in three separate church-run shelters on Mexico’s sweltering Pacific coastal plain, described taking lengthy detours – by land or even by sea – to avoid checkpoints and police raids.
They spoke of violent encounters with armed robbers and corrupt police – and the constant threat of sexual violence against female migrants. Female migrants described how they were forced to sleep with people smugglers or coyotes in exchange for their “protection”.
At a shelter in the town of Chahuites, several migrants told the story of a Honduran migrant called Beverly who had disappeared a few days earlier: a people smuggler had kidnapped and raped her younger sister, Fatima, whom he was holding prisoner in a nearby town. Beverly had set out to find her sister, but neither woman had been heard from since.
The Mexican crackdown has clearly been devised in tandem with the US government. Thomas Shannon, counselor to US secretary of state John Kerry, told the Senate appropriations committee in July what the US government planned to do to prevent a repeat of the surge. One of the main planks of the strategy was “improving the ability of Mexico to interdict migrants before they cross into Mexico”.
Migrants can still cross Mexico’s southern border itself relatively easily, but inside the country, they find that traditional routes are all but shut down.
Many more checkpoints have been set up along roads in the southern states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Chiapas and Oaxaca, making travel by bus much harder, too.
Police raids mean few now dare ride the infamous freight train, known as La Bestia, that had long been the main mode of transport for the poorest migrants.
The train now trundles through silent stations, its wagons free of the crowds of men, women and children who once clung to roofs and ladders.
President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the crackdown in July 2014, within a broader policy package called the Southern Frontier Programme. Hundreds of migration agents were redeployed to the country’s southern states.
Mexican officials said the programme was designed to protect migrants and promised to go after people-smugglers and the criminal gangs that regularly preyed on travellers. They also promised justice for any migrants abused by officials.
“The government believes that all these actions have had important, though insufficient, results,” the office of the president said in a written statement to the Guardian.
“The government will continue to evaluate the strategies and redouble its efforts in these areas, with the objective of guaranteeing the human rights and security of migrants moving through our country.”
But the most obvious impact of the programme has been a vast increase in deportations from Mexico, significantly reducing the pressure on the US border.
Mexico deported 92,889 Central Americans between October 2014 and April 2015, almost double the 49,893 in the same period the year before.
The US authorities, meanwhile, detained 70,226 people “other than Mexicans” – mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – between October 2014 and April 2015. The year before, it apprehended 159,103.
Such efforts may have driven down the number of migrants reaching the US border, but, human rights activists charge, it has done nothing to address the desperate poverty and rampant violence in countries like Honduras and El Salvador, and risks creating a new humanitarian crisis in Mexico as well.
“The Obama administration has found a way to hide the so-called crisis of Central American migrants at the border,” said Maureen Meyer, of the Washington Office on Latin America. “But at what cost?”
In the Guatemalan border post of El Carmen, just over the Suchiate river, migration officials said that up to 15 buses filled with deportees pass through every night on their way to Honduras and El Salvador.
Once migrants get back to those countries, however, few are likely to remain there for long. Most cities in the two countries are currently controlled by gangs or maras, such as the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha, and many migrants leave to escape imminent physical danger.
Hitching a lift northward from the border, one Salvadoran teenager described his journey as a sequence of near-death encounters.
Stefhans, 19, fled his home after his father refused to pay a protection fee to a local gang. In retaliation, the gang ordered his death.
He was caught in Mexico and sent back home, where his mother and siblings met him as he got off the bus. The reunion was sweet, he said, but short: after lunch, the family put him on another bus heading north.
Back in Mexico, Stefhans managed to avoid the battery of checkpoints by trudging along train tracks.
But while he eluded migration officials, he walked straight into an ambush by armed robbers. “They had guns and machetes and there was nowhere to run to because they had us surrounded,” he said. “They took everything we had.”
Robbers come in all guises on the road north, and some wear uniforms.
A 34-year-old Salvadoran taxi driver called Walter Acosta described how federal police had demanded 500 pesos (about $30 or £20). He gave them considerably less, which was all he had, and they let him go.
Encouraged by activists at the shelters, Stefhans and Acosta decided to file legal suits, and hoped to obtain a special visa, given to migrants in Mexico who have been victims of crimes, that would allow them to remain in the country until their cases are resolved.
But many migrants distrust the authorities too much, or are under too much pressure to start earning money, to follow this path. Instead, they seek to slip ever deeper into the shadows.
At one stage in his journey, Walter took a boat through mangroves to avoid a checkpoint. Activists have reported that migrants are increasingly using new sea routes between northern Guatemala and Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Several migrants in the shelters said that when planning the journey, they had already factored in the $4,000 fee for a smuggler to get them across the US frontier.
Now, however, they were facing the realisation that they would have to pay about the same amount again to get them through Mexico.
“It looks like it is the only way,” said 17-year-old Margarita, in the town of Chahuites. Just a day before, she had been robbed and sexually molested as she headed north, but was saved from rape by her older brother, who had appealed to the assailants’ consciences.
Soon after, he was detained and deported by Mexican officials. Margarita was left alone with her younger brother. “I don’t know what we are going to do,” she said. “I never thought it was going to be this bad.”
Additional reporting by Ed Pilkington in New York