Ramshackle hotels that rent rooms for $5 a night line the main street in El Naranjo, Guatemala, signs of the outpost's status as a waystation for Central American migrants trying to make their way to the United States.
The lawless, dangerous town is home to drug-traffickers and human smugglers — the coyotes who negotiate and make deals with the desperate travelers right out in the open.
During a visit to El Naranjo, a team from NBC Nightly News watched one such transaction — four Hondurans, two of them teenagers, making a deal — while a Guatemalan soldier a few feet away turned a blind eye.
"This is a trip for men with no guarantees," a coyote in a white hat told them. "We leave on Saturday."
Locals say the smugglers, who charge $7,000 a person for the trip to the border, arrange for the migrants to board rickety wooden boats that set off on the San Pedro River before dawn, bound for Mexico.
This report is part of a look at the border crisis, "Desperate Journey: Children at America's Border." Check back for more on NBCNews.com and Nightly News With Brian Williams this week.
Those who can't pay must fend for themselves.
Four young Hondurans who passed through El Naranjo in an attempt to get to Mexico and the U.S. border shelled out $100 each for the boat ride.
“The boat ride looks pretty because you’re passing all these trees and the sky is open but it was a very ugly trip," one of them said.
They were left 45 miles from the town of Tenosique, Mexico, and spent a night in a shelter run by a Franciscan friar before hopping the dangerous freight train known as La Bestia, or the Beast.
Extortionists stalked them on the train, and they said they saw four friends killed before they escaped.
“We came home because we had no money to keep going," one said after they turned back.
The risks and the costs, however, have not stemmed the tide of outsiders who go to El Naranjo looking for a way out or the smugglers who operate without interference from the military or police.
First published July 10 2014, 5:18 PM