The 13-year-old lion was not only a tourist favorite, but also, a research animal. The beloved lion was being studied by the Oxford University Conservation Unit.
In the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, in a park called EcoAlberto, there’s a recreational attraction that offers visitors hot springs, rappelling and more recently, the thrills and chills of an illegal border crossing.
The real border is nearly 800 miles away, but this simulated crossing run by the indigenous HñaHñu community takes visitors through a fake U.S.-Mexico crossing, complete with smugglers and the threat of border patrol agents.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, now we want to go to a border crossing, not a real one, a fake one at a park in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo.
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YOUNG: Now the real border is nearly 800 miles away, but this simulated crossing, it's run by the indigenous HnaHnu community, takes visitors through a fake U.S.-Mexico border. It's complete with smugglers, border patrol agents. The point is to discourage people from making that trip.
From the HERE AND NOW network, Fronteras desk contributor Irina Zhorov has our story.
IRINA ZHOROV, BYLINE: The coyote, or smuggler, leading tonight's simulated illegal border crossing uses the name Simon and wears a black face mask. Before setting off, he addresses his would-be migrants for the evening, about 40 students from a private school in Mexico City.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translation) Tonight we're going to talk about migration. For us, it isn't just something rhetorical but rather the opposite because we've endured, we've suffered of hunger, thirst, injustice, heat, cold. We've suffered from everything.
ZHOROV: Then, under the cover of darkness, Simon herds the students into the woods, towards the fake border crossing. For about three hours, the students endure sirens, dogs, chases and a fake border patrol yelling threats.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
ZHOROV: Maribel Garcia(ph) works as an administrator for the Parque EcoAlberto. She says the purpose of the night walk is simple.
MARIBEL GARCIA: (Through translation) Our objective is to stop the immigration that exists amongst our citizens, principally from the state of Mexico to the U.S.
ZHOROV: Garcia says traditionally this region of Mexico subsisted on agriculture. But that wasn't bringing the community what it needed.
GARCIA: (Through translation) Because we didn't have sewer systems, light, telephone, roads.
ZHOROV: So people went north. Garcia says the HnaHnu community has lost about 80 percent of its population to the U.S., mainly to Arizona and Nevada. She says it was the HnaHnu youth returning home after crossing the real border that thought up this night walk tourist attraction as a way to create income for the community and encourage their fellow citizens to stay home.
Didi(ph), who also works as a coyote on the night walks, was emphatic that they are not a training exercise for people wanting to cross the border illegally.
DIDI: (Through translation) We try to help people so that they won't leave. It's time to create some employment, to work with our own and regenerate everything, or at least what we can, even though it might be slow going.
ZHOROV: The HnaHnu's efforts are well-timed. According to the Pew Research Hispanic Center, there is net zero migration from Mexico to the U.S. for the first time in decades. Increased border patrol, stricter laws in the U.S., rising smuggling fees, violence in the desert and the struggling U.S. economy are keeping more Mexicans at home and even have some people returning to Mexico from the U.S.
The parque's Maribel Garcia is hoping the night walks convince youth in particular to put their energies into their home communities.
GARCIA: (Through translation) The youth that already have something figured out, that already have something visualized for the future, they're the youth that in that moment think how difficult.
ZHOROV: The night walks cost the equivalent of about 20 US dollars, so the visitors are typically middle-class Mexicans or, like tonight, students from a private school - in other words, not the most likely group to attempt an illegal crossing into the U.S. Still, some students say they had been thinking about it. Over tea and sweetbreads at the end of the walk, Jasmine Ireli Morena Alcazar(ph) says she got the message.
JASMINE IRELI MORENA ALCAZAR: (Through translation) No, it's not worth risking it because if we can't stand a few hours, we won't be able to stand days because it's very ugly.
ZHOROV: Maribel Garcia says it's difficult to say how effective the night walks are for other visitors, but as the parque's tourist offerings are expanding, and the number of visitors slowly growing, she says there's a hope that the walks will generate enough income to encourage more of the community's residents to stay put. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Irina Zhorov at the Parque EcoAlberto in Mexico.
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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And later in the show, a new plan in Oregon to let students study now and pay later. The latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.