They call it 'The Beast', the 'Train of Death', or the 'Devourer of Migrants'. There are many names given to the train that carries thousands of Central Americans from southern Mexico towards the United States and the dream of a better life. Many stories of people that unravel and overlap.
José Marti, 25, comes from Matagalpa in northern Nicaragua. He has friends in Houston who told him that there he could make enough money to build a decent house and buy a plot of land back home.
José Trinidad is from El Salvador and he was deported from the United States a year ago. Now he is trying to go back. “I want to return to Los Angeles – he says – because I have my children and a good job there. The police thought I belonged to a Pandilla (gang), but it wasn't true. That’s why I was deported”. In the first five months of 2012 alone, over 15,000 Salvadoreans were deported from the United States.
Maria Guadalupe comes from Nicaragua and dreams of the Florida coast. There is a large Nicaraguan community in Miami. “I have been offered a job – she explains – and now the important thing is to get there”.
Many people are waiting for the train in the heat of the sun that reaches 45°C. Frustration, worry, and fear will be their companions for the journey.
The train draws up and stops. There is shouting, shoving; eyes meet, hands push, bags fly. Everyone knows that the Cemex train will not stop for long. That is truly the case; the train starts moving again and gathers speed. Some make the sign of the Cross that has accompanied them from the day they set out. It will be a long journey. They lie down on the wagon roofs. José Fernando looks for his friend Chico but cannot see him. They had set off together from Estoril nel Nord, in Nicaragua. Suddenly he spots a face that he knows by heart at the end of the train. He smiles, lies down, and starts to dream.
Veterans of the journey include Luis who, like many others, is from El Salvador. This is the third time he has climbed onto the train. “It is important to hold on, the train can sometimes play dirty tricks,” he says to a group of young Hondurans who are chasing each other. They are playing more to mask their anxiety than to have fun. “Last year a boy fell from the train and lost both legs,” says Luis. “The next stop is in four hours. Stay still and try not to fall asleep”.
Each year nearly half a million Central Americans cross Mexico in the direction of the United States. In most cases they travel without documents to avoid being deported in the event that they are stopped. Their greatest fear is of being kidnapped by a criminal gang for ransom. Luis nods his head: “Once a migrant is kidnapped he is forced to call home; if the money does not arrive within a couple of days they are killed mercilessly and thrown into mass graves. They must pay between $1,500 and $5,000 to regain their freedom”.
Fernando from El Salvador has this to say: “We were at the town of Ixtepec on a freight train heading for Veracruz when four armed men suddenly climbed down from the roof and began to round us up. They then demanded a telephone number for our families in order to ask for a ransom before kidnapping nine of us. A few hours later the police found the body of one of the nine not far from where the incident had taken place; the others disappeared without a trace”.
The migrants remember clearly what happened in August 2010, when 72 Central Americans were murdered by drug traffickers from the Zetas cartel in the state of Tamaulipas and then thrown into a common grave. Over 20,000 migrants were kidnapped in 2010 alone according to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission. “Migrants represent a turnover of $50 million a year,” calculates Leticia Gutiérrez, a Commission member.
Sometimes the police themselves take advantage of the migrants by demanding money. “Even then there is no guarantee of release: many are sent back to where they came from,” explains Luis.
Mexico's National Institute of Migration says that roughly 24,500 people were repatriated in the last few months of 2012, mostly to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Miguel is another migrant on the train. He is a Mexican from the state of Chapas and is heading for San Antonio in Texas. He has a cousin who returns to Mexico every December to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe. Miguel plans to spend a few years in Texas in order to put together a bit of money and start a small business in his native village.
Remittances to Mexico grew by 6.86% in 2012 to reach a volume of $22.73 billion according to the Bank of Mexico. The average money transfer was $326.26.
“Remittances are an essential source of income for many poor families in Mexico and a stimulus for domestic demand,” says Francisco Lopez, a lecturer in economics in Mexico City. “They are the second source of foreign currency in Mexico after crude oil. The majority of remittances to Mexico come from the United States, which are home to around 12 million Mexicans and at least a further nine million Americans born of Mexican parents”.
“Mexico is going through a time of crisis particularly as a result of the violence caused by the war on drug trafficking, but also because of corruption within the institutions and the general culture of impunity,” says Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, founder of the Hermanos en el Camino migrants' shelter in the southern state of Oaxaca, one of the poorest in the country. “The migrants bear the brunt of the violence in this troubled country. They are extremely tired when they arrive, they are all poor and most are young people who have left their homes and families to study, work or escape the violence. They often arrive after hours spent on the roof of a freight train, exposed to the rain, the sun and the cold. They arrive hungry, thirsty, sometimes without clothes, without money,” continues the priest.
In total 11,000 migrants have been kidnapped for ransom or killed. “Hundreds are buried in mass graves especially in Chapas and Veracruz, the capital of Los Zeta. The problem is that there is no more land available for mass graves so the criminals now dissolve the bodies in acid,” says the priest. “It is simpler and leaves no trace”. How many bodies have been disposed of in this way? “No one knows, they do not exist”.
Father Solalinde has received numerous death threats. “In fact I have been threatened all my life,” he says. “I have received six death threats in the last two months alone. But I am not afraid, my life is in the hands of God. I am not concerned for myself, but for the migrants and for the situation in Mexico”. In December Father Solalinde received the 2012 National Human Rights Award.
The border with the United States is marked by a metal barrier running for 3,200 km and is under constant surveillance by satellite, aerial drones, mobile towers, and infrared cameras. Thousands of border patrol agents, members of the National Guard, and Minutemen volunteers are responsible for tracking down the 'illegals'.
The border is porous and impermeable at the same time: large quantities of drugs make it across by air, sea, overland, or even underground, and so do large quantities of weapons.
Operation Fast and Furious of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) led to the arrival in Mexico of at least 2,500 illegal weapons, according to Estebàn Fernandez, a human rights activist living in Mexico City. Many of these ended up in the hands of the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Drugs, weapons and many other goods cross the border but, as Estebàn stresses, “the passage of people is very highly controlled”. The American dream maintains its lure in spite of the economic downturn.