El Tren de la Muerte

Central American migrants risk life and limb on the death trains to Texas

Rape is so common on the migrant trail that many women making their way through Guatemala begin taking birth control pills or stashing condoms in preparation for what lies ahead. Salas, the Beta coordinator, says she once found a woman lying along the highway to Guatemala. The woman had resisted bandits who tried to rape her, and the men beat her, broke her left arm and used machetes to slash her legs to ribbons. In the end, she was raped anyway. Her friend, who didn't fight back, thought the woman might be dead and ran to town for help. "When we got there," Salas says, "she was in shock."

Salas has seen people lose both legs to the train—a teenager bled to death by the tracks in Tenosique just a couple of weeks earlier—but the memory of that poor woman has stayed with her. Along with the 6-foot-6 Honduran man whose legs were crushed by the train. He arrived with his friends at the Beta office in the back of a taxi. Salas opened the car door to find that they'd stuffed him in with his legs doubled over. "They were attached only by his pants and a bit of skin," she says. "I dragged him out, put him on the backboard—though he was too long for it—cut off his pants, pressurized the artery and got him to the hospital. He survived."

Driving with Salas along the highway from El Ceibo, we see a group of eight teenagers walking along the road ahead. When they see the truck, they duck under a barbed wire fence and sprint into a field, running for their lives. Salas pulls over and gets out. "Hey, we're Beta, we're here to help!" she calls after them. "Do you want some water?" The boys pause, then turn around and walk slowly back up to the road, out of breath.

These migrants have some 1,500 miles to travel.
Jennifer Szymaszek
These migrants have some 1,500 miles to travel.

They are Hondurans in their late teens, and they're on their way to Missouri. When I ask why, a tall guy with a blue bandanna around his head grins. "Because that's where all the pretty girls are!" His friends laugh. They take their water bottles and the pamphlets from Salas that list contact numbers for nonprofits, consulates and embassies, and keep walking.

When we get back into the truck, Salas is quiet for a long moment. She's still remembering the tall Honduran who lost his legs. "You see them in situations that should kill them," she finally says. "But they live a la fuerza—by force—by their determination to keep going."

Elias wakes to searing pain and the jarring metal-on-metal grind of the train. He'd used the lasso to lash himself to the ladder at the rear of the gasoline car, just above the steel connectors. Two nights of fitful sleep tied at the waist have left him with sharp aches in his back and neck. He's covered with mud churned by the whirring wheels below, and though some of the men riding nearby have shared water and food with him, there's no way to get rid of the grainy dirt that coats his mouth and sticks between his teeth. The temperature climbs to 95 degrees during the day, dressing him in a suit of sticky sweat and grime. His hair is matted in muddy clumps.

His mother would be horrified to see him now. He didn't even tell his parents he was leaving. When his brother left without saying a word three years earlier, Elias vowed he'd never end up in the same position. Unlike his younger brother, he had stayed in school. He planned to graduate and become an engineer. He never did, though. In Honduras, school isn't free, and attending requires money for supplies and uniforms. As he made his way through high school, he watched older friends with diplomas fail to find jobs in the fields they'd studied.

Elias ended up renting a stall in a local market and opening a cosmetics store, selling shampoos and lotions, ladies' face cream and Scope. He hired a woman to work the register, and for a while sales were good enough to begin building his own home, so he could move out of his parents' house. But then his luck turned. He'd just wanted a small house, but the men he hired built it way too big and spent too much money. Sales at the store started to tank; it seemed like all the small shops were going broke because they couldn't compete with the big stores. Soon Elias was drowning in debt. There was no way he'd be able to repay the $27,000 he owed with 12 percent interest—the bank would repossess everything. So he had one choice: Do what tens of thousands of Hondurans do each year—go north. When his friend Pedro, a truck driver in their hometown of Choluteca, asked him to come along and ride the trains, he said yes. It was the only way out, he thought, and besides, it would be an adventure.

Elias' mother cried and prayed for days after his brother, now a carpenter in Dallas, left for the U.S., so he told himself he'd call home when he was closer, past most of the danger. Now, tired and sore, he considers the irony of it all. He'd been sure he would show his parents and his nine siblings how successful he was, with his own house and business. And instead, here he is, bound like an animal to the ladder and praying that when night falls, he won't sleep through shouted warnings of a police checkpoint, or worse, fall prey to bandits or gang members. He prays he won't have to face another situation like the one he found himself in days before.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Why don't we send the CIA to blow up the tracks??? If MExico won't take steps to secure the border, then we sure as hell do!