El Tren de la Muerte

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

Elias, Pedro and two other Hondurans had been wandering in the jungle, lost, trying to find the right place to get the train. They'd entered Mexico in Tapachula, on the Pacific side near Guatemala, but because the train tracks had been washed away by a hurricane, they wound up walking eight days toward the Gulf, to Tenosique. Before they found their way, they came to an adobe house on the outskirts of a little town in Chiapas called La Arrocera. Elias didn't know it, but the isolated cattle town is notorious. It's known to be inhabited by locals who help authorities catch migrants. The madrinas, or godmothers, as these predatory villagers are called, often pose as migrants themselves in order to beat, rape and rob, and they're permitted by crooked officials to keep part of what they steal. Elias asked an old rancher who stood outside the adobe house if he had any food to spare. The man shook his head. "No," he said. "But there's a woman up ahead who can help you. You'll come to two houses, each on a hill. One is bad, and one is good." Elias stared blankly for a moment. "Well, which one is good?" he asked. "One is bad, and one is good," the man said again. OK, Elias thought, hopefully God will lead us to the good one.

Just as the man said, up ahead were two little houses. A pretty woman, around 40, came out of the one on the right and called down to them. "Muchachos, venga," she said. "Come on, boys—you need something to eat?" Elias and the others followed her into the modest home, where she dished out generous portions of beans, eggs and rice. As they devoured the food, Elias noticed the woman's three sons watching them. The oldest, who looked about 20, offered one of the migrants a Mexican ID. As his friend looked at the card, Elias discouraged him in a whisper. "Who knows who that is?" he told him. "It's probably some criminal—don't buy it." His friend ignored him and paid for the ID. A few minutes later, the woman's three sons emerged from a bedroom wearing boots and walked out the door. "They're going for soda," the woman said. Yeah, right, Elias thought, feeling his stomach sink. After they paid 50 pesos each for dinner and walked outside, he voiced his suspicions. "Get some rocks," he said. "These guys are going to show up down the road."

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the three brothers leaped out of the brush. The oldest one had a .22, the next youngest a machete and the smallest a large stick. "This is a robbery!" the oldest yelled. He shot at the ground, spraying mud from the recent rains. The migrants dropped their rocks. "Line up!" the gunman ordered. The migrants obeyed. "Now, lie down!"

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

As the others complied, Elias stood rooted to the ground. He refused to give up his money—how would he eat?

"Get down and give me your money!" the gunman demanded.

"I don't have any," Elias replied.

"I know you have some, I saw it in the house," the gunman said. He smashed Elias over the head with the .22. "Get on the ground!"

This time, head throbbing, Elias did as he was told. The two younger brothers were already rifling through his friends' clothes looking for cash. The gunman kicked Elias hard in the ribs and back, then yanked off his Nikes and looked inside for money. Luckily, Elias had tucked it under the insoles. He felt the gun barrel press into his forehead. It seemed like his heart was beating clear up to his ears. Was this it? Was he going to die here, in the mud in the middle of nowhere, without ever speaking to his family again?

Just then, footsteps sounded on the path behind them. The bandit straightened. "How many people are behind you?" he asked.

"Six," Elias answered, making it up.

"Are there women?" the man asked.

"Yeah, there are women," Elias lied. The cold metal lifted from his head.

"Get out of here!" the bandit yelled. Elias jumped up and ran. Instead of six, a group of some 40 migrants rounded the corner. The youths tried to rob them, but it was too large a crowd, and the migrants all ran down the road and toward the trains.

Elias and his friends walked with the group for another few days before finally arriving in Tenosique. A family who lived near the tracks let the young Hondurans use their shower and sleep in the front yard. One afternoon, Elias was killing time near the tracks when he noticed a 40-ish man on crutches. He was missing a foot. Elias nodded in greeting. "Where you headed?" he asked. "Same place as you," the man said. It turned out he'd slipped while pulling himself onto a train. He thought he was fine and started to get up, he told Elias, but then he noticed the bloody stump where his foot had been. He later woke up in the hospital. The man was determined to continue his journey, insisting he would hop the train again, crutches and all.

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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!