El Tren de la Muerte

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

After the third day of riding tied to the ladder, Elias can't stand it anymore. He wants to find his friend Pedro, so he unties himself and climbs to the top of the train. Crouching there, he takes a breath and steadies himself before stepping over to the platform. There he stands holding the railing, wind streaming past his face and through his dirty hair. This is much better.

He walks over the top of the car, slowly at first. He leaps from one car to the next and traverses nine before spotting Pedro. His friend is standing on the top rung of a side ladder near two other Hondurans. Pedro smiles, surprised to see him. "I thought you got left behind," he says. They sit together on top of the boxcar. To pass the time, Elias sings. A lot of the migrants carry small Bibles, or a few pages with scrawled verses. Most wear rosaries. But Elias just prays, often in song. "So much I have with my Lord, so much I owe to my savior," he sings. "If I could repay his loving grace, I would give all my soul."

Tenosique, a cattle town recently dubbed the "Trampoline to America" by a Mexican newspaper, is defined by the trains. They mark the passage of time, and not just for migrants attempting to jump them. For emergency rescue crews, the passing of a train is like the alarm at a firehouse, the signal to slide down the pole and run to work. For Father Blas, the calm and philosophical priest who runs the migrant shelter behind the church, the sound means the arrival of broken souls. And for residents like Celia Gutierrez, who cleans rooms at a local hotel, a train whistle on the first Saturday of the month is an opportunity to be a good Samaritan by running out to the tracks with sandwiches and tortillas for the people riding the trains.

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

Most locals I talked to say they feel sorry for the migrants. Many call them pobrecitos, poor things, and wonder how the poverty in Central America could possibly dwarf their own. "We don't really understand why they go through all this to leave home," said one elderly woman who lives by the tracks. She gestured toward a little plank shack and barren yard, where a couple of pigs rooted in the dirt. "I mean, we're poor, but this is our home."

Not everyone in Tenosique is destitute, however. A few hours after seeing the group of Honduran teenagers on the highway, we have dinner at a bright, clean restaurant called Café Leyra. Housed in a bubble-like structure with glass walls, the place is full of Mexican families out for a Saturday night on the town, eating enchiladas and burgers, sipping fruit smoothies and milkshakes topped with whipped cream and cherries. Through the glass, my photographer friend spots a group of what look like teenage migrants shuffling by outside, heads down and backpacks strapped to their shoulders.

Meanwhile, the restaurant's entertainer for the evening steps onto a small wooden stage in front of our table. A short, mustachioed man, he plows through songs and jokes while donning various costumes, including a flowered lounge jacket and a black mariachi ensemble. He makes frequent quips about the town's status as a gateway to the U.S. "Who's going to America?" he asks, perched at the edge of the stage, gazing out at the diners in mock seriousness. The room fills with laughter, and he raises his voice. "Vamos, all of us. Let's all go to America!"

Elias is waiting for another train. He and his friends are now a few hours from Mexico City—they've come almost 500 miles from Tenosique and nearly 1,000 from Honduras. He's exhausted after days of riding and from leaping off the last train to hike around a police checkpoint. He looks down the tracks, hoping to see lights. Then he scans the crowd and his eyes fall on a familiar face from Tenosique. The man with the missing foot. Elias can't believe he's made it this far. He's about to say hello when he notices the man's red eyes and listless movements—he's piss-drunk.

Elias and Pedro soon catch a passing train. A couple of hours later, after two long weeks on the train punctuated by the adrenaline rush of jumping off to avoid officials, they arrive in Lecheria. An important point in the journey, it's a gritty Mexico City suburb named for the dairy town it used to be, before the pulsing sprawl of the world's second largest metropolis devoured it. This is where they must change train lines to go to San Luis Potosi, a city in north central Mexico some 200 miles from Texas. Once there, Elias hopes to find a smuggler to guide him to the borderland, which is thick with security, and through the desert that claims hundreds of lives each year. He has traveled some 550 miles in two weeks on the railways; if he's lucky, he has about 230 miles left on the trains.

Migrants up ahead shout warnings that the Lecheria station is coming up; they have to jump before they're spotted by police or rail security. Even after weeks of plunging off moving trains, Elias hasn't gotten used to it. He forces himself to leap, clenches his jaws against the pain as he hits the ground and rolls roughly over dirt and rocks. Feeling the sting of skinned elbows, he stands and surveys the landscape. There are smoke-spewing factories, warehouses and squares of farmland full of green grass and munching goats. He finds his friends ahead, dusting themselves off, and together they walk along the street by the station, past bodegas and tire shops and bars. Within an hour, they're inside a store chatting with a tall, pleasant-faced man in his late 30s. His name is Martin, and as he polishes off a beer, he invites the Hondurans home for dinner and drinks. They're welcome to sleep in his yard, he says. Elias pauses. Since that day in Chiapas, each time someone offers help, his stomach tightens. He looks hard at the man. Martin seems genuinely friendly, and Elias has a good feeling about him. Despite his fear, he chooses to trust it.

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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!