El Tren de la Muerte

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

Martin tells them he's a guide and can secure their passage to Texas for $2,100 each, $1,000 up front. He leads them to his house and asks them what size shirts and pants they wear—he's noticed the tears and stains and caked dirt. He leaves and returns with a pile of clothes, tossing Elias a white button-up and size 34 dress pants. Later, Martin takes them to a nearby store. Elias, who doesn't drink alcohol, selects a Coke while the others line up to buy bottles of Corona. A tough-looking Salvadoran man walks in. He isn't covered with tattoos like the gangsters Elias has seen before, but he looks just as mean. From the moment he walks up to the counter, it's clear he has nothing but bad intentions.

"All Hondurans are motherfuckers," the man declares to the Honduran store owner.

"We'll see about that," the owner, a burly man in his 40s, replies, narrowing his eyes.

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

"I'm Salvatrucha, motherfucker," the man says, referring to the Central American street gang.

Elias attempts to defuse the tension. "Don't fight," he says. "We're all Central American."

The Salvadoran turns and lifts his shirt to show a machete strapped around his waist. "I don't give a shit," he says. "If this fight were with you, I'd have already slit your throat."

Without warning, the petite woman who's married to the owner darts out from behind the counter and unsheathes the gangster's machete in one swift motion. "You won't be fighting in here!" she yells, holding the machete in the air. Her husband is beside her now. For a moment the young man's face registers shock and confusion, but he says nothing and turns to leave.

Elias can't believe it—how is it possible that this man, a member of the legendary Mara Salvatrucha, was just disarmed by a tiny shop owner's wife? And it's not over. The store owner grabs the gangster by the shirt and punches him repeatedly in the face. When the man's legs buckle he drags him out front by the collar and leaves him in the gutter, throwing a few last punches. "Don't you ever come back here," he says.

The migrants watch, holding their drinks in silence.

There's a Spanish expression: "Todo se compra, Todo se vende." "Everything can be bought or sold." Perhaps nowhere is it truer than along the human smuggling routes through Mexico. Migrants are routinely beaten and robbed by cops and extorted by immigration agents. And as much as migrants depend on smugglers for at least part of the journey, it's difficult to tell which ones they can trust.

In Tenosique, I meet a muscular man with tattoos on his arms and a rosary around his neck. The migrants call him Laredo, which is stitched in white letters on his navy baseball cap. When I ask if he's made this trip before, he nods indulgently, as if I've asked if he can ride a bike. "I've lived in Austin, Boston, Kansas. I've entered the country 20 times. Crossing here isn't hard, it's getting across the border up there," he says, leaning casually on a long machete. I wonder if he is a smuggler, and later, Salas, the Beta coordinator, confirms my suspicions. "Oh, yeah—it's obvious he's a pollero," she says, using a common term for coyote.

Smugglers often pay train conductors to stop for migrants, and Salas has had her fair share of confrontations with the train companies. "Two weeks ago a woman was standing by the tracks, handing her 4-year-old to someone on the train before getting on herself, and because she didn't have money to pay, the driver pulled out and left her," Salas tells me. The horrified mother told nearby villagers, who told Beta, and soon Salas and her agents were racing after the train to rescue the toddler. The driver finally stopped after several hours, she says, and they returned the child to the mother.

As I listen to these stories, the U.S. Senate is about to abandon the first major immigration overhaul in 20 years. And in Mexico, where people are willing to risk a half-dozen terrifying attempts to cross the country on the Death Trains, where coyotes make a profit and officials turn a blind eye, the policy debate seems meaningless. As long as hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk losing their limbs and their lives to come to America each year, few changes on the U.S. border will make a difference without serious efforts to create jobs in Central America and Mexico.

In Central America "you have a situation where a few families live extremely well, spend little on education and health care, pay little tax, and basically have unfulfilled obligations to their downtrodden," says George Grayson, a Mexico expert who teaches at the College of William and Mary. "The absence of Mexico's border certainly makes life more difficult for the U.S. and its law enforcement agencies, but there are steps we should be taking. We can't simply abandon our border; otherwise you'd have 25 percent of the world in the United States."

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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!