El Tren de la Muerte

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

Back in Tenosique, on a Monday a little after 7 a.m., Salas calls our hotel. "¡Viene el tren!" she says. Minutes later we're running along the tracks. We cross a bridge over a waterway and come face to face with the Honduran teens we met the day before. They greet us with smiles and pose for the camera with tough-guy stares. The train has rounded a corner and chugs toward us, its headlights resembling enormous glowing eyes. "¡Camello!" yells the tall man in the blue bandanna, the one looking forward to the pretty girls in Missouri. "Come over here! Five on this side, five on the other!" They split and wait on each side of the tracks. The train is almost here. "Be careful," warns an older migrant. "If it's going too fast, there will be others." Russet, gray and white boxcars glide past with hordes of people standing on top. When the train is past, the 10 guys remain on the tracks. "It went too fast!" one says. They take off in a run, hoping the train will slow. We sprint after them. "¡Se detuvo!" one screams. "It stopped!" Dozens of people clamber onto the caboose, and I realize it was likely Laredo who paid off the driver. "Hurry, hurry, get on!" one man standing on the train yells to the running Hondurans. They make it just in time. All 10 climb aboard and the train moves forward, inching toward El Norte. I lean on my knees, catching my breath, and watch the waving teenagers grow small in the distance.

"Are you OK?" Elias' mother asks him as he stands at a phone booth. Friends of his have told her where he has gone.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he says.

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

"Don't lie to me."

"I'm fine, Mamá."

"Why did you leave like Marvin did, without telling me?"

"I didn't want you to worry." She agrees to wire him the $1,000 deposit for Martin, the coyote. She'll take it from the cosmetics store, another addition to Elias' debt. He'll continue north without Pedro, who doesn't have enough money to pay a smuggler and plans to take his chances on the train all the way to Texas.

The rest of the journey seems endless. From the beginning the trip has depended on luck, but riding the trains required hustle and cunning as well. Now, Elias feels helpless, packed like a 2-by-4 into a covered pickup with a dozen other migrants, including a 17-year-old who joins Elias for laughter and a series of dirty jokes. After what seems like forever, they climb out of the vehicle and swim across the Rio Grande near Laredo, then file into a small house in the Texas desert. Martin went home before they crossed the river, so Elias is in the hands of the coyote's associates. Eight days pass with some 30 people stuffed in the little shack, sitting and sleeping shoulder to shoulder in the stifling heat. Once a day, a bowl of chicken is passed around as more migrants arrive and others are led out to traverse the desert.

Finally, just when Elias thinks he'll go mad from the heat and the stink and the anxiety, the coyote comes to get him. They set out at night in a group of 10, walking through the scrub brush on soft, dry sand that sinks under their feet. Even as his feet ache and his lungs strain in the cold November air, Elias marvels at the vast sky that shimmers with millions of bright white stars. The group walks mostly at night and tries to sleep during the day, taking cover in the low brush.

They're told they'll walk for two days, but on the third, they're not even close. The only food Elias has left is mayonnaise. That evening, they stop to sleep for a few hours, then wake in the middle of the night and set out again. Only after six hours does it dawn on Elias that they've forgotten the 17-year-old kid. He'd curled up to sleep apart from the rest of the group, and no one noticed they'd left without him. Turning back without supplies would mean risking their lives, so they continue. For the first time, and only for a moment, Elias wishes he never came. Later, when the sun is rising on its arc over the endless brown expanse, someone points out a helicopter touching down in the desert behind them. Elias prays that it saved the teenager. If not, he would surely die, alone in the desert.

Elias has heard stories about such migrants—people whose feet are so torn up they can't go on and are left behind, others who lie down to sleep and never wake up. If only the kid had slept a little bit closer. Soon, these anguished thoughts are drowned out by the pounding of his feet, the relentless sun overhead and the cold wind that blasts them with sand.

On the fourth day, a downpour interrupts the dryness. Elias' clothes are soaked, and after a few hours the chafing on his arms and legs grows so painful that he strips to his boxers. Soon he's shivering in the November chill.

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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!