El Tren de la Muerte

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Elias dangles the dead iguana by the tail. His friends close in around him, watching hungrily. With a knife he slices through scaly green skin and peels it back to reveal bloody meat, dark red and glistening in the sun. Working quickly, he carves the lizard into sections—head, front and back legs, upper and lower torso—and drops the parts in a pan. Then he places it over the fire they've made near the train tracks. Sweat trickles down his forehead, stinging his eyes. The men are quiet while they wait for the lizard to cook. Sometimes they sing and tell stories, but for now they're too hot and hungry. They sit and watch the fire.

For three days they've been camped here, in the jungle of southern Mexico, about 40 miles from the Guatemalan border in a town called Tenosique. Hundreds of people sprawl in the dirt along the tracks. Many are young men, shirtless in the sticky heat, wearing tattered Nikes and grimy backpacks. But there are women and children too, teenage girls with painted-on jeans and mothers balancing kids on their hips. They lounge on pieces of cardboard and plastic, squat on porches, smoke in the awnings of makeshift storefronts. They wait.

Elias, a 25-year-old with a boyish face and liquid brown eyes, is sick of waiting. In the past two weeks he's traveled some 400 miles from Honduras—from his parents and eight siblings, from debt, a failing business and a country where education seems a mockery because there are so few jobs. If he's lucky, he's a few weeks from Dallas, where his brother lives and where Elias hopes to find work. He wonders if he'll wind up spending another night in Tenosique. It's impossible to tell when the train will come, since there are no schedules, but he can't understand why it's taking so long. He pokes at the sizzling iguana with a stick. His stomach growls. And then he hears it. The whistle of a train. The men drop everything and run.

"¡El tren!" they yell. "¡Ya viene!" The train! It's here! Elias searches frantically for his backpack, which holds two changes of clothes and some food. He runs out of time and grabs the one thing he knows he can't afford to lose—a leather cattle lasso—and sprints toward the tracks. It's a stampede. Hundreds of Central Americans become a chaotic tangle of pumping legs and arms, a mass of humanity driven by the same insane goal: riding some 1,000 miles through Mexico on freight trains so dangerous they're known collectively as El Tren de la Muerte, the Death Train. They've all heard about the gangsters and bandits that lay in wait along the tracks, not to mention the corrupt federales known to beat and rob migrants, even throw them from the trains. But now, Elias' greatest fear is the train itself, La Bestia, as some call it. The Beast. Over the past few days, villagers have cautioned him. "Go back to your country," urged old men, shopkeepers, women selling tortillas. "It's too dangerous." They told of migrants decapitated, sucked under the train, limbs severed. "Se los comio el tren," they'd say, "The train ate them up."

Elias is terrified of losing a leg or, worse, getting cut in half. But the alternative is just as bad: going home empty-handed to face the bill collectors threatening to take everything he's worked for. No, he won't turn back. Not after busing through Guatemala and trekking through the jungles and mountains of southern Mexico. Not after the ordeal in Chiapas, on the path from La Arrocera.

With $300 stashed in his shoes, he runs alongside the boxcars looking for a ladder. Men and boys are already hoisting themselves up onto the cars. He has to jump soon, before the train picks up more speed. Wait too long, and he could get yanked off balance and sucked underneath.

Gasping, he sprints harder and spots a ladder at the front end of a rounded black gasoline car. He reaches out with his left arm, then his right. He grabs a metal rung and pulls. At last, he says to himself, I'm going to El Norte.

Gloria Valdez Salas guns the engine of her orange Silverado pickup, speeding through ramshackle neighborhoods and onto the highway outside Tenosique. Salas is the local coordinator of Grupos Beta, a government safety patrol charged with protecting migrants. As a former army nurse and the Beta boss here, where Elias first jumped the train eight months earlier, she spends her time negotiating with authorities, chasing trains, responding to accidents that have left people dead or disfigured and handing out water to dehydrated migrants, many of whom are on their way to Texas.

When she pulls up alongside the train tracks on this June morning, I jump out of the back of the truck and follow her, grabbing my notebook and a bottle of water. I've come to Mexico to retrace parts of Elias' journey, to understand why massive numbers of migrants are willing to risk their lives in such a brutal way and to learn, if at all possible, what it means for Texas, the United States and immigration reform. Recent media reports suggest more people have been traveling north in the hope that Congress will pass a comprehensive bill. A few of the migrants I meet mention the legislative efforts. One Honduran 20-something tells me he is certain he will be able to live legally in the U.S. once he crosses the border. "George Bush," he says solemnly, "will sign his permission."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman