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."

The train is barreling toward us now, blowing its horn. About 50 migrants run alongside it, and more than 100 are already riding. They sit on the tops of the cars, stand on ledges in between them and hang from ladders on the sides. On top of one black boxcar, a group of men have managed to erect a crude fort of branches covered with a tarp for shade. "Get down!" Salas hollers to the men, who are smiling and waving. She gestures wildly with her hands. "Get down low!" The rumbling is too loud, and they continue waving until the train is past. Salas shakes her head. "There are electric wires up ahead," she says. "We have to rescue people who get electrocuted all the time."

The train is moving too fast for new migrants to get on here, so they'll wait until tomorrow. In the meantime, more people are arriving, stumbling and exhausted after the two-to-five-day trek from Guatemala.

People say Mexico's border with the United States is porous, but it's nothing compared to Mexico's southern border, where political notions of national boundaries are, for all practical purposes, irrelevant. Instead of desert, there is jungle, a tangled blanket of dense foliage cloaking flatlands, rivers and mountains. And every day the verdant landscape is crawling with people. Most are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, but others have come even farther, from South America and even Asia. They walk along roads and on worn pathways, hacking through vines with machetes and sleeping on the moist earth under trees and bushes. They cross rivers and walk extra miles to avoid border checkpoints. Not that there's much to the border. At the El Ceibo crossing into Mexico from Guatemala, there's no checkpoint at all on the Guatemalan side and just a small Mexican immigration office with a few bored-looking agents outside.

By all accounts, the flow of migrants over Mexico's southern border has grown from a narrow stream 20 years ago to a mighty river, and while any numerical calculation undoubtedly falls short, official data from the Mexican government shows a 72 percent increase in the number of Central American migrants detained between 2002 and 2005. Each year nearly 300,000 Central Americans enter Mexico in an attempt to reach the U.S., according to the Mexican government's Center of Immigration Studies. About one-third of the migrants take the trains—the cheapest way to go, because bus travel requires money for tickets and a smuggler to pay off authorities along the way.

As financial distress increases in Central America, especially in Honduras, which wrestles with 25 to 30 percent unemployment, more people leave to join relatives or friends in the U.S. Of the migrants I meet in Mexico, at least 90 percent are Honduran, and many are headed to Houston and Dallas, drawn by Texas' booming economy. One Guatemalan man tells me he is on his way to Oak Cliff for a roofing job that is already set up. A middle-aged mother hiking through the jungle in a polyester blouse, skirt and black flats says she's left her five children with her mother and is headed to Houston to find work as a maid. Her name is Maria Gloria. As she speaks of leaving her children, ages 10 to 18, she fumbles with her hands, her face full of sadness. Since her husband left her she's been taking in laundry and cleaning houses, often the only option for women in Honduras because employers rarely hire women over 25. (They're considered too old and unattractive for retail jobs and not fast enough for factory work.) "You can't live on what you make there," Maria Gloria says in a soft voice. "I've heard lots of scary things about the trains, but I have to take the risk."

It's common for parents to leave children they can't afford to feed, promising to send money to the relatives caring for them. Others bring their children with them. I come across a couple with three kids, the youngest a boy who looks about 8 and wears a wooden rosary. Like a number of people I meet, they aren't sure where they are headed in the U.S. "Wherever God allows us to go," says the mother, a fair-skinned Honduran with a blond ponytail. I also meet a shy 21-year-old woman who looks about 16. She tells me she was nauseated on the long walk from Guatemala because she was three months' pregnant.

As the number of migrants on the trains has grown, so have the deaths, injuries and amputations, not to mention the violence unleashed against the foreigners by opportunistic bandits, corrupt authorities and vicious members of the Mara Salvatrucha, a Central American gang whose members have fled law enforcement crackdowns in their own countries and have set up bases in southern Mexico. When Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in January, he pledged to slow immigration across the southern border and stop the constant robberies, assaults, rapes and murders. Six months later, not much has changed.

I met Honduran newlyweds Giovani Acosta and Karla Hernandez at a migrant shelter in the church in Tenosique. They'd arrived early that morning and were resting on the floor after a harrowing night. As they walked through the jungle in the dark, out of water and drinking from cattle troughs along the way, three men in masks jumped out of the foliage. The men, holding guns and machetes, forced them to strip and lie face-down on the ground. They took the couple's last 100 pesos ($10), as well as their soap, cigarettes and even their shoes. The pair walked three hours barefoot until a storekeeper gave them sandals and some food. They were considering turning back. But Acosta, whose closely cropped curls and dashing smile make him look like a Latin Frank Sinatra, said he didn't know what he'd do if they went home. He's an electrician who struggles to find decent-paying jobs. "In Honduras, if you buy a pair of shoes, you go a day without food," he said. Hernandez, a short woman with full cheeks and dimples, knew she was lucky she wasn't raped. "When the man said go into the bushes and get down on the ground, I thought, 'Oh my God,'" she said.

Rape is so common on the migrant trail that many women making their way through Guatemala begin taking birth control pills or stashing condoms in preparation for what lies ahead. Salas, the Beta coordinator, says she once found a woman lying along the highway to Guatemala. The woman had resisted bandits who tried to rape her, and the men beat her, broke her left arm and used machetes to slash her legs to ribbons. In the end, she was raped anyway. Her friend, who didn't fight back, thought the woman might be dead and ran to town for help. "When we got there," Salas says, "she was in shock."

Salas has seen people lose both legs to the train—a teenager bled to death by the tracks in Tenosique just a couple of weeks earlier—but the memory of that poor woman has stayed with her. Along with the 6-foot-6 Honduran man whose legs were crushed by the train. He arrived with his friends at the Beta office in the back of a taxi. Salas opened the car door to find that they'd stuffed him in with his legs doubled over. "They were attached only by his pants and a bit of skin," she says. "I dragged him out, put him on the backboard—though he was too long for it—cut off his pants, pressurized the artery and got him to the hospital. He survived."

Driving with Salas along the highway from El Ceibo, we see a group of eight teenagers walking along the road ahead. When they see the truck, they duck under a barbed wire fence and sprint into a field, running for their lives. Salas pulls over and gets out. "Hey, we're Beta, we're here to help!" she calls after them. "Do you want some water?" The boys pause, then turn around and walk slowly back up to the road, out of breath.

They are Hondurans in their late teens, and they're on their way to Missouri. When I ask why, a tall guy with a blue bandanna around his head grins. "Because that's where all the pretty girls are!" His friends laugh. They take their water bottles and the pamphlets from Salas that list contact numbers for nonprofits, consulates and embassies, and keep walking.

When we get back into the truck, Salas is quiet for a long moment. She's still remembering the tall Honduran who lost his legs. "You see them in situations that should kill them," she finally says. "But they live a la fuerza—by force—by their determination to keep going."

Elias wakes to searing pain and the jarring metal-on-metal grind of the train. He'd used the lasso to lash himself to the ladder at the rear of the gasoline car, just above the steel connectors. Two nights of fitful sleep tied at the waist have left him with sharp aches in his back and neck. He's covered with mud churned by the whirring wheels below, and though some of the men riding nearby have shared water and food with him, there's no way to get rid of the grainy dirt that coats his mouth and sticks between his teeth. The temperature climbs to 95 degrees during the day, dressing him in a suit of sticky sweat and grime. His hair is matted in muddy clumps.

His mother would be horrified to see him now. He didn't even tell his parents he was leaving. When his brother left without saying a word three years earlier, Elias vowed he'd never end up in the same position. Unlike his younger brother, he had stayed in school. He planned to graduate and become an engineer. He never did, though. In Honduras, school isn't free, and attending requires money for supplies and uniforms. As he made his way through high school, he watched older friends with diplomas fail to find jobs in the fields they'd studied.

Elias ended up renting a stall in a local market and opening a cosmetics store, selling shampoos and lotions, ladies' face cream and Scope. He hired a woman to work the register, and for a while sales were good enough to begin building his own home, so he could move out of his parents' house. But then his luck turned. He'd just wanted a small house, but the men he hired built it way too big and spent too much money. Sales at the store started to tank; it seemed like all the small shops were going broke because they couldn't compete with the big stores. Soon Elias was drowning in debt. There was no way he'd be able to repay the $27,000 he owed with 12 percent interest—the bank would repossess everything. So he had one choice: Do what tens of thousands of Hondurans do each year—go north. When his friend Pedro, a truck driver in their hometown of Choluteca, asked him to come along and ride the trains, he said yes. It was the only way out, he thought, and besides, it would be an adventure.

Elias' mother cried and prayed for days after his brother, now a carpenter in Dallas, left for the U.S., so he told himself he'd call home when he was closer, past most of the danger. Now, tired and sore, he considers the irony of it all. He'd been sure he would show his parents and his nine siblings how successful he was, with his own house and business. And instead, here he is, bound like an animal to the ladder and praying that when night falls, he won't sleep through shouted warnings of a police checkpoint, or worse, fall prey to bandits or gang members. He prays he won't have to face another situation like the one he found himself in days before.

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!"

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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.

"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.

They reach a road the next day and are finally picked up by a truck. Elias is loaded into a large metal toolbox in the back and told the drive will take a few hours. Eleven hours later, nearly frozen, he finds himself in Houston, where his cousins pick him up. They bring him home to Dallas, where he stays with them in Farmers Branch and attends church at Templo Cristo Rey. Through people he meets at church, he finds a drywall installation job that pays $8 an hour and begins working six 10-hour days a week.

When I meet him for the first time in May, he has been in Dallas for six months. "I love it here," he says, with a smile full of wonder. "It's clean, orderly. Our countries are chaotic." I mention that some Americans worry that immigrants are overcrowding the United States and making it more like Latin America. He nods. "I understand this isn't my country. I know I'm not a citizen, and I'm not asking to be one. I just want permission to work." He is dismayed to find out that his only chance at residency is marrying an American or getting sponsored by his boss. "The guy I work for is illegal too—how am I going to ask him for help?" he says, laughing. "We'll both get thrown out!" It's strange, he thinks, how so much is determined by where you're born. By luck.

He's grateful when he goes to bed at night, and he's grateful when he wakes at 7 a.m. for work. To him, there is something satisfying about hanging drywall—the precision of the corners, the spacing of the screws and nails. As he seals the seams with mud, using a taping knife to smooth the wet joint compound, he thinks about his journey, about the life behind him. He wonders what happened to Pedro. After Elias arrived in Dallas, his friend contacted him to say he'd been deported somewhere near the border. He recently made a third try on the trains, but the last Elias heard from him was weeks ago, when he called from San Luis Potosi. Elias has met migrants who have tried six, eight, 10 times to get through, and though he realizes how fortunate he is to have made it on the first attempt, he worries. About his girlfriend, Maribel, and whether she'll wait for him. About saving for a car and how he'll register it without legal residency. About when the boss will give him a raise and how he'll manage to save $40,000 to repay his debts and return to Honduras. As much as he likes it here, the steady pay, the way traffic lights work and cops are generally decent and women can walk down the street without drawing catcalls at every step, he yearns for home.

"I'm not going to be here forever," he tells me. "Maybe four years, with the grace of God." Then he pauses, knowing that this is what most people say when they get here, as unprepared for the realities of life in America as they were for the journey here. "Then again, my cousin said he'd only be here for two years, and he's already been here for eight," he says. "I guess you never know."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman