Longform

El Tren de la Muerte

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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.

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman