Mexico – Train To El Norte

norte1.jpg In golden light, as children shriek and play in sooty water, a girl gazes across the banks of the snaking Suchiate River that separates Guatemala from Mexico. A gaze towards Mexico, the gateway that must be forged before crossing into the United States can even be attempted. (click on pictures to enlarge)

On makeshift boats called cameras no documents are checked. Both people and goods are ferried across the river at all hours of the day at this illegal crossing point. The ease of this first crossing belies the many dangers facing Central American immigrants whose dreams always point North.

For ten Mexican pesos, from the border town of Tecun Uman, Guatemala, desperate hopefuls flow northward. They come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, Cuba, Peru, a continent of longing. Only the poorest migrants take this route, braving a ride on top of the freight trains that head north. They have crossed multiple borders but the toughest part of the journey lies ahead of them, in Mexico. Mexico, and the southern most state of Chiapas in particular, they say, is far more dangerous to cross than the border with the United States.


They will be robbed, beaten, or raped. They will walk for days on foot until their shoes fall apart. They will face hunger, thirst, wind, rain, and heat. They will run from “La Migra” and be abused by corrupt officials. They are so easy to take advantage of; they pay more for food, water, even public buses. Worse, they could lose a limb or their life to the machine they call the beast, the devil. Here she comes.

Arriaga, Mexico is the starting point for the freight train, which poor migrants who don’t have any money will often ride, facing dangers ranging from theft and rape to mutilation or death if they fall from the train.


Robbed in the Mexican town of Huixtla, Edwin Jose Sirius Cubrillo, 25, of Nicaragua, has been on the road for twenty days. “I have four children and I need to provide for them. In Nicaragua I can earn enough for food but that’s it.” He thinks he has at least 20 more days to go, traveling on the train. He hopes to get to Miami where he has family living.


Just that morning a group of eleven men from El Salvador said they were robbed of all their money just 3 kilometers from the shelter. This after walking for nine days from the city of Tapachula, Mexico where they were also robbed. Four Mexican men with machetes and pistols threatened them, forcing them to hand over all their money. This type of robbery is extremely common on the migrant trail. Cubrillo prays with forty other men, for safety, for luck, in the “House of Mercy” shelter in Arriaga.


In the 100 degree heat outside of a shelter for migrants which feeds and shelters the weary, Digna Emerita Zaldivar, 23, of Honduras, sleeps by her boyfriend Selvin Allende, 22, of Honduras, with Zaldivar’s son Wilmar, who is seven. Selvin is a new boyfriend for Digna. The trail can be lonely. She met him along the route and joined him out of sentiment or perhaps only for protection. The feelings are hard to separate.
The group plans to jump the freight train that heads north. The couple and boy were robbed three times on their way to the shelter in the dangerous area of Huixtla, Mexico. They were forced to strip by six men with machetes who threatened to kill them if they didn’t give over all their money. After that they didn’t eat for two days. Next they were robbed by police who said they’d be turned over to immigration unless they were paid $2000 pesos. After that a house where they went to beg for food said they would turn the migrants in unless they too were paid.


In the fading evening light, 300 migrants bound for the United States from all over Central America line the top of the freight train going toward the town of Ixtapec, Oaxaca, Mexico from the town of Arriaga, in Chiapas. These are the poorest, most desperate migrants. Young men, some barely teenagers, along with men in their 50’s ride side-by-side with pregnant women, newlyweds, and children.


Rudy Gonzales Lopez, who says he is 14 but looks much younger, searches for the oncoming engine while waiting to hop the freight train. He is heading North by himself hoping to work. He hasn’t told his family that he’s going. His new “friends”, men twice his age, try in vain to convince him to return home. A half an hour before, immigration picked up at least five people and he ran to evade them.


The unlucky can lose a leg, an arm, both legs, or their lives to the wheels of the train which suck bodies beneath the steel wheels. Migrants who were mutilated by the trains recuperated and helped to build the “Jesus The Good Shepherd” shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, near the southern border. An angel greets them there, Dona Olga, an oasis among the peril.


Back on the rails migrants lick at popsicles sold by locals in the oppressive heat. Suddenly a rush of people burst past, pursued by two men, possibly Federal Police, complete with shotguns. The migrants want to get away, find a hiding place, wait for the next train that will take them to the town of Ixtapec, Oaxaca, further North. The pursuers grab a woman, Maria Isabel Velasquez, 29, of Guatemala, by the hair and hit her on the chin but then run off as she shouts, “there is a journalist here!” A police officer who refused to be named said that often robbers will dress as police to extort money from migrants, while the migrants said it is the police themselves who abuse their power. “He wanted money,” says a shaking Velasquez, “or he’d report me to immigration.”


Nightfall. Digna and her seven-year-old Wilmar hold hands tight and say a prayer as the train they have climbed upon finally pulls out of the station. Shouts are heard along the line, “Branch! Branch! Duck and hold on tight!” warns Digna as dark heads duck to avoid low hanging trees.


In the middle of the night the train stops for twenty minutes to change engines and people who live near the tracks sell food, soup, water, and soda to the riders who scurry down the ladder and back up again before the ride continues. Daily rains make the journey even more uncomfortable for the migrants.
After the train stops in Ixtepec there is a large raid by Mexican immigration. Most women, children, and older men are caught, running scared and then sent home to start the journey again. A ragged smattering of men from Honduras have made it to the town of Tierra Blanca, in the state of Veracruz, Mexico on July 10, 2006. Although there is a shelter here too, only the injured may spend the night, and the men are taken to a makeshift shelter, where they will sleep outside under the stars. They haven’t yet made it to Mexico City, less than halfway through this vast country.


After making it across Mexico they still have to cross the desert into the United States, evading the burgeoning security measures – the high tech security fence, surveillance, and the U.S. National Guard. The trip seems insurmountable; the dreams foolish; the effort a waste; the journey – a circle, and yet still they come. “It’s a matter of math,” they say, “they could build the great wall of China and still we’d come.”

Author and Photographer – Jacquelyn Martin

  16 comments for “Mexico – Train To El Norte

  1. May 13, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    Exceptional piece of reportage, Jacquelyn. Really captured the sense of hope amidst desperation.

  2. May 14, 2007 at 11:38 pm

    Damn, and I thought I had problems!

    Great photos too.

    I have always thought that people who want that desperately to emmigrate to a country are probably going to do well when they get there. Kind of alters your priorities on who to let in, in my humble opinion.

  3. Johnny
    May 16, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    True enough, Jacquelyn. But the fact is, the majority of these people are successful in their efforts to enter the USA illegally. And that is why they are willing to risk life and limb to do so.

  4. Michael Horan
    June 18, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    Do you allow dissenting comments on this website?

    The fertility rate of women from these Latino countries is 2x that of Anglo women in the U.S. and is largely the reason why the U.S. has the highest fertility rate of the western industrialized countries, a population of 310 million in 2007, and an estimated population of 450 million in 2050 [U.S. Bureau of the Census], compared to a Russian Federation estimated population of 110 million in 2050, with 3x the land area of the U.S.
    It also confirms the immediate need to eliminate the U.S. Green Card immigrant diversity program, the immediate need for a U.S. National Identity card, immediate deportation of all illegal immigrants from the U.S. by the U.S. military, and the need to increase the deployment at the U.S. Marine Corps base at Yuma, Arizona by 4x.

  5. June 19, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    Hell yes we will allow dissenting comments – but we will ridicule idiocit ones – are you sure you want to play this game?

  6. Michael Horan
    June 19, 2007 at 3:12 pm


    All of these illegal immigrants are going to be deported from the U.S., by declaration of martial law if necessary.

    The U.S. will no longer accept these people. New U.S. immigration policy is to accept only highly educated immigrants like engineers, machinists, doctors, scientists, agricultural engineers, and maintenance technicians.

    And the U.S. has the right to control its borders. Consider the problem in U.K. with illegal Muslim immigrants, or in France with illegal Muslim immigrants from North Africa. Those countries are trashed.

  7. Michael Horan
    June 21, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    We also need to eliminate the non-profit tax exempt status for all NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in the U.S. including all of these illegal immigrants support and lobbyist organizations.

  8. john
    December 2, 2007 at 2:07 am

    Look, good people have the right to live freely and take them where their God given talents allow them. Everyone wants a secure border. The US has a right to know who is here. However, we cannot allow the “illegals” to be rounded up like Jews during the second world war. That would be criminal. Small children carried across the border with their parents had no decision is where they were going or where they were to be raised. They cannot be considered “criminal illegal aliens”, they had no intent to commit a crime. They have only known the USA as their home. They are and consider themselves to be Americans; and aren’t they really??? NO??? Think again!! They have nothing in common with their “home village” To “round up” in ICE raids and send them “home” is wrong. Do you separate families, Mothers and Fathers and even brothers and sisters born on BOTH sides of the border?????? Do we start to “classify” “illegal alien’s” children by what percentage of their lineage is “legal”???? That’s the system the NAZIS used to classify the Jews for “rounding up”. The birthrate of latinos is higher because most are Catholic and choose not to use artificial contraception. You are probably afraid of “Anchor Babies” and probably want to abolish citizenship as a birth right. Are you truly afraid latinos might be “terrorist”??? Or, are you just afraid that in 30 years you may have a grandchild that is a little “brown”???? Maybe have a hispanic surname????? It sounds pretty racist!!!
    Look, everyone can rant and rant; build walls of hatred and mistrust. The immigration “problem” in the US has to be sanely dealt with. This “problem” was on the way to being solved by George Bush and Vincente Fox, before Sept.11. That change everything, except that the problem still exists. Pres. Bush could just give all “illegal aliens” partial or complete amnesty with a signature before he leaves office. If the democrats win the next election, they probably will grant amnesty. So, the ranting will get everyone nowhere. Eventually, everyone will end up with a verifiable, biometric ID card of some sort, with or with “tracking device”. It is coming. An easy to follow, legal way for people to come into the country, background checked, with biometric ID from the US immigration service has to be developed—guest worker program. AMERICA CANNOT OPERATE WITHOUT THESE PEOPLE PERIOD!!! Encourage strong tax reform and freedom in Mexico and Central America. Encourage these governments to allow a system of economic growth and investment and a system of credit!!!! These countries rely heavily on remittances to keep their economies going. Corruption, gangs, drug money, smuggling has to be greatly reduced and so too, heavy taxes on their entire population.
    People are people; some good, some bad. If you had the ability to improve your circumstance and had half a chance, you would try to move to a place of greater opportunity. THIS IS REALLY WHAT THE VAST MAJORITY OF “ILLEGALS” ARE COMING FOR. THEIR FINAL DESTINATION IS THE “LAND OF OPPORTUNITY” , something they feel is lacking in their home country. THEY ARE SEEKING FREEDOM — OF ALL KIND; WE BASED OUR NATION ON THE SAME THING!!!! REMEMBER, THE FIRST CONTINENTAL CONGRESS WERE ALL CRIMINALS TOO!!! EACH RISKED THEIR LIVES AND POSSESSIONS TO ACHIEVE FREEDOM TOO!!

  9. April 7, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    i think that they would do well here my uncle is from mexico and he has been here 13 years and he is doing very well.

  10. Virginia
    April 13, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    As a latin american female, I find Michael’s comments on reproduction offensive and questionable. I think he should do some more research.
    As for the photos and story, I think you did a great job Jacquelyn.
    Thank you.

  11. April 13, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    LOL – as an Australian male, I find Michael offensive and questionable altogether! ;)

    The thing is though, this ain’t Lonely Planet, so even the Michael’s of the world can express their opinions on the content of the website, even if we find his opinions a bit distasteful.

    As can be seen on this thread, if you give people like Michael enough rope…

  12. September 14, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    Hey, great job! I just read “la linea”, a book about a young boy trying to cross la linea. I like it because it tells you how it is. The author didn’t try to cover up the extreme hardships that they go through. I keep trying to look up pictures and info on the “mata gente”, a train that takes people north. I really need a picture, but I cn’t find ANY!

  13. Sönke
    April 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    I think Michael Horan argued on June 18th, 2007 at 11:25 pm in the wrong way. The U.S. has one of the highest birthrates in the western world. But this fact isn’t a disadvantage for the U.S. citizens. On the contrary, it’s an advantage. The ancient pyramid is balanced. No one has to expect a bad pension. AND: the economy of our industrial nations, espiacally the us economy, bases on the work of “modern slaves” from the third world. They are working in the us, for example, as harvesters. A work that most of the folks in our society would not exercise. Of course it’s impossible that engineers immigrate, but the uneducated workers are also important.
    Our prejudices over this people are an effect of wrong immigration policy. We have restructure the integration of the immigrants in the western society. “They take our jobs!”. This is one of the poorest arguments. What do they say? “They took our country, our lifestyle!” Was the population in africa poor and sick before we came? No, they were satisfied. They had all they needed. The only reason, why they try to cross the borders of the EU and the us, is, that we forced them to take our economic system. And everyone needs a place in this system. We taught them to reach the best you can get. Are they as different to us as a lot of people think? Mabe their religion or culture is not ours, but both of us want the same. A high life quality.
    This is because walls are built: We don’t want to see that this poeple are closer to us as we want. We are in fear of the consequences of our behave in the past. But would we not take this effort upon ourselves to cross the border to the holy land? I think this article is a wonderful mirror of reality. It indicades how much pain a human is willing to stand. The text is well written and it’s giving a small look into the journey of the “illegals”. But, in my opinion, I missed a taste of facts and numbers substantiate the statments.

  14. Glenn Geise
    July 18, 2010 at 4:52 am

    What is actually criminal is the fact these people come into our country illegally. All attempts to play the pity card on me are lost in the facts that the countries these people come from could care less about improving their situations. We can not take care of our own people much less all those who live in squaller in the third world. If you feel so sorry for these people, go to them and better their conditions at home. Breaking our laws is illegal and it matters not what spin you wish to throw upon it. By doing so, you only show your stupidity concerning the whole issue.

  15. Andrea
    August 22, 2010 at 1:18 am

    Great reportage.
    I saw the ” Which way home some time ago ” believing to have been inspired in your idea, it gave me some peace of mind to know that has the number of informed people grows regarding immigration issues the better will be for everybody.
    I find quite sad that we do not behave as a whole, a planet, one race,one people and are always trying to stablish differences.
    We are killing the planet it’s resources it’s life all because of territory, it always comes to that, who has more, money,schools,hospitals,etc.
    The planet is dying, let’s give it a chance to regenerate, the first step will be to kill the territorial idea.It all started with territory, from pollution to wars.
    One world, one people.

  16. danielle
    May 31, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Mr horan u suck! Maybe you should have been born in a place that is poor and taken tha journey many of. These people have and then you would think different.and besides who made you god all mighty you are. A nobody and get over youself jerk!

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