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

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