First in a three-part series.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of migrants illegally cross from Mexico into the United States. Some of them have traveled thousands of miles to reach American soil. The journey, which was always perilous, has become even more dangerous as Mexican drug cartels strengthen their control over the smuggling, kidnapping and extortion of migrants. In 2010, hundreds of migrants went missing or were killed in Mexico. More than 20,000 were kidnapped.
For many Central American migrants, the grueling journey across Mexico starts in the jungle of northern Guatemala. Migrants who can't legally enter Mexico hike for two days through densely forested hills to cross the border into the Mexican state of Tabasco. Then they head for the railroad tracks that lead into the interior of the country.
Erik Vanegas from Honduras says he has no choice but to ride the freight trains in Mexico.
"We ask for rides in the street, and people don't want to pick us up because we are undocumented. It's the same on the buses. They won't take us because we are here without papers," Vanegas says.
There are military and migration checkpoints on most of the main roads. Migrants who are caught without visas are deported home.
'There Aren't Alternatives'
Vanegas and about a dozen other Central Americans are sitting under a giant mango tree in the town of Tenosique, waiting for the train. The word is that the locomotive comes once a day, but it hasn't shown up for more than 48 hours. This is Vanegas' third attempt to reach the U.S., and he says he's going to keep trying until he succeeds.
"Many people say to us: Why don't we stay in our countries? If my country was good, I'd be in my country. I'd be there. I've got my family there. My kids, my wife. But I'm here because I want a better job, where I can make more money. This is why I'm doing this," Vanegas says.
Hector Valdez, who's sitting next to Vanegas, has made this trip to the United States several times and says it's far more dangerous now than in the past.
"The biggest problem right now is the kidnappings, the massacres, the organized crime. Because the walking, the hunger, cold, heat — this you can prepare for. The real problem is when you're kidnapped, not just by common criminals but by people who specialize in organized crime," Valdez says.
Mexico's Human Rights Commission estimates that at least 20,000 migrants get kidnapped every year in Mexico, often with the assistance of local police or other officials. The gangs hold the migrants and demand hundreds or even thousands of dollars for their release. The captives are forced to call relatives in the United States or back in Central America and convince them to wire the ransoms to bank accounts in Mexico.
Last year, 72 kidnapped migrants were slaughtered on a ranch in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
Valdez says he knows people who have been kidnapped and even one who was killed.
"At times you take the risk, because in your country, there aren't alternatives. You have to try, always trusting in God that nothing will happen to you," Valdez says.
'For A Better Future'
Valdez and Vanegas are both fit construction workers in their 30s. They have the weathered hands and dark skin of men accustomed to being out in the elements all day long.
But not all of the migrants fit this profile. There are several exhausted Honduran women in their mid-20s who are hoping to get jobs cleaning hotel rooms. Their feet are swollen and severely blistered from the two-day trek through the Guatemalan jungle.
There's a flirtatious 17-year-old in tight jeans and flip-flops. A rosy-cheeked boy who claims to be 18 is heading to the U.S. in search of his father, whom he hasn't heard from in nine years.
Ana Ruiz, a 30-year-old mother of three from San Salvador, acknowledges that the journey is particularly dangerous for women. According to Mexico's Human Rights Commission, rape has gotten so common on the migrant trail that some smugglers give their female clients birth control pills.
Ruiz says she's taking these risks for her children.
"For a better future, we decided to make this trip," Ruiz says.
From here on the Mexico-Guatemala border, the trip is at least 1,000 miles to reach Brownsville, Texas. It's more than 2,000 miles to get to Tijuana.
Father Tomas Gonzalez Castillo, who runs the migrant shelter in the town of Tenosique, says the trip is very dangerous, and many of these migrants won't even make it to the border.
Some will give up. Some will get caught by the Mexican authorities and deported. Some will fall under the freight train or collapse in the desert or get killed by the Mexican drug cartels.
And over the past four years of the drug war, Castillo says, the drug cartels' involvement in trafficking and kidnapping migrants has increased dramatically. "Migrants are now one more product that the cartels can traffic and with which they can earn millions of dollars," he says.
Finally, after three days, the freight train arrives in Tenosique. People run out of the shelter toward the tracks. Young men clutching small backpacks and large soda bottles filled with water emerge from the bushes. They scurry up the ladders of the moving freight cars and cling to the narrow platforms between the wagons. The train jerks violently as it picks up speed.
There are about dozen people on top of the train. The vegetation sometimes hangs directly over the tracks, and so everyone has to lay almost flat to keep from getting swept off. At other times, the surface of the train gets so hot from baking in the intense midday tropical heat that you can't even touch it with your bare hand.
As the train rolls on, more migrants appear along the tracks. They run and grab onto the moving beast as people on top yell out "Correle!" — "Run!" — as encouragement.
Sitting on top of a rounded, gray freight car loaded with powdered cement, Rene Chavarria says the most difficult time on the train is at night. You're tired. It gets cold as the tracks rise into Mexico's central plateau.
"You've seen how people are climbing onto the train. We don't know what type of people these are who are getting on. We don't know their intentions or where they're going," Chavarria says.
They don't know if the newcomers are robbers or kidnappers or just other migrants. And Chavarria says it's much worse at night, when it can be almost completely dark on to the top of the freight car.
For these migrants, this is just the beginning of the journey across Mexico. They plan to ride this train through the night and then switch lines at a rail yard in Veracruz. Their route will take them through some of the most dangerous states in Mexico, and it could be weeks before they reach the U.S. border — if they get there at all.