Central American immigrants ride north on top of a freight train on August 6, 2013 near Juchitan, Mexico. Thousands of ride the trains, known as "The Beast," during their long and perilous journey through Mexico to reach the US border. Some of the immigrants are robbed and assaulted by gangs who control the train tops, while others fall asleep and tumble down, losing limbs or perishing under the wheels. Only a fraction of those who start the journey in Central America will traverse Mexico completely unscathed — and all this before the formidable goal of illegally entering the US.
Credit: John Moore

SALTILLO, Mexico — Alma Rosa Fernandez is exhausted. Every bone in her body aches after a gruelling 30-day journey from southern Guatemala to Saltillo in northern Mexico.

In the month she spent clinging to the notorious freight train known as "The Beast" with her husband and three children aged 10 to 15, she endured sleep deprivation, hunger and freezing temperatures. She said the family survived two near-death moments on their journey through Mexico, one of the most dangerous migration passages in the world today. While searching for food in San Luis Potosi, they were surrounded by five maras (gang members) wielding machetes, demanding money for riding the train on their turf.

The Fernandez Leyva family are among an estimated 300,000 migrants who travel through Mexico every year, heading for the United States. The vast majority are from the poverty-stricken and violent Central American triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and enter along Guatemala’s border with Chiapas, where The Beast begins its journey north.

“They said we had to pay or else they’d take my daughter as payment, we had not one peso,” Alma, 37, said at La Casa de Migrantes (migrant safe house) in Saltillo, capital of the border state Coahuila which is located in the Chihuahua desert. “Me and my husband picked up pieces of wood and fought them off, I told them I would do anything to protect my children, and thank God we got away.”

The Fernandez Levya family from Guatemala, hours before they left for the journey north on The Beast.
(Nina Lakhani/GlobalPost)

A week or so earlier and more than 100 miles south, in Irapuato, Alma’s husband, Carlos Leyva, almost died from a lung infection. He was saved only by free treatment at a Red Cross hospital.

Carlos, 36, who suffers from chronic gastric problems as a result of a gunshot wound to the stomach while serving in the Guatemalan army, looks weak, malnourished and overburdened with worries.

The family arrived at the safe house penniless, famished and traumatized, more than 1,500 miles from their home in rural Jutiapa close to the El Salvador border. It is their first time outside Guatemala, where Carlos struggled to provide for his family, earning a maximum of $35 a week as a casual farm hand.

They had barely eaten anything for several days and so gratefully gobbled down hot rice and beans, offered to every new arrival, no matter what time they turn up.

Like most children, Oscar, 15, Alma, 14, and Marci, 10, have an unwavering belief in their parents’ ability to protect them.

“We want to live the American Dream, I want to go to Los Angeles like in the movies,” said Alma, a confident teenager, brimming with potential. “I want to study computers and learn English and then get a good job.”

The Saltillo casa is one of 66 migrant safe houses in Mexico, all situated close to the train tracks. Almost all have links to the Catholic Church but through sympathetic clergymen and women, rather than official church support.

The safe house, flanked by the glorious Zapalinamé Mountains, part of the Sierra Madres, was founded by the indomitable Padre Pedro Pantoja and two nuns more than a decade ago. It has always stood out for its broad human rights vision, offering legal and psychological support while campaigning for migrant rights.

It is the last safe house before the border and, on average, 600 new migrants turn up each month—10 to 12 percent are women and following the June 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, which aggravated violence and poverty in the country, 90 percent have been Honduran.

New arrivals are shown around the Casa de Migrantes complex in Saltillo, Mexico.
(Nina Lakhani/GlobalPost)

There’s a mix of first-timers, experienced border crossers and veteran deportees. Some migrants move on after a hot meal and shower, while others stay for weeks or months, recovering from illness or kidnap, or waiting for a relative in the US to send them money to get across the border.

Everyone, without exception, has a vexing story to tell.

José Villagómez Hernández, a psychologist and the volunteer coordinator in Saltillo, said, “there is a type of natural or unnatural selection that goes on, and it’s only the strongest and most resilient, those with the most physical and economic capacity, who make it this far. Those who suffer the worst attacks or fall ill often turn back. Everyone comes with a sad story, after two years working here I find it very hard to keep hearing them.”

Of the two dozen or so migrants interviewed by GlobalPost in Saltillo, three-quarters had been extorted by federal police and/or immigration officers threatening deportation. For those who make it to the casa, there is a very real risk of infiltration by cartels, maras and coyotes eager to prey on the migrants, making security the biggest single priority.

Every new arrival is searched by one of the vetted volunteer migrants serving as guards, who look for drugs, alcohol and weapons. Cell phones are confiscated, and people can only leave on a one-in, one-out basis to go to the tiny shop across the street for calling cards, coffee or junk food.

Still there was an attempted kidnapping outside the gate by two men in a taxi on Jan. 27.

Police officers should be stationed outside around the clock, as ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in response to death threats towards the staff, but they are not.

In the space of five days, 11 visitors were thrown out by the teenage volunteers who spend a year living and working at the casa in between high school and college. One of the visitors was a woman caught texting, and the other 10 were hostile members of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang.

Safe house residents play a boys-against-girls soccer match to keep warm on a cold day in Saltillo, Mexico.
(Nina Lakhani/GlobalPost)

The house is pretty regimented with the migrants expected to assist with cooking, cleaning and manning the public phones and toilets. But there is still an element of organised, friendly chaos, with some sort of drama always unfolding, but kept in check.

The strict rules start to make obvious sense when the casa gets full very quickly, and the atmosphere changes in a flash.

Fifty migrants arrived in one day when the temperature dropped close to freezing and people were afraid to move on. The next day 150 shivering bodies tried to keep warm playing football, basketball, drafts, getting a haircut, washing clothes and chatting in the huge outdoor space—many still worrying about who they’d left behind and the road lying ahead.

Salvador Sanabria, 23, a campesino—peasant farmer—from Copán, western Honduras, left behind his wife and baby boy, and is now waiting for his mother to find a coyote to take him to Houston.

“My mom left Honduras when I was a one-year-old and so I only know her from photos,” he said. “It hurt me a lot to leave my son as I don’t want him to suffer like I did, but life is going to get even worse under the new president, so my dream is to work in America for two years and earn enough money to buy a small plot of land at home.”

The migrants are explicitly warned about the tough road ahead and the multitude of dangers they face from organised criminals and corrupt officials, on both sides of the border.

For instance, 11,000 migrants, mostly near the US border, were kidnapped during a six-month period in 2010, according to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission.

The Fernandez Leyva family stayed only two days until the weather improved, determined to embark on the final 190 miles to the border before the fear set in.

They left with few possessions and not a single cent for food, but more importantly, no money to pay the coyotes who control the borders and charge $1,000-2,500 per person, a cut of which goes to the criminal Zetas or Gulf cartel, depending on whose territory people cross.

Alma is familiar with horror stories like the 72 migrants slaughtered and buried in a mass grave by the Zetas in San Fernando in 2010.

“We understand the risks of kidnap, murder, extortion and rape, we knew this before we left Guatemala,” she said. “But we have to try and make a better life for our children, and we believe God will take us to America safely.”

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