After about three days in Arriaga – where we will eventually spend a week – one feels inclined to paraphrase the famous opening narration from Casablanca:
And so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up: Guatemala City to Tecún Umán, across the Río Suchiate to Tapachula, then by third-class bus or foot along the Pacific coast to Arriaga in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Here, the fortunate ones – through money, or influence, or luck – might obtain enough money to scurry to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Texas or California. But the others wait in Arriaga. And wait. And wait. And wait.
What they are waiting for is el tren, the now infamous freight service that takes them to Ixtepec, Oaxaca, and on into the cartel-controlled state of Veracruz. There, many are beaten, sexually assaulted, robbed, extorted, kidnapped or killed – and there are few, if any, lucky ones.
We arrive in Arriaga on a Saturday night, a few hours after the last train departed. The handful of migrants that remain in town claim there were between 300 and 500 people on board when it left, though it is hard to believe their estimate, since they weren’t on it themselves. Most were bathing in the nearby river or else trying to get some sleep in the town’s migrant shelter, which is roughly a kilometre away from the tracks that run directly through the centre of town, dividing it in two.
The route these tracks follow is one of the most dangerous in the world, with criminal gangs threatening robbery and abduction, and public officials threatening extortion. Migrants have been known to fall from the train, and Amnesty International estimates that six in ten female migrants experience sexual violence en route.
Indeed, the odds are against the indocumentados ever reaching their destinations. In a February 2011 report, Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos estimated that at least 11 333 migrants were kidnapped between April and September in the previous year. As many as 157 women and at least fifty-seven children are said to have been kidnapped in a six-month period between 2008 and 2009. The risk of being detained by immigration officials remains at least as great. In 2009, 58 681 Central Americans were detained by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración, and were either deported or voluntarily repatriated.
But still they come, fully aware of the risks, adamant that the alternative – staying in their home countries – is as unthinkable as meeting a grisly end on the tracks. Theirs is a desperation that is remote and unfamiliar to those who live in Los Angeles, Houston, St Louis and New York, the places the indocumentados are hoping to reach. What sort of situation must a person be in to bet their life on the roll of a ten-sided die?
Andres, a softly spoken Honduran teacher, is heading north to make enough money to open a language school back home. For him, the trip is about self-respect: the risks might be great and he might be afraid – ‘You have no idea,’ he says, when asked if he’s scared, and holds out his hands to demonstrate how they shake – but it is better to die having tried than otherwise.
‘I want to be more than an ordinary Honduran,’ Andres tells us on our first night in town, after approaching us to see if we would be coming north on the train. (Journalists are considered protection from corrupt public officials, if not from gangs.) ‘I want so badly to open my school, and to make my country a better place.’
He tears up when he tells us of his decision to leave home and the manner in which he did so.
‘I didn’t tell my little sister. I left without saying goodbye. I told my mother to tell her I went to Panama to look for work and would call her once I got there.’
He hasn’t spoken to either since he crossed into Mexico a week ago.
Fully aware that any work he finds will most likely be beneath him – ‘I’ll probably wind up cleaning toilets!’ – Andres, like the vast majority of the indocumentados we speak to, insists that he doesn’t intend to stay in the United States any longer than he has to.
‘I keep asking God to just give me one year,’ he says. ‘Just one year.’
Seventeen-year-old Estuardo arrives in Arriaga on the same day as us, having left his family of nine back home, in a shack in the slums of Guatemala City. He wants to head to Guadalajara before moving towards Los Angeles, where he plans to stay with a cousin he’s never met and find employment as a baker. It is his first time away from home.
Estuardo is a very young, very innocent seventeen. His backpack, clearly a knock-off, has a picture of the children’s book character Clifford the Big Red Dog stitched onto it. He disapproves of the older migrants’ tendency to smoke marijuana on the roof of a building down near the tracks. And he seems to get along better with people who are younger than him than with people his own age. He spends his evenings playing a one-peso arcade game with Ramon, a young Arriaga local, rather than mixing with the other indocumentados.
He has a couple of reasons for this. The first is that the stories they tell have a tendency to make him nervous. A surprising number of migrants are making the trip for the second or third time, and these veterans also serve as its primary mythologisers. One of them, José, lived and worked in the United States before being deported to Honduras early last year. He is a natural raconteur.
‘Let me tell you the one’, he says, ‘about the pregnant seventeen-year-old who fell from a boxcar and was cut up three ways …’
Estuardo’s other reason for keeping to himself is that he simply doesn’t trust his fellow travellers. Then again, many of them don’t trust each other. While a kind of makeshift community develops over the course of a week on the tracks, interpersonal relationships here are formed with the highest degree of caution. The profits from begging are used to buy food and bottles of soft drink which are shared between those present without question, as is the ever-present joint. (Marijuana is way too ubiquitous here to be considered a precious commodity.) But otherwise no-one gets very close to anybody else.
Nothing gets said over the course of the week about the fact that bodies are turning up everywhere on Mexico’s northern border. The official tally of 47 500 drug-related murders in the past five-and-a-half years has proved an underestimate. In April 2011, as country-wide protests against the government’s failure to curb the violence came to a head, 279 corpses were uncovered from shallow graves in the states of Durango and Tamaulipas. The latter was where, in August 2011, seventy-two Central American migrants – Hondurans, El Salvadorians, Brazilians and Ecuadorians – were massacred by the increasingly powerful Los Zetas cartel. The fifty-eight men and fourteen women killed in the massacre had refused to pay the gangsters for their lives – or to become hit men for the organisation, their only other option.
Nothing gets said, either, about the more than 60 000 undocumented Central and South American migrants that the Mexican government’s committee on population, borders and migration estimates went missing between its borders in the decade between 1998 and 2008. Or about the official attempts – paltry, it is true, but attempts all the same – to simplify and make safer the migrants’ passage. It is unclear whether the migrants are unaware of such attempts or they are simply uninterested in them. They could certainly be forgiven for that: despite the agreements between the Mexican and Chiapas governments and the governments of the migrants’ homelands, and despite the calls to establish more such accords from the Archbishop of San Salvador the route through the interior remains no safer, the risks no easier to calculate, the odds of success and survival no shorter. No agreement, new or old, will help the migrants once they’re on that train, and dwelling on the fates of seventy-two others in the north-east will only breed anxiety about their own. Better to speak of American music or to show off one’s last twenty quetzal banknote. Better to ask a nearby restaurant for some leftovers and to borrow a skillet to cook them in. Better to sit down with the Australian journalist and learn to ask for work in English.
And the days pass slowly. The indocumentados beg at the railway crossing, wash their clothes and hair in the river that forms the town’s southernmost border, and catch up on sleep they missed the night before because the patch of earth or concrete they chose to lie on was particularly uncomfortable. They memorise phone numbers they have written down and then burn the little pieces of paper they had written them on. Criminal gangs have been known to kidnap migrants carrying the phone numbers of relatives who might be able to pay a ransom and to torture and kill those migrants whose relatives don’t answer or who refuse to pay.
They wolf-whistle at local girls, ask the stationmaster when the train is arriving – he never knows – and talk about their favourite music. A nineteen-year-old boy whose name we never learn tells us he likes the Eagles and proceeds to play us one of several songs he has saved on his phone. (Without any phone numbers on it, the device has a little extra space for music.) The song is ‘Hotel California’, which is one of our favourites, too. Despite not speaking any English, the boy knows all the words, and we sing the song together.
‘They stab it with their steely knives,’ we sing, ruining the line by yelling it. ‘But they just can’t kill the beast.’
The lyric seems appropriate. A CNN article from June 2010 hyperbolically nicknamed the train ‘la Bestia’, the Beast, referring to the noise of its wheels as a screech and that of its horn as a snarl. Few call it that down here on the tracks, however, where it is simply known as el tren – the train. Not un tren, it is important to note, but el – not a, but the. For the indocumentados, there is only one way out of Chiapas and this, unfortunately, is it.
Not that it gets them all out, of course. For many, Albergue Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante – the Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd for the Poor and Migrant – is the place where the journey comes to an emotionally and physically shattering end. Situated in Tapachula, a hot and rather unpleasant city just this side of Mexico’s border with Guatemala, the shelter houses a large population of indocumentados who have either fallen from the train and lost a limb or else have been beaten by gangs as they walked the lonely stretch of abandoned railroad that links the city to Arriaga.
We meet victims of both types of injury. Three months ago, Amiel hopped a freight train north from the south-eastern state of Tabasco where many indocumentados have been beginning their journey since Hurricane Stan destroyed the line between Tapachula and Arriaga in 2005. But instead of making it to his next destination, the twenty-year-old Honduran fell, damaging his leg in the process. He had it removed a month later and has been recovering at the shelter ever since with a new prosthetic limb, paid for with donations.
Then there’s Julio, a new arrival, who less than a week ago was attacked in Ixtepec by three men with machetes. The thirty-one-year-old El Salvadorian was loitering around the tracks, he tells us, waiting to hop the next train north, when he was suddenly stabbed in the back, the knife puncturing his lung as it was driven into his flesh. He raised his hand to defend himself, grabbing one of the machetes. His hand is now crisscrossed with aggressively stitched scars. As is his torso. As is his face.
‘I started running when I realised I was going to die,’ Julio says quietly. Bleeding from his face, back and arms, and struggling to breathe, he made his way to a local bar where the proprietors called the police and ambulance.
He is adamant that he will continue his journey to the United States once he has fully recovered. ‘Life in El Salvador is too hard,’ he says. He plans on taking exactly the same route.
Hurricane Stan further complicated an already difficult situation, rendering Arriaga’s train station the closest to the Guatemalan border. Some of the migrants, like Estuardo, choose to walk the nearly 250 kilometre distance between Tapachula and Arriaga, saving money and reducing the risk of being caught by immigration officers, but exposing themselves to other hazards. Others, like José and Andres, have enough money to catch third-class buses that can stop anywhere along the route. A kilometre or so before each immigration checkpoint, the migrants alight, take a wide berth through the forest on foot and emerge another kilometre or so past the checkpoint on the other side. It was on one of these hikes that Andres began to wonder what the hell he was doing.
‘I went to college for this?’ he asked. ‘I worked since I was twelve years old, worked while I was studying, for this? At one point I nearly turned around and went home. It all seemed too hard.’
We begin to wonder if Andres will be able to bring himself to board the train when it finally arrives.
Of course, things could be worse. Arriaga has not always been as welcoming as it is today. Both El Salvador and Guatemala have consulates here – almost unheard of for a city with only 23 000 inhabitants – that provide the migrants with food, water, coffee and support.
Then again, things could be easier, too. Although technically a veteran of the passage, Dario has no idea what to expect from Mexico beyond the Arriaga limits because the last time he made the trip was over nine years ago. Back then, Arriaga was full of immigration officials, something he is pleased to find is no longer the case.
‘Arriaga is now one of the only places in this country where it’s safe to be a migrant,’ he says.
Yet he is less pleased about how dangerous the rest of the journey has become. Los Zetas entered the illegal migrant business – which is another way of saying the kidnapping and extortion business – a couple of years ago and today more or less control the whole route. ‘It’s much more dangerous than it used to be, as well as much more expensive,’ he says. ‘No-one used to hire coyotes [smugglers], for example, whereas today you have no choice.’
In 2001, Dario took the train all the way from Tapachula to Ciudad Juárez without incident and swam across the Rio Grande to a new life. He lived and worked in Omaha, Nebraska, until his mother got sick in 2009, forcing him to spend all the money he’d saved on a one-way flight back to Honduras.
The train arrives on the afternoon of our fifth day. Some of the migrants break early, before the gun, jumping onto the train as it leaves to drop off some containers at a nearby depot. The stationmaster tells them to calm down and wait. The train isn’t leaving yet. They’ll have time to get on safely when it’s really departing, he assures them.
Over the course of several hours, word spreads around town and people we’ve never met before – including more women and children than we’ve seen all week – appear at the station. This is when Estuardo gets particularly nervous, making sure we have written down the address he is going to in Guadalajara and the phone number of his cousin in Los Angeles. We hear rumours that one of the new indocumentados is actually a Los Zetas man who has infiltrated the nearby shelter.
The night before the train departs is hellish. The town’s usually balmy evening weather gives way to a wind that wets your face with rain and stings it with grit, and which makes sleep impossible on the cold, hard concrete, even with your back to the deluge. The migrants – by our count there are at least a hundred by four o’clock in the morning – sleep around the perimeter of the station while police cars and a four-wheel drive manned by consulate officials drive by every fifteen minutes. Ten years ago, a police car would have been cause for alarm. Today the police are considered a form of protection from those who prey on the migrants when the train is in town.
The next morning, a camera operator from TeleSUR, a regional television network covering the migrants, says that the consul has asked him to warn us about the man who has been hanging around the shelter. Los Zetas members have been known to pose as indocumentados in order to find out who’s going where and, more importantly, who has relatives in the United States able to afford ransom payments.
Dario takes us up onto one of the boxcars a little before midday, the sun burning our faces, the wind licking our hair and the sense of vertigo forcing us to hold on tight. The train isn’t even moving and already it feels as though we could fall at any moment. Dario is less worried about the train, however, than about where it is going to be taking him. ‘I would prefer it if Arriaga was still dangerous,’ he says, ‘and that the rest of the country was still safe.’
Surprisingly, Andres emerges from the tumultuous evening with a new-found confidence. He has met a group of men, he says, who he trusts and with whom he plans to ride. He has been inspecting the boxcars, tank cars and hoppers all day in search of the best position. ‘How big are your feet?’ he asks us. ‘Do you think I could borrow a pair of socks?’
It is late afternoon when the last of the freight cars is rolled across the bridge and towards the station, sparking a frantic scramble for seats. Estuardo, his nerves finally giving way to excitement, road-tests three of four carriages before selecting one, aware that, while a bus ride between Arriaga and Ixtepec only takes three hours, he won’t be able to change seats for at least the next twelve. As the last of the sunlight disappears, the stationmaster is finally able to give the migrants a departure time: at ten o’clock, he says, the train will be leaving. That is still a couple of hours away and we decide to go back to our room for a while. As we make our way out of the station, we find our nineteen-year-old duet partner still begging at the railway crossing. He has heard rumours of checkpoints on the tracks, he says, set up by immigration officials, and he has decided not to catch the train until he can confirm their validity.
We emerge onto the street a few hours later, at fifteen minutes to ten, but the train is already out of the rail yard and moving away to the north. The indocumentados wave excitedly as we run up alongside the moving boxcars, shouting farewells in Spanish and English, and even, in a couple of cases, blowing kisses. We throw a pair of socks to Andres, who promises to write.
The mood on the train is one of nervous anticipation: tonight’s service is a direct route into a wholly uncertain future. It would be silly to read the weather as an omen, but as the train disappears past the silos at the northern edge of town one can’t help but wish that the night had been a little clearer, a little calmer.
Sheet lightning chases them up from the south-west.
We later learn what it was chasing them towards. Andres rings our photographer from Guadalajara to let him know that he is still alive. Many others, he says, are not.
The train was not long out of Arriaga when the violence began. At least three men – including one we had spent quite a bit of time with – stood up, revealed themselves to be members of Los Zetas, and started making demands of the other passengers. The first one to refuse was thrown from the train. Others, Andres says, began to leap from it in fear of what might happen if they remained on board. A group of Guatemalans were abducted not long afterwards, with women and children among those taken.
Andres tracked down Estuardo in Ixtepec and stuck with him until Veracruz where the younger, more vulnerable of the two was beaten and eventually deported. Andres says he suspects that Estuardo’s story about having a cousin in California, who had lined up work for him in a bakery, had been fabricated to make us feel better about his chances of survival. Certainly, when we called the number Estuardo had told us was his cousin’s, it was not connected.
Andres fared much better. From Veracruz he made his way to Ciudad de México, where he worked for a man who helped him get an identification card, eventually earning enough for an onward ticket to Guadalajara. He is currently working in that city to pay for the next leg of his journey. Andres’ sister, who he felt so bad about leaving and lying to, has learned the truth about his absence.
Three months after we last saw him, Andres claims to have a contact in Nuevo Laredo who can organise safe passage across the border in exchange for two or three weeks of work. While Andres says he’s optimistic, the fear in his voice suggests the opposite. He’s seen men killed and women raped and he sees them all again in his sleep. He promises to call again before he departs for el norte.
While we had wondered about Andres’ resolve, debating whether he would bring himself to continue on his journey when the train arrived, we were never too worried about his chances once he actually did so. Because of his solid build and language skills, we suspected that criminal gangs would target more vulnerable migrants, and that he would be able to talk his way out of run-ins with corrupt officials.
Estuardo is a different matter, and the news of his deportation comes as a terrible, but not entirely surprising, blow. In the days and weeks that follow, I occasionally find myself reflecting, with a sense of the bitter irony, on one of his favourite pastimes in the week we got to know one another. Lying against a wall in the shade, having commandeered our photographer’s iPod earphones, Estuardo would begin to sing, in a language he didn’t understand, words encapsulating the nascent hope that was driving him and his fellow travellers north. Gorillaz’s ‘Clint Eastwood’, it turned out, was one of his favourite songs:
I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad.
I got sunshine, in a bag.
I’m useless, but not for long.
The future is coming on.
It’s coming on,
It’s coming on,
It’s coming on.