Mexico Serves as Way Station on Trip to U.S.

For illegal Central American immigrants, traveling through Mexico to reach the United States is dangerous. Some crooked Mexican police extort money from them, and some of the women are assaulted. We meet three women from Honduras and one man from Nicaragua who are moving through Mexico together by train.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In this part of the program, we'll learn about the Senate's latest effort to stop illegal immigrants. We will also hear the stories of four people who were heading north anyway.

MONTAGNE: Like many immigrants, they come from Central America and their challenges begin long before they reach the U.S. border. They have to pass through Mexico, which sends the most migrants to the United States, but also cracks down on its own illegal immigrants.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro spent time with four migrants as they waited to hop a Mexican train heading north.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

The railway siding at Tultitlan is a pit stop between a memory and a dream. This bleak, industrial wasteland on the edge of Mexico City is a hub for Central American migrants who are making their way illegally north. At any given time here, there are dozens huddled by the rubbish-strewn tracks, literally waiting for their train to come in.

Gingerly, a group of three women from Honduras and one man from Nicaragua climb over the coupling's connecting train cars. They've become experts the hard way. They warn one another to remember not to step on the middle part of the buffer because it moves and it can rip off a limb. They've seen it happen, they say.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Once on the other side, they stand on the middle of the tracks totally exposed and trapped by a high fence on one side and a parked train on the other. They have the instinct of hunted animals. They quickly confer and decide this is not the best place to wait for the train, nowhere to run and hide if the police chase them.

Maria del Carmen Brisol(ph) is a 27-year-old Honduran with four children from the town of Copan Ruinas. This is her first journey north. As she holds up a small plastic bag, she calls her travels so far a very sad road full of despair and fear.

Ms. MARIA DEL CARMEN BRISOL: (Through translator) This is all I have. I threw away my suitcase with all my clothes. The police were chasing us. And because we were running so fast, we had to throw everything away. This pair of extra shoes is all I have left, and the clothes on my back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They run from the police, they say, not because they're afraid of being deported. They run because what little they have is taken from them by corrupt local and federal cops.

Ms. BRISOL: (Through translator) Our first contact with the Mexican police, they took money from us when we went through to Chiapas. If we hadn't given it to them, they wouldn't have let us cross into Mexico.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marco Gonzales(ph) is a wiry 24-year-old from Managua. By default, he's the leader of this small band that met on the Guatemalan-Mexico border. The rest are all first timers, but he's made this journey before.

Mr. MARCO GONZALES: (Through translator) It's taken forever this time. It's been one month and 15 days for me and my traveling companions to get here. They've stolen from us; the trains have left without us. We've been assaulted by thieves and the police. They've taken everything.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gonzales goes on matter-of-factly.

Mr. GONZALES: (Through translator) The police demand money from us to ride the trains and that's why we have to run away from them. And the women, they demand sexual favors from them. These police live off this. It's like work for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria del Carmen Brisol says she's seen what can happen.

Ms. BRISOL: (Through translator) They rape women. This boy was traveling with his wife and they tied him up and they raped his wife. I had to run away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zoila Aguilar(ph), from San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, is, at 50 years old, the mother of the group. She's left six children behind. She says she couldn't get enough work to feed them in Honduras, but still...

Ms. ZOILA AGUILAR: (Through translator) I wouldn't have come if I had known how hard it would be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even as Mexico is demanding better treatment for its migrants in the U.S., it's a sad fact that illegal migrants here get few protections and are, indeed, targets of criminal gangs and corrupt security forces. Last month, a state policeman fatally shot an unarmed local man. He apparently mistook him for a Central American immigrant during a raid on undocumented workers here in Tultitlan.

On this day, this small band of migrants has only 10 pesos, about a dollar, left between them. Everything else has been extorted or stolen.

Ms. FATI AGUIRRE(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Using a borrowed cell phone, 32-year-old Honduran Fati Aguirre calls her brother in Virginia.

Ms. AGUIRRE: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the pollero, or human smuggler, that was supposed to take them to the border has thrown them out because they didn't have enough money to pay him. She tells him she doesn't know if she should continue on, or go back home to her four children.

Ms. AGUIRRE: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She confesses she's scared of continuing to travel on the railways. She says she feels something bad might happen. As she's talking, her companions rush off. The train they're all waiting for is finally passing through. She quickly hangs up and runs after them, unwilling to be left behind.

(Soundbite of train bells)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken) Bye.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With a wave she jumps to the other side of the track and disappears. Their train pulls away, a shadow in the dust rumbling north.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tultitlan, Mexico.

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