Atop Train, Migrants Begin Dangerous Trek To U.S. For many Central American migrants crossing illegally through Mexico to the U.S., the journey starts as they hop a freight train. But the already perilous trip is more risky as they now fear kidnapping by Mexican drug cartels. Last year, hundreds of migrants went missing or were killed in Mexico.
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Atop A Train, Migrants Begin Dangerous Trek To U.S.

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Atop A Train, Migrants Begin Dangerous Trek To U.S.

Atop A Train, Migrants Begin Dangerous Trek To U.S.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of migrants illegally cross from Mexico into the U.S. The journey has always been perilous, but it's become even more dangerous as Mexican drug cartels increasingly focus on the smuggling, kidnapping and extortion of migrants. Last year, more than 20,000 migrants were kidnapped. Hundreds were killed.

NPR's Jason Beaubien begins a three-part series today on migration across Mexico in the midst of a drug war.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

JASON BEAUBIEN: 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.

Mr. ERIK VANEGAS: (Through translator) 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're here without papers.

BEAUBIEN: There are military and migration checkpoints on most of the main roads. Migrants who are caught without proper visas are deported home.

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 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.

Mr. VANEGAS: (Through translator) 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. That's why I'm doing this.

BEAUBIEN: Hector Valdez, who's sitting next to Vanegas, has done this trip to the United States several times and says it's far more dangerous now than in the past.

Mr. HECTOR VALDEZ: (Through translator) The biggest problems right now are the kidnappings, the massacres, the organized crime. Because the walking, the hunger, cold, heat, that 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.

BEAUBIEN: Mexico's Human Rights Commission estimates that 20,000 migrants get kidnapped every year in Mexico, often with the assistance of local police or other officials. Last year, 72 kidnapped migrants were slaughtered on a ranch in Tamaulipas.

Valdez says he knows people who have been kidnapped and even one who was killed.

Mr. VALDEZ: (Through translator) 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.

BEAUBIEN: 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 seen in nine years.

Ana Ruiz is a 30-year-old mother of three from San Salvador. She acknowledges 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.

Ms. ANA RUIZ: (Through translator) For a better future, we decided to make this trip.

BEAUBIEN: 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.

Reverend TOMAS GONZALEZ CASTILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Father Tomas Gonzalez Castillo, who runs the migrant shelter in 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.

Over the last four years of the drug war, Father Tomas says, the drug cartels' involvement in trafficking and kidnapping migrants has increased dramatically.

Rev. CASTILLO: (Through translator) Migrants are now one more product that the cartels can traffic and with which they can earn millions of dollars.

(Soundbite of freight train)

BEAUBIEN: Finally, after three days, the freight train arrives in Tenosique. They'll 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, known as the iron beast, jerks violently as it picks up speed.

(Soundbite of freight train)

BEAUBIEN: It's exactly noon, and we've just pulled out of Tenosique on this train. There's probably a dozen, a dozen and a half guys on that car in front of us, about a dozen people on this car. And it's quite jungly in this area. The vegetation at times hangs directly over the tracks, and everyone that's on top of the train has to lay almost flat to keep from getting swept off.

And at other times, the train is out in the intense midday tropical heat that the surface of the train, the roof of the train is so hot you can't even touch it with your bare hand.

(Soundbite of freight train)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: As the train rolls on, more migrants appear along the tracks. They run and grab on to the moving beast as people on top yell out encouragement.

Sitting on top of a rounded, gray freight car that's loaded with powdered cement, Rene Chavarria says the most difficult time on the train is at night. You're tired, then it gets cold as the tracks rise into Mexico's central plateau.

Mr. RENE CHAVARRIA: (Through translator) 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.

BEAUBIEN: They don't know if they're robbers or kidnappers or just other migrants. And Chavarria says it's much worse at night, when it can be almost completely dark on 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.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can see photos of migrants riding on the tops of those trains through Mexico, that's at npr.org. Tomorrow, Jason reports on the hazards migrants face in the middle of the route. He travels to a city where the Zeta cartel is accused of systemically kidnapping travelers off buses.

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