Derailed on the Death Train

For every Central American migrant who makes it to the U.S. border, countless others are stuck in the purgatory of Mexico City on the long journey north.


MEXICO CITY — It’s officially a Salvation Army operation, but for the Central American migrants who huddle there to escape torrential monsoon rains, it’s just La Esperanza, or Hope House.

It is a dimly lit shelter for migrant men in Mexico City’s dangerous Tepito barrio. Not far from its darkened entryway is Mexico’s largest black market, swirling with counterfeit handbags for middle-class women and the guns that fuel the war between the cartels and Mexican authorities. Inside, some young Guatemalan and Honduran men watch soccer on a small TV while others sit on their bunks and rummage through their meager belongings. About 80 men a night look for shelter at La Esperanza, as rain sweeps off nearby mountains and dumps nightly onto a city built by Aztecs in search of sanctuary.

For Central Americans on their way to the Texas border, Mexico City is about the halfway point of the 1,450-mile journey. But for hundreds of young men who, for one reason or another, cannot continue the journey, the capital has become a purgatory. They are left with no money and no clue how to leave, and they ask themselves: How do I get out of here?

This month, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress for a $3.7 billion aid package to address the flow of unaccompanied Central American children across the U.S.-Mexico border. Rampant gang violence in Central America, especially in Honduras, is what has propelled most of the 52,000 undocumented children since October 2013 into the United States — and into the American consciousness.

But children are only part of the exodus from Central America. Young men are most sensitive to forced gang recruitment, causing some to try their luck crossing the Rio Grande. Others must meet demands to feed growing families back in El Salvador and Guatemala. For those who head north, promise of work in the United States is the only viable option. They have flooded migrant shelters and angered locals who fear that crime will follow in their shadow.

In 2013, Mexico detained and deported 86,000 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Central Americans who made it to the United States accounted for 1.5 million undocumented migrants in 2011, according to estimates from the Department of Homeland Security. It’s impossible to count how many are stuck in Mexico without means to keep heading north.

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A popular method of reaching the border is to stow away or ride atop the train. Some call it el tren de los desconocidos, the train of the unknowns. Others call it el tren de la muerte, the train of death. In Mexico City, it’s simply La Bestia: The Beast.

The Beast is not just one train, but a vast network of locomotives that run across Mexico, beginning in the southernmost state of Chiapas and ending along the U.S.-Mexico border, ferrying migrants from Central America along the way. They are anxious to leave behind their home countries’ spiking violence and economic woes. Still others are chasing lies that human traffickers tell them about finding amnesty across the U.S. border.

For two years, Benjamin Neftali, a Guatemalan in his mid-20s with a curly mop of black hair and darting eyes, has waited in Mexico City. For most of that time he has been living at La Esperanza. He spends his days working odd jobs, trying to save enough money to continue his journey north. But for a few hours two years ago, he waited patiently to be killed.

It was about midnight in the fall of 2012 when Neftali built a campfire at a verdant train station in Medias Aguas, Veracruz, in southern Mexico. Neftali says that as he sat around the fire with a small group of fellow Guatemalans, a group of men posing as migrants approached and asked to share the fire. Then they flashed guns and demanded everything Neftali and his fellow travelers had.

The group knew the area was rife with Zeta cartel activity targeting Central American migrants and came prepared. A man from Neftali’s group produced a pistol and began firing at the assailants. He wounded one in the leg before another tackled him to the ground. The other migrants began to throw punches, but the bandits wielded knives and other weapons and quickly overpowered them. Neftali fell to the ground next to a migrant who was killed in the struggle.

The bandits put the remaining men on their knees as if readying a mass execution. Then they began to torture the migrant who had shot back at them. One bandit carved pieces out of him with knives before another shot him in the head.

Neftali was second in line, still on his knees. He grimaced as he waited for a gunshot. But it never came. After holding them for four hours and collecting the names and addresses of their families back home in Guatemala as a threat to keep quiet, the bandits let the survivors go before sunrise.

Like many migrants, Neftali left his home to escape just this kind of violence. "I left Guatemala because there are no jobs and too many gangs," he says. "My country is great, but there’s just too much crime."

The temporary manager of La Esperanza, Luis Antonio Martínez Rodríguez, has encountered countless men like Neftali. On any given night, he says, 20 to 25 Central American migrants take refuge in the shelter. They usually arrive with empty pockets after encountering gangs and crooked police officers as they make their way aboard The Beast. "If they are lucky, their families send them money through Western Union," he says. "If not, then they have to start working somehow."

Working odd jobs to scrape together cash brings its own problems in Mexico City. Gangs in Mexico City know that a constant influx of stranded migrants with no contacts, no sense of direction, and no way to find help outside the four walls of the shelters are easy recruits — or easy targets for kidnapping and extortion.

At every point on the long journey, The Beast invites harm. Corrupt cops shake down migrants for cash before they board. Migrants perched on top of rail cars break bones falling off the train. One man at La Esperanza lost a foot to the train’s grinding wheels. Swarms of bees and the blistering sun relentlessly dog riders on top of the train while roving gangs extort stowaways inside. But it’s a dangerous journey even before one comes across the tracks.

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José Paz, a 20-year-old with a thick layer of dust caked over his hair, has been riding The Beast for nearly two months. He jumped off the train in Tultitlán, on the outskirts of Mexico City, for a break and a meal. Paz fled from San Pedro Sula in northwest Honduras, near the border with Guatemalan. The city and its outskirts are veined with cocaine-smuggling routes. San Pedro Sula claimed the world’s highest murder rate in 2013. From 2009 to 2012, civilians were more likely to be killed in Honduras than Iraqis at the height of the troop surge in 2007.

The danger for Paz never ebbed with Honduras behind him. The line between armed thugs and corrupt cops blurred as he neared Mexico. Guatemalan police demanded he pay them his last remaining $100 to stay on the train. By the time he reached Mexico City, he only had the clothes on his back.

On this day, Paz walks among the detritus of migrants who came before him. Discarded cans, torn clothing, and forgotten shoes litter the ground as he searches along the tracks for a place to jump back onto The Beast. Armed guards from Kansas City Southern de México, the company that operates the line, patrol between the train cars and pull migrants off the train during stops, so Paz looks cautiously for guards before he climbs a ladder onto the train. A guard with the Kansas City Southern de México was watching closely. He runs over to Paz and yanks him off.

"They’re drug addicts, and they come in and destroy places around the tracks," a local train manager says of the migrants. "People here [in the neighborhood] don’t want them around."

Paz is only halfway to Laredo, Texas, his stateside destination. He has no money, no food, and no way — at least for now — to get back on The Beast. He finds a friend he met on The Beast and walk toward a market, becoming two more of the thousands of young men trying to make their way across the border only to enter the purgatory of Mexico City.

It has been two years and another day for Benjamin Neftali. He continues to wait at La Esperanza. He guesses he needs about 15,000 pesos (around $1,100) to ride The Beast all the way to the border. He factors in the cost of food and water and the high chance of another mugging on the train or roving gangs waiting at the next stop. Guests at La Esperanza trade a warm bed for daily chores, which means Neftali and others have less time to find paying jobs among locals distrustful of foreigners. He doesn’t have nearly enough to leave Mexico City, let alone make it another 700 miles to the border.

Like virtually every Central American migrant who has made it this far, Neftali doesn’t think of going back home. Not yet, anyway, while Guatemala’s economy is sunk and criminals reign with impunity. He wants to be free, even if it kills him, just like those two nameless men near that campfire somewhere in southern Mexico. He must keep moving along The Beast.

Reynaldo Leal contributed reporting. 

Alex Horton is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.