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Blood on the Tracks

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The majority of the migrants starting out on the route are young men. But there are women and children, too, like the ones pictured here crossing the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico. Mexico's National Migration Service (INM) estimated that one in 12 people on the route are under 18, some making the journey alone.

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On the Guatemalan side of the border with Mexico, in the town of Tecún Umán, migrants can rent camaras, makeshift rafts made of wood and old truck inner tubes, for the short trip across the border.

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There are neither police nor regulations at the border in Guatemala. The Mexican Army patrols the other side, but for a few pesos, they are easily convinced to turn a blind eye. "Everyone takes their cut," Jácome explains. The rafts carry more than just people, he continues, "Drugs, weapons, people -- everything crosses there."

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Once in Mexico, the migrants start walking. There used to be train service from the border crossing into the next town, and migrants would hitch a ride on top of the cars. But in 2005, Mexico dismantled the tracks, so migrants now have to trek through dense bush populated by kidnappers and crooks. This man had walked for nine days before he arrived at the first town with a functioning railroad and was sick from having eaten un-ripened fruit.

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Catholic priests have set up several shelters for migrants along the route, including this one in the small city of Tapachula. Offering food and sometimes a bed, the shelters welcome migrants for a few nights before newcomers push them out again. A wall map gives migrants a glimpse at the long journey ahead, but many travelers will never make it to the United States.

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The long journey isn't cheap, and most migrants have to stop and work along the way to earn enough cash. The migrants seen here are packing fruit at a papaya processing plant to make enough for the next stage of their trip.

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From Tapachula, most migrants jump aboard a cargo train that travels occasionally up to Arriaga and continues north to Ciudad Ixtepec. Sometimes the train leaves once every few days; sometimes it doesn't come for a week. A man here waits for its arrival. "It is tremendously hot," remembers Jácome.

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There's no telling when the next train will pull into the station, so migrants cluster around the tracks waiting. When it arrives, there's pandemonium. "People swarm the trains as they leave," Jácome says. When the train picks up speed, some stowaways are unprepared for the force of the swirling air and can get sucked under the boxcars. So many people have lost their limbs this way that there is a shelter in Ciudad Ixtepec specifically for amputees.

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Train conductors often take money or favors as a quid pro quo for a "free" ride.

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The safest place on the train is the last car, where Jácome sat for the trip. Trains often derail along the route -- and when that happens, it's the rear cars that absorb the least impact. The ride is bumpy and dangerous, so most migrants find a way to strap themselves to the roof of the cars with belts, rope, or anything they can find. Very few manage to sleep for the 13-hour trainride from Tapachula to Ixtepec.

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The routes that migrants travel are well known -- to Mexican authorities, criminals, and local people. Operativos, the mobile Mexican military units based along the route, sometimes stages night ambushes on trains. Terrified of being sent back home, migrants often jump from moving trains. The operativos send dogs to find them.

Kidnappers are another group that preys on migrants, taking advantage of the confusion of small towns along the route, where the trains stop. Most migrants have a "backer" in either the United States or Central America who helps pay for their trip. (An entire journey can cost as much as $8,000, Jácome estimates.) "They say [to the migrants,] give me the phone number" of the backer, Jácome recounts from interviews with kidnapping victims. Even if the ransoms they collect are small, say 2,000 pesos (about $150), the volume makes up for it: On a good day, kidnappers could make thousands of dollars.

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Somehow, daily life continues along the route. As day breaks, it's time for a shave. Migrants often travel in groups of people from their home country to make the trip more manageable.

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Father Alejandro Solalinde (left) runs a shelter in Ciudad Ixtepec. When Jácome first met him in 2005, the priest's shelter had only one half-enclosed room and a small patch of land, unfenced. Now, he has built dormitories for men and women thanks to donations, including one from Germany. Originally from Mexico City, the 65-year-old Solalinde has been an outspoken advocate for the migrants, drawing the ire of the Zetas, the notorious drug gang known for kidnapping, which has put a price on his head.

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From Cuidad Ixtepec, the journey north continues. Migrants have already traveled more than 150 miles via raft, on foot, and two trains. But they're still in the very opening stages of a long and arduous trip. Mexican authorities apprehended more than 64,000 people along the route last year, a decrease from previous years but still only a fraction of the total number who attempt to make it to the United States.

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