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Dreams And Danger: Notes From The Migrant Trail

NPR's Jason Beaubien has traveled from Central America through Mexico in recent weeks, following a route that many migrants take trying to reach the U.S. It's a journey that has grown increasingly dangerous as some of Mexico's most brutal drug cartels strengthen their control over the smuggling and extortion of migrants. He sent these reflections from the migrant trail.

Flores , Guatemala

"They're not risking their lives," a priest tells me in northern Guatemala. We are talking about migrants who are about to set off on the hazardous journey across Mexico toward the United States. "Because there is no life for them here," he says.

Parts of Guatemala have been abandoned by the state. There's no work, no schools, no future. Poor Guatemalans will risk and endure almost anything, the priest says, for the chance at a job in the United States.

The number of people attempting to cross illegally into the United States has dropped dramatically recently in part because the journey has gotten incredibly dangerous. Five years ago — when the U.S. economy was humming along and the Mexican drug cartels hadn't yet started to systematically kidnap, extort and kill migrants — more than 1 million people a year sneaked across the Southern U.S. border. Now researchers estimate that number has dropped to roughly 400,000.

Outside Tenosique, Tabasco, Southern Mexico

Four of us are squeezed into the back seat of a Jeep Liberty.

"You look like a bunch of Hondurans," the driver barks into the rearview mirror.

The men sitting next to me are Hondurans. Just ahead there's a police roadblock. One of passengers, Freddy, whips off his baseball cap and runs his hand through his hair, trying to fluff it out.

"This is Mexico," the driver snaps. "Look Mexican."

The other two men also hastily take off their caps, which almost all migrants wear to protect themselves from the sun. They stuff their small backpacks down toward the floor. Freddy works his hand through his hair one more time.

Freddy and the other Hondurans have just hiked through the jungle and crossed illegally into Mexico. They're still more than 1,000 miles from their destination — the United States. They hope to avoid all contact with Mexican authorities. The police could demand bribes — or worse, deport them back to Honduras.

Freddy is pale. I can feel him shaking next to me.

The driver lifts his hand in a gregarious salute to the Mexican police and we roll through the checkpoint in what feels like slow motion.

The Hondurans are going to the train tracks a few miles ahead.

Rail Line Between Tenosique And Palenque

The "Iron Beast" is an ornery machine. Hundreds of migrants, mainly from Central America, ride the freight trains each day through Mexico to the border with the U.S. It's a journey that could take weeks on a variety of freight trains, buses and any other transportation they can find.

Most of the migrants are so poor they can't get visas to legally enter Mexico. On the highways, migrants are often detained at checkpoints — but not on the railroad. In a surreal gesture, migration agents come out of their office in Tenosique and wave to the migrants on top of the train. Mexico's de facto policy seems to be: "If they're crazy enough to ride up there, we might as well let 'em."

Migrants ride on top of a freight train that left from Tenosique, Tabasco.
/ David Rochkind for NPR
Migrants ride on top of a freight train that left from Tenosique, Tabasco.

But these are nasty old freight trains. They belch thick black smoke. They jerk violently. The tops of the freight cars get so hot in the midday heat that they burn your skin. In the rain and even the snow in winter, the migrants ride exposed to the elements.

But the train can also be an oasis. As long as it's moving at a decent clip, the migrants know they're safe from robbers, kidnappers and corrupt Mexican officials. There's a joyful mood. The migrants relax as they move toward their destination.

As the train slows through a small town, several of the Hondurans pool their money and send Freddy to a local store for drinks. He leaps from the train and sprints to the shop. The train chugs forward. No sign of Freddy. Finally he re-emerges and races back toward the tracks. Two big bottles of Pepsi are tucked like footballs under each arm.

The men scream encouragement: "Run, you bastard!" Grinning like a guilty schoolboy, Freddy runs alongside the train. He tosses the bottles up. Cheers erupt as he pulls himself back to the top of the freight car.

Heading North

Migrants heading toward the U.S. border pack light.

Some travel with only their clothes and a jug of water. One guy on the train wore a track suit on top of his jeans despite the intense heat. "Look, no bag!"

Often you can identify migrants in border towns by their small, dusty backpacks.

Santo from Honduras was carrying a cloth bag with a picture of Uruguayan soccer star Diego Forlan on it. Inside, he had a spare T-shirt, a toothbrush, a razor, a change of socks and half a dozen lemons he'd plucked from a nearby tree.

"Lemons cut the hunger," he says.

Tamaulipas State, Northern Mexico

A taxi driver in the state capital, Ciudad Victoria, pulls his head back to get a better look at me when I say I'm going take the bus to San Fernando. The name alone sparks fear in Mexico. Last year, 72 migrants were slaughtered in San Fernando. In April, authorities discovered mass graves in the municipality holding almost 200 more bodies.

San Fernando has become the place where nobody wants to go. But it's in the middle of the shortest route to the Texas border.

The Bus Between Ciudad Victoria And San Fernando

I'd dozed off on what the local media have dubbed "the Highway of Death." I jerk awake and immediately feel for my backpack on the floor of the bus. My bag is still there.

The bus has come to a sudden stop and several young men are coming up the front stairs. A few weeks earlier, hijackers, allegedly from the Zetas cartel, had been boarding buses on this road, pulling off migrants, bashing their heads in with blunt instruments and dumping them in mass graves.

The young men are yelling and for a second I'm trying to make out what language it is. This often happens to me when I'm traveling. I wake up on an airplane, I look up from a cup of coffee in a restaurant and I have no idea where I am.

It's Spanish. They're speaking Spanish and they're selling snacks. Everything is OK. I fumble in my pocket for some coins to buy one of the sandwiches wrapped in foil that they promise are very hot and very tasty.

Matamoros , Across The Border From Brownsville, Texas

"If you want to die, we can go by the bus station," my friend says when I suggest we try to interview migrants in the Central de Autobuses in Matamoros. This is a bit disconcerting because I'd arrived in Matamoros by bus. I had heard, however, that the main bus station was dangerous, so I'd gotten off at the stop on the outskirts of town and taken a cab to my hotel.

My friend is a local reporter in Matamoros. He's used to moving around the city but won't set foot in the bus station. "No way."

So I have another idea. "Let's go get some pictures of that house that they shot up over by the morgue," I say. He looks at me like now I've really lost my mind.

We compromise and drive past the two-story house without stopping. It's been ripped apart by gunfire. The facade of the building was hit by so many bullets that many of the cinder blocks collapsed. This is where a few days earlier there had been a clash between cartel gunmen. All the windows are shattered. The front of the house is splattered wildly with pockmarks.

My friend survives as a journalist in a place where journalists don't always survive.

"It used to be that reporters could write about organized crime. Report who did what to whom," he tells me. "But not anymore."

He doesn't worry that a controversial story might get him fired — he worries that it'll get him killed.

Migrants from southern Mexico or Central America who wander into Matamoros are terrified of the place.

"I'm afraid to go out on the street," one told me.

The Dream

At the beginning of this trip I met a young Honduran. He claimed to be 18 but appeared much younger, maybe 15, maybe younger. He was telling me how great the United States is despite never having been there.

He's making the journey to find his father in the U.S. He hasn't heard from him in nine years.

"Washington, D.C.!" he gushes, when I mention where NPR is based. "Washington is beautiful," he declares, "probably the most beautiful city after Dallas."

This boy has just crossed from Guatemala into Mexico. He still has 1,000 miles to go to reach the U.S. border.

The next day when I join migrants who are climbing onto the freight train, I don't see him onboard. I worry about him. And I hope he's decided for some reason — for any reason — to turn around and go home.

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