“They got me on the roof of the train,” said Arlen Acosta, his posture bent by two broken collarbones and his face disfigured from a bad suture job. He had set out from Honduras two months earlier. “They told me to give them $100. Then they threw me off.”
Central Americans have been catching freight trains to the U.S. border for years, risking injury or worse for a free ride and a path clear of Mexican government checkpoints. But at a time when illegal immigration to the United States remains near its lowest point in four decades, the number of Central Americans going north has soared, putting new attention on the rail system that takes thousands to the border each year.
With lawmakers in Washington considering a broad revision of U.S. immigration laws, the image of the illegal border-crosser is no longer a farmworker jumping the fence in Tijuana, analysts say. It is a Central American teenager riding on top of a Mexican freight train.
The dangers of the journey are widely known and perhaps worse than ever. Neither the Mexican government nor the two dominant railroad companies here — one of which is a U.S. subsidiary — have managed to stop the masses of people from climbing atop the trains, or the criminals from targeting them along the route.
The result is a rolling gauntlet of rapes, kidnappings, homicides and maimings aboard Mexico’s freight rail system, the backbone of the $1 billion-plus-a-day trade partnership between the United States and Mexico.
Each day, the trains rumble north loaded with new automobiles, washing machines, cement and the other fruits of NAFTA commerce. When they slow for curves or track switches, migrants run alongside and grab onto boxcars or jump into the open-top containers known as gondolas.
For the kidnapping gangs, cartel operatives and corrupt Mexican officials who await them, the train riders are a renewable natural resource: abundant and easy to prey upon, like salmon going up an Alaskan river.
Government human rights officials estimate that more than 11,000 migrants are kidnapped crossing Mexico each year, with many forced from the trains at notorious rail junctions whose names are spoken with fear along the route: Medias Aguas, Orizaba and Coatzacoalcos, where one group of Hondurans was hacked with machetes last month.
“You used to worry about falling asleep on top of the train and slipping off. Now, it’s the kidnappers,” said Oscar Rivas, a 40-year-old Honduran deportee trying to get back to a carpentry job and three children in Philadelphia. He said it was his sixth train trip north since 1986.