The surge of Central American children traveling alone that has overwhelmed U.S. border facilities is part of an exodus I’ve been documenting for the past five years. I wanted to create a portrait of the people who make this epic journey and the hardships they endure along the way. I photographed the journey beginning at the Guatemala-Mexico border, where undocumented migrants carrying nothing more than a change of clothes are ferried across the Suchiate River on wooden pallets lashed to tractor tires. From there, I followed migrants using the network of freight trains lurching across Mexico to make their way north. In some towns they can sleep in shelters run by priests. Elsewhere they have to wait along the tracks, sometimes for days, until the next train passes through. I became versed in a world of smugglers, cartels and highway robbers; extortion, kidnapping and rape; desperation, survival and hope. Although much of the Central American migration story is grim and heart-wrenching, there are moments of beauty and tenderness.
I met this Salvadoran family — Rosalie and 18-month-old Isác, above, and Werner, with them below — at a shelter in the southern Mexico town of Arriaga. We climbed aboard a boxcar together one night in July 2010. It poured for almost 13 hours. We shivered under plastic trash bags and clung to the slick iron of the train, worried that it would derail. As we neared Oaxaca, the rain stopped and the sky lightened. Rosie peeled off Isác’s plastic cocoon and held him up to see the cows, mango groves and villages where people waved.
Six months later, I found the family again in Oaxaca. They had been detained in Mexico City and deported, tried again and then gave up. They were applying for papers to stay and work in Mexico.
Mexico’s cargo-train network is known as La Bestia, the Beast, or El Tren de la Muerte, the Train of Death, because so many migrants are injured or killed along the route. Some people slip and fall off, some are knocked off by branches flying overhead, some are bucked off when trains derail or stop suddenly, and others are pushed off for failing to pay organized-crime gangs.
In January, at an amputee shelter in the southern Mexico border city of Tapachula, I met Selso Antonio Suazo, the Honduran man in the image below. He had been climbing down a side ladder on a train, trying to avoid police at a checkpoint ahead, when someone scrambled down on top of him. He fell, and the train ran over his leg.
The landscape is punishing, the vegetation hostile, as you head north toward the militarized zone of the U.S. border. The journey by freight train ends in the northern Mexico states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Drug cartels control the territory and the passage of goods and people within it. Migrants must pay smugglers up to $3,000 to drive them along dusty, rutted roads to towns on the border and then usher them across.
A human-trafficking law passed in 2008 prevents Central American children from being deported before their cases have been reviewed by immigration judges. But other migrants who are caught may be deported immediately. And many of them will begin the journey again.
Michelle Frankfurter is a documentary photographer based in Takoma Park, Md. “Destino,” a book collecting her migration images, will be published by FotoEvidence in the fall. Read more from Outlook and follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.