CORDOBA, Mexico — The double-decker truck lurched to a stop on a dusty roadside, where hundreds of caravan migrants attempted to hitch a ride north in their quest to reach the United States.
Roughly 300 scrambled aboard — mothers pushing babies in strollers alongside skinny teenagers traveling alone. They slipped their fingers through the metal grates and hung on as the engine sputtered to life.
“Let’s take care of the women and children,” said Alberto Mendoza, an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an advocacy group that is aiding the migrants.
The group of 4,000 to 5,000 mostly Hondurans was making its way toward Mexico City to reconvene in a sprawling sports complex where they could get food, shelter, medical care and even therapy as they figured out where to go next.
For many, the last leg of the trip had been treacherous. Organizers had begged Mexican officials for buses to transport the caravan, but the journey had instead consisted of harrowing rides, with migrants gasping for air inside box trucks, clinging to the sides of tractor trailers or dangling off flatbed trucks. And Mexico City is still hundreds of miles from the U.S. border, the final destination for many of the migrants.
Activists say they are worried about migrants getting injured or falling ill. In Chiapas, a 25-year-old man died when he fell off a truck, according to the state prosecutor’s office. They also feared for their safety in Veracruz, a state notorious for kidnappings, organized crime and mass graves, including one found in recent weeks with 160 skulls.
“In many of those graves are migrants,” said human rights activist Andres Torres, who was aiding the caravan.
On Monday, the migrants had been trying to hitch rides since dawn from the city of Cordoba and blocked the highway north to force trucks to pick them up. But police ordered them to walk 2 ½ miles to a toll station where they could board more safely.
Asked why they allowed them to take precarious rides, a federal police officer threw up his hands.
“We can’t stop them,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The double-decker truck, used to haul cars, marked one of the riskier trips — a rattling, jangling heap of metal with large gaps in the floorboards to the highway below. The trailer was enclosed on the sides but had an open roof, making it easier to breathe. But it was meant to carry heavier cargo, and each bump in the road shook the truck — and its passengers — violently.
The truck left around 9:30 a.m. on a 116-mile trip from Cordoba to the city of Puebla.
As the trailer picked up speed, candy wrappers flew into the air. Clouds of exhaust rose from the undercarriage. The black asphalt rushed underneath like a river.
On the top deck, young men whistled and waved at passing trucks that honked in return, as they held on and chewed gum to avoid getting sick.
But on the lower deck, just inches above the highway, families were sleepy and tense.
Two women stuffed toilet paper into their ears to block the roar of traffic. Legs from the top deck dangled over them. Parents clutching squirmy toddlers kept nodding off and then jerking awake.
“Don’t sleep,” Nora, a 35-year-old woman from Honduras, warned her husband, Wilmer, 38, as he held their daughter Estefani, a girl in a pink jumper who turned 2 that day. The family asked that their last names not be used because they feared being harmed if they are ever deported.
It was not the life Nora had imagined for her family, her sweater stained with oil from the dangerous rides. She had barely slept in the weeks since fleeing Honduras.
“Yes, this scares me. Any kind of accident can happen to you,” she said. “Either I take the risk, or I stay poor.”
For three hours, they held on. Babies shrieked. The trailer hissed and rattled.
A toddler sitting in a stroller on the lower deck dropped a blue toy robot and reached for it, and a crowd around stopped him, fearing he would fall through the gap. Gingerly, they picked it up and gave it back.
As they drew closer to Mexico City, the air cooled, and the sunburned migrants pressed together to keep warm.
“It’s bad. I’m really worried,” said Kenia Hernandez, a 26-year-old single mother from Colon, Honduras. “On this road, you do what you have to do.”
Beside her sat Livis Murillo, 25, a stranger from Copan, Honduras, who became a friend in the hours they sat together. Hernandez clutched her 2-year-old daughter, Genesis, dressed in a Minnie Mouse jumper and dirty pink tights.
Murillo held the girl’s white shoes and her teddy bear.
“I don’t mind helping,” he said. “They’re all tired.”
Some truck drivers charged 100 pesos, or about $5, for the journey, migrants said. But for most, the ride was free, a sign of support, said Walter Cuello, who helped organize the caravan in Honduras.
On the truck, some teenagers said they weren’t afraid of the journey and dangled off the edges without holding on.
Claudia Sordo, 18, said she wasn’t afraid, either, as her boyfriend smiled. But then she confided she was scared.
“It’s very dangerous,” she said. “People think it’s easy for us to get there. It’s not easy.”
Finally, just before 1 p.m., the truck stopped, and migrants rose stiffly and filtered out. They were in Puebla, far from their destination in Mexico City, more than 80 miles away.
From there, those headed to the United States would have an even longer journey, since they remained hundreds of miles from the border.
Lenin Marroquin, 29, from Ceiba, Honduras, jumped off the trailer and stretched in the breakdown lane, then joined the group flowing north to find the next ride.
“It was rough,” he said of the trip. “But we have to finish it.”