El tren de la muerte

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El tren de la muerte ("The Death Train") refers to a network of Mexican freight trains that are utilized by U.S.- bound migrants to more quickly traverse the length of Mexico, also known as La Bestia ("The Beast") and El tren de los desconocidos ("The train of the unknowns"). This mode of travel is extremely dangerous and illegal. It is estimated that yearly between 400,000 and 500,000 migrants, the majority of whom are of Central American origin, continue to ride atop these trains in the effort to reach the United States.[1] The National Migration Service (Spanish: Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM)) reports that of 64,061 foreign nationals that were detained in the year 2009, 60,383 were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[2] Furthermore, according to the consul of El Salvador, Vilma Mendoza, "Around 30 percent of those who ride the trains are 'cyclical migrants'; men and women who attempt to return to the United States after deportation, or after a failed attempt".[3] But most are escaping violence and poverty from their home countries. Other factors that have contributed to the mass exodus of Central Americans, according to Juan Pardinas, CEO of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, are "the precarious economic situation of their countries of origin, the consequences of civil and political-military conflict, as well as social and economic devastation caused by natural disasters, such as hurricanes".[4] Although these trains (which transport products and materials including corn, cement, and minerals) are regarded as a free form of travel that allows migrants to avoid Mexico's numerous immigration checkpoints and 48 detention centers, the risks are high and many riders are left with life-altering injuries that limit their capacity to work.

As of May 9, 2014, train operators have banned the passengers from traveling by the train.[5]

Passenger risks[edit]

Many of the dangers posed by this journey result from the train itself and the process of climbing aboard and getting off moving trains. Because migrants board between 10 and 15 trains during their 1450-mile journey, which typically begins in Arriaga, Chiapas, the chances of sustaining a major injury are high before they even arrive at Lechería station in Mexico City, which serves as a sort of halfway point before the train route scatters into various directions that head closer to different points on the U.S. border.[6] It is not uncommon to visit rest homes and volunteer clinics where migrants with missing limbs are recovering from rail accidents. Often, migrants fall asleep while riding atop trains and are jolted off and onto the tracks where many are killed instantly by decapitation, blood loss, and shock. Because accidents often occur in the darkness of the night and in rural areas, victims are often not found immediately. If they do survive the fall, they must then wait for help because trains do not stop. After losing limbs to freight train accidents, survivors often feel ashamed to return to their home countries because they can no longer support their families and are in more severe circumstances than they originally began with. Apart from enduring moving trains, physical tiredness, and the extreme weather conditions that come with this journey, migrants must also cope with emotional stress. That is, being separated from family, traveling alone, and having a limited support system is also detrimental to the health and mental well-being of migrants.

Other dangers endured by Central American immigrants are fueled by discrimination and xenophobic attitudes which are themselves based on the unique positioning of Mexico as both a sender and receptor of immigrants. Amnesty International elaborates: "Mexico is one of the few countries in the world that is both a destination and transit route for migrants, and a starting point for emigration as thousands of Mexicans try to cross the border with the USA in search of work. This generates complex social, economic, political and cultural consequences for Mexico and its regional neighbours".[7] The vast number of migrants that pass regularly through the country are often seen as a nuisance which attracts crime. Migrants are vulnerable because of their undocumented status and lack of familiarity with personal rights, which renders them easy targets for harassment and abuse at the hands of corrupt officials and violent criminal gangs. Some of the dangers faced along the route north include: Robbery and assault, extortion, intimidation and threats, corruption, destroying of documents, detention without legal counsel, and sexually aggressive acts.[8] According to a 2012 article for Commonweal Magazine, by Joseph Sorrentino,"The statistics are harrowing. Eighty percent of migrants will be assaulted or robbed. Sixty percent of migrant women will be raped. A lucrative side business for the drug gangs (especially the Zetas) is kidnapping migrants; they can get as much as $2,500 for each victim. Between April and September 2010, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission cited 214 mass kidnappings involving 11,333 people. And those are just the reported kidnappings".[1] A separate report by the National Human Rights Commission (Spanish: Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos; CNDH) reported that, "Mexico [is] experiencing a hidden epidemic of kidnappings, with the majority of the most severe abuses occurring in the states crossed by the freight trains on the principal routes used by migrants, such as Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Veracruz and Tamaulipas".[7]

Although many Central American immigrants lay victim to such crimes, fear of being deported and mistrust of corrupt officials makes it difficult to denounce these injustices. Migrants have been known to voluntarily hand themselves over to the National Institute of Migration (Spanish: Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM)) to be returned to their homelands.

Reactions by citizens and the Mexican government[edit]

While Central American migrants suffer discrimination in Mexico, many do receive aid from Mexican families and community members who provide migrants with food,[9] shelter, clothes, and medicine. Although the vast majority of these families are themselves poor, they have taken it upon themselves to help migrants and make sure that they have somewhere safe to stay while they wait for the arrival of the next train, which can take up to several days.[1] A government support service, called Grupos Beta, was also created to help migrants. Often, Grupos Beta ride along the train tracks and go to many rest stops, where they provide medical aid and information to the migrants. Essentially, they are a "mobile humanitarian unit [that] does not enforce the law". That is, their purpose is not to convince migrants to not ride the trains to the border, rather their goal is simply to inform migrants with facts about how to protect themselves from the threats and obstacles they should expect throughout their journey. Apart from Grupos Beta, the Mexican Government has been criticized for its relaxed approach to the countless instances of rights violations and abuses regarding Central American migrants.[10]

In the media[edit]

"El Tren de la Muerte" has been depicted in literature, news articles, and in many films, including documentaries. One example is Which Way Home, which specifically follows the stories of children who have left their homes to come to the United States. The children range in age from 9–15 years old and are from places like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. Like many other children, the kids in this documentary travel without an accompanying adult and their mode of transportation, of course, is none other than "El Tren de la Muerte." These stories show the harsh reality of migration and the great dangers that people endure while trying to make it to the United States. The documentary also shows what happens to children when they fail to arrive at their destination and are forced to go back to their countries of origin. When asked why they were traveling without a guardian, many stated that their home situations were extremely dire in terms of finances and familial relationships, and that that is why they were led to make such a bold decision. Many of the other films that center around this topic feature similar stories, such as Sin Nombre, De Nadie, and El Tren de la Muerte. Most of these films have been acclaimed for bringing to light the many circumstances that migrants endure during their journey to the United States.

Sonia Nazario's best-selling novel, "Enrique's Journey", also depicts the process and obstacles of train migration. While this book mainly focuses on the journey of one person, it speaks for the thousands of other migrants who have struggled to reunite with loved ones. Nazario describes the emotion and difficulty experienced by entire families who are separated by the necessity to become more economically stable. The dangers of crossing Central America and Mexico by train are described in explicit detail as migrants of all ages face street gangs, corrupt officials, hunger, exhaustion, discrimination, poor weather, and deadly trains.

El Salvadorian journalist Óscar Martínez's book The Beast also depicts the hardships faced by migrants on the journey to the United States.

Other forms of media have also discussed the topic of migration and the means by which migrants travel to the United States. There have been as many news articles from the U.S. press, as there has been from the Central American and Mexican press, with all of them extensively covering the more grim and unfortunate aspects of the migration process, which for many is death.

The train was also featured in Al Jazeera America's Borderland


  1. ^ a b c Sorrentino, Joseph. "Train of the Unknowns". Commonweal. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  2. ^ "Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico". Amnesty International Publishers. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
  3. ^ Penhaul, Karl. "La odisea hacia el sueno americano en el 'Tren de la muerte'". CNN. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
  4. ^ Pardinas, Juan (2008). "Los retos de la migracion en Mexico: Un espejo de dos caras" (PDF). Serie estudios y perspectivas (99). Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  5. ^ "Stowaways Are Stranded in Mexico by Train Ban". Retrieved 19 Aug 2016.
  6. ^ Bridges, Levi. "Central American Migrants Face Perils on Journey North". Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  7. ^ a b "Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico". Amnesty International Publications. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  8. ^ Pardinas, Juan (2008). "Los retos de la migracion en Mexico: Un espejo de dos caras" (PDF). Serie estudios y perspectivas. 99. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  9. ^ "Women of Las Patronas get fast food to migrants on Mexico's Beast train". The Guardian Newspaper. Retrieved 21 December 2016.
  10. ^ "Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico". Amnesty International Publications. Retrieved 25 May 2013.

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