Across the courtyard and at the far end of the empty basketball court, I see the diminutive figure of a drenched Honduran man standing in the rain on the roof of the three-story male dormitory.
“El tren!” he shouts. “El tren!”
Two Honduran men, Elias Enamorado and Oscar Velas, and I are sitting in an outdoor dining area. The rain pounds down on the aluminum roof above our heads, clattering like the hooves of charging horses before it drains off, forming curtains of falling water splashing the concrete floor and pooling at our feet.
“El tren!” the man shouts again, his voice barely discernible above the rain. “El tren!”
Men and women around me, including Elias, jump up, hesitate. Only Oscar remains seated, a desolate, worried look on his face. But the others shake with anticipation and indecision. They consider whether they should chance it and run out the front gate, down a dirt road to the highway, cross it and zig-zag through alleys until they reach the tracks and catch the train. After a long moment, most sit down. They release long sighs like balloons deflating.
“Too much rain,” Elias says, staring at his hands. “The train will be back in two or three days. It will be a good time to ride it then. If there’s no rain. Too easy to slip off in the rain.”
“Don’t go, it’s dangerous,” Oscar says.
I look up toward the men’s dormitory but no longer see the man who gave the shout out for the train. The rain pummels the ground even harder.
“I must get to the United States. For my brain. For my self-esteem,” Elias says, raising his voice above the clamor of the storm.
I am a freelance reporter staying at a shelter for migrants fleeing the violence in Central America. The shelter is named La 72 after the killing of 72 migrants on Aug. 24, 2010, in San Fernando Tamaulipas, Mexico. It stands off a brown dirt road in the town of Tenosique in the Mexican state of Tabasco, not far from the highway that cuts through the center of town and the tracks that carry “el tren da la muerte,” the death train. The ominous name refers to Mexican freight trains that travel across the country and that migrants use to reach the U.S.
The train is also called “La Bestia,” The Beast, and “El tren de los desconocidos,” the train of the unknowns. Thousands of migrants use the train despite the risks that come with leaping onto the moving freight cars. Some fall off and are maimed or killed under the speeding wheels.
Despite the dangers, migrants at La 72 take turns watching for the train from the roof of the men’s dormitory, the tallest building here. “El tren!” becomes almost a battle cry, rousing the migrants out of the stupor of long, hot days to grab their few things and run for the tracks.
When La 72 first opened, it offered a few beds behind a church. Today, it sees almost as many 400 to 1,000 migrants a month, depending on the season. Franciscan priests administer the program. They support migrants during their passage through Mexico by providing them a place to sleep, meals, medical aid and legal advocacy.
Sometimes, the staff at La 72 submit more than 100 applications for humanitarian visas to Mexican authorities, administrator Emilei Viklund told me shortly after I arrived. Maybe a dozen get approved.
“You get the feeling that they will take your report but that’s where it will end,” Viklund said. “They are always very polite. The policy is to keep you happy by going through the process.”
If migrants do not receive a visa or work permit and lose their appeals, they have 20 days to leave Mexico, Viklund said. But, she added, the law does not say which border a migrant must leave through. Consequently, many travel north with the hope of entering the U.S. and applying for asylum there.
Mural-covered, cinder-block buildings — dormitories, a chapel, a kitchen and offices — make up the now-sprawling shelter complex. The murals depict Che Guevara, scripture and the Virgin of Guadalupe with a Zapatista bandanna around her face, among other images. In the chapel, 72 white crosses hang from the wall representing the migrants killed in the 2010 massacre.
Gunmen of the Zetas drug cartel slaughtered the migrants at a remote ranch in northeastern Mexico after they refused either to pay a ransom for their release or to work for the gunmen. Most of the crosses bear the names of the 58 men and 14 women killed, a haunting litany of the dead.
A guard, Orlando from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, watches the front gate. He thrusts his chest out when he walks, falling into the rolling gait of a sailor or a gunslinger depending on the day and his mood. Gold caps his front teeth and a thin beard frames his face. His smile is not one of warmth but rather a reminder that he won’t be trifled with. He tells me migrants show up and ask for shelter at all times day and night. He has them sit on a concrete bench inside the gate and wait for an intake worker to interview them. The interviews are brief: Where are you from? Why did you come here? Who came with you? Have you experienced any violence? Would you be subject to violence if you returned? Most migrants answer yes to the last two questions.
He suggests I speak with people individually rather than in groups; otherwise no one will talk to me. They will worry about who might be listening. Good guy or bad guy? Coyotes get in here, Orlando explains, and try to take advantage of the migrants. He has never seen one but he has his suspects. A single man with six children. Where did he get all those kids? Groups of men who all have the same story like something they memorized from a book. It makes Orlando wonder. Sometimes these suspicious characters leave La 72 and stay in a hotel and try to meet with the migrants outside the gate to prey on their desperation. They promise to bring them to the United States and charge them hundreds of dollars, only to abandon them once they have been paid.
“I first left Honduras for the United States when I was 12,” Orlando tells me. “The last time I got deported from there was 2014. And there were two times before that. First time, 2001. No papers each time. I’m 45. I worked in Baltimore installing A.C. downtown. I did 49 months in Houston for returning illegally to the U.S. in 2014. I’m trying to get work papers and stay here in Mexico. But there’re no jobs here. I’m afraid to stay here, too. Coyotes try to make you leave and go to the U.S. They kidnap you just to force you to go. They call your family and tell them to pay for your travel or they say you will never be seen again.”
Like Orlando, most of the migrants I am meeting at La 72 left Honduras to escape the gang violence of Mara Salvatrucha. MS-13, as it is commonly known, is an international criminal organization that began in the inner city of Los Angeles in the 1980s and has since spread to Central America. For years, the gang contributed to Honduras’ ignominious title of murder capital of the world. Drug running, extortion and political corruption have all contributed to the country’s lethal reputation. A close relationship exists between some members of the military and the gangs to extort and in other ways intimidate civilians.
“More than 90 percent of our clients are coming from Central America,” Viklund said. “Eighty-five percent are arriving from Honduras.”
Young men make up most of La 72’s clientele, and their flirtatious behavior with some of the single women shows that even under the most difficult situations, testosterone rules. On Saturdays, staff clear away tables and chairs from the dining area turning it into a dance floor for anyone who feels the compulsion to writhe to booming electronic music and release pent-up energy and desire.
The tensions and at times lust liberated through dancing, impromptu basketball and soccer games or simply just laughter at the tragic absurdity of their situation help ease the challenges the migrants live with day to day. Sometimes, there are not enough beds. Pregnant women squabble for priority with women who are not pregnant. Outside the gated compound, law enforcement officers sit in their cars. Although La 72 is recognized as a safe zone for migrants, the presence of the officers reminds them of the dangers the outside world poses. They are just one step away from being arrested. One step away from a trafficker shaking them down. One step away from someone else who might take their life.
Some migrants stay at La 72 just a few days before continuing their travels. Others apply for asylum and work permits in Mexico. Still others remain at La 72 for no discernible reason other than they have reached a safe place and are unwilling to travel farther until some intangible moment that only they sense tells them it is time to leave. But they know uncertainty will dominate their lives outside the gate until they reach the next safe place.
“I can smell coyotes,” Orlando tells new migrants waiting to be processed by an intake worker. “People who take advantage selling what they shouldn’t be selling. I tell you I can smell them. On the train there are armed, organized criminals who steal and beat people up. Be careful. Human trafficking now is very prevalent. All of us have to watch our backs.”
I came to La 72 by way of Chiapas, a Mexican state south of Tabasco, to report on a visit of Pope Francis. The pope arrived at 10 a.m. on Feb. 15 in San Cristobal, the capital, and spoke at an outdoor stadium. From there, he drove in a motorcade to a downtown cathedral. I was assigned to cover the cathedral portion of his trip.
Hundreds of people, myself included, gathered ahead of time in the plaza outside the cathedral. We waited hours, seeking cover from a blazing afternoon sun. Among other things, the pope was expected to address issues of migration. Some men held signs that identified them as Honduran migrants. I presumed they anticipated words of support from the pope. If they did, they were disappointed. Few if any of us even saw the pope enter the cathedral through some out-of-sight entrance that concealed his passage. In the plaza, flat-screen monitors meant to show the pope instead played advertisements for action films such as the Will Smith science fiction flop After Earth, while the loudspeakers aired gospel hymns but no words from the pontiff.
Six hours after he arrived in San Cristobal, Pope Francis left the cathedral and waved to all of us waiting to hear him. Whatever he said inside the cathedral remained a mystery. After his motorcade drove off, the crowd dispersed and within a short time the plaza returned to normal with street vendors and shoeshine boys plying their trade. The signs held by the Honduran migrants lay crookedly by trash cans. That evening, I received the go-ahead from my editors to write about migrants at La 72. I caught a bus for the six-hour ride to Tenosique.
Only a few passengers got on with me. The bus wound through mountains patchy with farm fields and streaked with dirt roads that from a distance resembled little more than tracks made by earthworms. Wind rocked the bus and the noise of construction rose up from valleys where road crews labored. A heavy fog settled in the higher elevation as we climbed cocooning the bus in a gray damp mist that lulled me to sleep.
When I woke up, sunlight had burned the fog away and dense woods thick with palm trees reduced the highway to a narrow strip of asphalt. Women balancing baskets on their heads walked along the road, followed by scampering children and yipping dogs. The bus passed through cleared areas in which isolated restaurants, little more than shacks with picnic tables, stood in the sun shiny from the vanquished mist, and worn fences held cattle in stunted pastures. And beyond them mountains rose and disappeared in the few remaining clouds hovering in isolation within a vast blue sky.
The bus dipped into a valley and passed a school. Girls in white blouses and pink dresses ran out a side door into the parking lot and watched the bus while others ignored us for other distractions: The drivers of pickup trucks leaning against the hoods of their vehicles eating tortillas. Burros and horses plodding past them bearing trundles of wood tied to their backs. Men with machetes hacking at the growth alongside the road.
In a town with no signs suggesting its name, a Pemex Gas station stood empty beside a pharmacy and rows of vendors selling cantaloupe. Pregnant women negotiated the jammed sidewalks, sometimes crossing the street and resting beneath trees that divided the street’s northbound and southbound traffic. Dolores Asada Taqueria, Buenvedo Restaurant, Miguel’s Internet. The small businesses flipped past our windows without character, an insignificant blur of human effort at making a livelihood, numbing in its way like the steady jostling of the bus, and I had almost fallen asleep again when the truck ahead of us struck a dog. The truck did not stop and the dog lay on its side without making a sound, its tail moving in rapid circles like a stalled motor, its head raised, straining and showing its teeth as it tried to move, and then we rolled over it, too, and everyone inside the bus made a collective gasp except the bus driver who continued without pause, the back of his head revealing nothing of his thoughts, any more than the expressions of the people outside suggested anything out of the ordinary.
Outside Tenosique, police stopped the bus at a checkpoint. The driver opened the hissing doors and a female police officer peered inside. Pressured by the U.S., Mexico had increasingly militarized its southern borders to prevent Central American migrants from crossing over. Convoys of Mexican federal police and immigration service employees in southern Mexico set up moving roadblocks, checking the documents of passengers on interstate buses.
“Buenos dias,” the officer said.
The bus driver nodded.
The officer stepped aboard the bus and asked each passenger for identification. Other officers lingered outside. They laughed with one another, not a raucous laughter but the laughter of people who found some innocuous statement to be quietly amusing, the humor breaking up the monotony of their day until they had sucked it dry and their boredom returned. When they finished laughing, they waved cars over to search. Faded posters of the pope hung off the pole of a broken streetlight, the bulb drooping downward, suspended by wires like the tendons of a broken neck.
The officer on my bus asked a man and a woman to get off. She stood a few inches apart from them as she spoke. She did not raise her voice. She seemed almost pleasant. Her expression calm. Only the man and woman could hear the soft intensity of her words as she escorted them off. After a moment, the man slunk back on the bus, retrieved his suitcase from an overhead shelf. He appeared so embarrassed. The humiliation of being paraded before his fellow travelers as someone who should not be among them expressed in his sad eyes. Like a student called before the principal in front of his classmates. Reduced to the status of a child. Degrading also for the rest of us, spared but feeling vulnerable. We gave furtive glances his way and then looked at the floor and said nothing, shamed by our silence and our gratitude that we were not him. He stepped off and vanished into the afternoon as if he had never existed. The driver closed the doors. Some of us sighed aloud.
Five minutes later, we crossed a bridge into Tenosique.
Now, three days later at La 72, I tell Elias Enamorado and Oscar Velas about my trip through Mexico and the two people taken off my bus.
“Were they Honduran?” he Elias asks me.
“I don’t know.”
The three of us are sitting in the crowded dining area among other migrants seeking shelter from one of the daily thunderstorms that come this time of year.. Lightning shivers through the dark sky rending it apart in flashing bursts.
Elias tells me he wants to live in Tampa. That’s his dream. He hears it is beautiful. Many Spanish- speaking people live there. He won’t stay at La 72 long. He will wait until the weather clears. He hopes to save money and send for his family. It gets slow at La 72. He tries to keep busy. A man without work, he believes, is not a man.
“They probably were,” Oscar Velas says of the couple removed from my bus. “If you don’t get out of Honduras, blam, you’re dead. That’s why people come here. The violence there is too much.”
He pulls out a scrap of paper. He has drawn a crude map of his planned route north to the U.S., a black line squiggling near the ragged edges. He asks me where the police stopped us. I show him as best I can from what I see of his map. He puts his finger on the spot and drags it to one side to where he says a road will take him around the checkpoint.
“Maybe I’ll hire a taxi to drive me out of Tenosique,” he says. “The police would not expect a migrant to hire a taxi.”
“You think too much,” Elias tells him.
Near the entrance of La 72, a mural of a map of Mexico is painted on the wall to the benefits advocate’s office. Black lines track routes north into the U.S. A legend explains the symbols on the map. Pistols indicate where migrants have been assaulted. Cups and plates mean that a town offers free food. Triangles indicate shelters. Dollar bills warn of human traffickers. They demand cobro de cuota, collection fees. Usually $100.
I read the names of towns listed on the map beginning with Tenosique and working my way north to Palenque and beyond. I see the services offered in each town and the risks. I feel the people beside me standing before the map contemplating their next move. The sun has returned to the now cloudless sky, and steam rises from puddles, the humidity clinging to us wet and heavy. I ask them why they left their homes, what they think about in the lethargic drag of days as they wait for something to happen, for a sign, some elusive signal that motivates one of them to do something, anything, that tells them, Now. Now is the time. Get going. Move on. And then like lemmings, they say, many others will follow.
“Will you tell me your stories,” I ask them, “before you leave?”
A long pause. No one diverts their gaze from the map. Then one at a time, starting at Tenosique, they trace their fingers along the map from town to town to show me how they will attempt to enter the U.S. Watching them roam the map with their hands, I listen as they explain to me what brought them to La 72.
Karen Trouchez, 20, with her 2-year-old daughter, Allison.
Tenosique: a pistol, cups and plates, a triangle.
Palenque: a pistol, cups and plates, a triangle, a dollar bill.
Halfway between Palenque and Turra Blanca: a dollar bill, cups and plates, a pistol.
I ran a convenience store in Santa Barbara, Honduras. My husband worked construction. I met him through my father. They were friends. The gangs wanted $100 a week from us. One guy came to our house. Six a.m. He said, “Pay the rent or I will kill you.” Young guy. Eighteen, 20 years old. He had two guns.
We left last week, Monday the 3rd, by bus. It was very sad to leave. Sometimes I want to run back and see my family. My mother cried. She told me, “Don’t leave,” but I have to try to find a way to take care of my daughter. There were many migrants on my bus. You recognize them. They stay in back of the bus. They have many bags filled with clothes and many children.
We want to go to the U.S. My husband lived for 12 years in the U.S. Vallejo, CA, Tampa, FL, Norfolk, VA. The first time he was deported was in 2002. He has been deported four times. I’d like to be a cook. I enjoy cooking, and I could do that and have my daughter with me.
Dania Marisela Salina, 28, a witness of gang violence, with her 6-year-old son
Turra Blanca: pistol, triangle.
La Prono: cups and plates.
Oritaba: a dollar bill.
Mexico City: a triangle.
I lived in Choluteca, Honduras. Three times I saw people killed by gangs. Young men took them out, shot them in the back of the neck. They saw me, took me by the hair. “Be quiet,” they said. They sat me down and beat me. “Go now,” they said. “Get out of our country or we’ll kill you.” I’ve been here one month. I came through Guatemala walking and hiding from the police. Walking and hiding, running and swimming.
I want to see my family. There is danger for the people you leave behind. They have received some threats. My dad was in a gang. He’d rather stay in Honduras and die by the gun than leave.
Freddy Cruz Bolina, 40, sitting with his wife, Marina Elizabeth Hernandez Gonzalez, 36, and their son Dylan, 1.
San Luis Potosi: triangle
Piedras Negras: triangle, pistol
Nueva Laredo: triangle, pistol
Reynosa: triangle, pistol
A gang guy told me to pay an additional $200 a week for my restaurant or they would kill me. I served typical food: pasta, Italian, fish. He just came in. “You don’t pay, I will kill you.” Young guy. I had a little restaurant in San Miguel, Honduras. For three years I paid the gangs $400 a week. Now, they wanted $600 a week. I couldn’t afford that.
“You don’t pay someone, I’ll kill you,” he said.
“Why, I don’t make that much money.”
“That’s my business. That’s what I do.”
“I’ll talk to my wife.”
“I’ll kill all of you.”
I would be in the restaurant, hear, pop, pop. Bodies would be left in the street. My wife and talked into the night. We talked about the gangs. They’ll come for you, she said. I met my wife in a gas station where she worked. We left my house at 4 a.m. We left on a bus to San Salvador. We took another bus to Guatemala and then to the border with Mexico. We walked here.
Nelson Avilla, 28, San Pedro Sula
Ciudad Juarez: triangle, pistol
Nogales: triangle, pistol
Tijuana: triangle, pistol.
I was 16 when I crossed in 2004 for the first time. I took La Bestia. From Chiapas to Topochula, Mexico, to Vera Cruz, Mexico. I worked there one year — construction and carpentry — to save money for the U.S. The next year, I took a bus to Monterey. I got on La Bestia again to New Laredo, Mexico. I walked across to Laredo, Texas. Immigration agents look for a lot of people, not one kid. They didn’t see me. I had a friend in Laredo. I lived with him for one month. Then I called my daddy in New Orleans. He said, “Wait one more week and I’ll have a coyote pick up. Bring you in a truck.” There were 17 of us. The coyote drove us to Houston. My daddy was going to pick me up there.
Then a tire blew. The coyote says, “Everybody out. Wait 30 minutes. I’ll get it fixed.” I thought, OK. I waited two hours. When he come back, he said, “Everybody, let’s go.” Then the police came. All of us are from Honduras and El Salvador. But I told the police I was from Mexico. So they sent me back to Mexico. The next day, I crossed again. I called my daddy. This time, I said, “No coyote. Send me money.” He sent me $1,000. I bought a used Mitsubishi for $800. I drove to Houston and my daddy met me there. From there, we went to New Orleans where he lived. Twenty-one years now. I lived there 10 years. I married. I have a daughter, 2 years old.
I loved New Orleans. I liked fried rice, dirty rice. Shrimp. Beautiful, man. I lived downtown. Water and everything. I’d go out on restaurants built on boats. I met my wife through friends. I asked her if she needed a ride home. Helda’s her name.
In 2015, I was in the parking lot of my apartment walking to my truck. Four cars come at me on all sides. Immigration. “Do you have papers?” “No.” They handcuffed me. I was deported one week ago.
Paola Regalado, 16, and Josselyn Portillo, 20, of San Pedro Sula
Hidalgo Ciudad: triangle
Arriago: no services, no known threats
Tepec: no services, no known threats
Regalado: We left because of problems with gangs. I’m running. The gangs tried to kill me. They killed my parents. My brother is here, too. My mother was killed eight years ago. My father was killed four years ago. They were both caught in the middle of a gang war. Walking home and got shot. I was brought up by my grandmother. They wanted me to become the girlfriend of an MS guy. I said, “No.” They chased me, cut my right calf with a machete.
Portillo: My cousin quit MS and they killed him. MS wanted me to join them. When a gang member kills someone, they want a member of the family to join them. Like a trophy.
Regalado: We came here to take a chance. I don’t know where we’ll go.
Portillo: I left my family. I don’t feel good about that, but I had to save my life. My parents and grandmother moved to another city to save themselves. We went to Guatemala. In Mexico, the police stopped us and took our money. We walked here from the Guatemalan-Mexican border. We don’t miss anyone but our families. We have no friends. Our friends turned their backs on us because they did not want to get in trouble with the gangs. We want to go to the U.S. I’d like to try and bring my parents. I have a cousin in New Jersey.
Regalado: I still think of my parents. I dream of my parents. They are in the sky and look down at us. I’d to be a nurse or a doctor. To save lives.
Portillo: We are like sisters. We lived on the same street. All we have is each other.
“El tren! El tren!”
Elias runs for the gate. Orlando stops him.
“It is headed south, not north,” he says.
Elias returns to the dining area and sits down at a table with Oscar and several others: A 15-year-old boy named Said Gomez and his grandmother, a young man named Omar Trujillo and Raul Torres, a 59-year-old man who grew up in New Orleans.
Oscar has been at La 72 for 10 days now, he says. He looks at his map detailing a route north. He obsesses over it to the point he does nothing. He had no reason to stay this long at La 72, no reason to stay longer. It’s just a matter of when, he tells himself. Just a matter of deciding when the route will be safe. He may leave tomorrow. He may not. He looks at his map seeking answers.
“Maybe I’ll go to Villahermosa,” Oscar says referring to the capital of Tabasco. “And from there go north.”
“You think too much,” Elias says.
Said Gomez was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. He lived in a big house. Two rooms and a kitchen. Eight people lived in the house: his grandmother, Said and his six siblings. He never knew his mother and his father. His grandmother is his father, mother and grandmother all in one. He saw his father one time at Christmas. His father gave him money. Said played soccer in the street. On the news, he saw gang killings every day. The bloody images scared him. They decided to escape Honduras last week. They left by bus for Guatemala at 4 a.m. Buses move faster then. Not as many stops. From Guatemala, they walked into Mexico.
When he finishes talking, Said’s grandmother sends him away so she can talk to me privately. He saw the gang killings himself, not on TV, she tells me.
“Then why did he say that?”
“You were a child once,” she reminds me. “You make up stories. It is not so bad if it is on TV instead of outside your home. That is his story.”
Omar Trujillo came to the U.S. because he liked what he saw in movies. How the country was so big. All the different people. The bustling cities. He crossed into Texas the first time in 1998. He was 17 and lived in Laredo, working in a tire shop. When he applied for a work permit, immigration picked him up and sent him back to Honduras.
He began his second trip north as soon as he got off the plane in Tegucigalpa, the capital. He had a friend in Kansas City, Missouri. So, this time, he went to Laredo and San Antonio and then caught a bus to Kansas City. He lived at 28th and Indiana and found employment at a restaurant, The Cheesecake Factory, washing dishes. He earned as much in four days as he did working four weeks in Honduras. He sent $100 a month home to his parents. From September to December he returned to Tegucigalpa for the holidays. He has lived this routine now for years.
He likes to play his radio and especially appreciates early 1960s rock ’n’ roll. He buys hot sauce to spice up the bowls of thin soup and beans the staff at La 72 feeds us three times a day. He eats near the basketball court. The smell of drying pants and shirts off the dormitories. The noise of water splashing where some men wash their faces, necks, chests and arms. Boys play kickball. Off to one side, women sleep curled on the ground near the basketball net. The sky is clear, air heavy with humidity.
Omar might stay in Tenosique. He has a job in a bakery. I meet him there one afternoon just as he is leaving to apply for a Mexican work permit. He doesn’t want to work under the table, he tells me, because employers can rip you off that way. They’ll think you’re too scared to stop them from pushing you around. I’m not scared, Omar says. I walk beside him. He carries his boom box in his right hand, the Roxette song, “It Must Have Been Love (but it’s over now)” blasting out of it. A jaunty bounce to his walk digging the music. I split off from him and return to La 72 listening to the Roxettes drifting further and further away.
That night Omar does not return. Not the next night either, and the one after that and all the other nights that follow.
“People leave here all the time,” Viklund, the administrator, tells me. “We often don’t know what happened to them.”
Raul Torres was born in Honduras. His grandmother raised him when his mother moved to New Orleans. She crossed into the U.S. on foot with a backpack. She spoke no English. In 1960, she sent for him.
Raul remembers the New Orleans neighborhood he first lived in. Rampart and Cluet. His house was next to the Millers’, an Irish family. He remembers their house number, 526, right in the middle of the block. Raul attended school at St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louis Cathedral when he was little — 12, 13-year-old, maybe? Later, he and his mother moved to the French Quarter and then the lower 9th Ward he calls the Canal Street ghetto. They lived in a housing project.
He never became a citizen. Hell, he grew up in New Orleans. Cops busted him for cocaine, and he was deported to Honduras. He made his way to La 72 four weeks later. He knows people in Mexico City. Maybe he’ll go there. But he has a job with a car mechanic in Tenosique. The guy has two big-ass dogs that’ll bite your butt off, he tells me. Raul will earn a little money before he decides anything.
Houston police planted the cocaine on him, he says. In jail, they mixed Agent Orange in his food to make him plead guilty. He could barely speak when the police hauled him into court, he tells me. I don’t say anything. Does he have dementia? Is he a disoriented drug addict? Schizophrenic? I don’t know. But what he says next makes sense.
“What we’re seeing in the people coming from Central America is like the 1930s during the American Depression,” he tells me. “People riding freight trains. Looking for work. It’s history repeating itself.”
The morning of my third day at La 72, I leave the shelter to catch a taxi to the Guatemalan border, about 30 miles away. Many of the migrants I’ve met here told me they had entered Mexico through Guatemala, and I want to walk the path they must take.
I walk into downtown Tenosique, stand at a corner where a woman opens a taco stand. Across the street a feed store. It rained the night before, and large mud puddles fill the street. Water drips off the rusted roofs of open food stalls mixing with the steam rising from pots of boiling beans. Palm trees offer cool shade from the sun and humidity and a hot breeze shreds clouds stretched across the sky. A dog lounges before the chipped walls of a ruined wall, panting.
I wave down a taxi. The driver agrees to take me to the border about 20 minutes away. The road winds out of town, twisting through lush fields occasionally revealing cattle. Shacks appear in abrupt open spaces with pickups and other cars parked haphazardly beneath trees, and dogs and chickens mingle searching the ground for food.
The border itself leaves me unimpressed. Orange cones divide the road. Stations for immigration officers stand on either side of stop sign. I see no one stopped or inspected. The taxi lets me out a few feet from the border. I walk across into Guatemala. Green hills rise on one side. On the other, an open market crammed with clothes, shoes and children’s toys. Laundry lines stretch between shacks. Women sit inside, leaning out open windows selling tacos and soft drinks.
Up a steep hill strewn with narrow, beaten-down trails, rough-hewn houses list to one side. Between the houses, I see men walking with backpacks. They pause and look at me startled like deer. Then they continue walking, assessing me as no threat. The border guards either do not see them or pay them no attention. I take a muddy footpath up toward the houses until I intersect with the trail. The men have disappeared into the trees.
I follow the migrants onto a muddy trail sunken with footprints. Below me the tin roofs of the food vendors reflect the sun discharging light into the trees, abrupt flashes bursting between the branches. Above the trail more houses with rotting porches sagging above sleeping dogs. Ducks and chickens squawk and get out of my way. A boy picks lemons from a tree. The tree-shrouded trail leads to a barbed wire fence. More footprints extend beyond the fence. I slip beneath the wire on my stomach and continue following the trail. Along its edges, discarded shoes, styrofoam plates, Coke cans.
I emerge into an open field, pebble strewn, behind a convenience store. A shed beside it promotes 7-Up. The store stands off the road about where the taxi dropped me off. I have walked around the border checkpoint. I have no idea how far into Guatemala the trail I followed extends. Far, I assume. Perhaps the border agents are in the pockets of traffickers. I don’t know. I do know they can’t not know about the trail. It ends just feet from where they stand.
My taxi has left. I wait for another one but none comes. I begin walking with my thumb out. A rancher stops and picks me up. I sit in the back of his pickup among branding irons and chaps. He drops me off at a ranch where men are loading an 18-wheeler with braying cattle. Panicked by the narrow chute they have been herded into, the cattle attempt to jump over one another, spraying the ranchers with plumes of green shit. The rancher who picked me up laughs. He parks by the side of the road and hurries over. I start hitchhiking again.
No cars come along. Far behind me, I see four men walking. All of them carrying packs. I continue walking. Soon they catch up with me. They are from San Pedro Sula. They left because of gangs. One of them stops, slips off his pack and unzips it. He pulls out an iguana, its legs bound by twine. He flips it on its back and pulls out a knife. For a moment, I expect him to slit it open. Instead, he cuts the twine and we watch it run into the scrub. They had wanted to eat it but had been unable to find a pot to cook it in.
We continue walking. One of the men, Henry Martinez, 40, lived in Houston in 2007. Hanging drywall. He earned $60 a day in Houston, $150 in New Orleans. But he had a house in Houston on Cedar Post Lane and spent most of his time there before he was deported in 2014. Immigration just showed up at one of his jobs. Didn’t even let him wash the drywall dust off his arms before they handcuffed him.
We walk one, two, three hours. A police car whizzes past, and the Hondurans into the fields, ducking beneath barbed-wire and disappearing before my eyes. The police don’t slow down and ignore me completely. After they’re gone, the Hondurans emerge from the fields. We resume walking.
By the fourth hour, we turn off the road to stop at a restaurant. We need water if nothing else. The restaurant is more of a house than an eatery. An old man sits on a rocking chair on the porch. To one side, an open window reveals a man sitting on a stool in front of a display rack of potato chips. I peer inside. Shadows lay a patch of darkness over the blue walls. Cowboy hats hang from the ceiling rafters. A long table covered with a red plastic sheet takes up one corner near an entertainment unit filled with odds and ends. An old woman stands by a stove. She leads us into the rear of the house that at one time may have been a barn. A well takes up the center of this room with listing wooden tables straddling the uneven, stony ground.
The woman serves us tacos and scrambled eggs. We gulp down bottles of water. The old man on the porch tells us a man who cooperates with immigration lives across the street. We finish eating and leave.
By this time, I get a signal on my cell phone and call La 72. I reach the administrator and ask if anyone can pick us up. An hour later as we walk along the road, a white pickup slows and then does a U-turn. I recognize the administrator. She tells us to hurry, get in.
“You never know who will see you,” she says.
“Do you have Facebook? Oscar asks me as we wait in line for the evening meal. “I will friend you so you know if I make it or not.”
“What do you think of the Baltimore Orioles?”
“They were good when I lived in Baltimore. What about the Dallas Cowboys? They were my favorite football team.”
“I was thinking of working in Monterey,” Elias says, shuffling forward in the dinner line behind Oscar. “I have a friend who was working there and made good money. Construction. Eighteen dollars an hour.”
“I walked 75 miles to cross into San Diego,” a man next to him in line says. “That’s a tough town.”
“Do you know the Office of Refugees?”
“Yeah. Don’t tell them you want to go to the U.S.”
“But I do,” Elias says.
“That would make a big problem for you.”
“They’ll say, OK, you’re here not because you fear for your life but because you want to go to the U.S.”
Oscar turns around.
“You think too much,” he tells the man.
Elias bursts out laughing.
“This fool,” Oscar tells, me pointing to a man in front of him in the dinner line, “had an ice cream cart in Houston. One day, he stopped his cart in front of the city’s immigration office. A guy comes out, ‘Sure I’ll buy ice cream,’ he says. ‘Give me a chocolate cone and your papers.’ Was he stupid or what? Who would stop in front of an immigration office to sell ice cream?”
I look at the man.
“I got deported,” he tells me. “I didn’t have papers.”
“Stupid,” Oscar says.
“Bad luck,” the man tells me.
At night, I sleep on an exercise mat in the chapel with men who are single parents. Suitcases and bags stuffed with clothes occupy corners beneath fans that do little to reduce the humid heat. Stiveen Sanchez, 27, the father of a 4-year-old boy, holds him by the shoulders and scolds him, shouting, “Did you take it? Did you take it?”
They boy says yes. He starts crying. My heart goes out to him. I don’t know what he took but he sounds so frightened I can’t help but feel for him. Stiveen raises a hand as if to slap him. I tense up. What do I do, sit by and watch him hit his son? I step forward, clear my throat. Stiveen turns, looks at me, his hand in the air above his son. The look on his face tells me he had been unaware I was in the chapel. He hesitates, drops his arm and storms out. The boy calls out, “Papa,” and begins weeping again. His 9-year-old brother peeks in through the chapel doors, glances at his brother and then withdraws his head, the doors shutting behind him.
Earlier in the day, I had interviewed Stiveen. He told me an MS-13 gang member came to his house in Zipili, a slum in Tegucigalpa, and demanded he pay MS-13 $300 a week if he wanted to keep his carpentry shop open. “Pay or I’ll shoot you,” the young man told Stiveen. He refused. Then, a day later, he looked out his front door at the cemetery across the street and saw the same young man shoot another man. Made him kneel. Shot in the back of the head. The shooter saw Stiveen watching him. “You don’t join us, I’ll kill you.”
Stiveen left with his boys that night for Guatemala and then Mexico. He has been here five months waiting for a decision on his asylum application.
I asked him about the boys’ mother. He said they had been separated for two years. She didn’t want the boys.
The chapel sinks into deeper shadows. Stiveen’s son cries but not as loudly, more sniffles than tears. I can’t imagine what it is like for Stiveen to be a parent trying to keep his family together in a situation where he has little to no control. The stress of giving up everything he once had is beyond my understanding. The humiliation of being threatened and frightened and feeling helpless to do anything other than leave must diminish his pride. Perhaps the boy deserved to be punished. Perhaps he did nothing of consequence but it was enough to make Stiveen snap while his fate lies in the hands of some bored Mexican bureaucrat who has heard his story before from all the other applicants.
I stretch out on my mat. I hear the door open and turn to see Stiveen walk back in. He unfolds some blankets on the floor. He wipes his son’s face with his hands until the boy stops sniffling. The boy lies down on the blankets and Stiveen covers him with another blanket, tucking the edges. Then Stiveen leaves the chapel without a glance in my direction.
With my hands behind my head, I stare at the crosses on the wall with names that have no faces: Julien Sanchez Benitez, Victor Manuel Escobar Pineda, Jorge Osorto Sevilla. Some of the crosses are blank, indicating unidentified dead migrants. The crosses line the wall near a painting of tumbling bodies falling into what looks like a crack in the earth, hands bound, faces in anguish.
Armando Perez Nieto, Jose Angel Flores Bolanos, Contalicio Barahona Vargas.
I apply the faces of people I have met here, like Oscar and Elias, to the blank crosses to give those anonymous dead migrants faces, substance, life. To make them real. To feel their loss. But I still have no sense of them. They were who they were and not anyone else. What happened to that spark? Their souls? Their hopes? Their stories? They remain completely unknown to me, gone now and forever.
Before he goes to sleep on a mat in the dining area because it is much cooler to sleep outside in the damp humidity of night than in the airless inferno of the men’s dorm, Oscar considers photos of his wife and three daughters. It was hard to leave his family. They live in San Pedro Sula. When someone gets killed in his barrio, if you’re lucky, the police show up three hours later. They don’t care. He draws a rectangle with the toe of his shoe in the damp ground. His neighborhood looks like this, he says. He jabs his toe throughout the rectangle, creating little indentations. These are stores, houses. Each one has to pay the gang or they kill you. Everywhere in Honduras this goes on. Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, everywhere. If you don’t get out, blam.
He left once before. In 2010, he crossed into Texas. Took a bus to Rockville, Maryland, where his father, an uncle and two brothers lived. His mother has family in Florida. She died from cancer when he was 17. She was just 35. In Rockville, he worked in an Italian restaurant. The owner died last week. From Iran. Nice person. A friend on Facebook told him.
The restaurant owner did not mind when Oscar told him he wanted to return to Honduras to see his wife and children in 2014. He was lonely. He had been away a long time. He returned to Honduras, no problem. Flew United Airlines. No one asks any questions when you leave the U.S., he says.
Oscar tried to find work, but found nothing, Just gangs and killing. A little more than a year later, he told his wife, “I’m leaving.” She objected. She wanted to go with him, but he said it was too dangerous. He hugged his wife and daughters goodbye. They stood in the door crying. He took a bus for Guatemala. In Guatemala, he rode another bus to the Mexican border.
Elias camps out by the tracks. He gets the jitters at La 72. Feels caged. The train should come again soon. Usually every two to three, days but it’s impossible to say exactly. He sees Marvella Barrio Haramia, 76. “Grandmother,” the migrants call her. She sells them food from her stall beside the tracks and allows them to sleep in the back of her house for 20 pesos to be nearer to the tracks. She allows no drugs or beer. She props her elbows on a shelf, chin in her hands and looks at the men lingering by the tracks. She stifles a yawn. Her toothless mouth clamps down on limp strands of her gray hair thin as thread. For five years she has sat here making what money she can off migrants. Her son has a video of someone who lost their legs when they fell off the train. It happened three months ago. A lot of noise and screaming. She refuses to look at the video. Sometimes the train moves slowly. Sometimes, it stops. Her home shakes whenever it passes. Elias might stay with her tonight.
He plans to be a cook in the U.S. He has always worked in kitchens. A San Pedro Sula hotel employed him as a chef. He left that job for another and another, but no matter the job the salary remained too low. Five or six dollars a day. The work always temporary.
He talked to his wife and 6-year-old son before he left. They didn’t like the idea. “What if you die?” his wife asked him. “Don’t go.” He said “OK” to end the conversation. His wife thought he wasn’t leaving, but he had only decided not to discuss it further with her. He spoke to his brothers instead. He felt sad his last day at home because he was leaving and his wife and son didn’t know. But no work, violence — he had to do something. He has seen gangs kill people for no apparent reason. One time, a car pulled up and the driver shot a man in the face in front of Elias.
Another time, a gang member stopped him. “Hey, where you going?” the man said. He told Elias to get off the street. He followed him home and told his mother, “Don’t let your boy on the street.” Elias doesn’t know why the guy spoke to his mother. Maybe he had a heart despite himself. He told Elias’s mother to keep him safe.
The police detained Elias when he crossed from Guatemala into Mexico four weeks ago. They asked for ID. He told them he was 16. In Mexico, no one is required to carry ID until they reach 18. He told them he was returning to his parent’s home. “Go and take care of your parents,” they told him.
In the morning the migrants I met at the border are gone. No one saw them leave. “Did they have a plan?” I ask Oscar and Elias, but they shrug, unsure who I am talking about. There are no friendships here, I realize. Only temporary acquaintances, if that. They all have the same goal: Leave and enter the U.S. Take care of themselves and their families.
Companionship is part of the respite offered by La 72 but nothing more. If you think it is more then you think too much.
“El tren! El tren!”
This time there is no rain. This time the train is going north.
We run to the front gate, up the dirt road to the main road and across it toward a cluster of buildings that stand before weed-covered train tracks. We jog between homes that cater to those catching the train. After a few moments, the engine’s headlight shine down the tracks, and with a low moan it rolls forward and the migrants shove one another for position to jump aboard. They run alongside the train, scrambling on top of cars, between couplings, grabbing hold of whatever they can. They sit on top of freight cars and try not to get knocked off by another migrant, their pockets full of rocks to throw at immigration officers should they show up and try to arrest them.
Elias stands on top of a tanker. He waves at me, and for no good reason I am reminded of a childhood friend who, after he scored a soccer goal in a high school game, ran to the sidelines and asked his father to take a photo of him. The boyish grin on his face then is the same as the one spread across the face of Elias. I can see how Elias convinced the Mexican police he was just 16. But the memory of my friend holds tragedy, too. Afflicted with depression, he died by suicide when he was 42. I wonder, given its dangers, if the train, too, is a form of suicide for Elias and everyone else waving at me, wide grins wreathing their faces. A desperate do-or-die effort to achieve their dream of the good life in the U.S. I can only wish them well.
“Buena suerte!” I shout. Good luck.
The train starts up again. Slowly into the darkening afternoon, gradually picking up speed, metal against metal, the moaning call of its engine drowns out all other noise until it hurls past those of us who stayed behind, until it’s gone, the sight and sound of it vanishing into a distant dot and soon not even that, and in subdued silence we drift back toward La 72. The humid night clings to us and gravel crunches underfoot, sounding louder than it should. A tangible sense of opportunity lost hovers about Oscar and others who did not take the train. What about me? their troubled looks seem to say. Should I have risked the train?
“The people here have nothing to lose,” Oscar tells me hours later. We’re seated beneath a mural of Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed by government-aligned assassins in March 1980. Oscar spreads his worn map before him on his knees and stares at it as if it holds a secret waiting to be revealed. If I refine the potential routes north one more time, I imagine him thinking, I may finally get it right. I may finally find the confidence to leave.
“It’s easy to get on the train, but what lies beyond it?” he says without looking up from the map. “What hope do we have? It’s kind of crazy.”
March 27, 2016
Malcolm, I am back in Honduras. A man was shot here in the street yesterday by MS. In the head. I saw it. Where are you?
March 27, 2016
J. Malcolm Garcia
What happened? Why are you back? I am home now in Chicago.
March 27, 2016
I was caught in Veracruz. I will try again.
J. Malcolm Garcia is a freelance writer and author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul and What Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and the Forgotten. He is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence journalism.