Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is one of the world’s longest-running guerrilla insurgencies and turns 50 on May 27.
This photo essay is part of a series of first-person accounts and articles looking at the FARC’s half-century war against the Colombian state and views on the ongoing peace process between the rebels and government in Cuba.
It’s called the “train of death”, or simply “La Bestia” - the beast - by the Central America migrants looking for a free ride to the United States by cramming atop the infamous northbound freight trains that thunder through Mexico.
It’s often a rough ride for the tens of thousands of migrants - mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – who hope to make it across the border every year.
During their passage through Mexico, many are kidnapped, raped and murdered by organised criminal gangs, sometimes in collusion with authorities, Amnesty International and other rights groups say. Photo: Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
Some migrants, many of them young men, are fleeing Central America to escape drug-fuelled gang violence, death threats, extortion or forced recruitment by criminals and infamous gangs or “maras”, such as El Salvador’s M-18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs.
These migrants are the invisible victims of Central America’s drug-turf wars - driven by corruption and a weak rule of law – that have made Honduras and El Salvador the murder capitals of the world.
“Among some of those migrants we’ve seen, violence and threats from the maras and other criminal groups are factors behind why people are migrating. That’s why we call it forced migration. People are being forced to leave their homes,” said Marc Bosch, country manager in Mexico for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has six clinics along the route that migrants take through Mexico to reach the U.S. border.
Other migrants, driven by poverty, seek a better life in the U.S. and hope to get a job there so they can send money to their families back home.
No one knows how many Central American migrants enter Mexico illegally on their way to the U.S. Estimates vary from 150,000 to 400,000 migrants a year.
One of the most dangerous parts of the 2,000-kilometre journey is in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, along the porous border with Guatemala, where this train in the photo above is running through.
The journey often ends in the unforgiving desert of northern state of Coahuila, before migrants attempt to cross by foot the border into Texas in the U.S.
REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata
“There are mental and physical consequences of the journey migrants take. Violence involves beatings, attacks, extortion and kidnappings,” Bosch told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Mexico City.
Thousands of migrants disappear, are murdered or abducted in Mexico as they head toward the U.S.
Honduran Dorma Espinoza, in the photo above, is one of many mothers searching for her missing son, Alberto Sadai, who disappeared 10 years ago during his journey through Mexico. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
In recent years, 60 mothers and relatives of missing migrants, like this woman from El Salvador, have held protests and formed the “Caravan of Central American Mothers”. The group’s members cross Mexico, following the route taken by migrants, to demand that authorities investigate the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Mexico’s media report Central American migrants killed by gangs, decapitated and dismembered bodies dumped along highways, and mass graves.
In one of the worst incidents, 72 migrants were massacred in August 2010 on a ranch near the town of San Fernando in northern Tamaulipas state, about 140 km from the Texas border.
Mexican marines found the bodies - believed to be of Central and South American migrant workers - blindfolded and hand-tied. Two police officials investigating the case were also later found dead.
Criminal gangs have also been known to abduct migrants and demand that their relatives in the U.S or Central America wire transfer ransoms. Victims whose relatives cannot pay up are tortured or killed.
Other migrants fall victim to human traffickers controlled by organised crime networks, as well as Mexico’s Zetas drug cartel.
While waiting to jump on trains near train tracks or in rail yards, migrants, especially indigenous women, make easy prey for traffickers. They end up as forced labourers in agriculture, domestic workers and prostitutes in the numerous brothels and bars dotted along the way.
“It’s evident that human trafficking is part of the problem, but we don’t have data to show how many migrants are on the journey voluntarily or if they have been caught in a trafficking network,” Bosch said.
Migrants may pay people smugglers, or “coyotes”, to guide them across desert, but some coyotes work with drug cartels, who exploit and extort from migrants. REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata
Women and children also make the weeks-long journey, like these migrants from Honduras in the photo above who are resting along the seven-hour trek through Guatemala’s Peten province to the border with Mexico.
Women and children are particularly at risk of human trafficking and sexual violence, says MSF.
“Unaccompanied minors are particularly vulnerable,” Bosch said.
In MSF clinics along the migrant route - sometimes 20 metres from the rail tracks – the medical charity has handled nearly 100 cases of sexual violence in the past two years, or an average of three to four cases a month, Bosch said.
“This is just a small fraction of the sexual violence that goes on. Because of the stigma attached to sexual violence and because some women consider sexual violence as just something that happens as a consequence of the journey, it makes it difficult to detect more cases,” he said.
Of the migrants who survive the journey through Mexico, some don’t make it one piece.
These Honduran migrants in the photo above lost their legs after falling off trains.
“We’ve seen patients whose limbs have been amputated getting off and on trains or being kicked off trains because they haven’t paid the quota demanded by gangs,” Bosch said. Others have been maimed after falling off trains while asleep. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
There are numerous shelters near the train tracks, in towns along the migrant route and near the capital Mexico City, like in the photo above.
Often run by priests and nuns, refuges offer brief respite from the perilous journey by providing water, food and a mattress to sleep on.
Coyotes and human traffickers lurk around shelters to prey on desperate migrants looking for safe passage and a guide to the U.S. REUTERS/Claudia Daut
Despite these well-known dangers, the exodus of illegal migrants from Central America to the U.S. shows no signs of letting up.
These days the face of illegal migration to the U.S. is more often than not a Central American teenager riding atop a freight train through Mexico, and what they are leaving behind is often worse than the perilous journey itself. REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata