by Jose Eduardo Mora
(IPS) SAN JOSE -- "The 'train of death' is dreadful, because it generally leaves during the night, and the migrants take advantage of the darkness to clamber aboard without paying. But many are mutilated or even killed in the attempt," Jorge Ramirez told IPS.
Ramirez, with the Office of the Defender of Migrants in Guatemala's Human Rights Prosecutor's Office, was talking about a particularly dangerous route taken through Mexico by Central American migrants trying to make it into the United States.
The so-called "train of death" heads north to Mexico City from the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. Once the train is moving, hundreds of migrants try to climb aboard. But many don't make it, and fall under the train or are caught in the wheels, losing a leg -- or their life -- in the attempt.
"And now things are even more complicated, because once they make it onto the train, the migrants run into 'maras', violent youth gangs who extort them. And whoever refuses to pay can end up dead," said Ramirez.
"But although it is a perilous route, we are seeing increasing numbers of women and children undertaking the journey, to try to reach the American dream," he added.
There are children as young as nine years old who are put into the hands of "coyotes" or people traffickers, to take them to the United States and reunite them with their families there.
Increasing numbers of Central American migrants who have crossed Guatemala's northern border into Mexico are deported every year.
Nearly 100,000 Central Americans were sent back home from Mexico in the first half of the year, seeing their dream of a better life cut short before they could even reach the U.S. border.
Spokespersons for migrant shelters and advocacy groups like the Casa del Migrante and the Mesa Nacional de Migraciones of Guatemala, and the Centro de Atenciun al Migrante in Honduras say the emigration flows are growing steadily, due to the difficult economic and social conditions in the impoverished nations of Central America.
The number of migrants travelling by land from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua who are deported every month from Mexico averaged more than 16,000 in the first few months of the year.
But that average could double by the end of the year, said Ramirez. "Emigrants who are deported return (to their homes) destitute, without money, with only the clothes on their back, hungry and enormously frustrated," he said.
The official explained that most of the undocumented Central American migrants pay coyotes to get them across the Guatemalan border, through Mexico, and into the United States.
The main Guatemalan-Mexican border crossings used along this land route fraught with "multiple challenges" and obstacles are the El Carmen and El Naranjo crossings, he said.
"According to the studies we are currently carrying out, migrants who pay coyotes fall into debt to do so, because the cost can run as high as 5,000 dollars," he said.
Under the migration accord in effect between Guatemala and Mexico, thousands of undocumented Central Americans are detained as they attempt to make it across the border.
If they are intercepted once they are in Mexico, they are placed in the custody of the National Migration Institute. Many are held in the Tapachula shelter while awaiting deportation.
Eduardo Quintero, with Guatemala's Casa del Migrante, said migrants deported by land are generally sent home during the night, which puts them at higher risk of abuse at the hands of police.
But although many deportees complain of mistreatment, 95 percent try to cross into Mexico again, said Ramirez.
Underlying the phenomenon of Central American migration is a social and economic drama that drives thousands of people to seek a better future in the United States, despite the risks, Patricia Bezares, the coordinator of the Mesa Nacional de Migraciones (MENIG) in Guatemala, told IPS.
"The deportation policy does not resolve a thing. We even consider it an unnecessary waste of money, because many of the deportees, due to the right enjoyed by all Central Americans to move around freely in Guatemala, simply return immediately to try to cross again," she remarked.
Although hundreds of Central Americans are deported every day along the Guatemalan-Mexican border, millions have made it to the United States.
An estimated two million Salvadorans, 1.7 million Guatemalans and 800,000 Hondurans live in the United States.
"We believe the number of migrants from the region could double in the next six months," said Ramirez, "because of the closure of maquiladoras (duty-free export assembly plants) in Central America and a likely decline of the regional economy over the next year."
Another indication of the magnitude of the flow of Central American migrants is the sheer volume of remittances sent home from the United States. Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan immigrants wired their families a combined total of 4.8 billion dollars in 2003, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
The IDB study found that 1.3 million people benefited from the remittances in El Salvador, 1.5 million in Guatemala and 600,000 in Honduras.
The IDB described the expatriate remittances as "vital" to the economies of Central America, and said that if the flow was cut off, the economies of the region could collapse within just three months.
Bezares pointed to the deep underlying causes of poverty and unemployment in Central America that drive people in search of a better life abroad.
The July 2003 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report states that 50.8 percent of the nearly 40 million people of the seven countries of Central America live below the poverty line, including 23 percent who live in extreme poverty.
But non-governmental organizations put the proportion as high as 80 percent in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, three of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
Valdete Uileman, a Brazilian nun who works as a volunteer in the Centro de Atención al Migrante in Honduras, said the shelter takes in between 600 and 700 people a month who have been deported by plane from the United States, and that the total is constantly climbing.
"You can see the deportees' frustration in their faces," said Uileman. "These are people who were struggling for a better life for their parents, children and spouses. What caught my attention is that when they talk to you, they almost never mention themselves. They always talk about their loved ones, because it is for them that they set out in search of the American dream."
She said the deportees sent back to Honduras by plane include people who were detained just after making it across the border into the United States as well as immigrants who have lived and worked in that country for 10 years or more and were forced to leave behind all of the belongings and trappings of their life there.
"Many of the deported Hondurans can't speak English, and in the U.S. jails they are not given the possibility of contacting their families, which is a clear violation of their rights," she said.
Uileman said most of the Hondurans who attempt to emigrate to the United States are between the ages of 19 and 35. "These are people of working age who could contribute a lot to their country, but who have no chance of getting a job, which forces them to look elsewhere."
Deportees who land in the Centro de Atencion al Migrante in Honduras are given courses on mechanics and craft-making in an attempt to help them find a way to make a living in Honduras, without the need to emigrate, said Uileman.
October 6, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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