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by Diego Cevallos

Central American Migrants Ride "Train Of Death" To U.S.

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- "Someone has to tell the immigrants that the trains aren't running anymore, that it's useless to come here," pleads Catholic priest Juan Pablo Chavez in the southern Mexican town of Tenosique, where an estimated 7,000 Central American migrants have been stranded as they try to make their way to the United States.

In Tenosique and other places near the Guatemalan border, the number of migrants from Central America has been growing since Jul. 27, when the freight train going northwards to central Mexico stopped operating because the U.S. company running it withdrew from its concession.

"The situation is explosive; the migrants keep arriving and they're all waiting for the train to show up. But that isn't going to happen for a very long time," says Chavez, who runs a shelter for migrants in a church in Tenosique.

By telephone from that southern town of 40,000 people, the priest tells IPS that the immigrants are camped out in parks, city squares, on the streets and in surrounding rural areas.

"This has never happened before; they are all very nervous," he says.

"It's a terrible situation. Soon these people could start stealing, out of hunger and desperation. Please, someone should tell them not to come, that the train that used to take them north no longer comes through, that they should wait to come to Mexico some other time," he adds.

For years, a steady stream of Central American migrants has flooded into southern Mexico, where they would climb onto freight trains that they would ride to central Mexico on their way north to the United States.

The train they are waiting for in vain was known as the "tren de la muerte" or "train of death," because the journey was so dangerous. In the attempt to climb up on the moving train, many migrants would get sucked underneath, and lose a leg, or their life.

And once they did make it onto the top of the freight cars, they faced the risk of getting robbed, raped or even killed by "maras," or violent youth gangs, who demanded that they pay up.

Efrain Rodriguez, a spokesman for the non-governmental Human Rights Committee of the state of Tabasco, where Tenosique is located, tells IPS by phone that the cancellation of the route has triggered an unprecedented crisis situation and that the government of Felipe Calderon has failed to take "the necessary emergency measures."

Both Rodriguez and Chavez complain that instead of sending humanitarian aid to the stranded migrants, the great majority of whom have little to no money, the government has deployed hundreds of police officers and members of the military to southern Mexico, to round them up and mistreat them.

The priest says that a few days ago, after police chased a group of frightened foreigners, who left their belongings along the train tracks, the officers set fire to their backpacks and tents.

A number of migrants were reportedly deported Wednesday. Others have begun to walk hundreds of kilometres to other towns, in the hope of catching trains on railway lines that are still operating. Yet others have turned themselves in to the immigration authorities.

Genesee & Wyoming Inc., a U.S. railroad company, announced in late July that due to financial problems and the poor condition of the tracks, it was withdrawing from its 30-year concession, awarded in 1999, to operate the line running from southern to central Mexico.

Mexico's Secretariat of Communications and Transport says it is making every effort to find another company to take over the concession, but warns that the tracks, which were damaged by Hurricane Stan in 2005, would not be completely repaired until early 2008.

"No one is telling the immigrants what's going on with the train, and there are even rumours circulating among them that it could start operating again soon, or else not until the end of next year," says Chavez.

Miguel Barrera, the governmental National Migration Institute's delegate to southern Mexico, says the Calderon administration is implementing a special plan to "invite" the immigrants to return to their home countries, while taking them into custody and keeping order in the area.

Rodriguez and Chavez say armed troops are taking part in rounding up the migrants, which is a violation of Mexico's immigration laws.

"The number of immigrants here keeps growing, they don't want to leave, and this will soon generate a very serious situation that we could all lament, because food is starting to run short and the presence of the police and soldiers is growing," warns Chavez.

Central American consular officials have travelled to Mexico's southern border area in the last few days in an attempt to help protect the rights of the immigrants stranded there.

Mexico is a gateway to the United States for immigrants not only from Central America but also South America and even Asia and the Middle East. But human rights groups report that many migrants suffer abuses at the hands of both criminals and police on their way through the country.

When Calderon took office in December, he pledged to do all he could to guarantee the rights of Central American migrants. However, the number of complaints of abuses has not declined.

Activists and opposition politicians accuse the authorities in Mexico of double standards, because they vehemently protest the treatment received by undocumented immigrants in the United States while reacting much less vigorously to reports of abuses against Central American immigrants in Mexico.

Mexico shares a 1,150-km border with Guatemala and Belize, many parts of which are remote and poorly guarded.

To make it through Mexico and reach the United States, undocumented immigrants from Central America reportedly pay 3,000 dollars or more to "coyotes" or people smugglers. Half of the money is paid up front, and the other half once the migrant arrives at destination in the U.S. But on top of that, they are often forced to pay bribes as they travel through Mexico, and they are frequently robbed by youth gangs.

The National Institute of Migration reports that more than 250,000 migrants are caught and deported every year along the porous southern border.

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Albion Monitor   August 15, 2007   (

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