Latin American migrants risk life and limb to reach the US border in search of the American dream. Men and women from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua make a beeline to cross the river that forms the border between Guatemala and Mexico. They want to enter Mexico, illegally. But they have another destination in mind. The United States of America.
Each year more than one million illegals flee the poverty of their own countries, and try their luck on this road; a road to what some call “the impossible dream”.
On the Mexican side, the military turns a blind eye for a few dollars. The greenback is the illegals’ only passport. To reach the border with Texas, they have to cross the entire Mexican coast. It is a journey of about 4,000km, and one that begins at the Arriaga train station. The freight trains are the only means of transport for the illegals. Thousands take the moving trains every day, regardless of the danger.
Each one tries to find his or her own spot – on the roofs, on the axles between the coaches. There can be as many as 1,000 hitching a ride; a ride that could turn into a trap.
Police stop the trains in the middle of the countryside in order to make the maximum number of arrests. And there is nowhere to run. Only 40 per cent of all those who attempt exile reach the US border.
A group of four young people from El Salvador are trying to do just that. They walk along the train tracks for two days. Jaime, 30, has persuaded Lupita, 19, to try to reach the American dream.
“My objective is to reach Brownsville in Texas and once I get there, to work hard to give Lupita a better life,” says Jaime. He acts as the group’s leader. Nestor and Velma also agree to make the trip, but they are scared. “It’s very hard, because unlike Jaime, this is my first trip,” says Nestor. “He’s already been over several times and has lots of experience, unlike us.”
As soon as they reach the train station, Jaime sets out to find the right train. There are no indicator boards, nothing to say where the trains are heading. Jaime’s fear is of going the wrong way, toward the Guatemalan border. Many illegals have already made that mistake.
A Mexican shopkeeper says a lot of migrants go through the station to head north. And it will never stop. “I’ve seen lots of accidents… people who fall off the train and die because the train runs them over. People who get their legs cut off too,” relates the shopkeeper. “Last March the train went off the track. There were 15 dead, and huge number of injured.”
Jaime says people back home in El Salvador tell lots of similar stories. “They traumatised Lupita before we left, because people talk so much about these tragic accidents that happen on the journey,” he recalls. “Lupita often feels really bad but we’re going to make it. I’ve never stopped believing since we set out and I’ll never stop believing.”
The migrants take a big risk whenever they climb aboard the moving trains. Some fall and escape unhurt but many suffer injuries and are forced to seek treatment at the town’s clinic.
Rosana is from El Salvador. Both her legs were amputated last month, and she is still convalescing. “I fell off the train. I was travelling sitting on the roof. I fell off when I tried to climb down before a migrant checkpoint. As I was getting down, I slipped,” Rosana recounts her accident.
Jaime and his group have checked into a little hotel across from the tracks and plan to leave at nightfall. There are other Salvadoreans in the next room, who like Jaime and his group, have done more than 300km on foot to get this far.
There is Blanca Dora, who left her husband behind, and one of her six children, Francisco. Ruth, their cousin, has also left her family. “I thank God because he’s kept me alive so far, and I have the courage to go on for them. I have to go on, I have no choice. I’ll see them [my children] again one day. That’s life,” says Ruth.
As soon as it turns 9pm, the illegals invade the tracks like ghosts in the dark.
Lupita and Jaime decide to make the journey with the Salvadoreans from the next room. There are now seven of them, feeling stronger for facing the rigours of the Mexican crossing.
Jaime and his group have walked hundreds of kilometres to get aboard this train. But the hardest part is still to come. They have another 3,200km to cover to the US border with many hazards awaiting them – changing trains several times, feeding themselves, finding lodgings, and above all, avoiding the police patrols.
Jaime first crossed the US border illegally when he was young. That was with his parents. They settled in Los Angeles where they lived for 15 years. Jaime even got a Green Card. But things turned out badly after he became a gang member. He fell foul of the law and was finally deported to El Salvador.
But meeting Lupita back home transformed him, and taking her to Texas to offer her a better life is a form of redemption. “The hardest [part of this journey is] the cold, the hunger, often there’s no water… and the cops, the police, being chased… that’s the hardest thing,” says Jaime. When Jaime and his group are suddenly approached by policemen at Orizaba station, his only solution is to bribe them by paying $15 for the group.
They are still 1,900km from the US border, but the journey from here will be by road. It is safer and with lesser check points, but it also means they will have to split up in order to avoid attracting the attention of the police.
“It’s very sad. I know. I don’t like to split up because we’ve become friends, and it’s sad. God only knows what we’ve gone through on this journey… from the Guatemalan border into Mexico,” says Jaime. “God knows how we crossed that river… how some people have treated us and all the suffering we’ve endured.”
Jaime, Lupita and Nestor board the bus travelling to the US border. It takes four days. The border is about 650km away. They are getting closer, but there are more police patrols.
When they reach Soto La Marina, less than 320km from the border, they have almost reached their goal, but Jaime decides to stop. They have been watching the police patrols throughout. “I can hardly keep my eyes open anymore… I mustn’t go to sleep on the road… I have to stay alert in case the police or the army launches an operation,” Jaime says. “There’s about three hours in the bus… the best thing is to stay here tonight because if I make the least mistake now it could be fatal… they’d send us back to Salvador.”
The next day they board the bus to Matamoros, the border town with the US. It has been 24 days since they left El Salvador. Jaime decides that they should cross the Rio Grande the following day. The lights they see opposite the banks are Brownsville, Texas.
America is right there in front of them. But they still have to swim across the river – hoping to reach their impossible dream.