By Associated Press
IXTEPEC, Mexico — The train known as “The Beast” is once again rumbling through the night loaded with people headed toward the U.S. border after a raid on a migrant caravan threatened to end the practice of massive highway marches through Mexico.
A long freight train loaded with about 300 to 400 migrants pulled out of the southern city of Ixtepec on Tuesday. They sat atop rattling boxcars and clung precariously to ladders alongside the clanking couplings. Most were young men, along with a few dozen woman and children. Mothers clambered up the railings clutching their infants. Migrants displayed a Honduran flag from atop the train.
The train known in Spanish as “La Bestia,” which runs from the southern border state of Chiapas into neighboring Oaxaca and north into Gulf coast state Veracruz, carried migrants north for decades, despite its notorious dangers: People died or lost limbs falling from the train. Mexican authorities started raiding the trains to pull migrants off in mid-2014 and the number of Central Americans aboard the train fell to a smattering.
But about a week ago, a longtime migrant rights activist, the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, noticed a change: Large numbers of migrants started getting off the train in Ixtepec, the Oaxaca town where his Brothers on the Road shelter is located.
Many had waited weeks for Mexican visas that never materialized, and simply decided to head north without papers. Others were part of a 3,000-person migrant caravan that was broken up in a raid Monday by federal police and immigration agents on a highway east of Ixtepec.
With dozens of police and immigration checkpoints dotting the highways, many migrants now view the train as a safer, albeit still risky, way to reach the U.S. border.
“They’re riding the train again, that’s a fact,” said Solalinde, who shelter now houses about 300 train-riding migrants. “It’s going to go back to the way it was, the (Mexican) government doesn’t want them to be seen. If the migrants move quietly like a stream of little ants, they’ll allow them to, but they are not going to allow them to move through Mexico publicly or massively” as they did with the large caravans that began in October. In fact, Solalinde predicts “they’re not going to allow caravans anymore.”
In Monday’s raid, federal police and agents detained 367 people, wrestling men, women and children into patrol trucks and vans and hauling them off, presumably to begin deportation proceedings. Many other migrants abandoned the road and fled into the surrounding countryside.
The decision to turn to “The Beast” derives from several reasons, all related to the crackdown.
With throngs of police pickups and small immigration vans parked at checkpoints up and down the narrow waist of southern Mexico, hitchhiking, taking buses or walking is no longer an option. Truckers, warned by the government that they could face fines, no longer give rides to the migrants as they did last year. Migrants are pulled off buses, and rounded up off the sides of highways when they stop to rest.
“Now we’re going by train because we can’t go on buses, because they won’t let us through,” said Rudi Margarita Montoya, the wife of a Honduran carpenter, who was perched atop a freight car with her young son and daughter and her husband.
Abbdel Camargo, a specialist on migration at the College of the Southern Border, said the Mexican government, under pressure from Washington, appears to be employing a strategy of containing migrants at certain points, dividing large groups, deporting people in certain circumstances and wearing migrants down with long waits for work visas.
Mexican authorities are “holding them back at specific points to turn the south of the country into a retaining wall,” Camargo said. And while migrants have resorted to caravans seeking safety in numbers, he said that following Monday’s raid many migrants will surely change their strategies: “They will immediately have to switch from visibility to invisibility, and that can make them more vulnerable and more at risk.”
It’s not as if the migrants think the train is safe; they acknowledge the dangers of riding through the darkness perched high atop the freight cars. Just like increased U.S. border protection, Mexico’s increased enforcement efforts push migrants into using more dangerous means of travel.
Carlos Marroquín, a mechanic from El Salvador, and his wife Brenda Gómez, 24, clambered onto the train with their son, 5 and daughter, 10. Marroquin ticked off the dangers facing them on the rails: “There are drug traffickers, gangs, thieves, but we’re putting everything into this, because it means everything.”
“If we can’t walk, if we can’t take the bus, we’ll go on the train,” Marroquin said.