After about three days in Arriaga, where we eventually spent a week, one feels inclined to paraphrase the famous opening narration from Casablanca. “And so a tortuous, round-about refugee trail sprang up. Guatemala City to Tecún Umán; across the Río Suchiate to Tapachula; then by third-class bus or foot along the Pacific coast to Arriaga in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Here the fortunate ones through money or influence or luck might obtain enough money to scurry to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Texas or California. But the others wait in Arriaga. And wait. And wait. And wait.” What they are waiting for is el tren, the by now infamous freight service that takes them to Ixtepec, Oaxaca, and on into the cartel-controlled state of Veracruz where a great many of them are beaten, robbed, kidnapped or killed. And there are few if any fortunate ones. I only paraphrased that line of the narration in order to be faithful to the film.
Words by Matthew Clayfield / Photos by Austin Andrews
Estuardo: Seventeen-year-old Estuardo arrives in Arriaga, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, from his home in Guatemala City on the same day that we do. He is seeking to ride a freight train north to Guadalajara and on to Los Angeles. It is his first time away from home.
Clifford: Estuardo sits on the tracks, which run through the centre of town, dividing it in two. He hopes to work as a baker when he reaches Los Angeles, where he will stay with a cousin. He is nervous about his passage north, however, and not without good reason. The route he is about to take is one of the most dangerous in the world: every year, thousands of Central American migrants are kidnapped, beaten or killed in Mexico, with criminal gangs posing the threat of robbery and public officials that of extortion, while others have been known to fall from the train and sustain heavy injuries. Amnesty International estimates that six in ten female migrants experiences sexual violence on the route.
Expect Success: A surprising number of migrants are making the trip for the second or third time, veterans of the passage as well as its primary mythologisers. José lived and worked in the United States before he was deported to Honduras earlier this year. He started north again almost immediately. A natural raconteur, he tells a number of horrific stories about the last time he rode the train, including one about a pregnant seventeen-year-old who fell from a boxcar and disappeared under the wheels.
Dario: Although technically another veteran of the passage, Dario has a very different story, mainly because the last time he made the trip was nine years ago. Back then, Arriaga was not the haven for migrants that it is now, but was rather crawling with immigration officials. It was also not the point of departure: back then, before Hurricane Stan destroyed the tracks in 2004, the train started in Tapachula, two hundred and seventy kilometres to the south. The biggest difference, however, is how dangerous the rest of the journey has become. In 2001, Dario took the train all the way from Tapachula to Ciudad Juárez without a problem, and swam across the Rio Grande to a new life. Today Los Zetas, a north-eastern drug cartel, has entered the illegal migrant industry and more or less controls the route. (Photo: Matthew Clayfield)
The Consulate: The centrality of Arriaga to the migrant experience is evidenced by the fact that both El Salvador and Guatemala have consulates in the town, an almost unheard of privilege for a place with only twenty-three thousand inhabitants. The consulates provide the migrants with food (noodles and cans of tuna are staples among those travelling north), coffee, bottled water and, despite the migrants’ legal status, support. They also offer protection on those nights when the train is in town, which are also the nights that Los Zetas members have an unfortunate tendency to start showing up. A consulate-owned land cruiser and police cars patrol the streets all night. (A camera operator from TeleSUR, the regional television network, was asked by the El Salvadoran consul to warn us that we should be careful, too.)
The Next Tattoo: One of the Honduran indocumentados shows Estuardo where he is thinking of getting his next tattoo. Estuardo is travelling alone and has few real friends among the other migrants. Indeed, while a kind of makeshift community begins to develop over the course of a week on the tracks, one gets the sense that interpersonal relationships here are formed with the highest degree of caution. One indocumentado tells me he’s at least as scared of his fellow travellers as he is of the possibility of gang violence later the journey.
Un Peso: Two indocumentados beg at the railway crossing, about twenty metres from the train station. Almost all the migrants are travelling north to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream: the destinations are as varied as Los Angeles, Houston, St Louis and New York City. While those who make it will most likely end up working long hours for low wages, it is worth remembering that, for them, no wage paid in US dollars is low. (One US dollar is worth nearly nineteen Honduran Lempiras.)
Un Otre: The begging begins at sunrise and goes on well into the night, with migrants taking to the crossing whenever hunger hits. Few are travelling with money: for one thing, they don’t have any, and probably wouldn’t need to leave home if they did, and for another there is the threat of robbery further north, which serves as a disincentive to carry even a couple of pesos.
K.O.: Estuardo plays an arcade game with Ramon, an Arriaga local, at a juice store near the town’s zócalo. Estuardo is a very young, very innocent seventeen: he carries a knock-off Clifford backpack, disapproves of the older migrants’ tendency to smoke marijuana on the roof of a building down near the tracks, and gets along better with people who are younger than him, like Ramon, than with people his own age.
Unlikely Friends: Estuardo and Ramon smash the buttons of the machine with their palms as they try to kick the shit out of each other. Despite Arriaga’s aforementioned history as one of the riskier places for the indocumentados, today it is considered one of the safest and most welcoming. Ramon has no problems with Estuardo’s nationality or legal status and is happy to lend him the one peso he needs to play the game.
Asleep at the Station: Although many of the indocumentados choose to sleep at the migrant shelter on the edge of town, others choose to sleep in town. Although less comfortable, roughing it at the station, under the zócalo’s rotunda, or on the roof of an abandoned railway building, is not a bad idea: a number of the migrants currently in town missed the last train because they were out at the shelter. What’s more, the shelter is prone to infiltration by members of Los Zetas, who pose as indocumentados in order to find out who’s going where and, more importantly, who has relatives in the United States who could be forced to pay a ransom for a kidnapped family member. A rumour begins to spread on the night before the train’s departure that one of the migrants at the shelter is not to be trusted for this reason.
Showering: Estuardo bathes in the fast-moving river that serves as Arriaga’s southernmost border.
Laundry Day: Estuardo washes his shirt in the river, the railway bridge in the background serving as a constant reminder of the journey that lies ahead.
Down By the River: One of Estuardo’s friends washes his clothes on a rock while a local boy looks on. The friend, a nineteen-year-old, will ultimately choose not to take the train when it arrives at the end of the week, nervous about rumours that immigration officials have set up checkpoints along the track further north. (In other iterations of the rumour, the army are the ones who have set up the checkpoints.) He decides to wait another week so that he can confirm the rumour’s validity.
Charity: One of the most dedicated of the migrant beggars—he is out there on the road every day for hours at a time—receives a couple of pesos from a passer-by.
Raw Materials: Of the indocumentados sits atop a pile of rails, which will presumably be used at a later date to rebuild the stretch of track between Tapachula and Arriaga that was destroyed by Hurricane Stan in 2004. Huge piles of wooden sleepers can be found around the station, too. Hurricane Stan further complicated an already complicated situation. Some of the migrants, like Estuardo, opt to walk the nearly three hundred kilometre distance between the two towns and expose themselves to the risks that entails. Others, like José, have enough money to take one of the third-class bus lines, which stop anywhere along the route and not only at designated stations, getting off a kilometre or so before every checkpoint, taking a wide berth around it through the forest, and then emerging on the other side to wait for another bus.
Burning the Evidence: One of the indocumentados burns a list of a phone numbers on the advice of one of his travelling companions. The criminal gangs that have been known to board the train later in the trip are primarily interested in getting their hands on the phone numbers of migrants’ relatives so they can demand ransom.
MasterChef Arriaga: While roadside begging occasionally yields pesos, some drivers prefer to donate food, with bananas being one of the most commonly gifted items. With a skillet borrowed from one of the nearby comedors, which sometimes donate their own leftover ingredients, a group of indocumentados cook breakfast.
Naked Flame: The indocumentados wait for breakfast to be served.
Bon Appetit: Estuardo waits to be served his share of fried banana.
The Roof: One of the more popular sleeping places for those who choose to spend their nights in town is the roof of one of the railway buildings, where, during the day, the migrants take advantage of the shade and relative seclusion in order to smoke pot. Marijuana is not a precious commodity here: a large number of the indocumentados have it with them or know where in town they can find it and share it among themselves without question.
Thinly-Veiled Disapproval: Estuardo watches as one of his fellow indocumentados smokes a joint on the roof of the railway building. “¿Te gusta la marihuana?” I asked him at one point, to which he shook his head vehemently.
The Waiting Game Continues: Over the course of several days, the migrants’ mood of anticipation and excitement, run through as it is, in more than a few cases, with a liberal amount of fear, gives way to one of bored malaise. The days are long, the nights are longer, and there’s very little to do to pass the time.
Alone at Dusk: The train finally arrives on Friday afternoon, six days after it was last in town. The easy part—the waiting—is almost over and the hard part—the journey—is about to begin. For many, the night before the train’s departure is a dark one, with all the risks they are about to take in the forefront of their minds. Estuardo sits alone near the tracks, Arriaga’s new clock tower, built to commemorate the Centenary of Revolution and the town’s own hundredth anniversary, behind him, thinking about what lies before him. He has already admitted to us on several occasions that he is nervous about taking the train. But now he is actually scared. (Photo: Matthew Clayfield)
You Can’t Stay Here: Estuardo moves to leave after being told by the stationmaster that he’s not allowed to sleep on the front platform of the station. The train behind him is the Arriaga-Ixtepec freight service. A CNN article from June this year hyperbolically nicknamed the train “La Bestia,” “The Beast,” referring to the noise of its wheels as a screech and that of its horn as a snarl. Few call it that here on the tracks, however, where it simply known as el tren: the train. Not un tren, but el tren: not a, but the. For the indocumentados, there is only one way out of Chiapas, and this is it.
Congregation: News of the train’s arrival spreads fast and soon the area around the station is full of indocumentados we’ve never seen before. Many of these were staying at the shelter and did not come into town unless absolutely necessary, while others have arrived today, lucking out where those who have been here a week already did not. While almost all of these indocumentados are heading to the United States, almost none of them claim they wish to stay there for more than two or three years at most. Andres, a Honduran teacher with impeccable English, is heading north to make enough money to open a language school back home. “I keep asking God to just give me one year,” he says. “Just one year.”
Caution: Estuardo flinches as a police car passes, worried that the train’s arrival might lead to a crackdown by immigration officials. In reality, the police presence serves as protection for the migrants, who are sleeping in town en masse for the first time, the most vulnerable many have been all week.
Long Shadows, Longer Night: Estuardo stands on his own, working out where to spend the night.
The Sentry: Migrants sleep against the back wall of the Arriaga train station while one of their number keeps watch.
The Platform: Migrants sleep in the shadow of the train on the front platform of the station. Nearly one hundred migrants spent the night before the train’s departure here on the grounds that it could leave at any given moment. The train does not run on a fixed schedule, but rather comes and goes at irregular intervals: not even the stationmaster knows what day it is likely to arrive or at what hour it is likely to leave.
Beneath the Beast: The liklihood of the train leaving while the indocumentados are elsewhere—the migrant shelter and the river being the most common places people have missed their passage—is high and the idea of spending between two and fifteen more days in Arriaga unappealing. From the moment it arrives, many never let it out of their sights.
The Rotunda: Many of the younger indocumentados, including Estuardo, choose to sleep under the zócalo’s rotunda rather than nearer the tracks. The zócalo is well-lit where the station and the area around it is dark. Indeed, after a certain hour, Estuardo will not leave the square and urges us not to leave it either. “Los hombres malos,” he insists, gesturing towards the railway building where, earlier in the day, he was happy to sit and wait for the train. “Los hombres malos. Bad men.”
View Migration Part II: Boarding The Beast