The Train of Death

Migrants riding freights north from Central America risk their lives to reach the U.S.

Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario exemplifies the adage about “learning by doing.” In reporting a series that eventually won her paper two Pulitzer Prizes, Nazario spent five years hopping freight trains through Mexico, re-tracing the dangerous route from Honduras to the United States taken by a teenager named Enrique, who endured unimaginable hardship to reach his mother in the United States.

Thousands of parents and children make similar journeys each year, lacking the money to make it north from Central America except by clinging to the tops and sides of trains. Dodging Mexican immigration authorities, they must jump on and off the moving cars, which they call, generically, El Tren de la Muerte, the Train of Death.

Nazario's book based on the series, Enrique’s Journey, centers around an intimate portrait of Enrique and his mother, Lourdes, but it's also a larger story of broken families, poverty, and immigration, and the world of undocumented workers.

 

Nazario has been writing about social issues for more than two decades. In addition to the numerous awards she received for this series, she was a 1998 Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series on children of drug addicted parents, and a 1994 George Polk Award recipient for Local Reporting for a series about hunger among schoolchildren in California. Prior to working at the Los Angeles Times, she was a reporter at Wall Street Journal bureaus in New York, Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles. She recently spoke to Mother Jones by phone from her home in Los Angeles.

Mother Jones: What motivated you to write about the journeys of Central American migrants to the U.S.?

Sonia Nazario: In the late 1990s, one morning my housecleaner, who like me is Hispanic, told me about the four children she had left behind in Guatemala; how she hadn’t seen them in 12 years; how the youngest girl was one year old when she left. She left because her husband had left, and she simply couldn’t feed them. They would ask for food, and she couldn’t give it to them.

I was struck by the choice that women like my housecleaner make every day to walk away from their children and not see them for years on end in order to help them. I learned how often their children would become desperate to see them and would set off on their own to come find them in the United States. Some of them were as young as seven years old, coming up through Mexico the only way they could with no money, which was clinging to the tops and sides of freight trains. I thought it was an amazing story. I wanted to show how the face of immigration to the United States is changing. Most people think of illegal immigration as overwhelmingly male, and that has changed.

MJ: How did you meet Enrique and why did you think he was the best main character for the story?

SN: I knew that among the thousands of children who come into the U.S. alone without a parent each year that the average age of a child who’s caught is 15, and typically they’re boys. That’s what I was looking for. I knew that I couldn’t start in Central America and follow a child all the way up to Mexico because it would be too difficult and dangerous to stick with one kid. It would probably be impossible because they run from all these different dangers. I wanted to find a 15-year-old boy who had made it as far as the Mexico-U.S. border, but was still on the Mexican side, spend time with them and hope they reach their destination, debrief them on everything they had been through trying to make it through Mexico, and then go back and retrace their journey and try to flesh out the story in that way. So I starting calling all these churches and shelters on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, along these 2,000 miles, saying this is what I’m looking for, if you have somebody like that today. A nun at a church in Nuevo Laredo, which is across the border from Laredo, Texas, said, “Let me put this boy on the line,” and I spoke with Enrique. His story seemed typical, in terms of the harrowing things that I heard from so many children who had come up on the freight trains from Mexico. And he agreed to do it. He was very honest and forthright.

MJ: How did you prepare for the journey? Did you do any physical training?

SN: Not enough. (laughs) I prepared in terms of interviewing in both INS jails that hold immigrant children and detention centers and immigrant schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere. I interviewed dozens and dozens of children who had made this journey, and I really tried to understand where they went, what were the dangers and possible pitfalls. I tried to understand the highs and lows of the journey. All along the way, these kids experienced incredible acts of cruelty but also equally amazing acts of kindness. I tried to really understand every element of the journey, and then I tried to build in as many safeguards as possible. I remember being in one detention center for immigrant children in Texas and hearing about what these kids had been through, including an 11-year-old Honduran boy saying he’d seen five people mutilated on the train as he was coming up through Mexico. I remember the director of shelter telling me, “These children set off not understanding what they’re getting themselves into, but you now fully realize the dangers. You would only make the journey on these trains out of sheer stupidity.” (laughs) I had to concede that he had a point. I obtained a letter from a newspaper colleague who had connections from the personal assistant to the president of Mexico asking that I be treated well while I was in Mexico. That kept me out of jail three times. I got an armed immigrant rights group in southern Mexico -- which is the most dangerous part because there the trains are controlled by gangs -- to accompany me on the trains. I obtained permission from all four train companies that operate up the length of Mexico, and I would meet with the conductors so at least they knew I was on board. I had a signal to wear a red jacket that I had strapped around my waist and would tell the conductors to try to look back occasionally and if they ever saw me waving madly, then something really bad was about to happen, so they can try to do something. I took as many precautions as I could, but it was quite tense and dangerous at times.

MJ: Did you ever have to wave your jacket?

SN: No, but I had many close calls. Usually bad things happen so quickly that you don’t have time to wave a jacket. (laughs) I remember on one of my first rides through the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas, it was raining and I was on a fuel tanker, and people had warned me about a lot of the different dangers -- the gangsters, the bandits, the corrupt cops, all the things that can maim or kill you along the way. But they had not warned me about the tree branches that are alongside the train. In the middle of the night, people started screaming from the front of the train: “Brama! Branch!” I didn’t quite understand what was happening. The branch hit me squarely in the face, and it sent me sprawling back. I was able to grab a rail on the train, but almost fell off. I later learned that a teenager on the car behind me had been hit by the same branch and plucked off the train, and people didn’t know if he had survived or not. The train often as it’s in motion produces a sucking wind underneath and pulls you into the wheels. It took many months of therapy after I got back to not have a recurring nightmare of somebody running after me on top of the train trying to rape me.

After the branch incident, I wondered, was that too close for comfort? I had a migrant try to grab me on a train, and I was able to run away. That was pretty scary. I had a train derail right in front of mine. I had heard many stories about train derailments and how migrants would be tossed off the train, crushed under the cars or buried alive in sand inside the hoppers. I felt in constant danger and constantly looking out for people who could hurt me. In Chiapas, in southern Mexico, even when riding with six armed members of this immigration rights group, and they had AK-47s and shotguns, there were gangsters on top of the trains who were still robbing people at knife point at the back end of my train. The danger was always very real, when you would have gangsters lurking around the train stations with machetes. Another day I was interviewing people along a river in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, and I interviewed a girl who described being raped in the exact spot I had been in a day earlier. There were a lot of moments where I felt I was a little too close for comfort. But, as a journalist, I wanted to put people on top of the train next to the boy I was writing about, to really feel what it was like to ride alongside him, and experience everything he experienced with all their senses. I felt that to do that, I had to make this journey.

As much as I experienced cold and heat and exhaustion, at the end of a long ride, I would get off the train, go to a hotel, shower, eat and sleep. Many of these immigrant children spend months and months trying to get through Mexico on these trains. They’re deported, and they have to try again. They sleep in trees or tall grass by the tracks. They sip from puddles of water along the tracks. What I went through which left me nearly broken only gave me a glimmer of what these children go through, which is truly amazing.

MJ: You took Enrique’s route more than once – how did subsequent journeys differ from the first?

SN: I realized when I went back the second time to retrace the train route that as much as I was moved by the horrible things that happen to these kids along the way, I was equally moved by the incredible acts of kindness that these children experience along the tracks. I sought out people who help migrants. For example, in Vera Cruz in south central Mexico, there are people along the tracks who are incredibly poor and live on a dollar a day, and tortillas and beans, and barely have enough to feed their own children. Yet they come out to the tracks. They’ve seen how hungry and miserable these immigrants are. They have a tradition of coming out to the tracks, maybe 20 or 30 people in a small village, running out as the train is passing and throwing tortillas or beans or water. If they don’t have any of those, they come out and say a prayer. It’s unbelievably moving, and I had never seen faith practiced in that way.

I sought out that more than the horrific things that happened to migrants along the way -- the gangster who rob and rape them, the bandits who do the same, the corrupt cops who deport them back to Guatemala. I had focused before a lot on the train itself and how because migrants get on and off the trains while they’re moving to avoid immigration authorities in Mexico, they stumble or fall from train and get cut up by the train. They lose arms and legs. There’s a lot of depressing stuff going on, but I wanted to focus on uplifting things they experience equally.

MJ: Is there much camaraderie among the migrants on the trains?

SN: Yes. A lot of the adults look out for younger kids. I rode with a 12-year-old boy who was going to San Diego to find his mother, who had left for the north when he was one year old. A lot of older teenagers and adults would look out for him. Children have certain advantages because they’re smaller, and they can run fast and they can hide. They also are more successful at begging for food and water. But they sometimes need the protection of these adults. Adults would share water or food, and look out for one another and yell warnings to one another. But ultimately often when authorities showed up, and it was time to run, it each man, woman, or child for themselves. It was survival.

MJ: What would you say was the biggest challenge in reporting the story?

SN: The most difficult part was not being able to help people along the tracks, people who were desperate, hungry, thirsty, people who wanted to call their loved ones. I often had a cell phone in my purse. I would get asked for money dozens of times every day. As a reporter, I was already changing the situation with my presence, in terms of what the authorities were doing. I felt that unless someone was in imminent danger, I could not try to help them. I could not change the story more than it was already being changed. I largely refrained from helping people, and that’s very, very difficult to do.

MJ: Was there anything you wished you could have included in the book, but did not?

SN: I wish I would have gone back and ridden on top of the trains again. With each train ride, I discovered something new about a particular life on that train. There’s a whole pecking order and a whole way that life evolves on top of these trains, like it does in any small world. With every ride, I captured bits and pieces of that, but I wish I could have done more of that. I rode on 7 trains and in all I rode through 13 of Mexico’s 31 states. I traveled 1600 miles, and I did half of that on top of these trains, but I wish I could have spent more time in that world. It’s a fascinating world. But I think my husband would have killed me if I had gone back again. (laughs)

MJ: There are so many stories written about undocumented immigrants, and the points of debate on both sides have been repeated ad nauseum. What were some misconceptions that you wanted to dispel with your story or some different angles that had not been explored before?

SN: I think one of the things that really struck me was the incredible determination among these immigrants coming north on the train. I remember interviewing one teenager who was being deported again from Mexico to Guatemala. He was going north to find his mother. He had been robbed by bandits along the tracks, and one woman in his party had been gang raped. He had been deported 27 times. He was talking about after being deported, he was going to try attempt number 28. And he was going to reach his mother. I found that difficult to get my mind around, the level of determination. When you see that up close, you really question how many border patrol agents is it gonna take to stop people who are this desperate to come. That’s relevant as the senate gets set to debate competing immigration bills that include stronger border enforcement and temporary worker programs.

In terms of the debate, two things that struck me were that unfortunately immigration most hurts the most needy Americans, Americans who are native-born and do not have a high school degree, and that means largely African Americans and previous waves of Latino immigrants. Their wages and their employability have declined as a result of the huge influx of immigrants. I find that troubling. Another aspect that surprised me and I found troubling was that a lot of immigrant women are coming to the U.S. and leaving their children behind because they want to improve the lives of their children. But when they reunify, these children often feel they were abandoned by their mothers and they grow resentful and grow to hate their mothers. Too often, these immigrant women lose what’s most important to them, which is the love of their child.

What a lot of folks who work with immigrants up and down the rails in Mexico say is that it would be better if the United States could improve the economies of countries that send a lot of immigrants here – Mexico, Honduras – so that immigration would not hurt neediest Americans, and these women could stay working in these countries alongside their children. And that there should be different ways in which the U.S. uses foreign policies or trade policies aimed at trying to help countries that send most immigrants to the United States. We must address the factors pushing people out of those few countries rather than simply building walls. The building walls won’t work unless other side of equation is addressed. That’s the point that I heard strongest from people who help and work with immigrants along the rails.

MJ: Do you agree with those sentiments?

SN: I’m a journalist: I’m not allowed to have opinions. (laughs) It would obviously be better if the economies of some of these countries improved so that these women can stay home with their children, and these families are not separated. It would not take a miraculous change in these countries. Most women, if they could feed their children and had enough money to send them to school, they would stay. They would not leave them. All they need is a little hope.

MJ: What did you think of the recent surge in nativism and the emphasis on border security?

SN: Efforts to build walls will not be truly effective until you address the real issues that are pushing these women and children to head north. I’m not sure that ultimately those kinds of measures can be very successful. In the last two decades, the border patrol has had its budget tripled and the number of agents tripled. The result has been the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. has grown. By some studies, it has been an ineffective policy. The Senate is proposing more of the same.

MJ: Do you know where Enrique and his mother Lourdes are now?

SN: They both live in Florida. After a honeymoon period, they had some rocky years together, where Enrique felt this resentment surge towards his mother, and felt she had left him for too long a period of time. But they have reconciled, and he’s very loving towards her. He comes over every morning and gets a cup of coffee and a hug from her before heading off to work.

MJ: What do you think will be the ultimate effect of these family separations?

SN: For the families, the journey obviously brings huge economic benefits. But the troubling side is that these children end up in these very conflicted homes. Both in Honduras and in the U.S., people describe that a disproportionate number who are in gangs are from homes where these separations took place. The teenagers end up looking for that love that they thought they would find with their mothers somewhere else. It causes huge social problems. It does not always have a happy ending. In terms of economics, it’s far and above better than trying to eke out a living in Honduras. But in other ways it’s devastating these Latino families and destroying what they most value, which is family unity.