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The Train of Death

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

| Fri Mar. 3, 2006 4:00 AM EST

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.

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