Mexico: Risking Everything to Migrate North

A Mexican Observation Mission investigates abuses of Central American migrants traveling through Veracruz state.

A Mexican Observation Mission investigates abuses of Central American migrants traveling through Veracruz state.

Section of the railway tracks where migrants were thrown from the train in Veracruz state on May 1. Photo credit: Dawn PaleyLAS BARRANCAS, COSOLEACAQUE, MEXICO—On May first, hundreds of Central American migrants making their way through Mexico’s Veracruz state on top of a cargo train experienced first hand what it is like to live through absolute horror.

After nightfall that day, the train passed Las Barrancas, a community of about 3,000, in the southern part of the state. As it neared the village, a group of people linked to the Zetas paramilitary crime group began demanding that those riding the train pay them a quota. According to testimonies from people on the train recorded following the events, members of the Zetas demanded each migrant pay US$100.

As the train chugged along, people who resisted or couldn’t pay were beaten, shot at, stabbed and thrown from the train over the course of nine kilometers.  Approximately 25 people were hospitalized with injuries, one of which was serious. One boy survived because gunshots lodged into his backpack. Hundreds of people jumped off the train to safety, landing on the gravel road that follows the tracks and leads to Las Barrancas.

Amid the confusion, someone got word to Julio Pérez Zabalza. A spry 70 year old with the energy of someone half his age, Pérez got on a loudspeaker mounted on a twelve foot pole in front of his house and called for the migrants to come up to the plaza. “I started to make announcements on the loudspeaker, 5-10 minutes later the migrants started to come out to the soccer field, within an hour or an hour and a half the field was full, with 500 or 600 migrants,” said Pérez, speaking to journalists over the same loudspeaker he used to call out with that night.

Residents of Las Barrancas fed and sheltered the migrants, most of whom have since continued on toward the US. The few who remained in the community preferred not to speak to journalists, including those accompanying an Observation Mission visiting some of the most dangerous migrant routes in Mexico. Among those on the mission are migrant justice activists, a former legislator, and members of the Catholic Church.

Every day, hundreds of people climb on to cargo trains and head north, squatting in open cars or sitting on top of or between closed ones. Most of the people riding the trains are from Central America, taking a ride toward the US using a technique that is known in English as train hopping. But for these men and women, train hopping isn’t a lifestyle choice: it’s a matter of life and death.

Ruben Figueroa helps run a migrant shelter in Tenosique, a city on the Guatemalan border which for many is a point of entry into Mexico and the first place they’ll climb up on the train heading north. He says that abuses of migrants in Veracruz have reached epic proportions because of the government’s close relationship with criminal groups. “By its nature migration is a humanitarian tragedy, but when there are governments that are complicit with organized crime, it becomes a holocaust,” said Figueroa, who helped organize the Observation Mission.

Indeed, some have accused the governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, of covering up for the criminals who attacked migrants in Barrancas on May 1st. Duarte stated in a press release that that the incident was actually caused by infighting between migrants themselves. But Guillermo Cortes Moreno, the adjunct mayor of Las Barrancas, rejected that version, reiterating that the conflict was related to the extortion of migrants.

Cortes took members of the Observation Mission to one of the areas where people were thrown from the train. A rough gravel road runs along one side, inhospitable bushes line the other side. The wounded and scared who jumped from the train in Las Barrancas had little choice but to walk into the town. Together with dozens of marines and police, Cortes walked the tracks the night of the attack, but he says he didn’t find anyone else there.

According to newspaper reports, no one was killed when the criminal group aggrieved the passengers on the train. Local journalists say they think it is possible that there were people killed that night, but because police were in control of the area for 10 hours following the attack, no bodies were found. Without bodies, there are no dead, they said.

According to members of Grupo Beta, who provide food, water, and ‘know your rights’ pamphlets to migrants through a federally funded program, what happened in Las Barrancas isn’t necessarily unusual. The difference is that this time it was denounced by local authorities, and picked up by the media.

Figueroa and pins much of the credit for the fact that what happened on May 1st has become a state- and nation-wide scandal on local journalists in Veracruz state, who speak up even though scores of their colleagues have been murdered. “Events like this aren’t rare, they are common here,” he said. “It’s normal that the government tried to deny what happened, but this got out thanks to the media.”

Dawn Paley is an investigative journalist from Vancouver, BC. More of her work can be found on her website at, or follow her on twitter @dawn_.