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Longtime U.S. residents, deported, brave Mexico's 'trains of death' to get home

TAPACHULA, Mexico — Unlike many of the migrants who pass through Mexico on the way to the United States, Adolfo Herrera isn't hoping for a new life. He's returning to an old one. He's going home.

Herrera speaks street-worthy English, is a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys and has spent 25 of his 28 years in Texas. He was deported a year ago to his country of birth, Colombia, but felt like a foreigner.

"I don't got family in Colombia. I don't know nobody. I don't want to live there," Herrera said, speaking in a migrant shelter near the border with Guatemala.

"I'm going back to the United States. No doubt, buddy," he said, listing the numerous relatives — from grandmother to brothers — who live near his home in Lewisville, north of Dallas and Fort Worth.

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration announced a dramatic change in U.S. policy, saying it would drop efforts to deport illegal immigrants who have no criminal records. Instead, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Aug. 18, her department will focus on the deportation of convicted criminals and those who might be a national security or public safety threat. Under the new policy, some 300,000 pending deportation cases will now be reviewed in U.S. immigration courts.

That, however, does nothing for those already deported, and many are among the migrants willing to take huge risks to get home again.

"I know it's really dangerous but I have to do this for my children," said Mary Luz Armendariz, a Honduran who was deported from Long Beach, Calif., recently after 18 years there.

Armendariz left her three children, all U.S. citizens, behind with friends, and the phone calls with them have been painful.

"They cry. 'I miss you, Mom. I love you. Why don't you come back?'" she said.

She spoke as she prepared to shinny up a ladder to the top of a freight train known as "La Bestia," or The Beast, at a rail yard in Arriaga, a town in Chiapas state that is the southernmost point in Mexico's rail system. The glow of a rail yard light fell on her face. A bandage wrapped her knee, strained from days of walking.

The migrant journey north has never been riskier. Some fall victim to gunslingers from organized crime groups who halt trains and abduct migrants for ransom. Scores of unlucky ones end up in mass graves. Others are pressed into service as cartel triggermen to do battle with rival gangs. Some simply fall to the tracks off what many call the "trains of death."

Still, they keep coming, many of them propelled by the desire to reunite with family and friends in lives they built in the United States.

Most migrants' trips begin with a benign river crossing — a raft excursion.

Along the Suchiate River that delineates part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala, some 100 rafts made of twin tractor inner tubes lashed to a wooden-slat platform carry passengers and contraband cargo back and forth.

Passengers pay less than $2 to cross the river. Local, state and federal police largely ignore — or benefit from — the illegal trade. It is a free-for-all, a door left wide open.

"The only danger around here is that your raft pops a leak and you take a dip," said a young rafter who would only give his name as Chucho.

After crossing the border, the first stop for migrants is often Arriaga, a sleepy town on the Tehuantepec Peninsula where Mexico is its narrowest. It is where they hop aboard La Bestia. Every other day or so, hundreds of migrants flock to the rail yard to clamber atop the metal boxcars and tanker wagons.

As they travel northward, migrants hop other trains at rail yards with names like Coatzacoalcos, Medias Aguas and Tierra Blanca in Veracruz state, Tenosique in Tabasco state, and Lecheria on the outskirts of Mexico City.

They sit atop freight cars, fighting not to fall off with the swaying of the trains or getting pushed off by low-hanging branches. Some migrants cling to couplings between wagons — occasionally with horrid consequences.

When 16-year-old Gertrudis Rosa fell asleep, the Honduran youth had already spent an exhausting six nights as a stowaway on freight trains. On his seventh night, Rosa rested on a coupling. Overtaken by fatigue, he fell to the tracks. The wheels of the hurtling train severed both his legs.

His double amputation in mid-May was a terrible but not uncommon tragedy.

"By God, that train is criminal," said Teodolinda Interiano, Rosa's mother. When she heard the news of her son's injuries, she was hospitalized with shock for five days in Honduras before she could make the journey to be by his side.

She spoke at the Good Shepherd Shelter, which harbors migrants who have lost arms or legs under the freight trains in Mexico.

The migrants who face the greatest risk on the journey north are those who pay the least to human smugglers, or coyotes. Mostly, they are Central Americans, and many have made the journey repeatedly. They travel solo much of the way and know where to find the hostels run by charities that provide free lodging and food.

"With my experience now, I can make it to the border on my own," said Juan P. Suazo, a 38-year-old Honduran who has made the journey five times. "Once you are at the border, you have to hook up with somebody who's linked to Los Zetas. Otherwise you will fail."

Suazo referred to the transnational crime gang that has spread from narcotics trafficking to extortion, counterfeiting, kidnapping and migrant smuggling.

Suazo was eager to return to California, where he lived seven years, and perhaps take up his old job as a valet parking attendant in Beverly Hills.

"I would drive beautiful cars, Volvos, Mercedes Benzes, Lexus, BMWs. They paid me $14 an hour, and I'd get tips," Suazo said.

Another migrant, Jorge Perez, a Guatemalan, discussed the multiple risks he faced as he headed illegally back to Minnesota, where he'd resided for years, long enough to chalk up two felony convictions. Then he cut a questioner short, tiring of the line of inquiry: "You'd do the same thing. If you were in my situation, you'd do it, too."

Getting kidnapped by gangsters from Los Zetas, who often operate in league with corrupt rail employees and police, is the greatest fear of the migrants.

In a six-month period in 2010, a total of 11,333 migrants were kidnapped in 214 separate incidents, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission found in a report published in February.

In June, the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, a priest who runs a migrant shelter in Oaxaca state, said masked gunmen stormed a train as it entered Veracruz state and abducted some 80 migrants. A similar incident in mid-December saw 50 Central American migrants go missing, never to be found.

In the most shocking incident, a frightened Ecuadorean migrant tipped off authorities in August 2010 to a ranch in Tamaulipas state along the Texas border where they found the freshly executed bodies of 72 migrants. The Ecuadorean had feigned death, then fled the scene.

"I'm not going to take the train. Too risky," said Herrera, the Colombian who grew up in Texas. "I'm afraid of getting kidnapped. ... I'd rather walk and take more time and make it safely then go on the train and get kidnapped."


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