Migrants maimed by ‘The Beast’: Riding the rails in search of a new life

Violence and misery forced them from their homes. Risking everything, they climbed aboard the infamous freight train that ferries the undocumented through Mexico to the US — a journey that cost them their limbs and their hopes. Now, with the help of prosthetics, they are working to rebuild their lives

Nayeli Cruz

The only thing Santiago Álvarez remembers is the fit of laughter that struck him as “The Beast” passed just inches above his head. He didn’t feel pain. Or fear. He was nervous, he says, and the only thing he could do was laugh. He had fallen under the train and was stuck between the tracks, pinned to the ground as the clanging steel of the rail cars raced overhead. He waited for the train to pass. “It made me feel small and skinny, the tracks are so wide,” he says. When he looked up and saw the back of the rear engine a few meters away, he thought: “If I run, I can catch it.” Then came the worst seconds of his life. He tried to get up but a terrible pain tore him apart. He looked down at his right leg: it was broken and mangled, crushed under the churning steel of La Bestia – the train that carries thousands of Central American migrants through Mexico each year, leaving many dead and many more injured. Santiago blacked out.

Santiago tells the story sitting on a plastic chair at his home in Matapalo, a community in Honduras’s Choluteca department, near the Nicaraguan border. It’s a small, dusty town with narrow dirt streets, where cows, pigs, and chickens roam freely and emaciated dogs lounge in the shade to escape the midday heat, which is humid and suffocating. Santiago is a reserved man, perhaps a bit standoffish, and like many of Central America’s rural inhabitants speaks in slow, careful sentences, heavy on the monosyllables and punctuated with distrustful looks. As he talks, he rolls up his right pant leg to reveal the damage: his mangled leg has been replaced with a prosthetic.

The accident happened in 2004. Santiago had decided to migrate to the US after his cousins told him they had decided to leave Honduras – a country consumed by violence, corruption, and an apathetic and self-serving political class. “I said: I’ll give it a shot, and we’ll see what God has to say,” he remembers. Santiago and his cousins travelled north through Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas, almost without a hitch. In the eastern state of Veracruz, they got on the freight train. It was August 2. “We were happy because now we were on top,” he says. Migrants ride on the roofs of the freight cars, jumping on when the train slows down enough for them to run alongside and swing themselves up. The plan was going well, until the train stopped at a crossing and some men with machetes climbed on top of the train. Thieves, preying on migrants. As the metal cars clanged to a start and began to pick up speed, the assailants ran along the top, jumping from car to car, chasing migrants and brandishing machetes. Santiago didn’t realize what was happening until he heard the screams of a young man being hacked in the back by the attackers. “I panicked and ran. A guy was chasing me. He was right behind me. I managed to jump between two sets of cars, but when I turned to look back, he was even closer. It was in that moment, when I turned to look back, that I went down, and fell down between the rails,” he recalls. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and a light rain was falling. “That’s when the dream ended,” Santiago says.

The prosthetics and orthotics lab at the Vida Nueva Foundation.Video: Nayeli Cruz

It’s the same dream that thousands try to make a reality every year. The figures from Mexico’s Interior Ministry speak for themselves: between 2013 and 2019, more than 820,000 undocumented Central American migrants were apprehended by Mexican authorities. Like Santiago, their hopes were dashed, either because they were captured and deported by Mexican immigration, killed or injured by criminal gangs, abused or left to die by coyotes, or suffered some other injury during their journey – or, as is too often the case, because they simply disappeared without a trace.

Santiago’s family in Matapalo thought that he was dead, because that’s what his cousins, who eventually made it to the US, had told them. Santiago recalls what happened next with an air of bitterness, his face twisted and tense: He woke up in a hospital in Veracruz, but he couldn’t remember how he had gotten there. “I only remember that I saw a person grab me, I think it was God who grabbed me,” he says. When he woke up in the hospital, his leg was gone. “I felt helpless. For me, it was like my life was over. I felt like I was no longer good for anything, I was no longer worth anything.” He was eventually transferred from the hospital to a shelter for migrants, where he met others who were recovering from similar injuries. A month later, he was back with his family in Honduras.

Sitting in the entryway of his home in Matapalo, Santiago recounts a series of spiraling tragedies: After returning home, he decided to go back to Mexico in search of a prosthesis, which he eventually found, thanks to the support of a human rights organization. He would up in Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexico-US border, where he was assaulted, along with some companions, by a group of men from Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most dangerous and bloodthirsty criminal gangs. “Those fuckers pulled us out of the car we were in, beat us and poured gasoline on us,” he says. “They were saying they were gonna set us on fire, but they couldn’t find any matches, so they just beat us with the butts of their guns.” After recovering in a local hospital, Santiago decided to attempt to cross the Río Bravo and enter the US. “I carried the prosthetic leg in a bag, because I was afraid it would get wet,” he says. But the current was too strong, and he had to let go of the leg to save himself, grasping for some bamboo branches to keep from being swept away. He managed to cross the river and crawl up onto the bank, but by then he was desperate: He turned himself in to the authorities, and was deported back to Honduras.

Back home, Santiago sought the support of an association that provides assistance to migrants. He was able to get a new prosthesis thanks to a program supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Eventually, Santiago was able to find a job as an assistant in a clinic run by the Honduran Ministry of Health, where now he earns 9,000 lempiras (about $360) a month – money that, he says, is not enough to support his wife and their eight-year-old son, Dylan. He managed to rebuild his life, but has yet to overcome the trauma of the injury. “At least I’m alive,” he says. “It’s a miracle.”

Placing all hopes on a prosthesis

Santiago found support from the New Life Foundation for Integral Rehabilitation (Fundación para la Rehabilitación Integral Vida Nueva), an organization founded in 2003 to help landmine amputees who had lost limbs during Nicaragua’s armed conflict in the 1980s – a bloody civil war that left tens of thousands dead and wounded. “Some people fled to Honduras and lost limbs trying to get there,” explains Reina Estrada, the Foundation’s executive director. When the land mines along the border between Nicaragua and Honduras were finally cleaned up, under the supervision of the Organization of American States (OAS), the foundation turned its efforts to another tragedy: the growing number of migrants returning home with amputated limbs, after attempting to reach the US.

For many, The Beast has been their best and often only option for reaching the US, but the routes and means of travel used by migrants have shifted in recent years. “We’ve identified a decrease in the use of the train, as a result of increasing insecurity,” says Lorena Guzmán, regional coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Guzmán says that migrants have been forced to seek out new routes, which can be even more dangerous, where they face assaults, kidnappings, and extorsion. The train remains an option, however, and every year it claims more victims.

In addition to the violence suffered by migrants at the hands of organized criminal groups, the Mexican government’s increasingly hostile immigration policies have meant more crack downs and more detentions, often accompanied by excessive use of force on the part of state authorities. In its efforts to curb migration to the US, the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has turned to military force. A report published in mid-May by the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic Rule of Law (FJEDD, for its acronym in Spanish) shows that in places like Tapachula, an entry point for undocumented migrants on the border between Mexico and Guatemala, the Mexican government has deployed 28,397 military personnel with the aim of controlling and repelling undocumented migration. Of these soldiers, 13,663 are members of the Army; 906 are from the Navy, and 13,828 are with the National Guard.

The day EL PAÍS visited the New Life Foundation’s headquarters in Choluteca, the sweltering, windowless building was buzzing with activity. Huge fans hummed constantly, in an attempt to dissipate the suffocating heat. Estrada works here with a small team that includes a Nicaraguan psychologist, a young man in charge of administration, and two other key figures: orthopedist Walter Aguilar and his assistant, Yenser Pineda, who together are in charge of fabricating prostheses. Aguilar and Pineda make the artificial limbs in their on-site workshop, where they have all the materials and equipment necessary to manufacture the devices that represent a chance at a new life for many Hondurans who have suffered an amputation.

Today, several patients are waiting for Aguilar to see them – that is, to analyze the condition of their stumps, to verify that the wounds have healed well, and to take their measurements and set a date for them to return to be fitted with their prosthesis. Or, as is often the case, to check the old and damaged prostheses of men who, compelled by misery, found work in construction or in the fields and have damaged their prosthetics on the job. “Remember, you can’t carry that much weight, you’ll put too much pressure on the prosthesis,” Aguilar chides one of the men, affectionately. “I have to work,” the man replies. “I have to eat.”

Among the Foundation’s visitors this morning is a strong and stocky, dark-skinned young man, with a radiant smile and an inquisitive expression. His name is Francis Espinoza Reyes, he’s 21 years old, and he was forced to migrate for the same reason that many young Honduran men are forced to migrate: because of the gangs that assault, extort and force the country’s youth to choose between joining las maras or fleeing for el norte. Francis left in 2019, when he was 18. He had managed to make his way through northern Central America and the better part of Mexico, but misfortune eventually struck in Monterrey, the large industrial capital of Mexico’s northeast state of Nuevo León. “We were on the train, and two of the people who were traveling next to me stole my stuff and threw me off the train,” he says. The Beast crushed part of his right foot when he fell. He remembers being taken away in an ambulance. When he woke up in a local hospital, he was given the terrifying diagnosis: the doctors recommended amputating his leg. “I told them they didn’t need to amputate it, that I had only broken the bottom part [of my foot], and I didn’t want them to cut it off,” he says. “When they did it, I didn’t want them to bring me back here [to Honduras], because I felt so bad for the people who would have to see me come back like this. That was the hardest thing to get over,” Francis says, dropping his gaze to the ground.

Francis was depressed for a long time. He felt like a burden, like he was worthless. Depression affects at least 64% of migrants detained in Mexico, according to a collaborative 2018 study conducted by five organizations. This is even more pronounced for migrants, like Francis, who survived traumatic attacks or accidents. Francis says it was only thanks to the support of his family that he was able to rebuild his life here in Honduras. He eventually found assistance through the ICRC program, and then his brother helped him buy a motorcycle cab, which he uses to make a living in Lempira, a department in the west of the country. “It’s been hard to get used to [the prosthesis], because it’s not the same as having two legs,” he says. “But it’s way worse to walk with crutches – I can’t live a normal life on crutches.”

A shelter for disabled migrants

Not all migrants who suffer an amputation en route to the United States want to go return home. Many stay in Mexico, often in one of the country’s migrant shelters, with the hope of eventually trying their luck at the border again. One such shelter is in the city of Celaya, in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, and is run by Ignacio Martínez Ramírez, an unconventional evangelical pastor willing to help anyone who knocks on his door. In Martinez’s shelter, guests can take theater classes and listen to music whenever they want, and aren’t subjected to the dogmatic rules or conventions common in many of the country’s other religious shelters. This has earned Martinez the criticism of other pastors, who see him as a lost sheep, leading others astray. His shelter houses 31 migrants, 13 of them disabled. Most of them (80%, according to the pastor) are from Honduras – a percentage consistent with the figures for care provided by the ICRC program in the first quarter of 2022, when of the 83 total patients the clinic assisted, 56 were from Honduras.

It’s an early summer morning, and the shelter is bustling. The building has two stories, and a large open courtyard where a teacher is directing a group of migrants as they rehearse a play. They wear white masks, and each actor repeats his lines from memory. Other guests are lying on bunk beds, glued to their cell phones, while women who made the journey with their children tend to their youngest. At lunchtime, everyone sits and eats together at the tables, and then the real party starts: tropical music blares from the shelter’s loudspeakers. “Celaya is an obligatory stopover point for migrants, and I felt that the authorities were not adequately taking care of this forgotten population,” Martinez says. “We started by bringing food to where migrants would gather along the train tracks. Sometimes there would be as many as 200 people, and my wife and I felt sad because we didn’t have enough food for everyone and there wasn’t anything else we could do for them,” the pastor says.

So, he asked for support from some local groups, from his fellow church members, and from other residents, and in 2015, he opened the shelter, with the idea that migrants would have a place to sleep, shower and eat on their journey through Mexico. But this idea grew into something bigger, and today, for dozens of migrants who have seen their dreams shattered, the building is more of a home than a shelter. Here, migrants receive care, understanding, and the support of the ICRC program, which finances prostheses made in a workshop run by the Guanajuato Institute for People with Disabilities (INGUDIS, for its acronym in Spanish). They also receive rehabilitation therapy and other specialized care.

The shelter is home to 24-year-old Evert Rodríguez, a chubby, somewhat grumpy young man who doesn’t his frustration at the bad luck he’s been delt. “My wings were cut, I’m stuck,” he says, sitting in a wheelchair. His left leg was amputated and he hasn’t been able to get a prosthesis – his one hope for leaving the shelter and rebuilding his life. Like so many others, Rodríguez says he left Honduras to escape the gangs. “If you don’t want to be a violent person then you leave,” he explains. “I don’t want to go back to my country, I don’t want to have problems.” It was during his attempt to escape this violence that Rodríguez fell from The Beast. He had climbed on the train in Orizaba, in the state of Veracruz, around six in the evening. “We got on without a problem, but my backpack got stuck when we were climbing the ladder,” he recalls. “I tried to let it go but I fell, and the train ran over my leg. I’m a brave person, and I cinched the wound down with my shoelaces.” In a state of shock, Rodríguez had not yet realized the magnitude of what had just happened. He was rescued by some locals, who took him to a nearby hospital, but due to the severity of his condition, he was transferred to the Veracruz General Hospital.

At this point in his story, Rodríguez’s face twists into a grimace as he remembers the treatment he received at the hospital in Veracruz. “They did such a crap job,” he says. “Just imagine! They messed up the operation so bad that now my tendons are trashed. I’ve been like this for 14 months and they’re gonna have to do another operation. It’s all such garbage, such bullshit. Fuck, it’s been such a trauma, man. “If I at only had movement in this leg – because I don’t even have that – I’d already have gotten the prosthesic, but since they screwed it up so badly... It makes me want to...” He bites his lip and stops talking. Rodríguez can’t move the injured leg, which is why he needs another operation. This is his only option for getting a prosthesis, and with it, a new life. Sitting around him, his friends continue talking among themselves. Those who are expecting a prosthetic soon sit next to their crutches. Those who already have one are joking and playing games with each other. “What I want is to have my own one,” Evert says. “I like to work. I know a lot about agriculture, planting coffee, beans. That’s the work I’m good at: farming.” He looks down, rests his head on his palm, and moves his right leg around. The other leg stays motionless, unresponsive. He curses La Bestia. He curses his bad luck. “But I’m brave,” he says.

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