Migrants raking up the risks in crossing Mexico for the US

Jean Luis ARCE
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Aerial view of migrants on a train known as "The Beast," which takes them to the tourist town of Palenque

He has negotiated dense jungle and clung precariously with other migrants to a freight train, taking on the combined might of two countries' ever more rigid immigration authorities -- but Jose Contreras isn't giving up his dream of reaching the United States.

Like the many migrants who set out daily for new lives in America, the Honduran father-of-four will not be deterred by the expanding Mexican immigration crackdown prompted by US pressure.

The journey northwards is becoming ever more treacherous since Mexico deployed thousands of troops to its border with Guatemala, which has also signed a pact with Washington aimed at keeping migrants out of the US.

Contreras, 31, left San Pedro Sula in northwestern Honduras eight days ago and paid $26 to be taken across 20 miles (33 kilometers) of national park from El Naranjo in Guatemala to the Mexican frontier.

The price jumped to $42 for the onward 40-mile trip to Tenosique, in Mexico, where migrants can jump on the train known as "La Bestia," which means "the beast."

Contreras was among 50 Hondurans who boarded at 1:00 am to get to the tourist town of Palenque, known for its stunning Mayan archeological site.

"They tell us there are lots of security agents who are going to catch us and that's how they sow fear" to make migrants pay more, Contreras said of the tactics used by the "polleros" -- people smugglers.

Those who don't have enough money are faced with the choice of turning over their valuables or being left behind.

"That's where you lose everything you brought: rings, watch. You have to leave it all there," added the construction worker, trying for a fourth time to get across so he can earn enough money to support his wife and children aged two to 10.

- 'Be brave!' -

La Bestia's blazing headlights and the screeching sound of metal on the tracks break the humid dawn atmosphere in Palenque.

After climbing down from the wagons, migrants walk alongside the rails flanked by the seventh century city as the red sky stretches out overhead.

"Be brave!" shouted one migrant with an enthusiasm that provided a welcome counterpoint to the tired faces around him, weighed down by rucksacks and carrying bottles of water.

"We crossed rivers and mountains," added Jose Ramon Fuentes.

"The aim is to get to the other side, God willing," said the 37-year-old father-of-three, embarking on his first attempt to reach the US in search of work.

"Many prefer to go deeper into the jungle and the mountains to get here because both the police and criminals will rob them," said Sister Maria Tello, director of the Casa del Caminante refuge located close to the Palenque train stop.

Sister Maria says she doesn't know which routes exactly the migrants take "but even if we knew them, we wouldn't divulge them because that would put (the migrants) in danger."

She said migrants arrive "badly hurt and tired," with viral diseases and dehydrated due to the long routes through inhospitable terrain.

- 'More deaths' -

Mexico's government insists that its new migration measures are designed to treat undocumented travelers with dignity, looking after their integrity and human rights.

"From the moment they take away everything (the migrants) bring, that doesn't seem like good treatment to me," said Sister Maria scornfully.

On Tuesday, Mexican authorities freed a Honduran family that had been kidnapped last week in the southern Chiapas state that borders Guatemala.

A woman claiming to be a relative told Honduran television station Televicentro that she had been contacted by kidnappers asking for $15,000.

One of the Hondurans given refuge at the Casa del Caminante, 24-year-old Cesar Caballero, says he had to pay members of the Guatemalan security forces three times.

"Otherwise they would have made me get off the bus," said Caballero, travelling with his wife and three children, including a three-month old.

After six hours at rest, the freight train chugs into gear again, with many of those who arrived early clinging onto its metal steps.

Others throw their rucksacks into the open wagons before scrambling aboard.

Just before joining his compatriots, Contreras hit out at US President Donald Trump and his Mexican counterpart Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador over the agreement that increased border patrols to stave off the threat of stiff new US trade tariffs against its southern neighbor.

"What the presidents have done is stir up the hornet's nest, so there is going to be damage, more deaths," said Contreras.