In the northern Honduran town of El Progreso, 53 men and women belong to an exclusive but undesirable club: the Association of Migrants Returned with Disabilities. Each attempted to reach the United States by riding freight trains across Mexico, and each suffered debilitating injuries along the way. It’s a measure of their desperation to find work in America.
“Even though you know the risks, you never think it’ll happen to you,” Jose Luis Hernandez, the association’s president, told the Center for Public Integrity in an interview for NPR’s Latino USA. The trains, which carry goods to the U.S. on a common route, collectively are known as La Bestia – The Beast. Despite its many dangers, the rail network offers the quickest and cheapest way through Mexico. The trains’ riders are among Latin America’s poorest migrants.
Hernandez, 29, left Honduras when he was 17. After 20 days of riding boats, buses and La Bestia, he climbed onto his final train to Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexico-U.S. border. Tired, with swollen feet, he decided to take off his shoes. In the process, he slipped to the ground and his leg landed on the tracks. It was quickly crushed by the train’s wheel; he lost his right arm and left hand trying to break free.
After two years recovering in Mexican hospitals, Hernandez returned to Honduras. Now, missing two limbs, his prospects of earning a living are slimmer than when he left.
“Realistically, in Honduras, a person like us is worth less than nothing,” Hernandez said. “You have to have a lot of mental strength to endure all of that.” In the past five years, three association members from El Progreso have committed suicide. Others have been victims of drug-related killings.
The number of migrants permanently injured on their ride north is difficult to assess. Many do not survive; others continue to the U.S. or remain in Mexico. In Honduras, the National Commission of Support for Migrants Returned with Disabilities was formed in 2009 and began keeping track of injured migrants. Its casualty list includes nearly 500 names; Hernandez’s group estimates 200 more have yet to come to the commission’s attention.