Shattered victims of 'La Bestia' seek help for their desperate countrymen

Honduran migrants who lost limbs and suffered other injuries while riding freight trains to the U.S. push for better conditions back home

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Honduran migrant Jose Luis Hernandez, who lost two limbs riding freight trains to the U.S., sings at a church in Maryland.

Maryam Jameel/Center for Public Integrity

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.

In February, 17 men injured while riding La Bestia on an earlier trip north decided to try again after years of failing to find work and appealing to the Honduran government for aid. This time with prosthetics, they walked and took buses, a slower, more expensive journey with risks of its own. They passed places where some of them had fallen before.

“Some of the guys couldn’t stop crying. It was terrible,” Hernandez said. “To hear the awful wail of the train when it starts and stops. All those sounds stayed etched in our minds.”

By the time the group of travelers presented itself to U.S. immigration officials at the border, six men had abandoned the journey and returned to Honduras. The 11 who remained were taken to the South Texas Detention Center, where they experienced conditions their lawyer described as degrading and dangerous. Hernandez, who has one leg and one arm, was shackled. Others with crutches and prosthetics bathed in an open shower with a tile floor.

The asylum-seekers were detained for six weeks before being released on humanitarian parole. A Texas-based legal service center arranged for them to travel to their original destination, Washington, D.C., where they are meeting with policymakers and community organizers to discuss the extreme hardships disabled migrants face in Honduras. They’re also advocating for policies that can enhance economic opportunities in Latin America for those who have yet to make the journey north.

“Many of my compañeros [in Honduras] are much more injured than I am, and they can’t support themselves,” said Jose Ifrain Izaguirre, who lost a leg to La Bestia. “They motivate me to do this.”

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