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A Father’s Dream Derailed: U.S. Policy Pushes Thousands to Risk Riding Mexico’s Trains

They call it “La Bestia” –the beast.  To some migrants, the train that winds its way north through Mexico represents the path to survival.  To others, it represents death.  In José Luis’ case, it’s what left him an amputee as he tries to return to his young daughter in the United States.

“When I was climbing aboard the train, my foot slipped and was crushed under the wheel,” says José Luis.

For the last few months, José Luis (not his real name) has been on one of the most dangerous journeys in the world – the migrant trail through Mexico to the United States.   He has not seen his daughter or his wife since August 2010, when U.S. immigration officials detained, imprisoned, and ultimately deported him to El Salvador.

José Luis first left El Salvador in 2004 out of economic necessity.  Ironically, his need to migrate was rooted in U.S. economic policies.  In El Salvador, neoliberal policies led to lower incomes, higher food prices, job displacement and increased inequality.

Given the lack of opportunities available in El Salvador, it’s not surprising that José Luis tried to reach the U.S. by any means possible, even risking death.  In fact, he attempted the journey three times before he was ultimately successful. Once he traveled across Mexico in a cargo truck with 90 other migrants.

“It’s so uncomfortable. You can hardly move, there’s not a lot of air, and you can’t go to the bathroom or make noise so that they won’t detect you,” he said.

Ultimately, José Luis settled in Maryland, where he worked as a cook for five years.  While in the United States he married and had a daughter.  But life wasn’t easy.  “You suffer…because it is not the same as being in your own country,” he said. “Once you get to the U.S., all you do is work all the time.”  

José Luis was deported at the end of last year and has been attempting to return to his family ever since.  However, the journey is now significantly more perilous.

Since José Luis first left El Salvador for the U.S., both countries became signatories of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which pits small businesses and farmers against U.S.-subsidized industries.  Although the trade agreement promised to increase employment and decrease poverty, it has done the opposite.  In fact, today almost 50% of the Salvadorian population lives in poverty and migration is at an all-time high.  

As the stream of migrants swells, everyone from drug cartels to immigration authorities and local police have targeted Central American migrants like José Luis as they cross Mexico on their way to the U.S.  During a six-month period in 2010, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission documented 11,333 cases of migrant kidnappings. Extortion, theft, rape, and dismemberment are all daily risks.  

Fortunately for José Luis, his train accident took place within sight of a migrant shelter.  He was rushed to a local hospital and later transferred to a facility in Oaxaca where his foot was amputated.

Since then, José Luis has been under the care of the Center for the Orientation of Migrants (COMI). COMI runs a temporary shelter that provides lodging, food, and medical assistance to migrants.  COMI staff also provide information about migrant rights, advise the families of migrants who have gone missing or been detained in the U.S., and lead workshops in local communities about the realities and dangers of migration.

At COMI, managing the day-to-day tasks of the organization and the shelter is tantamount to human rights activism. “I consider myself a human rights defender,” says administrator Nancy Garcia.  “I get angry when I hear that an official violates the human rights of migrants, but I know I can help migrants so that this won’t happen again.”

In her work Nancy is continuously confronted with the horrors that migrants face in their journey north. However, she remains optimistic.  In fact, Nancy believes that “one becomes more human by seeing their pain.”

And in Nancy’s eyes, it’s not just people in Oaxaca and El Salvador who must understand the risks, roots causes and realities of migration.  Because U.S. policy continues to both increase the flow of migration and criminalize immigrants, changing these policies is an important part of the puzzle.  

For years, Witness for Peace has educated tens of thousands of U.S. citizens about the root causes of migration, exposing the connection between free trade policies and increased immigration as well as putting a human face on issues often clouded by overwhelming statistics or dehumanizing metaphors.  

Through delegations that provide the opportunity to see firsthand the effects of U.S. policy on Mexico as well as documentary work, media outreach, and grassroots organizing, Witness for Peace spurs U.S. citizens to oppose detrimental trade agreements, push for policies that reduce poverty, and demand just immigration policy.

This fall, Witness for Peace will broaden its impact when Nancy travels to the United States as part of a Midwestern speaker tour entitled, “Railroaded by NAFTA/CAFTA: the Perilous Journey from Central America to the States.”  

Through speaker tours like Nancy’s, Witness for Peace equips thousands of people in the U.S. to organize in their communities and on a national level for just trade and immigration policies.  Nancy’s events will be an opportunity for U.S. audiences to gain a deeper understanding of the roots of migration, as well as to dialogue with a community leader on the front lines of human rights defense in Mexico. 


“Nancy inspires people with her relentless drive to defend the dignity and human rights of migrants,” says Moravia de la O, member of Witness for Peace’s Mexico-based International Team.   

Meanwhile, José Luis intends to continue his journey north, despite his new handicap.

"I have suffered.  I had an accident and lost my foot.  But I continue to hope to return and be with my daughter," says José Luis.

By addressing the policies at root of the decision to take such a tremendous risk, Witness for Peace strives to prevent other fathers from facing the same predicament.

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