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Last stop in Mexico
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Last stop in Mexico

Migrants find security in Catholic safe house before facing US border

SALTILLO, Mexico — Alma Rosa Fernandez is exhausted. Every bone in her body aches after a gruelling 30-day journey from southern Guatemala to Saltillo in northern Mexico.

In the month she spent clinging to the notorious freight train known as "The Beast" with her husband and three children aged 10 to 15, she endured sleep deprivation, hunger and freezing temperatures. She said the family survived two near-death moments on their journey through Mexico, one of the most dangerous migration passages in the world today. While searching for food in San Luis Potosi, they were surrounded by five maras (gang members) wielding machetes, demanding money for riding the train on their turf.

The Fernandez Leyva family are among an estimated 300,000 migrants who travel through Mexico every year, heading for the United States. The vast majority are from the poverty-stricken and violent Central American triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and enter along Guatemala's border with Chiapas, where The Beast begins its journey north.

"They said we had to pay or else they'd take my daughter as payment, we had not one peso," Alma, 37, said at La Casa de Migrantes (migrant safe house) in Saltillo, capital of the border state Coahuila which is located in the Chihuahua desert. "Me and my husband picked up pieces of wood and fought them off, I told them I would do anything to protect my children, and thank God we got away."

A week or so earlier and more than 100 miles south, in Irapuato, Alma's husband, Carlos Leyva, almost died from a lung infection. He was saved only by free treatment at a Red Cross hospital.

Carlos, 36, who suffers from chronic gastric problems as a result of a gunshot wound to the stomach while serving in the Guatemalan army, looks weak, malnourished and overburdened with worries.

The family arrived at the safe house penniless, famished and traumatized, more than 1,500 miles from their home in rural Jutiapa close to the El Salvador border. It is their first time outside Guatemala, where Carlos struggled to provide for his family, earning a maximum of $35 a week as a casual farm hand.

They had barely eaten anything for several days and so gratefully gobbled down hot rice and beans, offered to every new arrival, no matter what time they turn up.

Like most children, Oscar, 15, Alma, 14, and Marci, 10, have an unwavering belief in their parents' ability to protect them.

"We want to live the American Dream, I want to go to Los Angeles like in the movies," said Alma, a confident teenager, brimming with potential. "I want to study computers and learn English and then get a good job."

The Saltillo casa is one of 66 migrant safe houses in Mexico, all situated close to the train tracks. Almost all have links to the Catholic Church but through sympathetic clergymen and women, rather than official church support.

The safe house, flanked by the glorious Zapalinamé Mountains, part of the Sierra Madres, was founded by the indomitable Padre Pedro Pantoja and two nuns more than a decade ago. It has always stood out for its broad human rights vision, offering legal and psychological support while campaigning for migrant rights.

It is the last safe house before the border and, on average, 600 new migrants turn up each month—10 to 12 percent are women and following the June 2009 coup d'état in Honduras, which aggravated violence and poverty in the country, 90 percent have been Honduran.

There's a mix of first-timers, experienced border crossers and veteran deportees. Some migrants move on after a hot meal and shower, while others stay for weeks or months, recovering from illness or kidnap, or waiting for a relative in the US to send them money to get across the border.

Everyone, without exception, has a vexing story to tell.

José Villagómez Hernández, a psychologist and the volunteer coordinator in Saltillo, said, "there is a type of natural or unnatural selection that goes on, and it's only the strongest and most resilient, those with the most physical and economic capacity, who make it this far. Those who suffer the worst attacks or fall ill often turn back. Everyone comes with a sad story, after two years working here I find it very hard to keep hearing them."

Of the two dozen or so migrants interviewed by GlobalPost in Saltillo, three-quarters had been extorted by federal police and/or immigration officers threatening deportation. For those who make it to the casa, there is a very real risk of infiltration by cartels, maras and coyotes eager to prey on the migrants, making security the biggest single priority.

Every new arrival is searched by one of the vetted volunteer migrants serving as guards, who look for drugs, alcohol and weapons. Cell phones are confiscated, and people can only leave on a one-in, one-out basis to go to the tiny shop across the street for calling cards, coffee or junk food.

Still there was an attempted kidnapping outside the gate by two men in a taxi on Jan. 27.

Police officers should be stationed outside around the clock, as ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in response to death threats towards the staff, but they are not.

In the space of five days, 11 visitors were thrown out by the teenage volunteers who spend a year living and working at the casa in between high school and college. One of the visitors was a woman caught texting, and the other 10 were hostile members of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang.

The house is pretty regimented with the migrants expected to assist with cooking, cleaning and manning the public phones and toilets. But there is still an element of organised, friendly chaos, with some sort of drama always unfolding, but kept in check.

The strict rules start to make obvious sense when the casa gets full very quickly, and the atmosphere changes in a flash.

Fifty migrants arrived in one day when the temperature dropped close to freezing and people were afraid to move on. The next day 150 shivering bodies tried to keep warm playing football, basketball, drafts, getting a haircut, washing clothes and chatting in the huge outdoor space—many still worrying about who they'd left behind and the road lying ahead.

Salvador Sanabria, 23, a campesino—peasant farmer—from Copán, western Honduras, left behind his wife and baby boy, and is now waiting for his mother to find a coyote to take him to Houston.

"My mom left Honduras when I was a one-year-old and so I only know her from photos," he said. "It hurt me a lot to leave my son as I don't want him to suffer like I did, but life is going to get even worse under the new president, so my dream is to work in America for two years and earn enough money to buy a small plot of land at home."

The migrants are explicitly warned about the tough road ahead and the multitude of dangers they face from organised criminals and corrupt officials, on both sides of the border.

For instance, 11,000 migrants, mostly near the US border, were kidnapped during a six-month period in 2010, according to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission.

The Fernandez Leyva family stayed only two days until the weather improved, determined to embark on the final 190 miles to the border before the fear set in.

They left with few possessions and not a single cent for food, but more importantly, no money to pay the coyotes who control the borders and charge $1,000-2,500 per person, a cut of which goes to the criminal Zetas or Gulf cartel, depending on whose territory people cross.

Alma is familiar with horror stories like the 72 migrants slaughtered and buried in a mass grave by the Zetas in San Fernando in 2010.

"We understand the risks of kidnap, murder, extortion and rape, we knew this before we left Guatemala," she said. "But we have to try and make a better life for our children, and we believe God will take us to America safely."

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

More stories from La Casa de Migrantes

La Casa de Migrantes is the last safe house before the Mexico-US border for thousands of migrants heading north toward the United States. Flanked by the glorious Zapalinamé Mountains, which are part of the Sierra Madres, the house was founded by Father Pedro Pantoja and two nuns more than a decade ago, offering legal and psychological help and campaigning for migrant rights.

On average, 600 new migrants arrive each month, seeking food, security and shelter after a painful journey riding a freight train known as "The Beast.'" Here are the accounts of a single traveller and a family of three:

Doris Roque Barillas, 27, is one of 45 people from Cobán, a city in central Guatemala, who each paid a local family of coyotes (human smugglers)$6,000 to get them safely to Houston.

Half of the price owed was paid before they left, the other half upon arrival.

The group was split into smaller assemblages who then travelled only using buses, which are known to be safer than the train because travellers are less vulnerable to maras, or gangsters, but are potentially more expensive because travellers encounter police and immigration officials who demand payment.

Asked why she embarked on this route, Doris said, "seven months ago my life felt perfect. I had my own flat, a fiancé, a job in a bank. But then my stepfather abandoned my mom who has uterine cancer, taking all their money, the car, everything. The bank cut everyone's wages and I couldn't afford $600 a day for her chemotherapy. That's why I am here."

Doris walked over the mountains at the Guatemala-Mexican border in order to avoid any immigration officials the guide had warned couldn't be bribed.

"We were stopped by what looked like a police van but the two men said they were Zetas," she said. "The guide shouted 'run' so we all ran, I was so scared. Then some Mexicans wanted money or they said they'd call immigration. I just wanted to go home.

"I studied for five years for my bank job but I know in America it will be worthless. I will clean, work in a factory, hopefully find two or three jobs, anything to pay for my mom's treatment."

Darwin Yovani Lopez, 20, left the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa in a hurry with his pregnant girlfriend Yessi Yolani Garcia, 21 and 10-year-old brother Angel.

The couple inadvertently witnessed five Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang members murder a young woman outside of their house, which left Darwin, who worked in a hardware store, with stark choices: "I could enter the gang and run with them which would have involved terrible things I don't want to do, or they would kill me. So we abandon our house and left in five days; I hear the maras have taken it over."

The family left Honduras with $250 and arrived in Saltillo penniless after travelling over 1,600 miles on seven buses over the course of a month.

They paid bribes of $15 to $40 to several police and immigrations officers en route and are now waiting for a call from Darwin's mother, who left Honduras for the United States in 2005, to confirm she's saved $3,000 to pay the coyote.

Yessi, who is seven months pregnant and uncomfortable, feels like time is running out.

"I can't run or even walk very fast but we have to get to the border while I am still pregnant so that immigration will help me and Angel stay in the US, we know they have to help us," she said. "I really didn't want to leave my family, this is my first baby and I miss my mother, but what choice did we have?"

Angel, who has now missed three months of school, scoots around the safe house pestering everyone for sweets and lightening the mood with his clowning around.

"I am scared of being kidnapped by the bad guys and being separated from my brother," he said. "But I want to see my mom, and I think my brother can protect us, he's like my dad."

Editor's note: Since this story was reported, Doris, Angel and Yessi have made it over into the United States, while Darwin remains in wait at the border.

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