Sometimes Wilfredo Filiu Garay wakes up in the middle of the night with an itch on his left foot. He gets angry when he tries to scratch and finds nothing.
His left leg has been missing since 2010. He lost it somewhere in Veracruz, Mexico. He’d been riding for several weeks on top of La Bestia (“The Beast”), the freight train that carries thousands of Central American migrants like himself up through Mexico and to the U.S. border.
Then he was, as the train’s riders say, “bitten by The Beast.”
He describes fighting with the train and trying to pull his foot out from the grinding wheels, but getting pulled back in. As the train left, he stood for a moment by the tracks, holding his severed foot to his chest. Then he had a heart attack.
Wilfredo is one of of 373 people on record that had limbs amputated while riding La Bestia between 2003 and 2011, according to statistics compiled by the Mexican government.
A group representing injured Honduran migrants says the number is higher. According to the Association of Returned Migrants With Disabilities, an organization to which Wilfredo now belongs, there are about 450 amputee migrants in Honduras alone.
A few weeks ago, 15 of those hundreds of amputees embarked on a second voyage from Central America to Mexico. This time it was different. They weren’t mounted on the back of a massive train. They came on a bus, and they came with visas. They wanted to talk to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto about the their situation and the plight of Central American migrants in Mexico.
April 08, 2014, Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico. Wilfredo, a member of the Association for Returned Disabled Migrants, walks away from Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Wilfredo lost his leg to the freight train known as “The Beast,” in Veracruz. Since then he has lost his job, wife and feels stigmatized in Honduras. Photo by Encarni Pindado
Mexican Senator Gabriela Cuevas Barron says Mexico has a double standard. “There is an incongruence between the immigration policy Mexico demands from the U.S. and the policy it has towards Central and South America. We demand that the U.S. give Mexican migrants a fair, dignified treatment in accordance with human rights. Mexico itself should be an example of what it is demanding.”
Mexico used to be a mecca for refugees and immigrants. In 1939 and 1942, Mexico received over 20,000 Spaniards fleeing the Franco regime. In the 1970s, it opened its doors to thousands of South Americans fleeing brutal dictatorships. In the ‘80s, at least 46,000 Guatemalans fleeing the civil war found refuge here.
The drug war changed all that. Today, Mexico is a nightmare for migrants and refugees.
Those who come from Central America face a high risk of being kidnapped or extorted by gangs that rule the region with impunity. Women often fall into forced prostitution rings Numbers are hard to come by, but back in 2012, various human rights organizations estimated that over the last five years, 70 thousand migrants had disappeared in Mexican territory.
Those seeking refugee status have little chance for relief. In between 2011 and 2012, the government received 381,000 applications for refugee status. Only 447 of those applicants were granted entry.
April 08, 2014, Mexico City, Mexico. Jose Luis walks in the streets of Mexico City. He is the director of the Association for Returned Disabled Migrants (AMIREDIS).Jose Luis lost a leg, arm and 4 of his fingers while traveling in a cargo train in Mexico. Since then he has been organizing for disabled rights in Honduras, and to be recognized as a victim of Mexico’s flawed migration policy. Photo by Encarni Pindado
Most of the migrants in Wilfredo’s organization are from El Progreso, a 150,000-person Honduran city that sits near important agricultural land and at the crossroads of some of the country’s major highways. While other groups members disavow their home, Wilfredo, says he loves it.
Before his injury, he worked on a banana plantation. He recalls how he would cut the banana stems from the tree with a machete and slap it on his back, with a pillow on his shoulders to soften the impact.
Wilfredo says he liked cutting bananas, but he only made about 60 lempiras a week– around three U.S. dollars. Eventually, he became a cab driver, which got him about 300 lempiras a week, about 15 dollars. “Who can stay in our country?” he asks. “Even the babies crawl out.”
In 2010, against the wishes of his wife and children, Wilfredo decided to head to the U.S. He was going to reunite with his sister in Los Angeles, but he had further ambitions. “I wanted to see everything,” he said. “I wanted to live well.”
April 08, 2014. Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico. A group of migrants, disabled by the train, rest at the steps of the Basilica de Guadalupe . Photo by Encarni Pindado
Like thousands of Central American migrants every year, Wilfredo took various buses to get to the Mexico-Guatemala border, where La Bestia begins its journey north. He made it up to the state of Veracr.uz
That’s where he lost his leg. “There were about a thousand people riding on top of that train,” he said. It was mid-afternoon when the train came to a sudden, jarring halt. A gang of men armed with AK-47’s hopped on. This is not unusual: Veracruz is the capital of the Zeta cartel. The Zetas are the most technologically advanced and feared criminal organization in Mexico, and although they are considered a drug cartel, they make a good amount of profit on kidnapping and extorting migrants.
Wilfredo jumped off and ran to the hills. “I was such a good runner,” he said. “I disappeared into the hills.”
He watched from the hills as cartel members beat up migrants. Since he had jumped off the train, it would be a while until he could resume his journey. “Three days you have to sleep in the hills to catch the next one,” he said. Wilfredo came back down a few hours later, once he could no longer hear gunshots.
Wilfredo decided not to wait for three days in the same area as the mass kidnapping had just occurred. Instead, he walked down the tracks up to the next station, about eight hours away in Coatzacoalcos, a port city. “Coatzacoalcos has oil refineries, the factory lights they shine so bright,” he said. “Every time I’d see the lights off in the distance, I’d get so excited.”
He left around 2 p.m. By the time he actually got to the station, he was exhausted, hungry and dehydrated, stinking and covered in dirt. He collapsed in exhaustion by the tracks just outside the station. When he woke up, the train was on top of him.
April 08, 2014. A migrant rests. His prosthetic legs are inscribed with the names of his wife and daughter. Photo by Encarni Pindado
Once in Mexico City, Wilfredo and his groups were invited to tell their stories to a representative from the government committee on migration and a federal deputy. There had been rumors that the president would indeed be meeting with the migrants.
The morning of the meeting, on Apri11th , about 200 migrants in Coatzacoalcos were caught in the crossfire of armed men who boarded La Bestia. The train conductor was shot dead along with one other migrant, and several women were attacked. Two days earlier, 162 kidnapped migrants were rescued by the Mexican army. They were being held in a small border town called Saric, near Arizona. Days after the meeting, four migrants were shot and killed in a robbery atop La Bestia.
Mercedes del Carmen Guillen Vicente is the subsecretary of Population, Migration and Religious issues in Mexico. She tells the gathered migrants that she understands their situation, since she and her colleagues see how Mexican deportees are treated by the U.S. Her office proposes that the group be offered psychological and physical rehabilitation, paid for by the Mexican state. Perhaps a humanitarian visa can be worked out, as well. She promises that she will pass on all the information gathered at this meeting to the president. A quiet washes over the group.
Exhausted, the men waited for almost a week in Mexico City before deciding to return to Honduras. They never met the president, but they left with the promise from the Mexican government that in the future, all migrants who have suffered mutilations on the train, and their families, will be eligible for visas to stay in Mexico.
Still, Wilfredo wishes things would change back in Honduras, so people wouldn’t need to make the trek north. Had he met the president, he knows exactly what he would’ve said. “ I don’t want anymore deaths.We need more security on the trains, because this conflict is never going to end.Give Central Americans- especially mothers with children- a four day permission to pass through. We’re not here to stay in Mexico, we’re passing through. Can you understand that please?”