Camino al Norte: The dreadful way to the North

“Camino al Norte”: The dreadful way to the North

Over the last years, widespread poverty and insecurity have pushed thousands of Central American immigrants to cross the southern Mexican border on their way to the U.S. Nevertheless, not all of those that started the journey to the North were able to reach their goal. An important number of people who were trying to arrive to the U.S. crossing through Mexico, the near 3000 km that separate Central America from the U.S., were forced to abandon the trip. Along their way, immigrants face many challenges like the lack of food and water, harassment, extortion or deportation. Even worse, many of them face dreadful situations like serious accidents, violent robbery, kidnapping, rape or even murder.


Mexico a country in the middle


Central American immigration to the U.S.

Mexican immigration to the United States is a well-known phenomenon that has been occurring since the beginning of last century. Besides Mexican immigration, Central American immigration to the U.S. is also common and has been rapidly increasing in recent years, making Central Americans the fastest growing group of Latin American immigrants[1].

Most Central American immigrants, principally from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, try to arrive to the United States through the Mexican border when they do not possess the required documentation to enter the U.S directly. Nearly 100,000, mostly Central American, immigrants were arrested last year when trying to cross the U.S – Mexico border illegally.[2]


Land of transit

Mexico has become not only a country of emigration but also one of transit, where immigrants may stay longer than they wished for multiple reasons. According to the OECD, in 2010 around 140,000 “unauthorized immigrants” entered Mexico while trying to arrive to the U.S.[3] Most of these immigrants cross the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala and Belize, from where a dreadful route towards the North begins. It is not clear how many of these immigrants are able to arrive to the northern border, throughout their journey they face many difficulties that make them stay in Mexico for a longer time or to return back home.


Unauthorized entrance

Citizens from most Central American countries need a visa to enter Mexico[4], this is an important obstacle for immigrants that are trying to pass through Mexico to reach the United States. Last year, around 80 thousand Central American immigrants, most of them from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have been returned to their country.[5]  During so-called “rescue operations from human trafficking”, Mexican police and immigration authorities set up checkpoints in search of immigrants that are being transported illegally.[6] In the last months, hundreds of immigrants without documentation were found[7]. In practice, this means they were detained, deported or returned to their country, thereby interrupting, at least for the time being, their plans to travel north.


Alternative transportation

The roads and public transport have become obvious targets for inspection by authorities and are usually too expensive because of the need to pay coyotes[8]. These are some of the reasons why immigrants choose alternative routes to travel to the North. Their irregular immigration status together with their socioeconomic condition pushes them to travel in unofficial and risky ways, like traveling on top of cargo trains.

These “unauthorized” immigrants entering  Mexico become essentially “invisible”. Without official registration of their arrival or exit from Mexico their existence and difficulties are generally ignored. For the same reason, they are an easy target of harassment and abuse by criminal groups and, according to human rights organizations, also by immigration and police corps.[9]


The Beast: a nightmare

In most cases, these immigrants travel from the south of Mexico to the North on what has become known as the “train of death” or “the Beast”, riding on top of the roof or often hanging form the sides. This dangerous way of traveling is made worse by the lack of sanitary services, food and water. In addition, men, women and children risk accidents during their trip on top of the train. Multiple calamities have occurred, the most recent one last month, when the Beast derailed in the south of Mexico, leaving tens of immigrants injured and an unknown number of deaths.[10] To make things worse, along their way immigrants face attacks from criminals who already know their routes and travel conditions. In the last years, several aggressions and human rights violations have been documented. Robbery and extortion are common and often involve violent assaults like sexual abuse or physical attacks: immigrants are thrown from the moving train if they do no provide what they are asked or are attacked with machetes or guns.[11] But the nightmare does not end there. Central American immigrants are often treated as booty. The recent wave of violence in Mexico has been associated with an increased risk of being kidnapped by criminal bands for money, or in the worse case, being forced to work for the drug cartels, risking torture and death in case of refusal. A painful example was the finding of 72 murdered immigrants in 2010 in the northern state of Tamaulipas.[12] This nightmare is not unique, although there are no exact records of how many immigrants have been killed or kidnapped and the number of disappeared remains uncertain. Organizations report that there are thousands of missing people who disappeared while trying to cross Mexico on their way to the north.[13] Multiple bodies thought to be immigrants, have been discovered in common graves and are still waiting to be identified.[14]

Given this dark panorama of violence, the number of immigrants to Mexico has reduced since 2010. However, there are still thousands of people that are trying to cross Mexico to arrive to the United States.


A ray of hope


The support networks

Due to this disheartening panorama, there is a network of organizations that support immigrants across Mexico. On different points along the immigration routes there are shelters and groups that help immigrants with basic services such as food, water and clothing. In some shelters they can even receive medical and psychological attention, legal orientation and information about the route. Some good examples of these support networks are the tens of shelters run by churches and communities, or the groups of women who prepare, pack and hand out food, water, clothes and shoes to the immigrants while traveling on the train.[15]


Support networks: risks and challenges

The work of these collectives is undoubtedly a very important support platform for the thousands of people that need their help. Nonetheless, their remarkable efforts are not enough, since they are faced with a lack of infrastructure, economic resources and governmental support. Furthermore, the support groups face constant harassment, defamation and threats for their work. There is social pressure from neighborhoods that are against the shelters and open attacks from criminal bands and even harassment by police and army have been reported.[16] In the last couple of years many shelters were forced to close, not being able to provide the necessary security for staff and immigrants.[17] Even though multiple human rights defenders and organizations have been granted protection from the state, organizations denounce that this has not been implemented seriously, leaving opportunity for attacks and intrusion that put the life and safety of many people at risk.[18]


In the last few years the Mexican nightmare for Central American immigrants has become a well-known topic. Films, articles and books have talked about it, but even though the problem is known, it still needs to be addressed by the authorities. Organizations hope that that Mexico’s new government will put in place a real mechanism to warrant the human rights and security of immigrants, as the support networks cannot possibly prevent the violence committed against them.


On September 12 and 13, 2013 PBI-Nederland will accompany Mexican human rights activist Alma Rosa García Guevara, during her speaker tour in The Netherlands. She works in the North of Mexico supporting immigrants and families from disappeared.

For more information about her visit and public events go to:



For more information see also:


A Panorama of defense of Human Rights in Mexico (2012) by Peace brigades International. Migrants in transit through Mexico. Human Rights inside the borders”.


Other sources:


Film The invisibles (2010) by Gael García Bernal and Marc Silver


Film The Beast (2010) by Pedro Ultreras


Interview with Padre Solalinde Guerra (2012) Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, México. (Spanish)

[1] “Between 2000 and 2010, Central American immigrants were the fastest growing segment of the Latin American immigrant population.” Central American Immigrants in the United States, By Sierra Stoney and Jeanne Batalova, Migration Information Source, March 2013

[2] In Trek North, First Lure Is Mexico’s Other Line. By Randal C. Archibold, April 2013


[4] Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

[5] Synthesis 2012, Immigration Statistics, México, 2012. Instituto Nacional de Migración (Spanish) See also:  “According to INM, 88,501 migrants were detained in detention centres in 2012 compared with 66,583 in 2011 and 70,102 in 2010” In Irregular migrants in Mexico: Ten urgent measures to save lives, Amnisty International REPORT, March 12, 2013.

[6] Aseguran a 43 migrantes en SLP, El Economista, 13 Agosto, 2013 (Spanish)

[7] Mexico detains 108 in immigration sweep; most from Central America, Reuters, April 2013.

[8] Smuggler in Spanish

[9] Acusan a policías de Saltillo de violar y torturar migrantes Leopoldo Ramos, La Jornada, julio 2013 (Spanish)

[10] Se descarrila ‘La Bestia’ en Tabasco; al menos 5 muertos, La Jornada, August 2013 (Spanish)

[11] Sicarios mexicanos tiran del tren a migrantes, Carlos Marí, Agencia Reforma, May 2013 (Spanish)

[13] Suman más de diez mil migrantes desaparecidos: Solalinde. El Universal, August 2013 (Spanish)

[15] For more information read about Padre Solalinde in PBI webpage

[16] Amenaza grupo GATE con una incursion illegal a la casa del migrante, poniendo en riesgo a defensores y migrantes. Casa Migrante Saltillo, August 2013 (Spanish)

[17] Read more over the shelters closed: In Mexico, Central American immigrants under fire By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN. July 2012

[18] A Panorama of defense of Human Rights in Mexico (2012) by Peace brigades International. “Migrants in transit through Mexico. Human Rights inside the borders”.