Hundreds of migrants were stranded 300 miles south of the El Paso border after Mexico's largest rail company halted its northbound cargo trains to keep families from riding the rail cars.
The U.S. and Mexico vowed harsh actions to deter migrants’ journey north after a significant spike in border crossings in El Paso and other parts of Texas.
For migrants still in the interior of Mexico, the most immediate impact stems from changes along the railways and freight trains that have been their primary mode of transportation. Now, they are stranded in a country they do not want to be in but cannot seem to leave.
Freight trains operated by Ferromex, Mexico’s largest rail company, usually run the route from Chihuahua to Juárez four times a day. Those trains originate in Torreón, about 300 miles to the south.
Until now, migrants relied on the trains as their best method to trying to reach Juárez, their crossing-point to enter the United States through El Paso. Though dangerous in their own right, trains offer some protection against the constant threat of extortion and kidnapping that migrants face in Mexico.
But Ferromex announced in a press release on Sept. 19 that the company would suspend some freight train service because of the “remarkable increase in migrants … and the severe risk to their safety that the use of cargo trains represents.”
That means that hundreds of migrants in the capital city of Chihuahua are now stranded. Local volunteers and activists are seeing an accumulation of migrants as they are unable to move out of the city.
“We are full,” said Linda Flores, director of Casa San Agustín, a shelter that is located just blocks away from the Ferromex yard in Chihuahua. “We don’t know how (the migrants) will move on from here.”
The El Paso Times spent two days in Chihuahua to document a group of migrants who, stranded by the changing rail policies and running out of options, struggled to finish the last leg of their journey to the border, where many planned to turn themselves in to seek asylum. Some agreed to be identified by their full names, while others agreed to only provide their first names.
Saturday, Sept. 23, 6 a.m. — Trains are silent
The dark highway gradually lightens as the sun rises over the desert between Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. Alongside the highway, the metal rails of a train track flash in the changing light. The tracks are empty. No trains run through the Chihuahuan Desert from the capital of Mexico’s biggest state to its border city, Juárez.
In Chihuahua, a Ferromex yard seems deserted at 10 a.m. The engines are silent, the cars still.
Veronica’s house is just a few yards away from the track embankment. She stands in the shade of her mesquite tree, where she has placed a sofa for migrants to rest. She sometimes makes them meals or invites them inside so they can shower.
But there are no migrants today.
She points south. Over there is where they get on and off the cars, she says.
At the place Veronica indicated, hopper cars sit on the rails. The bottom rung of the ladder that leads up the sides of the cars is 4 feet off the ground. This is the ladder that migrants climb, often with small children, to reach the roof of the train cars. The ground is littered with soda bottles, food wrappers, a discarded diaper. There are no migrants here.
12 p.m. — 'They won't let us advance'
Eight young Venezuelan men, in their teens and 20s, walk along the railroad track above the Ferromex yard. They had climbed atop a train in Monterrey but don’t know what to do now that the trains are stopped. They want to get to Ciudad Juárez because they heard that that’s where the United States will accept them if they turn themselves in.
“Nobody told us the trains were stopped, we found that out ourselves when the train we were on stopped,” one of them says. “We waited on the train for eight hours and it didn’t move, so we got off and started walking.”
A curve in the track suddenly reveals a group of about 100 people waiting in the shade cast by freight cars. Men, women and children of different ages rest on the rocks of the railroad bed. Their stories are largely the same: They got to Mexico about a month ago and spent weeks trying to make their way to the north.
Bus companies charged them exorbitant prices for tickets. The tickets were often useless without proper documentation of identity and status in Mexico. The buses were subject to roadblocks and stops and the migrants were extorted for money, if they were lucky, and robbed of all their possessions and kidnapped if not.
Some of them had a CBP One appointment, a legal pathway under the Biden administration to seek asylum in the U.S., but their printed confirmation was confiscated and destroyed.
“People want to surrender themselves (in the United States),” a Venezuelan woman says, “but they won’t let us advance.”
The hundred or so people here have been waiting since before dawn. The train, which they rode from Torreón, hasn't moved in nearly 10 hours. They are tired but restless because they do not have an alternate plan. Their prior experiences and the stories they hear about extortion and kidnapping make them afraid to get on the buses or hail a taxi.
The group of eight gives up after hearing these stories and wanders away, following the tracks.
1 p.m. — We call this the 'Devil's train'
At last, a train moves through the yard. A few men sit in open hopper cars and wave before disappearing from sight. But just a few short minutes later, they reappear, this time walking along the road.
“Nos bajaron,” they say. “They kicked us off.” “They” are the private security guards that patrol the Ferromex yard. The migrants’ next steps are unclear because even if they had money, the bus is not an option.
“They’ll steal our money and send us back to the south,” says a man named Victor Briseño.
Briseño, 27, worked for Venezuela’s Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales, y Criminalísticas, a police agency that performs criminal investigations and forensics. But a criminal group began to threaten police in the area where he lived and worked.
“They kill officers, or they have gone into homes and killed the family members of officers,” he said.
Fearing for his life and that of his family, he left Venezuela. He has spent one month and over $1,500 so far in Mexico — money that has gone to food and phone cards but also to extortion and wasted bus tickets. He doesn’t have a phone anymore — it was stolen at gunpoint by the Ferromex security guards in Torreón, he says.
“Juárez is farther away so fewer people go there (than to Piedras Negras),” one of Briseño’ companions says. His brother had reached Juárez a few days ago, before the trains stopped.
The men prepare to leave, hoisting their water jugs and securing shirts around their heads to protect them from the sun. Briseño turns back. “Don’t forget to say that we call this the ‘Devil’s Train!’” he shouts. “That’s important for people to know.”
2:30 p.m. — Mexican authorities: 'Get out of here'
For the one hundred migrants on the train tracks, the plan to wait quickly goes awry.
National Guard troops, state and municipal police, and immigration officers arrive at the train tracks and surround them.
Migrants present at this interaction report that the officials told them: “Get out of here, or we’ll take you to a shelter in Tapachula.”
One of the migrants’ biggest fears as they travel through Mexico is being transported to the southern border, forcing them to start their journey over again.
They abandon the tracks and their hopes of riding aboard the Devil’s Train to Juárez – but not their hopes of getting there. Buses and trains removed from the equation, they decide to turn to the only mode of transportation they have left — their own blistered feet.
6:30 p.m. — Dusk, rain and rest
They set out from the rail yard that is on the southern edge of Chihuahua and look north. Young men and teenaged girls turn their feet over and show the soles of their tennis shoes and their flip flops, worn through with holes. Still, their pace is brisk and their heads are high.
Just a short time later, rain starts to fall. It’s getting dark and the children are lagging behind. Their pace slows. They flop onto the sidewalks and grass outside an Oxxo on Avenida Vialidad Sacramento. The decision is made to rest here and continue on before dawn.
“We don’t trust anyone. The police lied to us, the Army lied to us, the National Guard lied to us, immigration lied to us,” says Ruben Peña. He has curly hair, a beard that seems unintentional, dimples deep in his cheeks. “I had my paper from CBP One, but officials took me off the bus and told me I was going to a shelter, and I missed my bus. Immigration officials took my shoes and my money.”
The corruption and abuse by officials is not the only face Mexico has, though.
As the evening darkens, people show up to help on their own initiative. An Oxxo shopper buys extra water and sodas to hand out. A car pulls up to offer them clothes and blankets. Another arrives with food.
What the migrants most desperately need, and what no one offers, is transportation through more than two hundred miles of desert. They want to go to Juárez because they heard it was less crowded than other border cities, they say. Some of them express anxiety about the date.
Anyuri, 32, is migrating with her husband, Julio, and their three daughters. Betsy, her 10-year-old, has an open curiosity and tennis shoes that are too small for her. She scribbles in a borrowed notebook as her mother talks.
“We have to be in Juárez by the (Sept.) 27,” Anyuri, 32, says. “We have heard that (the United States) will close the door on Sept. 28. I just want to have a place for my daughters to rest.”
Others in the group reiterate this news about a Sept. 27 deadline, but they don’t know the source of the erroneous information. Some of what they know is surprisingly accurate, though. “Is Gate 28 still open?” Anyuri asks. Several hundred migrants had lined up for processing at El Paso’s Gate 28 just five days ago.
8:30 p.m. — 'We are warriors'
The group is not deterred by the distance, through a mostly empty desert, that they would have to cross to reach Juárez.
“We are warriors,” says Ruben. He shrugs. He is confident that after surviving the Darien, they are strong enough for what would be a days-long march. In Venezuela, he was trained as an insurance adjuster. He’s spent $7,000 to migrate so far and has nothing left.
“We have no choice. We will rest a little and then we will walk,” he says. His dimples show.
Sunday, Sept. 24, 10 a.m. — 'We have to keep going'
Anyuri struggles to encourage her three girls as they trudge north along Mexico's Highway 45. By 10 a.m., they have already been walking for nearly five hours. Their group has dwindled during the night and during the hours of pre-dawn walking.
They do not stop to wait for those who fall behind, a strategy perhaps learned in the depths of the Darien jungle. Eventually, the group comes to rest in the shade alongside an Oxxo at the very limits of Chihuahua.
The Oxxo employees promptly lock the doors and pull a metal security gate over the entrance.
The migrants are exhausted. Since last night, they have covered perhaps 15 miles of the 200-plus it will take them to reach the border.
“We are grateful for the food and clothes people have given us,” Anyuri says. “But what we really need is a ride. Look at how the sun is burning their skin.”
Betsy takes off her shoes and rubs her feet. “My shoes pinch,” she says. A few minutes pass.
“Put your shoes back on,” Anyuri says. “We have to keep going.” Betsy groans only a little as she complies.
They walk on.
3 p.m. — Fearing human smugglers
The day grows hotter. They have walked through the Sacramento toll booth but the prospect of continuing through the Chihuahuan Desert for three, four, or five more days grows more daunting. They stop in the shade of a pedestrian bridge to think.
Alternatives are thrown out, considered, discarded. An Uber to Juárez? Over 4,000 pesos. A bus ticket? Impossible without documentation.
A man walks by. He’s a guide for migrants, he says. He can get a price on transportation from his contacts. Fear whispers through the group: Almost imperceptibly, a decision is made. They gather their bags and jugs of water and set out walking, this time south, back toward Chihuahua. Some have plans.
“I’ll get a job and save up money,” says Diego. He tugs on his clean t-shirt, a gift from a donor at Oxxo the previous night. “With these new clothes they gave me, someone will hire me now.”
He is happy with this decision, or maybe he’s working to resolve his jumbled thoughts and feelings as he gives up the one goal he has had for weeks.
“It’s better this way,” he insists. “Sometimes people get anxious and rush into decisions without thinking it through. It’s better to be patient and have a plan.”
Not everyone turns around, though.
Nahun, one of the only non-Venezuelans in the group, is determined to be with his family in the United States on this, his third attempt. His 8-year-old daughter has cancer and was approved for a humanitarian visa last year. By extension, the U.S. embassy in Honduras granted visas to Nahun’s wife and his other three children. His own visa was rejected due to “insufficient ties,” such as lack of property ownership, to his life in Honduras.
“We do video calls and they say ‘Daddy, I miss you,’” Nahun says. “They ask me why I am not there, and I say I don’t have a visa. ‘You can borrow mine,’ my daughter says. It’s hard, I’ve never been separated from them before.”
He settles his pack on his back. He points himself toward his family and keeps walking.
6:30 p.m. — The lucky ones
In the Chihuahuan Desert, the metal rails are lit up again, now by light that is dying.
A train rumbles along the tracks, the two engines pulling dozens of hopper cars toward Juárez. The tops of the cars are empty except for two small huddles of migrants that managed to evade Ferromex guards and find a departing train.
None of the policies, announcements or enforcement actions has stopped them. They have crossed seven countries to get to this point and they are almost to the line between Juárez and El Paso that is their destination.
They have survived much already and they are still exposed, at this last stage of their journey, to the risk of falls, injuries, and death as they ride the Devil’s Train. But they are the lucky ones. They are moving.
The setting sun wraps them in a warm golden light. They wave enthusiastic, whole-arm waves as the train’s heavy clatter fills the air. Then they turn forward again, squinting against the rush of air, hope on their faces as they look north.
Corrie Boudreaux is an El Paso-based freelancer. Omar Ornelas is a veteran visual journalist with 20 years of experience covering the U.S.-Mexico border.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Stranded migrants in Mexico face obstacles amid train suspension