Victims of 'La Bestia,' Mexico's notorious migrant train, learn to walk again
By Delphine Schrank
CELAYA, Mexico (Reuters) - Twelve hours after he scrambled atop a boxcar on a freight train that hurtled through Mexico toward the U.S. border, Roni Osorio could no longer fight sleep. The train lurched, and with nothing to grip onto, he rolled, fell and was sucked under its churning wheels.
Nearly a year later, Osorio, 22, a migrant who once farmed beans and coffee in Honduras, has learned to walk again, with a new prosthetic limb where his left leg was ground off by "La Bestia," or The Death Train, so named for the risks posed by traveling on it.
The train, which transports sugar and grains to cement and minerals, has helped legions of north-bound Central Americans flee extortionists, kidnappers, and more recently, migration agents and police who swarm highways and board buses.
But many, in their quest for safer lives, have fallen to their deaths or suffered grievous injuries as it careens around bends and through tunnels in remote or cartel-controlled expanses, with dozens perched on slippery roofs or hanging from handles between cars.
Since 2011 a special Red Cross program, which moved in June to a strategic midpoint of the train line, has attended to 411 mutilated migrants, most of whom lost limbs, giving the few who were found in time a fresh lease on life.
Now, with more Central Americans stowed away on board the trains amid a Mexican crackdown on bus and walking routes, the Red Cross program is busier than ever.
Specialists have been treating five to eight new patients with amputated limbs a month this year, up from three to four a month last year, said Luis Sauceda, a doctor specialized in medical rehabilitation in the Guanajuato Rehabilitation Center.
"This rise in accidents is because of the militarization of immigration policy," said Ignacio Ramirez, director of the Abba migrant shelter in nearby Celaya, referring to stepped-up Mexican enforcement, under pressure from the Trump administration.
U.S. President Donald Trump had threatened to impose tariffs https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-trade-mexico-border/migrants-rush-to-enter-mexico-ahead-of-security-crackdown-demanded-by-trump-idUKKCN1TE306 on Mexican goods if the country did not commit to doing more to curtail a surge in U.S.-bound migrants.
Ferromex, which operates the freight train, said it coordinates with National Migration Institute, a government agency, to protect "migrants who use the freight train as a means of transport, for which it is not intended."
The company, a unit of conglomerate Grupo Mexico, said it regularly talks with the Rail Transport Regulatory Agency "to collaborate on prevention."
Ramirez said he had learned, from migrants in his shelter, of two young men who had lost limbs after riding the freight train in the past week alone.
Accordingly, he said he was in talks to design a dedicated resting place for amputees, with bathrooms and bedrooms adjusted for their needs.
Among those already at his shelter, Luis Estuardo, 21, an accountant, had resorted to boarding the train after escaping migration agents who had pulled him and his brother off a bus as they were crossing from one southern Mexican state to the next, he said.
"It was my first time," Estuardo said, of his Bestia journey. Others tried to pull him aboard as the train picked up speed, but he fell, and his left leg was shredded.
Waiting by the side of the tracks, he fashioned a makeshift tourniquet to stem the bleeding, he said. Then, everything turned white.
Five hours later, local authorities found him.
Estuardo expressed gratitude to the Red Cross for being able to sleep again, despite phantom cramps.
"I feel like a sculpture," he said on Monday, gripping a walker, as Gibran Guzman, the program's Munich-trained prosthetic technician, gently wrapped a plaster-soaked bandage around his amputated thigh.
Every individual's prosthetic is unique, said Guzman, holding up the mold with which to design Estuardo's new calf, and a knee with a suspension device.
AFFECTING THE POOREST
Central American migrants are fleeing extreme poverty and grave dangers at home. But it is the poorest of the poor who are forced to take the train, said Red Cross regional spokesman Alberto Cabezas.
He could not say what proportion of La Bestia's victims the program managed to treat, adding: "Migration is a very invisible phenomenon."
Lack of money led Honduran former soldier Alan Abarca, 49, to skip the bus and board the train to reach the United States, months after getting deported, and he lost his left leg for it.
On Monday, he hopped between hula hoops on his remaining right leg to regain balance and strength. Afterwards, he pulled his stump out of its sock, revealing a mosaic of pink and white skin, still too raw for the prosthetic.
Abarca said he had tried and failed to maintain his family in the impoverished Honduran city of Choloma.
During a lifetime of odd jobs, his favorite was being a roofer, readily clambering up five stories.
Now, he asked, choked with emotion: "What can I do?"
Besides his wife and daughter, he had yet to inform other relatives about the accident, concerned that when word reaches his mother, her weak heart may fail.
"Only when I can walk again" will he tell everyone, he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
(Reporting by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Christian Plumb, Bernadette Baum and Richard Chang)