Mexico – The Death Train Runs on Coffee
For coffee farmers in the Americas, the year 2000 was not the New Millennium, it was the Perfect Storm. Coffee prices were at historic lows – often below the cost of production (yet major roaster retailers were not dropping their prices to consumers). World Bank structural adjustment policies were hitting farmers hard as social welfare nets were slashed. Free trade agreements were flooding Central and South America with cheap, subsidized corn from the USA, taking away local markets and jobs. By the hundreds of thousands, farmers left or were thrown off their lands and migrated to bloated cities. Many headed north, in the hope of making it to the fabled El Norte.
Lost in the statistics is the human story of the coffee farmers and many others who have tried, and often failed, to make it north. Many died in locked vans in the Texas and Arizona deserts, deserted by the “coyotes” they had paid so much money for the trip. Others climbed aboard La Bestia, El Tren de Muerte, the large bulk carrying trains that travel from Tapachula. They held on atop the train, holding each other to prevent falling off when sleeping. Nothing could protect them from rape and robbery from the gangs.
I heard about the Death Train from Nicaraguan farmers and decided to investigate for myself ten years ago. Though this tale is dated, the Death Train still rolls on.
It was raining pretty hard when we arrived at the depot. Half of a big, black train was waiting to be coupled with the Death Train, and already there were a hundred people between the cars or sitting on top. The uniform of the day was black plastic garbage bags for ponchos and baseball hats. The only light came from a gas lantern at a food stall. Francisco, head of the local migrant protection agency, BETA, pulled up to the tracks as people swarmed the BETA boys, waiting for food packets.
“Here,” Francisco said bluntly as he shoved a bunch of food packets into my gut. “Start tossing.” We frisbee’d the packets out into the darkness. When the food was delivered, Francisco announced that I was there to talk to coffee farmers about their experiences heading north. Some of the crowd took their food packets and scurried away to eat or hide the food, while several young men came forward. We wandered off toward an embankment where we could all sit together.
I explained that I was trying to understand the situation of the coffee farmers in these hard times, and that I wanted to take this information to the United States to make people more aware of their plight.
“So where did you guys come from?” I asked tentatively, aware that these young men needed anonymity and stealth to get north successfully. Two brothers were from Nicaragua; a sixteen-year-old from El Salvador; an older man from Honduras; and two others remained silent.
“We are from Matagalpa,” stated Benny, as he put his arm around his younger brother, Pablo. They appeared about sixteen and thirteen but I couldn’t be sure, as the rain, the darkness, and the Houston baseball caps kept me at a respectful distance. “Our dad lost the farm a year ago. Pablo stopped going to school to help out. We couldn’t pay his fees anyway and he liked to play hide-and-seek with the girls instead of studying.” Benny whacked Pablo affectionately on the back of the head. Benny continued, “We protested to the government most of last year, marching around the country with other farmers. But nothing happened, so we came north.”
Julio, the older man, had been a shopkeeper in an impoverished coffee village in Honduras. He shared a lesson in Survival Economics 101.
“I have only fifty pesos. I am hungry but I can’t buy food. I need the money to give to the gangs, the Mara. If I don’t have money to give, they might throw me off the train. Even those police in the black clothes steal from us if we look like we have something worth stealing.”
My education was disrupted by a deep rumble that shook the ground. We turned and saw a huge black shape edging up the tracks toward us. The Death Train had arrived.
The migrants scrambled to pick up their backpacks and near the train. In the dull light it was difficult to see the details of the train—but it was easy to feel that looming, menacing presence. The train screeched and banged as it backed up to grab the waiting freight cars. Men and women scrambled to get in between the cars, the best place from which to hang on and not get hit by branches. Others climbed to the top and straddled the middle of the cars. I ran to the train and tried to talk to some of the new riders, urging them to hold on and care for each other, warning them about the gangs and what could happen if they fell off. They were all aware of the risks, but each thanked me for the advice. Other voices of counsel came out of the night.
“Ten cuidado! Be careful!”
“Watch out for the cops!”
“Climb up here!”
The train lurched forward with a sudden and loud jolt. People screamed; some laughed. A few fell off amidst scolding or laughter from their companions, then jumped back on. The metal gleamed wet and slippery. The steel wheels, three feet in diameter, sharpened themselves on the tracks, waiting like a butcher’s slicer for the unfortunate who would fall off, get sucked under by the vortex and lose limbs or life to the voracious Death Train. The train began to pick up speed, slowly, inexorably. In a minute it was swallowed up by the black night.