Thousands of migrants in Mexico have climbed onto dangerous freight trains rumbling north to reach the US border ahead of a change in US migration policy.
Activists and officials say up to several hundred people have been boarding daily for the past few weeks, many in wagons that briefly stopped at a garbage dump in Huehuetoca, a city north of Mexico City.
The rush has intensified as Title 42, a Covid-era policy that has allowed the US to quickly send migrants back to Mexico since 2020, expired on Thursday. The US is bracing for a spike in border crossings, increasing pressure on authorities already grappling with record numbers of illegal entries.
Many migrants want to reach the border as quickly as possible, although they are unsure what the rules will be like now. Washington passed legislation last week that will deny many people asylum.
“Will it be easier? I doubt it,” says Romario Solano, 23, a Venezuelan, as he waits for hours in the scorching sun near the garbage-strewn train tracks in Huehuetoca. “We know that stricter measures have been taken as migration has increased.”
Solano admits that taking the train is dangerous, but says he doesn’t have money for a bus. For years, Central Americans in particular have crossed Mexico on freight trains, commonly nicknamed “La Bestia” (The Beast) because of the risk of injury or even death if they fall. Migrants are also prone to gangs, cold nights and muggy days.
The latest wave of people aboard the “La Bestia” are mostly poor Venezuelans, including families with young children, who mainly want to reach Ciudad Juarez, opposite the Texas city of El Paso.
Many climb narrow ladders to sit on rooftops; others huddle together in empty boxcars, spreading blankets over gravel, steel rods, and other building materials to ride in open cars.
“Hundreds of people arrive every day,” says migrant activist Guadalupe Gonzalez in downtown Irapuato, where the train stops. “We had never seen so many migrants passing through here.”
For the past month, up to 700 people have tried to board each day, she says. Sitting on a log near the Huehuetoca landfill, Venezuelan migrant Allender Ruy played back voice messages on his phone from a friend warning him before the multi-day journey: “Brother, when you get on the train, dress warmly.. It’s very cold, terribly cold.”
After being deported from Panama to Venezuela en route to the United States earlier this year, Ruy was hoping for a second chance. “I have to be there before the 11th at the latest,” he says.
On the cracked screen of his smartphone, fellow Venezuelan Franklin Cuervas watched a Tik Tok video with the caption “The border is getting tougher.” Two of his brothers in the US had urged him to arrive before May 11 to avoid gatherings of other migrants.
“They say it’s better to arrive earlier because more people are coming, people who want to get in,” he says.
Disappointed, a family of ten, including a one-year-old girl and several coughing children, retreat to the shade of one of the few trees in the hot desert landscape when they realize a rattling train isn’t what they want.
“We’re a bit concerned… there’s supposed to be problems before 9/11,” said Alejandro Mavo, 44, who traveled from Venezuela with his wife and five children. “We’re hardly on time.”
photography by Jose Luis Gonzalez and Gustavo Graf