Thousands of migrants stranded after U.S. rail company pulls out of southern Mexico
Associated Press: August 14, 2007
MEXICO CITY: Mexico has sent federal police to clear out thousands of Central American migrants stranded near the Guatemalan border after a U.S.-run railway shut down operations there late last month.
Undocumented migrants — who for decades have hopped the freight trains heading north toward the U.S. border — apparently were unaware that on July 29 trains stopped running along the Chiapas-Mayab railway, the only lines linking the border area with other railways in central Mexico.
They wound up without shelter and fearful in small rail towns like Tenosique, in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.
"It's terrible: Here in town there are about 4,000 people stranded," Franciscan brother Juan Pablo Chavez Vargas, who runs a shelter for migrants in Tenosique, said Tuesday when police were called in to bus away migrants. "They can't get out. They would have to walk more than 300 kilometers (160 miles) to get to the next working railway line."
Unable to walk that far and fearful of stepped-up immigration inspections on local highways, many migrants have waited in vain, hoping the trains — normally packed with stowaways — would pull into view again.
Smugglers, vendors and others who profited from a steady flow of migrants may have encouraged migrants to keep coming, two weeks after Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc. ceased operating the rail lines.
"They are telling them, 'The train will come, just wait. The train will come,'" said Chavez Vargas.
The government says it hopes the railway will be running again under another operator by mid-2008.
In the meantime, many of the migrants took to sleeping in fields or under trees on the outskirts of rail towns.
"But they started to invade the center of town," Tenosique police officer Guadalupe Juarez said.
That is when the government started to act.
Tabasco Gov. Andres Granier said there were still about 2,000 migrants in Tenosique, and he ordered state police there to help put them on buses and send them back to their homelands.
"We know about the poverty and poor conditions that exist in their countries," Granier said. "We can't allow them to risk their lives to reach the United States."
Migrants also piled up at another now-unused terminus of the rail line at Arriaga, in Mexico's southernmost Chiapas state, located a shorter, but still-daunting, walk away from the nearest working rail head.
The railway closure broke up a long-established route for migrants, who would pile hundreds at a time atop freight cars laden with fuel oil, corn and cement.
Chiapas-Mayab spokeswoman Jeanette Rosado said the migrants made running the lines more difficult.
Rail workers were injured in assaults by migrants or gangs of thugs that preyed on the migrants, she said. And rail-riding migrants also delayed operations and cost the company money.
"It is not the same, pulling a normal train or pulling it with 300 people riding on top," Rosado said.
In the end, however, it was deteriorating railroad tracks — many stretches damaged by a hurricane in 2005 — that led Genesee & Wyoming to pull out of its 30-year operating concession.