Every year, tens of thousands of people, 90 percent of them Central American, cross the length of Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States. They travel by foot, train, car, bus, or truck, facing kidnapping, extortion, rape, robbery, sickness, hunger, and death along the way. Ecuadorian photographer Felipe Jácome Marchán followed migrants on this perilous journey, documenting the trials and dangers of heading north. And it has only become worse since Mexico ramped up the drug war; in search of easy profits, cartels have started to seize migrants, holding them ransom. As a result of these growing threats, in April Amnesty International called the migrants’ route “one of the most dangerous in the world.”
The majority of the migrants starting out on the route are young men. But there are women and children, too, like the ones pictured here crossing the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico. Mexico’s National Migration Service (INM) estimated that one in 12 people on the route are under 18, some making the journey alone.
The safest place on the train is the last car, where Jácome sat for the trip. Trains often derail along the route — and when that happens, it’s the rear cars that absorb the least impact. The ride is bumpy and dangerous, so most migrants find a way to strap themselves to the roof of the cars with belts, rope, or anything they can find.
The routes that migrants travel are well known — to Mexican authorities, criminals, and local people. Operativos, the mobile Mexican military units based along the route, sometimes stages night ambushes on trains. Terrified of being sent back home, migrants often jump from moving trains. The operativos send dogs to find them.
Kidnappers are another group that preys on migrants, taking advantage of the confusion of small towns along the route, where the trains stop. Most migrants have a “backer” in either the United States or Central America who helps pay for their trip. (An entire journey can cost as much as $8,000, Jácome estimates.) “They say [to the migrants,] give me the phone number” of the backer, Jácome recounts from interviews with kidnapping victims. Even if the ransoms they collect are small, say 2,000 pesos (about $150), the volume makes up for it: On a good day, kidnappers could make thousands of dollars.
Catholic priests have set up several shelters for migrants along the route, including this one in the small city of Tapachula. Offering food and sometimes a bed, the shelters welcome migrants for a few nights before newcomers push them out again. A wall map gives migrants a glimpse at the long journey ahead, but many travelers will never make it to the United States.