Child Trek

The devastation of Hurricane Mitch propelled thousands across our southern border in search of new lives in America. And those were just the kids.

Sometimes trains will run for a whole day -- 12, 15 hours -- without stopping. Those holding on can't eat, drink or rest. Some of the boys say their hands feel numb after clenching the rattling boxcars for so long. That's when it gets really dangerous, says Elmer Delgado, a somber, curly-haired 14-year-old Salvadoran who also doesn't know where his parents are, doesn't even know whether they are alive. Elmer left El Salvador after being taken in by relatives who beat him, he says, and kept most of the money he made working.

"When I arrived in Tapachula, I met these men who were going to get on the train that same night. Later on, I saw them again, and they were dead. They had fallen because when the train goes very fast, the air currents suck you down, toward the wheels, and there you're killed. In the tunnels also, you can be crushed if you are not careful.

"Sometimes you can see the dead," he says, then stops himself. He is visibly uncomfortable talking about his journey, as if haunted by it.

Though Elmer made it out of Tapachula on his first try, many immigrants don't. Just like those hiding along the rails, waiting for the train, the Instituto Nacional de Migración -- the Mexican immigration service -- knows the attraction of the border town. Most of the 150 agents who patrol the 650-mile border with Guatemala and Belize are concentrated in Tapachula. They were the first to be overwhelmed by the growing numbers of Central Americans, especially Hondurans, who were leaving their countries in the wake of the storm.

Walter and Jose were among those captured in Tapachula and then deported to Tecun Uman, just over the river. After three days of being detained in a room with other immigrants -- adults, men, women and children -- eating only "really bad food," says Jose, he was released. "Then all I had to do was swim across the river again, and I was gone!"

So he left Tapachula for the second time, falling off the train once when his hands slipped and he wasn't strong enough to pull himself back up. Mostly he traveled alone, but sometimes he joined groups of children -- as many as seven -- for protection. Even so, he says, "they came after us."

"They," to Jose, means any number of the adults, usually men, usually in uniform, whom he has learned to fear: Honduran police, vigilantes, Mexican immigration officers, the Mexican police ("the meanest in the whole world," he says) and the border patrol. All his stories about running from these men blend together in his mind and expose him as the scared, small boy he pretends not to be. Though he is safe now in the United States, he is still afraid "they" will take him away.

Grupo Beta Sur, the southernmost sector of an organization established by the Mexican government to protect transitory immigrants from exploitation, reported that in December 1998 it had handled nearly 3,000 cases of assaulted, robbed or raped immigrants. In a usual December, there were fewer than 500. With only 16 agents, Grupo did what it could, but it was not prepared for the vulnerability of this particular group: Where once they had seen only young men prepared for the journey, now they were encountering young women, older men, mothers with babies, and unaccompanied children, all ignorant of the dangers ahead.

"Once they tried to steal my clothes and my shoes," says Jose. "They told me to take my clothes off, but I just ran. The other boys I was with, they were older, but they didn't run as fast, so I lost them. I was just trying to get away."

From Tapachula, grabbing onto trains, getting rides from strangers or simply walking, he slowly made his way to Mexico City, where all the roads and trains converge. There, he was lost for three days when he got off a train to look for food.

"It is the biggest city in the world, I think, and I had never been there, so I walked and walked till I found other boys that were going north," Jose explains.

After Mexico City, he made it to Queretaro, and then Monterrey. On his way to Nuevo Laredo, again he missed a train. In the arid, rocky rangeland of northern Coahuila, he walked for three days looking for a village. The rough ground, cut by canyons and hills, supports little life and few towns. At first alone and then with people he met along the way, he walked toward the border.

"In the desert, you get so hungry and so thirsty, you want to cry, but you don't, because you're so tired," he says. "But the people I was with, they had a little bit of money, and when they got food, they would give me some of it. When they could, they would go by houses and ask for a little food and give me some of that too. It is very ugly when you are alone."

In Nuevo Laredo, he found the inner tube of a tire and used it to cross the Rio Grande. Now he brags: "The river? It was nothing. I passed it like a cuatrojo," which, he explains, is a fish with four eyes -- two on top and two on the bottom -- so they can see all around. "That is what I was like!

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