In Mexico, Central American immigrants under fire

Story highlights

  • More than 100 immigrants from Central America arrive daily in a neighborhood near Mexico City
  • Stowaways on cargo trains heading north to the U.S., they stop at shelters along the way
  • In a neighborhood known as Lecheria, an immigrant shelter enrages residents
  • Local police fire gunshots into the air to break up a massive brawl
Neighbors on this tiny, sun-soaked street know each other's names. They pray together at a church with stained-glass windows that they can see from their front steps.
But for years, they say, immigrants have been pushing their community apart.
Residents here say they stopped feeling safe when strangers started lingering on street corners and leering at locals. They created neighborhood watch patrols to keep crime in check.
"It's not that we're against immigrants," Osvaldo Espinosa says. "We just want them to get rid of that house."
It's the kind of complaint heard often these days in small-town America or on blocks in big U.S. cities struggling with a flood of foreign residents.
But this house is in Mexico, where activists warn that fierce anti-immigrant sentiment in some places has become just as strong as it is north of the border.
More than 100 immigrants from Central America arrive daily in Lecheria, this working-class neighborhood outside the country's capital. Most are Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans who don't stay long; they are stowaways on cargo trains heading north to the United States.
But for more than three years, many of them have stopped on Espinosa's street for warm meals and a few nights' sleep at an immigrant shelter. It is one of dozens in Mexico run by the Roman Catholic Church.
Priests said the Casa del Migrante -- the immigrant's house -- was a safe haven for vulnerable people on an increasingly perilous journey.
Residents told public officials, reporters and police that people living near the shelter were the ones who were in danger.
Black and white banners went up outside homes. "Residents of Lecheria demand the closing of the Casa del Migrante."
Inside the shelter, words were painted on a wall beside a map of Mexico: "If the immigrant is not your brother, God is not your father."
'Almost everybody gets assaulted'
Juan Jose Arevalo Larios was barefoot when he walked through the Casa del Migrante's door last September. Dried blood was caked on his toes.
"They stole my shoes from me," the Honduran immigrant said, describing a robbery a week before that also left him without money and without his brother's phone number, which he had tucked inside his wallet.
It's a grim reality known by many of the stowaway passengers on the unforgiving train immigrants for decades have nicknamed "The Beast."
"Almost everybody gets assaulted," Arevalo said.
Attackers could be fellow immigrants, drug gang members or people in police uniforms, he said, worrying about what might happen if he is targeted again.
"If they kidnap someone and he doesn't have money, they kill him," he said.
Standing near Arevalo on a narrow patio outside the shelter, Ever Alexander Ramos nodded in agreement. To protect himself, the 29-year-old from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said he picks up rocks along the tracks before jumping on the train. Onboard, he always holds one in his hand, even while he sleeps.
A refuge from danger
Criminals regularly target thousands of migrants passing through Mexico, according to Amnesty International, which noted in a report last year that immigrants face "serious abuses from organized criminal gangs, including kidnappings, threats and assaults."
Authorities found the bodies of 72 slain immigrants from Central and South America on an abandoned ranch near the Mexico-U.S. border in August 2010. That year, more than 11,000 immigrants were kidnapped nationwide, according to an investigation by Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights.
In May, police investigated another grisly discovery: 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies, dumped beside a highway less than 80 miles from the border. Authorities said they couldn't rule out the possibility that the victims were immigrants. Officials from El Salvador searching for missing migrants asked for DNA samples from the victims to see if they matched up.
But despite the dangers, the flood of Central American immigrants traveling through Mexico is showing no sign of slowing.
"It increased a lot," said Christian Alexander Rojas, the priest in charge of the shelter.
In a year's time, the number of Central American immigrants coming to the shelter more than doubled to a daily average of 150, he said. About 90% hailed from Honduras, which faces widespread poverty and the world's highest murder rate, according to the United Nations.
"Their government has washed its hands of them," Rojas said.
Beaten, bruised and broke, they crammed into the Lecheria shelter.
Some came with broken bones. There are no passenger-friendly stations on this journey north. Often, immigrants -- perched on top of the train and crammed between its cars -- jump off while "The Beast" is still barreling down the tracks.
Even inside the shelter, the danger of the journey is impossible to forget.
"Here, yes, everything is very nice," said Antonio Lazo, a 31-year-old carpenter from El Salvador. "But one has to go back into the street and face the reality. There's nothing good about the train."
A man hobbled by on crutches, his leg in a plaster cast. The man is lucky, said Lazo. "Many lose their feet, or the train kills them."
Still, the promise of escaping poverty and sending his family money from the United States makes it worth the risk. At home in San Miguel, El Salvador, he has struggled to find work, and he has a wi