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‘The Caravan of the Mutilated’ shows what people risk when they come to America

CREDIT: ESTHER YU-HSI LEE
CREDIT: ESTHER YU-HSI LEE

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In 2009, 34-year-old Honduran national Jose Efrain Vasquez was running from immigration authorities to board La Bestia, the Mexican freight train that carries hundreds of thousands of migrants northward, when he slipped on a rock. The train wheels pulled him under, dragged him, and left him with an amputated left leg. A few years earlier, Honduran father of four Geremia Gamez was running from police authorities in Southern Mexico to catch the same freight train, when he fell and lost both of his legs.

“That’s when my American Dream collapsed,” Gamez told ThinkProgress, in Spanish. “I was trying to help them my family but I ended up being another burden for them.”

Vasquez, whose leg is amputated four inches above the knee, said he suffered three years of deep depression following his accident and subsequent deportation back to Honduras. Close to tears, he told ThinkProgress: “We don’t blame the U.S. for our injuries. We’re just asking them to try to help our government and work with them so that we don’t have to leave in the first place.”

Geremia Gamez CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee
Geremia Gamez CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee

Both Gamez and Vasquez are part of the Caravan of the Mutilated, a group of Honduran men who were seriously injured or lost a limb while climbing La Bestia, or The Beast, as they made their way into the United States. The Beast is one of the fastest ways for migrants to get from Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala to its northern border with the United States. About half a million migrants ride The Beast annually, NPR reported last year. Beast riders, like Gamez and Vasquez, often get sucked into the wheels while they try to jump on or fall off while sleeping.

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The Caravan, now in Washington, D.C., hopes to send the message to President Obama that heavy immigration enforcement policies targeting Central American migrants are causing serious injuries or death during their northbound journey.

“We want President Barack Obama to see the truth of what happens to migrants, the consequences of his immigration policies,” said Gamez. “We want him to know that the more people he deports, there will only be more poverty, more violence in our countries. And all the money they’re spending to put weapons on the border, that’s only causing more death, more kidnappings.

“For us, he can’t do anything. We can’t grow back our legs and arms,” he continued. “But for the millions who will still try to migrate, he can do something. If Honduras, Mexico and the powerful U.S. can find the political will, anything is possible.”

Gamez told ThinkProgress he wants the U.S. to support more economic development in Honduras, where he has seen increasing privatization of social services, especially since a military coup in 2009 overthrew leftist President Manuel Zelaya. “You have to think of the root of the problem. Why do people come?” he said. “Everyone says the U.S. is the promised land, but we want the promised land to be our own country. But for that to happen we need jobs, scholarships for our kids, medicine.”

The group was also in the nation’s capital to convince lawmakers to enact immigration reform that protects the rights of undocumented people already in the U.S.

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“Our country depends on migrants and all the money they send back,” said Vasquez. “If we hadn’t been mutilated, we would have been working and sending back remittances too.”

If we hadn’t been mutilated, we would have been working and sending back remittances too.

Since last year, when a surge of Central Americans appeared on the southern U.S.-Mexico border, the United States has heavily pressured the Mexican government to ramp up enforcement efforts on known migrant routes. Using funds, arms, and training from U.S. forces, Mexican authorities stepped up immigration sweeps on freight trains, flophouses, and hotels and set up numerous checkpoints. Mexican officials have even barred migrants from boarding La Bestia. More than 6,000 people were taken off freight trains last September.

This increased enforcement has pushed Central Americans to take even more dangerous routes to evade authorities. One migrant reportedly drowned after he jumped off a train during a raid. Other migrants cross through rural routes, where they are more vulnerable to robberies.

Overall, Mexican authorities are becoming more effective at detaining migrants before they make it into the United States. The New York Times reported in September 2014 that “Mexican authorities have deported more than 38,000 Central Americans this year and now regularly send busloads and planes of detainees back to their countries.”

A recent Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) report found that while violence in Central America has not dropped, fewer migrants are showing up at the U.S. border. The WOLA report found that between October 2014 and April 2015, Mexico apprehended 92,889 Central American citizens, almost double the number of border crossers detained in the same time period the previous year. Activists are alarmed by the increase in detention and deportation in Mexico, WOLA wrote, noting that “migrant shelters have reported excesses in the use of force by authorities involved in raids on freight trains and in communities.”

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One of the coordinators of the Caravan, Salvador Sarmiento with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), told ThinkProgress that the U.S. is taking credit for fewer migrants reaching the United States, but not responsibility for the harm caused by harsh enforcement.

Jose Efrain Vasquez CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee
Jose Efrain Vasquez CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee

“People are wondering why we’re not seeing another massive flow of unaccompanied children at the Mexico-U.S. border this summer,” he said. “One of the reasons is that Mexico is doing the U.S.’ dirty work. President Pena Nieto is detaining record numbers of Central American migrants and the number is staggering.”

Violence is rampant in Central America and has been especially unrelenting in Honduras, the murder capital of the world. Anywhere from 140 to 300 tons of cocaine pass through the country and the impunity rate stands at 96 percent, VICE reported.

The Caravan of the Mutilated started in Honduras in February with 25 men. Just thirteen men continued on from Mexico City, but they were all detained crossing the border at Texas’ Eagle Pass Port of Entry in March. After being kept for more than a month in immigration detention, three were deported and only eight were released on “temporary parole,” Sarmiento said.

“They treated us badly, even though we’re like this,” Gamez said, gesturing to his missing legs. “We couldn’t sleep. We lost weight. Our cheeks were sunken. It was a nightmare, another torture for us.”

Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based immigrant advocacy group, is representing the men, some of whom are seeking asylum based on “the violence, the levels of poverty in their home countries, and the complete lack of opportunity,” Sarmiento said.

“They all have a common narrative that their government is failing them. They began that trek through Mexico to the U.S. for the hope of a different kind of life.”

The Caravan’s rally in the nation’s capital occurred on the same day that Vice President Joe Biden met with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez at the White House. According to the Obama administration, the two leaders discussed “efforts by Central American governments to address the economic and social factors contributing to increases in illicit migration to the United States.”