Robbing the Rails for Food

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was just after nightfall when Luis Hernandez Suarez, 18, left his family's shack on the side of Mt. Atitla. He scrambled up a quarter-mile of arid, unyielding land and joined several dozen men, women and children from this poor town at a remote mountaintop rail crossing.

Their plan: to greet the 14521 Express as it lurched through the rugged mountains of Veracruz state toward Mexico City and to force the night freight to make an unscheduled stop.

Hernandez--who had just been laid off from a $3-a-day road crew--helped pile boulders onto the tracks, police said. When the engineer screeched to a halt at their makeshift blockade, villagers forced open three boxcars, emptied them of 5,000 pounds of corn and sugar and fled into the dark.

All but Hernandez got away. As police hauled him off to jail, he offered a simple explanation for the March 22 crime. "No one here has enough to eat. We have many women and children who are dying of hunger, and there's no work," he said. "We rob out of hunger. We rob to live."

Hernandez was not alone--in the robbery of a train or his attempt to justify it. Federal and rail officials in Mexico City confirmed recently that in the last 18 months there have been at least 10 such major food heists by peasants attacking freight trains and later blaming hunger as the cause.

In Durango state, 600 miles to the northwest, women and children turned out by the hundreds to rob six freights in five months last year. There, children ages 11 to 13 were sent by mothers and grandmothers to use boulders to stop the trains and loot the boxcars. They fled on tricycles packed with stolen sacks of grain, police said.

The brazen assaults, law enforcement officials and independent criminologists say, are among the dire steps rural Mexicans are taking to cope with the harshness of the poverty that two years of a brutal recession has only worsened. The robberies, they say, show just how that impoverishment--which has seemed to deepen among rural families despite the nation's overall economic recovery--has eaten away at social values.

And at a time when the government is privatizing a rail system that for decades was a symbol of Mexican nationalism, the train heists illustrate the effect of the government's economic policies on crime.

Rail officials insist that the robberies are not the work of starving peasants but are well-orchestrated attacks by criminal gangs. Officials say the organized criminals use women and children as fronts to steal commodities for resale in a wave of lawlessness that also has been fueled by Mexico's economic crisis.

"These are people who are organized and dedicated to committing robberies," Miguel Tirado Rasso, a spokesman for the Mexican National Railroad in Mexico City, said of the thieves. "They hide behind women and children, whom they hire to carry out the robberies. And they make it appear as if they steal because of hunger."

The analysts say they see little difference between that official explanation and the comments of poor villagers like Hernandez: Whether they steal for food or for money, they add to a crime wave driven by joblessness and despair.

Soaring Crime Rate

Crime has soared nationwide in the years since President Ernesto Zedillo's administration sharply devalued the peso in December 1994, triggering one of Mexico's worst recessions.

Burglaries, auto theft and robberies--many the work of criminal gangs--are at or near record levels in most cities and towns. But even as Mexico's economy shows signs of recovery, with projected growth rates of at least 4% this year, analysts say the spate of crimes for profit--and even for survival--shows few signs of abating.

Emma Mendoza Bremauntz, a criminology professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said crime continues to increase for financial, political and social reasons. She attributed the rail robberies to a combination of rural poverty and popular reaction to the government's sweeping plans to privatize its industrial holdings--to raise billions of dollars and increase economic efficiency.

Since soon after they were built in the late 19th century, Mexico's rails have been an icon of nationalism. The railroad unified the nation and played a key role in the Revolution of 1910-17--allowing Mexican troops to be ferried to key battle sites. The entire system--run under concession by U.S. and British companies--later was seized and nationalized by the Mexican government.

But now that Zedillo is auctioning off the works--principally to private U.S. firms--the rail system's image has crumbled. "For Mexicans in general, the railroads became an idol, something that everyone strongly connected to the revolution," Mendoza said. "It was what interconnected all the different rural areas, and it was the way very low-income people got around. It wasn't a business. It was a social service.

"Now, with the privatization, the railways have been cheapened in the eyes of the people. They have become more legitimate targets for crime."

But the chief cause of crime in the countryside, Mendoza said, remains economic. And the rural train robberies are largely born of despair. "The situation in the countryside is very difficult," she said. "How can you maintain the minimum standards of life when your minimum salary is going down in value all the time?"

Most analysts say the train robberies have been overshadowed by far more frequent and often violent urban crime; rail officials insist the heists are "uncommon." But the recent rash of the incidents, hundreds of miles apart, has drawn increasing attention in the capital.

Before villagers robbed the express in Acultzingo, almost identical grain-train robberies occurred near the northeastern industrial city of Monterrey; there were the six robberies in Durango and another incident in Guadalajara.

Each time, the peasants claimed they had acted out of hunger. Each time, rail officials disagreed. And each time, the incidents launched a local debate over whether the economy or lawlessness--or both--was to blame for driving law-abiding peasants to crime.

Ricardo Fontecilla, a Durango deputy state prosecutor who became an expert on train holdups after the heists there, said the incidents started because of hunger but grew into "kind of a business for them."

He noted that the peasants struck repeatedly after finding the crime could be lucrative and could be committed with relative ease; there have been no injuries from incidents in which rail personnel resisted the rural banditry, and the poor seem to understand that, even if caught, they will not be subject to harsh penalties.

Driven by Hunger

Such factors could have contributed to the spread of the problem. Rail officials confirmed that at least 300 poor people from San Nicolas de los Garzas, north of Monterrey, blocked a freight just before midnight May 29 and robbed it of corn and beans. Among the seven people detained were women and teenagers; they asserted that they were driven by hunger.

Rosaura Barahona, a Monterrey social commentator, likened the robbery in nearby San Nicolas to an incident involving a "humble housewife" who held up a bank with a toy pistol in 1982, when Mexico had its last economic crisis.

"What is the relationship between that isolated case and the train assault by starving men, women and children? That neither crime was provoked by the desire for power, for ambition, for excessive luxury, for evil or for sport," she wrote in an essay published in the city's El Norte daily last year. "If I were a child dying of hunger, and reality had shown me that life in this country has two systems of justice--one for the rich and one for the poor . . . without a doubt I would attack the train and cargo.

"My social values? I would save them for another occasion."

Such sympathy was widely shared among Acultzingo residents. They conceded that they had heard reports of the Durango heists before the incident here. But as they reflected on the night the freight was hit, they offered ample proof for Hernandez's stated motive.

"People have nothing up there on the mountain," said Moises Vaz Gutierrez, assistant to the parish priest at the local Roman Catholic church. "They cut and sell wood. With that, they can earn some 20 pesos [about $3] a day. The ones who work the field earn about the same."

Asuncion Reyes Cortes, who works in the town's civil registry, added: "There's a lot of unemployment here. There's absolutely no industry here. People just don't have jobs. And what they grow doesn't give them enough to eat."

As a result, Reyes and local police said, robberies of all kinds are up in Acultzingo. Migration to Southern California for work also is on the rise. "We have a lot of [people] who have left from here to go to Los Angeles illegally," she said.

Of the recent heist, Reyes said, "I don't know if it was because they were really poor, but in some houses here people just have salt and tortillas to eat."

At Hernandez's shack, they don't even have that much food, Sofia Suarez Rosas, the youth's mother, told a visitor.

The shack is a portrait of crushing rural poverty. Its walls are sliced-up stolen railroad ties hammered together with rusty nails. The floor is dirt, the roof is tin. There is no water, no power and no road to this spot, a 45-minute hike up a cracked, snake-infested mountainside, two miles from the center of town.

In front of the shack is a shed that offers more testimony to the family's life of despair: It stores a small pile of 3-inch rotten corncobs--the family's entire harvest from a tiny plot of arid land.

As the 35-year-old woman rubbed a coarse hand over her lined face and surveyed this year's pathetic crop, she explained that her son had been working on a highway crew for the local minimum wage and tending their family plot between jobs.

Off to Prison

On March 10, she said, he was laid off. He came home and brought in the corn. Then, on March 22, her son, who local police said had never been in trouble with the law before, took off with the other villagers for the rail tracks that snake up and over Mt. Atitla. The next time she heard of him, she said, he was in prison in the state capital, Veracruz.

Hernandez was released earlier this month on a small bond posted by several other local families. A few days later he left for Oaxaca, hoping to find another construction job, his mother said.

"What my son said when they arrested him is true," she added, staring blankly at the infertile land. "There's no food here. There's no water. There's nothing here. Now I'm just thinking, how am I going to survive without my son?"

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