Skip to content
How Carlos Lost His Leg to the Wheels of a Train
He lies in bed No. 1 of the trauma unit at Hospital Civil in the town of Arriaga in southern Mexico.
Four days before he was brought in, Carlos Roberto Diaz Osorto, 17, of Honduras had seen a man get both legs cut off by a freight train. But he pushed fear out of his mind. He was going to the United States to find work.
At a curve near Arriaga, where the trains brake, Carlos races alongside, asking himself, "Should I get on or not?" His cousins have grabbed on to the sixth car from the end. Carlos panics. Will he be left behind?
The train comes to a bridge. Carlos will not give up. He crosses the span, jumping from one railroad tie to another. His shoelaces are loose. His left shoe flies off. Then his right shoe.
He reaches for a ladder on a fuel tanker, but the car is moving too fast, and he lets go. He grabs a railing. The tanker jerks hard. Carlos holds on, but he can feel air rushing beneath the car, sucking his legs in, close to the wheels.
His fingers uncurl. He tries to bounce his feet off the wheels and push away.
But as he lets go, the air pulls him in.
The wheels flatten his right foot, then slice through his left leg above the knee. He feels on fire.
"Help me! Help me! It hurts!" he screams.
He begins to pant, to sweat, to ask for water, not sure anyone can hear him. Unlike some who try to stand, Carlos can see that his limbs are a raw jumble of crimson sinew, bone and muscle.
Paramedics from the Mexican Red Cross find him lying by the tracks. He has lost nearly a third of his blood, but the hot rails have cauterized many of his arteries. The medics apply two tourniquets.
"Take away the pain," he moans.
A doctor cuts his bones, then seals each artery and vein. He stretches skin over the openings and sutures them shut. Sometimes there are no drugs available to stave off infection, but Carlos is lucky. The Red Cross locates some penicillin.
Twelve days later, his parents arrive at his bedside and look at what is left of his legs. "I thank God he's still alive," says Maria Mercedes Diaz, 33, crying quietly and stroking her son's hair.
At the rate of nearly one every other day, the Red Cross estimates, U.S.-bound Central American immigrants who ride freight trains lose arms, legs, hands or feet. The estimate, offered by Martin Edwin Rabanales Luttman, chief of the Red Cross ambulance corps in Tapachula, is for the Mexican state of Chiapas alone. It does not count those who die instantly when they are cut in half or decapitated.
They fall from the trains for a variety of reasons. Some fall asleep and roll off; others are thrown by the street gangs who control the train tops.
Because the migrants try to fool authorities and pass themselves off as Mexican, they carry no identification. If they die, their bodies are lowered, nameless, into common graves. At Tapachula, they end up down a hole in the cemetery with stillborn babies.
At Arriaga, in northern Chiapas, snapshots of the dead are placed in a black book on Police Chief Reyder Cruz Toledo's desk. Some pictures are so new that he hasn't pasted them in yet. One is of a woman with her head torn off. Another is of a 20-year-old man cut in half.
In most photos, the eyes are open.
The chief keeps the book handy, hoping someone will identify the bodies. No one, he says, ever comes to look.
Guillermina Galvez Lopez, 30, whose wooden hut fronts the rails in Chiapas near an immigrant checkpoint called La Arrocera, hears the train riders cry out. Once a month, on average, she says, a man or a boy will fall near her house and lose his arms or legs.
"Help me! Help me!" they beg.
Her husband applies tourniquets and races for help.
In the train yard at the Lecheria station in Mexico City, workers tell of a 7-year-old boy from Central America traveling alone.
He sprinted hard to catch a northbound freight. He grabbed on to the ladder of a hopper car, but he could not run fast enough. The train pulled him forward. He stumbled, hands first, under a car. One wheel sliced off his left arm above the elbow.
He writhed beside the tracks, his arm being tossed about under the cars.
The boy cried out: "¡Mama! ¡Mama!"