Central American amputees, once migrants, seek help in Mexico

Norman Varela, right, prepares to stand at the Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd of the Poor and the Migrant in Tapachula, Mexico. He and several other amputees hoped to somehow meet with Mexico's president to discuss the risks that Central American migrants face as they pass through the country.
(Richard Fausset / Los Angeles Times)

TAPACHULA, Mexico — The last time Norman Varela made an unauthorized crossing into Mexico, he was headed to the United States, in search of a job, riding atop the infamous northbound freight train known as La Bestia — the Beast.

Mexican policemen robbed the Honduran of his savings en route, he said. Later, on the night of Oct. 29, 2005, a rumor spread that more bad men were coming. As Varela made his escape, he ducked under a freight car. It rolled over his right leg, severing it at the knee.

This week Varela, 42, was back in Mexico, this time with crutches and a wobbly prosthesis, accompanied by 14 countrymen whom the Beast had similarly mangled. These hobbled men in sweat-stained T-shirts were no longer in search of the American Dream. For them it was too late.


“Our American Dream has turned into a nightmare,” said Jose Luis Hernandez, who was missing his right leg and arm and three fingers on his left hand.

They were seeking safe passage for the thousands of migrants who keep making the trip.

On March 22, the men had floated across the Suchiate River, the dividing line between Mexico and Guatemala, on inner-tube rafts and promptly demanded a meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. They hoped to persuade him to guarantee U.S.-bound Central American migrants unmolested passage along Mexico’s highways, so they would no longer have to sneak onto the roof of La Bestia, and hang on for dear life.

Peña Nieto has not agreed to a meeting with the ragtag crew. But he addressed the issue this week during a meeting in Honduras with President Juan Orlando Hernandez by saying that every migrant passing through Mexico would receive “absolute respect for their human rights.”

Like the United States, Mexico regularly detains migrants who have entered the country illegally. Its southern border, however, passes through territory too rough and wild to be closely monitored. Many migrants manage to make their way to major roads and highways, only to end up arrested at roadblocks. To avoid that fate, some head for the train.

Varela and the others made no secret this week of their presence in Tapachula, a city in Chiapas state near the border with Guatemala, and they benefited from the spotty enforcement of immigration law in Mexico, freely visiting the municipal government headquarters in search of help. A government employee, however, told them that a meeting with the president was “impossible.”

“What’s impossible,” Varela said, “is regrowing a hand or an arm or a leg. It is not impossible to arrange a meeting with a fellow human being.”


The grisly toll in limbs is only one of the prices that unlucky Central Americans pay on their migration through Mexico. Armed gangs rob, rape, kidnap and kill, as do some authorities along La Bestia’s tracks. Thousands of migrants disappear each year. Some who resist their attackers are thrown from the moving train. Other common hazards include misjudging a leap onto the Beast, or falling off while asleep.

La Bestia, also known among migrants as “The Train of Death,” is actually a series of freight trains that run on a network of rails extending north and south throughout Mexico. In Chiapas, many migrants climb aboard in the city of Arriaga. If they make it to Lecheria, on the outskirts of Mexico City more than 400 miles away, they might continue on tracks that lead to the border states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua or Tamaulipas.

From Lecheria, the Pacific rail route extends more than 2,500 miles and the journey can take two weeks or more, as migrants wait for the right northbound train or slip away for days at a time to hide from authorities.

The risks are well-known in countries like Honduras. But so, too, is misery at home: According to the World Bank, 3 in 5 Hondurans were living below the poverty line in 2010.

And so the migrants, including women and children, continue to float across the Suchiate and jump the train, dreaming of San Diego or San Antonio or Denver. The Mexican government estimates that 300,000 Central Americans attempt the trip each year.

Among those, the Mexican government recorded 373 cases of amputations from 2002 to 2011. But many people believe the number is higher. Varela is the spokesman for a group called the Assn. of Returned Migrants With Disabilities, based in El Progreso, Honduras. The group estimates that 450 to 500 amputee migrants live in Honduras.


Once injured, the migrants are usually shipped back to their countries, where they had struggled to find work when they were able-bodied and, they say, social services are scant.

Varela, a former golf caddy, said he occasionally gets hired to remove untreated wastewater with a bucket in his northern Honduran municipality of San Manuel. He said he was five months behind on rent. It’s difficult for him to face his wife and four children without being able to properly provide for them, he said.

He acknowledged that it was desperation more than common sense that drove him back across the border to Mexico.

Varela and his companions turned to Tapachula’s Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd of the Poor and the Migrant, a spartan building dedicated to sick and injured travelers, as they tried to decide whether to press on and make their voices heard amid the din of Mexico City.

All of the men had been disfigured on trips in search of work in the United States. Hernandez, the double amputee, a handsome, athletically built 28-year-old who serves as president of the disabled migrants group, said his parents were supporting him in Honduras, but just barely. He said he had been attacked by a gang on La Bestia while traveling through Mexico in 2005. Later, exhausted, he fell from the train and onto the tracks, where his limbs were caught by the wheels of the train.

“We came here,” he said, “to demand that we not be mistreated.”

Benito Murillo, 43, said his wife left him when he returned to Honduras eight years ago missing his right arm and leg. “We want the Mexican authorities to know the reality we’re living,” he said.


Murillo added that there was also a spiritual reason for the trip. “We left parts of our bodies here. I buried my leg and my arm here.”

The volunteer-run Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd was founded in 1990 and serves about 700 immigrants per year. Some of the men in Varela’s group had recuperated there after their injuries and were returning for the first time in years.

The rules of the place, tacked to a wall near the entrance, illustrate the perils of the migrants’ journey: If you are discovered to be a coyote — a human trafficker — you will be kicked out, says one sign. Another says to check your weapons with the administration: “They will keep it for you and return it to you when you leave.”

Varela, Hernandez and the other men mingled with men who had only recently become amputees. Josue Romero Diaz, 20, listened to the older men talk as he lounged on a beat-up sofa, the stump of his right leg wrapped in bandages. He had been riding on La Bestia just a few days earlier when he dozed off and fell. It could have been worse: His father, Armando Romero, who was traveling with him, showed a folded-up newspaper with a photo of two men dead by the tracks. They had been traveling with these men, the elder Romero said.

The article said authorities in Veracruz thought the men had been pushed from the moving train.

Varela’s group had had some success this week in Tapachula, holding a news conference and generating some coverage in the Mexican press, but they were restless.


Some of them hailed two dilapidated cabs Tuesday afternoon and headed to the local offices of the Mexican government’s immigration department. They wanted to see whether an arrangement could be made for the group to travel to the capital without being arrested for violating Mexican immigration law.

At the security gate, Varela related his story to a baffled security guard, who told him to wait.

And so he waited in the Chiapan heat, balancing on his crutches. If the men couldn’t be guaranteed safe passage to Mexico City, Varela said, with an official government letter allowing them to ride the bus, they might try to get to the capital the way they knew best.

They would ride there on La Bestia.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.