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Trail of fears: Central American women risk sexual violence en route to US for 'a better life'

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Posted at 2:29 PM, Sep 30, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-30 14:29:02-04

For five agonizing days, they’ve waited, collected in a shelter near the railroad tracks, near their path from a life they no longer can endure.

It’s Friday evening just before sunset when “La Bestia” (the Beast), the famous freight line that connects Mexico from north to south, finally approaches, its horn echoing a siren call.

In an instant, all those feelings of desperation and fear inside the shelter seem to melt; adrenaline takes control.

The dozens of Central American migrants huddled here instinctively grab their backpacks and run, racing alongside the tracks, grabbing at handles, holding on tightly until they climb aboard and onto the roof of the train. As each secures a spot, spectators — Tenosique locals and residents from a nearby shelter — cheer as if to celebrate a win by a local sports team.

Perched firmly atop now, the migrants — perhaps 100 men and a handful of women — acknowledge the encouragement, waving and smiling. Some snap photos with their cellphones, while others capture the moment on video.

But the exhilaration fades in just 42.3 miles, at the next stop in Palenque, when one of the women can’t be found.

Human-rights activists, already besieged with reports of kidnappings and sexual violence against women fleeing Central America through Mexico en route to the United States, have one more worry. They begin a search and file a police report.

“What happened to her?” they ask each other.

“Maybe she found a smuggler,” one suggests.

“I doubt it,” a shelter volunteer responds.

Palenque is a major tourist hub in the state of Chiapas but a treacherous area for migrants — especially women. Migrants disappear from this area so often the National Commission on Human Rights labels it a “dangerous zone.”

No one knows the fate of the young woman though the fear is she’s been captured and sold. Along the 1,030-mile migrant trail from the Southern Mexican border to its northern border with the U.S., women often become a commodity. Those who can’t afford to pay a smuggler, bribes to authorities or a “tax” to cartels often end up paying with their bodies or their lives.

For more information, photos and video of these women and the dangers they face, read the Trail of Fears project by the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

About this story:

Reporter Maria Ines Zamudio and photographer Carlton Purvis traveled to El Salvador and along the Mexico-Guatemala border exploring the peril Central American migrants face on their path to the United States. Their reporting was made possible by a fellowship with the International Center for Journalists, sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

In some instances, the full names of women quoted in this story are not used in keeping with The Commercial Appeal’s policy of not identifying victims of sexual assault.