by Michelle Frankfurter


DESTINO PORTRAYS the perilous journey by cargo train of Central American migrants in pursuit of a better life in the United States. For the past six years, I have traveled with migrants along the network of freight trains crisscrossing Mexico to tell the story of a generation displaced by conflict, in a landscape that is becoming increasingly dangerous.

Undocumented Central American migrants ride a northbound freight train through the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca—the first leg of their journey by rail to the U.S. border. July 2010.

Unlike Mexican migration to the United States—which dates back to the 1880’s—Central American movements began a full century later, the consequence of bloody civil wars, U.S. Cold War-era intervention in the region, and crippling international trade policies. The resulting legacy of drug and gang violence, combined with high instances of poverty and domestic abuse, led to an unprecedented wave of migrants headed north.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended while attempting to cross illegally into the United States has tripled since 2008. Government officials and child welfare advocates attribute the alarming spike in child migration to rising gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Gang members in those countries use threats in an effort to forcibly recruit to their ranks. Faced with an untenable situation, many children choose to flee, seeking out the safety of a life in the United States. But the numbers reported by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, only represent the number of children caught trying to cross into the U.S. The actual number of unaccompanied minors and single mothers with small children attempting the journey across Mexico is substantially higher.

In Mexico, where racism towards Central Americans is prevalent, undocumented migrants are vulnerable to a multitude of dangers that have escalated dramatically in recent years. Police routinely rob and beat migrants. Corrupt immigration officials detain and deport, and bandits and gang members lurk along travel routes. Many have been injured or killed falling from moving trains. And heightened security along the nearly two thousand-mile long U.S. border has made the crossing more dangerous than ever, as smugglers lead migrants through increasingly isolated terrain in order to avoid detection. From these many adversities, migrants find respite in a loose system of shelters run by Catholic priests, and from the benevolence of sympathetic Mexicans in towns and villages along the way.

The issue of migration is current; the story of migration, however, is timeless. Having grown up on the adventure tales of Jack London and Mark Twain, and later Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, for me there is no storyline more compelling than one involving a youthful odyssey across a hostile wilderness. With a singularity of purpose, and a kind of brazen resilience, migrants traverse deadly terrain, relying mostly on their wits and the occasional kindness of strangers—much like the anti-hero protagonists of my favorite literature. In documenting a journey both concrete and figurative, I convey the experience of individuals who struggle to control their own destiny. With Destino, I hope to engage the public—especially in border states—in a measured discussion that addresses the root causes behind the current wave of Central American migration.

A Guatemalan woman fleeing an abusive husband holds her infant son while waiting for a northbound cargo train in the railhead town of Arriaga, southern Mexican state of Chiapas. January 2014.

A Salvadoran man, his wife, and his 18-month-old son ride a northbound train through the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The nearly 13-hour ride from Arriaga, Chiapas, to Ixtepec, Oaxaca, marks the first leg of the journey for migrants traveling across Mexico to the U.S. border via freight train. July 18, 2010.

Undocumented Central American migrants, predominantly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, scramble to board a cargo train in Arriaga, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. After crossing the Suchiate River, and the Guatemala–Mexico border, migrants travel approximately 160 miles west to Arriaga. Often they must take multiple local buses, known as combis, and trek for miles through the brush in order to circumvent immigration checkpoints before reaching the railhead. January 2014.

Honduran migrant at the Hermanos en El Camino migrant shelter in Ixtepéc, Oaxaca. June 2009.

Central American migrants ride atop a northbound freight train through the Mexican state of Oaxaca. February 2011.

Young Guatemalan migrants ride atop a northbound freight train through the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The network of cargo trains used by undocumented immigrants to reach the U.S. border is known as "la Bestia” (The Beast), due to the scores of people who have been injured or killed in train-related accidents. February 2011.

A group of undocumented Central Americans are captured by U.S. Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley. Near McAllen, Texas. April 2013.

Weary and injured migrants rest in a makeshift chapel at the Hermanos en El Camino migrant shelter, in the small town of Ixtepec, Oaxaca. June 2009.

A woman stands on a levee in "El Bordo”. The canal zone which straddles the U.S.–Mexican border is home to a community of heroin addicts, many of whom were deported from the United States. Tijuana, Baja California. August 2012.


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Berkeley, CA