Migrants traveling by trainTULTITLAN, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–Exhausted from walking long distances the night before, Joyce was sleeping silently on the floor of the migrant shelter here, curled on her side, when a shelter organizer woke her up to tell her story to a reporter.

She was the only woman among roughly 150 men and boys, some as young as 14.

The cold by now had eased and her hunger subsided. But the worry about the man who had threatened the 19-year-old persisted. He said he’d find her on the road ahead.

Joyce took the trip from Honduras after her mother paid a smuggler fee to help her get across the United States and Mexico border, in hopes of reaching her siblings in South Dakota.

But on a train she ran into the threatening man.

"I was by myself all the way [traveling by train] until a guy asked me to come with him and said otherwise he would kill me," Joyce said, speaking through a Spanish translator. She asked that her last name not be mentioned. "I went to these El Salvadorian guys and asked if they would protect me. They have protected me, but this guy who threatened me, he told me that he will find me up farther north and that I will pay for that then."

A freight train runs through this mellow town. Its hoots one recent afternoon served as a muffled alarm to the shelter, which resembled a crowded male dorm with the sole exception of Joyce. A few young men snored noisily on bare mattresses in the shelter’s main room while the rest sat slumped against the chipped white walls, waiting for the next train at 2 p.m.

Rough Way to Travel

The trains are a rough way to travel.

"People climb onto trains when they are moving," said Rupert Knox, Amnesty International’s Mexico researcher and author of a recent report on violence against Central American migrants. "People just have to find a spot to hold on to and the whole roof is heaving with people, just sitting on hot steel. And then, whoops, you fall down into the track–you get pulled under the train. Losing limbs is a constant."

Six out of 10 Central American migrant women experience sexual violence during their voyage, Amnesty International said in the April report, "Invisible Victims: On the Move in Mexico." It’s difficult to ascertain exactly how many unauthorized Central American female migrants cross the border to the United States annually, but the International Organization for Migration estimates that upwards of 100,000 make the journey each year.

The majority of the victims–most of them young and single–don’t report the incidents because they don’t want to stall their trips, said Lupita Calzada, an organizer of the migrant shelter where Women’s eNews found Joyce resting.

Migrants traveling by train"Women who arrive here very commonly experience sexual violence, but they know that will be the situation," Calzada said through a Spanish translator. "They come prepared for sexual violence, by taking pills or getting injections, because they are aware that there is this chance."

Shelters Provide Amenities, Counseling

Calzada runs one of 54 migrant shelters scattered throughout Mexico, sponsored by the Pastoral Commission of Human Mobility, a Catholic Church-affiliated migrants’ aid organization.

The shelters offer migrants basic amenities and counseling for sexual violence victims. They also try to protect them from gangs that stalk migratory routes in southern Mexican states, with the intention of kidnapping migrants and extorting money from families already in the United States.

If the kidnappers don’t receive the ransom–even after sending severed fingers in the mail as a warning–they will enslave the migrants on farms in Mexico, making them work off their worth, Calzada said. Verbal, physical and sexual abuse at these remote sites are rampant, migrant workers say, and while most migrants are released after around a year, Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights has reported instances of women being murdered and being kept as "trophy wives" for gang leaders.

Calzada said protection at shelters from these abuses only goes so far. "We don’t let kidnappers in [by policy], but we can’t be sure that we aren’t doing so, actually."

Tultitlan lies two hours east of Mexico City, just beyond the dusty mountains that enclose the capital’s urban sweep.

The El Salvadorian men protecting Joyce secured her a prime spot on the roof of the train, she said, so she didn’t fall off. Most women, especially those with children, avoid that risk–and that of kidnappers preying on train routes–and take buses or trucks instead.

Lack of Trust

Joyce didn’t try to report the intimidation she experienced on the train to police and doesn’t intend to.

"I don’t trust the policemen here. Even in my country I don’t trust the police," said Joyce, smiling for the first time since Calzada roused her from her nap. "The only option I have is to protect myself or to find someone to protect me."

Joyce has been having doubts about continuing the journey, though, and wants to get in touch with migration authorities.

More than 64,000 foreign nationals, 20 percent of whom were female, were detained by the Mexican National Migrant Service in 2009, offering the best indication of how many migrants journey through Mexico each year. Approximately 60,000 of them were repatriated or deported from Mexico to their native Central American countries.

Counting on Joyce being among the lucky, her five siblings waiting for her in South Dakota discouraged her from turning herself in. She calls them through landline phones provided by the shelter.

"They won’t let me turn back," Joyce said, playing with the ties of a gray, drawstring cotton bag she clutched tightly. "Every day I talk to them and they say, ‘Just keep on going, you are almost there.’"

Joyce thinks the journey’s most challenging part is over, but worries about how she will cross the U.S. border. There is also the lingering fear of the man who told Joyce he would find her and attack her on the road ahead.

"I would not recommend this journey to anyone," Joyce said.

Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based out of the United Nations Secretariat.

For more information:

Widespread abuse of migrants in Mexico is ‘human rights crisis’, Amnesty International: