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Walking the Line of Death

By Virgil Grandfield

Americans call it the Rio Grande — the Big River. Mexicans call it el Rio Bravo, the Angry River. To the millions who secretly defy its deadly currents and quicksand — refugees and dreamers from as far away as Brazil, Russia or China — it is "la Línea de la Muerte" — the Line of Death.

Is it really possible for a few hundred American border patrol guards to police the 2,200-mile border between the US and Mexico?
©Marko Kokic / Internatioanl Federation

Antonio Zenon Urgia rests on a sheetless mattress and wonders aloud how he should cross the river when his time at this crowded migrant hostel in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, runs out. He has three days.

The 39-year-old Honduran construction worker cannot swim and has no money for even the cheapest smugglers under the bridge, where submerged, jagged bars of crumbled old bridge footings devour lives like iron crocodiles.

A Mexican Red Cross paramedic has just given him more bad news: crossing the polluted river will further infect the wound on his swollen left leg and perhaps leave Antonio stranded to die in the immense southern Texas mesquite and cactus thickets across the river.

Antonio burrows under his blanket. "You suffer so much on the journey," he says. "It is hard to recall any of it."

Antonio's three travelling companions gather around his bed and gently help him tell the story of what a person — someone like themselves and millions of other undocumented migrants crossing rivers or fences, deserts, continents or oceans — will endure for a simple dream.

Antonio's dream when he left home seven weeks earlier was to own 100 goats and share their milk with all of his neighbours in Tacoa, Honduras. He said goodbye to his wife and two children and started his trip alone with two weeks' wages in his pocket — about US$ 25.

As happens to many migrants arriving at the Guatemala-Mexico border, policemen robbed Antonio of his remaining US$ 20 almost as soon as he stepped off the bus. Then a man with a knife took his shoes.

Antonio begged for another pair of shoes, and then hid and waited at the edge of town for a northbound freight train. As the next train slowly passed, other men emerged from the bushes and woods alongside Antonio and scrambled aboard the moving train with him. In a short distance, hundreds of men — maybe 500 — dashed for the train, grasping at ladders and climbing atop the train cars. Some would slip at the ladders and fall screaming under the train's cutting wheels — one right at Antonio's feet.

Five hours up the tracks, a large squad of federal immigration police — la migra — stopped the train, and all the men fled into the countryside. Antonio hid in a grassy field and listened to the others. Soon he heard shouting and the sounds of men being beaten.

Antonio could see them drop, their bodies tumbling and rolling along the wayside.

Resting up in a safe house before the long
journey across the Line of Death.
©Marko Kokic / Internatioanl Federation

Later, Antonio drank water from a ditch and slept in the field. The next morning he caught another freight train. Again, scores of men materialized from the bushes and fields and clambered aboard with him.

Antonio and the others rode without rest, hanging on to ladders, standing between train cars or perched on the narrow runways above the tanker wagons. No one could get off the train to look for food and water. "Better to be hungry than lose the train," Antonio told himself. Those who could not stay awake through the night fell from the train. He could see them drop, their bodies tumbling and rolling along the wayside.

Antonio walked, sometimes for days, between catching trains. He begged for food, knocking on doors that opened or closed to the 200 or 300 men like him every day. Most people insulted him. "They yelled at me to get some work." But he understands. "They are tired of so many of us."

He made friends along the way with four other Honduran men. They drank from the same puddles, raided cornfields, hid in cisterns and drainage pipes, helped each other on to trains, bundled close together when they could at night in abandoned buildings or ditches, and comforted one another when there was no other comfort but their dreams.

"Our spirits would soar and then fall," says Antonio. "We would cry because we missed our families and because we were afraid we would be caught, or that los maras would kill us."

At night, los maras — tattooed, machete-wielding gangs of teenage boys and young men, some high on drugs — mounted the trains and moved from car top to car top, robbing the migrants of anything, even their water bottles.

In daylight, children and men gathered along the tracks and threw large stones at the travellers. Some of Antonio's companions began to board trains with their own rocks to respond.

Antonio refused to carry rocks. "I left it to God," he says. When a boy threw a grapefruit-sized rock which hit Antonio's left shin while he was helpless on the running board of a train car, he says, "I did not even curse him."

The rock tore through the three layers of pants he had been wearing against the mountain cold and opened a large gash in his shin. Antonio could hardly move. The next time la migra stopped the train and began the chase, Antonio could only hobble a few metres and hide.

Early on, each train had carried 300 to 500 free riders. By this point in the journey, los maras, la migra and misfortune had cut those numbers to 100 or 200 per train.

Not welcome. Each day border patrol drops off hundreds of migrants at the Juarez-Lincoln Bridge and forces them to return to Mexico.
©Marko Kokic / Exile Images


Antonio and his companions travelled on another month, hopping on 15 trains, fleeing la migra seven times and sleeping only three nights on real beds — at a migrant shelter in Orizaba, Mexico. There they met a man who'd just lost a foot to a train's wheels.

Antonio became so ill on the trip that for days he vomited any food he tried to eat. Clean water was unavailable. He was feverish, dehydrated, anaemic, and an infection raged in his leg.

Antonio at first cannot describe what he thought in those days. A companion leans in to help, as he has all along: "You only think of arriving, of work and your family." "Yes," says Antonio. "To arrive."

By the time Antonio reached northern Mexico, only a handful of fellow travellers — one or two for every hundred who'd started the trip — were left. He and his companions caught a ride on a truck to the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo — Mexico's largest land port for all things and people, legal and illegal, to the United States of America.

Once in Nuevo Laredo, they tried to find jobs to earn some money. But without the proper papers, there was no work. Someone directed them to a place where they could get some food and rest for three days: la Casa del Migrante Nazareth, a migrant hostel run by a Catholic priest, nuns and lay clergy of the small, nearby church of Saint Joseph, patron saint of workers.

At the Nazareth migrant house, Antonio and his companions found themselves in good, but likewise damaged company — more of the walking wounded.


A Mexican Red Cross paramedic, providing
first aid, has just given Antonio him some bad news; crossing the polluted river will further infect the wound on his swollen left leg.
©Marko Kokic / Internatioanl Federation


Some had made the same hellish journey from Central America. One Honduran lost half his foot to a train's wheels. Another saw one man hacked by a machete and thrown from the train and another man crushed to death while pulling his fallen wife from under the train's wheels. The woman lost both legs at the thighs and must have died in the little truck that rushed her to hospital.

Most, however, had come to the hostel from a bridge a few blocks away. All day long, the only pedestrian traffic on the bridge is Mexican deportees, sometimes hundreds of them, left at the far end by US-border patrol buses. Men and women hide their faces in their hands as they stagger humiliated across the bridge.

"What else do you call it when you don't have rights to complain," says one US border patrol officer, "When you are at someone's whim and call? When women are used for illicit acts and are afraid to go to the police?"

Some men tell of serving long prison terms for illegal entry. They entered without permission because the chances for a poor worker of legally immigrating to the US were — according to one immigration consultant in Laredo, Texas — "zero".

An American Red Cross volunteer in Texas says her entire community uses undocumented workers, even the sheriff. "They work them until they can't work. When one gets hurt, the curtain comes down and you never see or hear of them again."

"What do you do if one gets hurt?" she asks. "Shoot him and bury him like a horse?"

The deportees are part of a huge, secret, economic army — some 10 to 20 million strong and indispensable. Like soldiers, they die in a no-man's-land that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

To cross the Line of Death

Antonio asks a man in a bunk across from him about crossing into Texas. The man doesn't know. In the morning, Antonio could talk to one of the "coyotes" — smugglers — living around the hostel. But he has no money, and he's wary of the coyotes.

If Antonio could speak with Angel, a migrant hidden in a safe house well north of the border, he might learn how to cross the Line of Death safely.

Over 1,000 people annually — sometimes 40 a night — pass through
this, the first migrant haven some seven to nine days' walk from the border. They receive a little food, sleep on the floor and have their wounds attended to by a traditional healer. The next night, they move on.

Angel lives here. Other men at the safe house say stout, broad-shouldered Angel has roots like an oak tree, on both sides of the border. The 39-year-old has crossed the Línea de la Muerte almost every year since boyhood. He is deeply tanned from planting gardens, mowing lawns and harvesting crops, his hands are thick from building roads and homes.

Angel explains what someone like Antonio must do to cross the Line of Death and survive, a code he began to learn when crossing for the first time at the age of 11 with his father and an uncle: He must bring dried meat, salt, aspirins and all the water he can carry for the long walk through savagely hot, dry, thorny country.

Hundreds of migrants die each year crossing the Rio Grande river from Mexico to the US.
©Marko Kokic / Exile Images

He must find a place on the river that is not monitored by cameras, motion detectors or border officers with night vision equipment; somewhere along the river that is not the turf of violent smugglers who help those who can pay. He must avoid smugglers; some will know he is poor and try to force him to carry drugs for them in exchange for passage. He must carry his clothes in plastic bags and, if he cannot swim, he must float across on an inner tube. He must hide his tracks.

He must only walk at night to avoid detection and the heat. He must remain silent at all times, even in good company. He must follow el Carrito in the stars, a constellation like a wagon whose tongue points north. He must look for water windmills and listen for frogs. Where there are frogs, there is water.

He must be prepared to drink water that is green. He must be ready to climb over, cut through or crawl under 20 or more three-to-four metre deer fences. He must be careful of the razor wire at the top of some fences. He must repair any cuts he makes to a fence.

He must bring a slingshot and a knife, so when his food runs out, he can shoot a rabbit or kill a goat. He must be ready to eat snakes, armadillos or dead game caught in fences or recently killed on the highway. If there is no game or fire, he must eat raw cactus.

He must never break the window, force the door or steal at a cabin or ranch house where people leave food for migrants.

He must know he might get sick, attacked by wild hogs, bitten by poisonous snakes. He must be prepared to suffer blisters that can shed all the skin from his feet.

He must never approach anyone, for fear of being mistaken for an animal, or taken for what he is and reported or shot by a rancher or vigilante. He must expect no sympathy.

That, says Angel, is how you cross the Line of Death.

In the next three days, Antonio may get lucky. He might somehow get the medicine he needs for his leg. He might find some work to pay for another week's rest on the floor of one of the nearby houses where migrants like him are packed in like sardines. He might meet an Angel to show him how to cross and live.

Today, he was lucky and had a shower, a shave and a haircut at the hostel. Over at Saint Joseph's chapel, he chose some clean, second-hand clothes from a table and then went to a large, upstairs dining room. He found himself in front of a steaming plate of food on a long table, flanked by his companions and some 60 men like him. When a nun asked one of them to pray, the men removed their hats and bowed their heads.

The man's prayer was long, full of thanks and pleas of help for their families and for the journey to come. When the man's prayer ended, the nun said her same short, simple prayer as always, and the men sat to eat.

Back at the hostel, Antonio has told the story of his journey, with the help of friends. His belly is full for once, so he will sleep soon. He has a mattress for three nights to dream his simple dream, and has three days to hear the nun's simple prayer: "Lord, walk with us, and lift our spirits."

The man's prayer was long, full of thanks and pleas for help for their families and the journey to come.


Virgil Grandfield

Virgil Grandfield is a freelance writer and overseas delegate with the Canadian Red Cross.

Further information

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
International Labour Organization
International Organization for Migration
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Migrants Rights International
World Council of Churches

Facts from the Mexican-US border

The US border patrol (now organized under the US Department of Homeland Security) detains about 1.5 million undocumented migrants coming across the Mexico-US border every year. Repeat detainees are often imprisoned.

The border patrol officially estimates that about 10 million undocumented migrants live in the United States. Anonymous border patrol officials say the number is probably closer to 20 million.

Various human rights agencies say over the last ten years about 400 migrants have died every year crossing the border (that does not include the many who die before reaching the border). This is a very difficult number to determine because, for instance, the remains of so many migrants are devoured and scattered by scavengers within a short time of death.


A Red Cross Red Crescent concern

Over 175 million people now live outside their countries of birth — double the figure in 1975, according to the International Federation's 2003 World Disasters Report. Many are economic migrants, who may be fleeing poverty and severe deprivation. They are an important development resource for their home countries, remitting about US$ 80 billion per year to developing nations (compared toUS$ 50 billion in world aid). According to Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro Rivero, president of the International Federation, migrants are "the new untouchables".

Every day, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies deal with the problems and difficulties of documented and undocumented migrants whose desperation is such that they risk everything, including the lives of their families and their own, to gain access to better living conditions in developed market economies. Their moves are not simply driven by the situation in their home country, but also by the knowledge that there is a demand for labour in developed societies. At its meeting in November 2001, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Council of Delegates tasked all components of the Movement to increase their efforts to help people affected by population movements or displacement in a holistic approach, beyond the questions of status. This has translated into the scaling up of programmes assisting migrants, and reinforced partnerships with other migrant-related non-governmental organizations.

More recently, population movement was one of the central topics at both the 6th Asia-Pacific Regional Red Cross and Red Crescent Conference and the 6th European Regional Conference of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in 2002.

Vulnerability does not end once a migrant or refugee has arrived in his or her country of destination. Documented incidences of xenophobia, in all parts of the world, have increased dramatically during the past ten years. To combat this, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies — with the International Federation in the lead — have launched programmes to promote tolerance and fair and humane policies in receiving countries, and to assist and protect vulnerable migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. The Red Cross Red Crescent also made the battle against discrimination in all its forms the theme of World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, 8 May 2004.

Finally, the ICRC has a leading responsibility towards people who are separated because of an armed conflict or armed violence. The ICRC works closely with National Societies especially in the context of re-establishing family links. If migrants or asylum seekers end up in jail, this link can prove vital. Increasingly National Societies are involved in activities for detained migrants. For Marguerite Contat Hickel, ICRC diplomatic advisor, "the growing number of arrests, related to immigration laws, sometimes motivated by the 'fight against terrorism', requires that the ICRC provide guidance and support for National Societies working in places of detention."

Erno Kato, deputy secretary general of the Hungarian Red Cross, explains why it is important and natural for the Movement to help people on the move either legally or illegally: "We do not discriminate and we do not judge. Our response is based on humanitarian values and migrants can relate to that. Given our global spread and community action we are in a unique position to respond. Our National Societies should be places all migrants can turn to for advice and support."

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