They call themselves the Caravana de Mutilados — the Caravan of the Mutilated.
The 10 Hondurans lost arms and legs in horrific falls from La Bestia, or The Beast, the name for Mexican freight trains used by hundreds of thousands of immigrants trying to enter the U.S. The group of men came this time to push for immigration reform, their bodies proof of the desperation that Central Americans feel to escape poverty and crime at home.
Immigrants-to-be know the perils of La Bestia. They risk it anyway.
“Immigration is never going to stop because, in our countries, there is great poverty,” said Benito Murillo, who lost limbs on La Bestia.
The caravan of amputees, which stopped recently in Dallas on the way to Washington, D.C., has an ambitious goal: to talk to President Barack Obama and U.S. lawmakers about immigration and ways to help Central American countries grappling with poverty, gangs and crime.
“They are rock stars. They represent what is happening and what will keep happening if there is no reform,” said Felipe Vargas, legal assistant for the Texas organization RAICES, or the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which has an office in Fort Worth.
The stops in Dallas, which were posted on Facebook and the group’s social media hashtag (#CaravanaDeMutilados), generated attention for the travelers, who are followed by the Spanish-language media. They were greeted like celebrities. Strangers offered food. Others wanted to take pictures with them.
Their journey has inspired the Spanish language song, El Viento, or The Wind, by artist Manu Chao.
‘A dream that ends with La Bestia’
Murillo originally left Honduras in 2005 for Washington, D.C., planning to work, to build a better future for his children. But he didn’t make it. His journey ended in Mexico, where he lost an arm and a leg in a fall off La Bestia.
“I could see how people fell and were cut in two pieces,” he said. “We are a living testimony.”
He remembers screaming in pain. Then he must have blacked out, he said.
“I woke up in a clinic,” said Murillo, 44. “I didn’t know who brought me.”
He said he wrestled with many emotions. His attempt, like those of many other Central Americans, was “a dream that ends with La Bestia.”
Murillo said hundreds of people in Honduras are just like him — trying to rebuild their lives after losing an arm or a leg while trying to leave.
Jose Alfredo Santo, 38, said he was tired and hungry when he fell off the train and lost his left leg.
“I thought my life was over in that instant,” Santo said.
A study of La Bestia by the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, says, “Accidents caused by train derailments and falls because of changes in speed or migrants falling asleep are common and have resulted in countless injuries, amputations and sometimes death.”
The report also says migrants face danger from gangs and organized crime.
Murillo said women, the elderly and children have lost limbs.
“It is really sad to see people so young without a foot or a hand,” Murillo said. “If you get on La Bestia, consider the risks.”
Journey to the U.S.
The caravan left Honduras on Feb. 25, Murillo said. It started with 17 amputees who are members of the Asociacion de Migrantes Retornados Con Discapacidad, or AMIREDIS. The group’s name means, roughly, the Association of Migrants Who Returned With Disabilities.
The caravan shrank when four members turned back to Honduras from Mexico City. Thirteen continued north to Texas and crossed into Eagle Pass from Piedras Negras, Mexico, Murillo said.
They estimate they had ridden about 18 buses by the time they arrived.
Murillo said they immediately approached U.S. immigration officials and asked for humanitarian visas.
Three decided to self-deport, Murillo said. The remaining 10 were held for more than 30 days at the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall.
In detention, they were interviewed by authorities to determine whether they were experiencing credible fears in their homeland, said Mohammad Abdollahi, advocacy director for RAICES. The Hondurans said they had been persecuted for speaking out against government corruption.
They were released from government custody as asylum seekers, with permission to stay in the country while they await their court cases, Abdollahi said.
Of the 10, some traveled to Houston and some to California, he said. All expect to arrive to Washington, D.C., in the coming days.
A signal for hope
While in Dallas, Murillo and Santo visited with Jose Gutierrez, 24, and Luis Alonso Colindres, 44, members of the advocacy group North Texas Dream Team who helped with public relations efforts.
Jose Santoyo, 23, a student at Southern Methodist University and a member of the North Texas Dream Team, took the men to the offices of several congressional leaders. Santoyo also introduced them to local immigration advocates and helped them schedule media interviews.
The caravan’s calendar now includes stops in Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and New York.
Santoyo explained the caravan’s mission to strangers on the street. He took the Hondurans to a community engagement event that turned somewhat heated between local immigration advocacy groups and local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement leaders.
The Hondurans and their supporters said they understand that their arrival comes as immigration continues to be a highly divisive topic in the U.S. Still, many immigrants see the caravan as a symbol of hope.
“I’ve heard repeatedly that it’s going to take drastic measures and people like the Honduran migrants, who lost limbs, to bring people back to the table and work on immigration reform that will truly look into the root of the problems of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and the colonization of Central American countries that destroys their economies and causes migration,” Santoyo said.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675