A dozen people line the train tracks in La Patrona, Veracruz, Mexico, holding out bags of food and bottles of water tied together with string as a train thunders toward the crossing. Most are women. Known as Las Patronas, this group has been aiding Central American refugees, including those who cling to the tops of the cargo trains they call La Bestia: the Beast.
Until the summer of 2014, hundreds of refugees could be found on the trains. These people had gone days without anything to eat or drink, so they’d grab the food and water held out by Las Patronas as the train hurtled by. But in June 2014 President Obama met with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto in Washington, D.C. to discuss ways to slow Central American migration through Mexico. Two months later the Mexican government instituted Programa Frontera Sur (the South Border Program).
When Peña Nieto announced the program, he said it would protect refugees. The plan, according to the Mexican government, would stop refugees and migrants from risking injury by riding the train, develop strategies to guarantee migrants’ security and protection, and combat the criminals who prey on the refugees. But the main governmental effort has been to keep people from riding the trains, forcing refugees to make the journey by foot, an even more dangerous route.
While visiting Las Patronas in February 2015, I accompanied some of the women to the train tracks, where they waited to hand out food and water. The women scanned the train cars in anticipation when the train reached the crossing. But it passed without anyone handing out a thing. Norma Romero Vázquez, the group’s spokesperson, watched as the train continued on its way. “There is nobody,” she said, a hint of sadness in her voice. The women packed up their goods and walked back to their small compound, where they prepare food and care for the refugees who arrive on foot daily at the small shelter.
Now that they can no longer ride La Bestia, refugees and migrants walk for days through Mexico—through cities and towns and also mountains and jungles—to reach shelters that dot the route north. The women in Las Patronas are one of these stops along the route. Despite the fact they themselves live in poverty, they’ve devoted their lives to helping refugees and migrants reach safety.
Las Patronas has built a small dormitory adjacent to the kitchen where refugees can stay, and three of the women live in homes a stone’s throw from the kitchen in humble, unpainted cinderblock buildings.
One February morning, over 20 years ago, sisters Bernarda and Rosa Romero Vázquez were returning home after buying food for breakfast. Their village is located along a major Mexican rail route and, as often happens, they had to wait at a railroad crossing for a train to pass. Hundreds of people were riding on top of the cars. As the train passed, someone on the first car called out, “Madre, we are hungry!” The cry was picked up by others and, as Rosa recalls, “When the third car passed, we gave them our food.” They arrived home empty-handed and told their mother, Leonila Vázquez Alvizar, what had happened. She didn’t get mad. Instead, she convened a family meeting, where it was decided they would hand out food and water to people on the train. At the time, they didn’t know why people rode the trains. “We thought they were Mexicans on an adventure to see all of our country,” says Norma.
A voyage of necessity
In the summer of 2014, the thousands of Central American refugees arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border—many of them children—received a lot of media attention. However, the phenomenon is not new. It’s estimated that between 400,000 and 500,000 Central American refugees typically pass through Mexico into the United States each year. Almost all are fleeing the extreme violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the so-called Northern Triangle countries, among the most violent in the world.
Much of the violence is perpetrated by gangs, especially the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as the MS-13) and Mara-18, who got their start in Los Angeles neighborhoods in the 1980s. The United States began deporting gang members in the mid-1990s and, according to Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, once back in their home countries, gang members “set up their gangs in Central America and began recruiting more members.” Gangs routinely force young men to join—threatening to kill their families if they refuse—and extort money from businesses and residents. Refusal to pay may be a death sentence.
Carlos Alfredo Corado is one of the refugees who found his way to La Patrona. A 51-year-old Salvadoran, he fled his country because of the violence. “There are many gangs in El Salvador,” he says, “and because of this, I wanted to leave. You cannot leave your house because it is so dangerous. It is gangs like the Mara-18. In my village it is the MS-13, but in the other village it is Mara-18. If I go there, they will kill me.” Refugees tell stories of how they have to pay renta—extortion money—to gangs just to live or have a business in a village or city. “The function of gangs is extortion,” says Corado. “[They] do not provide protection. All they do is take money from people who have it.”
Like Corado, many look north to escape, toward Mexico and the United States. But the Northern Triangle countries are among the world’s poorest, and few people have the money to pay for transit. So they look for the cheapest transportation possible. For years, that meant clinging to the tops of the train cars on La Bestia or riding between them. Not only are these travelers exposed to the elements, they risk being thrown off the car if the train suddenly jolts or if they fall asleep. Many have been killed or have lost limbs while on the train.
And if the physical danger from the train itself isn’t enough, many refugees are attacked along the way, even thrown off the train during robbery attempts. It’s estimated that 80 percent of people on La Bestia are assaulted and robbed, 60 percent of the women are raped, and thousands are kidnapped. The violence on the train is perpetrated by gangs, drug cartels, local thugs, and even train crews and police.
Corado was traveling with Miguel, his nephew, and they rode La Bestia for part of the trip. “The Maras robbed my money, 1,600 pesos (about $100); it was all my money,” Miguel says. “They came train car by train car, robbing. If a person does not have money, they throw them off the train. We will walk through the mountains so we do not meet them again.”
The Mexican government claims that Programa Frontera Sur was designed to protect refugees and migrants from this type of violence. However, it has actually exposed them to added dangers.
More police and immigration agents patrol train depots, preventing people from climbing on trains. There are documented reports of immigration agents pulling people off trains with long hooks and using tasers on them. Railroad companies have increased train speeds to keep people from running alongside and climbing on the cars, and some have erected cement barriers adjacent to the tracks for the same reason. Some companies have also hired private security to ride atop trains. If Programa Frontera Sur has been successful at anything, it’s preventing people from riding the trains at all.
But refugees are still making the journey. “The numbers coming are the same,” says Carla Patricia Juarez Peña, the coordinator of community space at Sagrada Familia, a shelter in Apizaco, Tlaxcala, Mexico. “But they are taking other routes.”
These new routes are even more dangerous. “Programa Frontera Sur is not to protect migrants,” says Norma. “They were exposed before, and now are more exposed to criminals, to exploitation, and they are dying. They are going through mountains and rivers and dangerous environments.” Some, after days of walking, eventually find their way to shelters like the one in La Patrona, where they are able to rest for a few days.
The Corados were two of the lucky ones who found the Las Patronas shelter. As was Victor Manuel Sanchez Ramirez, a 33-year-old Salvadoran who arrived a few days after the Corados. He had heard about the shelter through word of mouth. “This is a good place, a blessing; good people, thanks to God,” he says.
From the ground up
There are about 15 women—and it’s all women—in Las Patronas. Leonila and four of her daughters form the core of the group, which is filled out with sisters-in-law, other relatives, and friends. There are usually a few volunteers as well. Five or so women are in the kitchen every day, arriving around nine in the morning. Others may head to Córdoba, the closest big city—about a 30 minute bus ride away—or elsewhere for supplies and donations. Each member of the group works at least five days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. The work is grueling, not just because of the schedule, but because they’re caring for refugees who have suffered greatly, both in their home countries and during their journeys.
“There are times I feel stressed,” says Rosa. “There is too much to do. I feel sad when they tell us about what happened on the road. But we are all human, and we have to give them a hand. Sometimes you fall, and you have to get up. It is like Christ falling, but he got back up.”
Rosa is not the only Las Patronas member to see a similarity between the migrants’ plight and Jesus of Nazareth. “[Jesus] was the first migrant, with his mother,” says Leonila who, despite being 78, still works almost every day in the kitchen. “They suffered because no one gave them lodging.”
The women are all volunteers and say their faith sustains them. “I feel I need to do this work, that it is God-sent,” says Guadalupe, a sister-in-law. “My parents taught me that whatever I did, do not ask for anything in return. Give, but expect nothing in return.” Norma agrees. “Here, the most important thing is to do the will of God. Everything we do is the will of God. . . God has made me strong [and] I have lost my fear.”
Although the women in Las Patronas know that fewer people are on the trains now, they still prepare food and meet every northbound train that passes by, just in case. Sometimes there will be a handful of refugees who need food and water. But, since the enactment of Programa Frontera Sur, the women mostly care for those who arrive at the entrance to their modest compound each day. “Our plan was to be a comedor (a place where people eat),” says Norma. “But we have become a comedor and shelter because there are more migrants coming. There are fewer on La Bestia. They have been walking. We have to help them.”
Until this year, the women had little chance to get to know the refugees. “When they were on the train, there was no talking to them. Only hold out food and they go,” says Rosa. “Now we can talk, they can teach us what it is like on the train. They can stay three or four days. It is good to get to know them; they are like family. But when they leave, it is sad. We do not know what will happen to them.”
Making it work
Las Patronas is well-known in Mexico and, in 2013, the group was awarded the Don Sergio Menendez Acero National Human Rights Award, one of Mexico’s highest honors. Even so, there are many days when there are few volunteers and the women have to work longer and harder. And securing donations to do their work is a continual challenge. “Sometimes we have to knock on doors and ask for money,” says Norma.
The women who do this work have little funds themselves and rely on donations to support their shelter and comedor. They lead simple lives and live in small unpainted cinderblock homes with few amenities. Bernarda, Guadalupe, and Rosa all live adjacent to the shelter. The other women live a short distance away. They wash clothes by hand and hang them to dry on clotheslines. Some of the women own a couple of acres of land on which they grow caña, sugar cane. It brings in a little money, but not much. Others have husbands who work in the caña fields for a few dollars a day.
Still, they don’t complain. “I never dreamed of a big house or car,” says Bernarda. “Luxury is not for me. Money is useful for meat and to have a roof, but I do not need more. We are a poor family. My father is a campesino (rural worker), but we have everything we need.” Although Crisoforo, her father, doesn’t volunteer with the group, he donated the land on which the kitchen and shelter stand. “When God came to earth, he did not send borders or racism,” Bernarda says. “He did not care if people were black or white, short or tall. God did not separate people. We are all sons and daughters of God.”
Despite the long days, the emotional toll of hearing the refugees’ stories, and the poverty they themselves face, the women in Las Patronas persevere. “As long as God gives me life and migration continues to exist, I believe I will be here helping them,” Norma says. “And when God says that now there are going to be no more migrants, then I will give thanks to God and say, ‘Thanks to God that now governments have stepped in to care for their people.’ ”
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